Cap Hill, Sodo, T-Town and the ‘Frisco Effect’

Nov 18, 2022, 9:31 AM | Updated: 9:45 am
frisco effect...
Does anyone really call Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood 'Cap Hill'? (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

Certain Northwest cities and neighborhoods have nicknames that evoke strong feelings among some local residents – but none, apparently, as strong as the “Frisco Effect” in the city by the bay.

According to a blog post written earlier this year by Jay Jurisich, founder and CEO of a naming agency in San Francisco called Zinzin, locals cringe when anyone besides a tourist uses the name “Frisco” for San Francisco. Jurisich’s post cites all kinds of sources going back decades to back up the cringe factor, though it also details how “Frisco” has had a kind of weird evolution since World War II.

Earlier this week, Jurisich told KIRO Newsradio that no San Francisco resident better represents the struggle to come to grips with “Frisco” than famous newspaper columnist and author Herb Caen – who was known by many of his millions of readers, speaking of nicknames, as “Mr. San Francisco.”

In the 1940s, Caen wrote in his newspaper column about how good it felt to occasionally say “Frisco.” Then, just a few years later, in the early 1950s, Caen wrote a book called “Don’t Call It Frisco.”

And then, in 1993, Jurisich says, Herb Caen summed up his own Frisconian evolution in one of his columns – just four years before he passed away.

“’Adolescence is believing that ‘Frisco’ is a racy nickname for a city. Senility is automatically saying, ‘Don’t call it Frisco.’ Maturity is figuring out that it doesn’t matter all that much,’” Jurisich said, quoting directly from Caen’s head-spinning column.

Fortunately, maturity has never been a barrier when it comes to “All Over The Map.”

Also, like all good theories (or proclamations by aging columnists), there are notable exceptions. One tourist who has been getting away with saying ‘Frisco’ in a non-cringey way since 1967 is the late Otis Redding, who famously left his “home in Georgia, and headed for the Frisco Bay.”

In listening to Jurisich and reading his blog post (and clicking on the links to all those earlier sources), it’s clear that there’s no “Frisco” equivalent for the name “Seattle.”

“All Over The Map” is certainly no Herb Caen, but it should also be clear to anyone that Seatown, Freeattle, Jet City, Emerald City, or any other term of endearment or derision just hasn’t stuck to the seat of the county named for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the neighborhood level, one local nickname whose evolution many have witnessed firsthand over the past few decades is “Sodo.” That name dates to 1991, when plans were announced to convert the old Sears building – currently home to Starbucks – to an office complex called “SODO Center.”

If you guessed that “SODO” originally stood for “South of Downtown,” you would be wrong. (I was too.) It actually originally stood for “South of the Dome” for the old Kingdome.  Throughout the 1990s, many locals will recall hearing others use the word “Sodo” and then feeling embarrassed for the obvious recent transplant who was saying it. Most locals called that part of Seattle the “Industrial Area” in the before times, but it seems that “Sodo” is actually here to stay, and perhaps (if a Twitter poll is correct) not even cringe-inducing anymore.

Cursory research did not reveal the origins of other triggering nicknames such as “T-Town” for Tacoma, “West Edge” for First and Second Avenue in downtown Seattle, or “Uptown” for Lower Queen Anne (though the old movie theatre across the street from Dick’s seems like the original landmark called “Uptown” in that area – followed by Uptown Espresso). Astute readers will note that these particular nicknames are different from an earlier exploration of local “geographic insults.”

Incidentally, the name of the beloved Frisko Freeze drive-in hamburger restaurant in Tacoma was, according to newspaper accounts going back more than 30 years, inspired by Seattle Rainiers’  baseball broadcaster Leo Lassen. Frisko Freeze founder Perry Smith heard Lassen calling a game on the radio against the San Francisco Seals, and Lassen said the team was from “Frisco.” Changing the “c” to a “k” was a way to make the T-Town eatery’s name unique.

The final word on the Frisco Effect comes from Jay Jurisich who, by the way, says he hates the nickname “San Fran” but likes using the initials “SF.”

“’Frisco is dead. Long live Frisco,’” Jurisich said. “That would be my tagline. That’s perfect.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Cap Hill, Sodo, T-Town and the ‘Frisco Effect’