But from the 1920s onward, evidence has increasingly emerged linking asbestos to diseases such as mesothelioma – a type of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body’s organs – and lung cancer. The World Health Organization has estimated in the past that annually, more than 100,000 people worldwide die from illnesses related to asbestos exposure. In 2011, the Jeffrey Mine was closed for good.
Since then the town has tried repeatedly to revamp its image, and generate new means of supporting the local economy. There was an attempt to turn the Jeffrey Mine into an adventure-tourism hub, complete with rock climbing and mountain-biking trails, although this did not get off the ground due to public health concerns. According to Payer, they employed branding and public relations consultants to redesign the town’s logo and website, and sent representatives on numerous business prospecting trips to persuade companies to invest in the town.
It has all been to no avail. “Last year there was a company who was thinking of our town to implement its business, which would have created 30 new jobs,” says Payer. “But one of their main criteria was to choose a place with a name that would not cause trouble at shipping or exporting, and so we lost that opportunity. It’s one of many similar examples in the last few years.”
In a broader sense, Asbestos’ struggles highlight the economic implications of a place name, especially if it develops negative connotations over the course of time, or happens to be perceived as unusual. How towns adapt to this varies, depending on the community, and the name itself. Some have gone to great lengths to change, while others have embraced the attention and found ways to exploit their name as a lucrative source of revenue.
The value of a name
For the French town of Vandals, the unwanted tourism associated with its name proved too much to bear. In 2008, the community – which lies just south of the city of Metz – voted to be renamed Vantousiens in a bid to disappear from the public consciousness. As town mayor Claude Vellei commented at the time, “Too many visitors come here expecting to meet the wrong kind of people. We’re not vandals, and there is no reason why people should refer to us in this way.”
But such a name can hold enormous commercial value. Perhaps the most long-standing example of this is the Norwegian village of Hell – its name stems from the Old Norse word ‘hellir’, meaning cliff cave – which has been a popular tourist destination for almost a century. In the 1930s, the New York Times reported Americans visiting the village to pose for photographs next to the railway station sign, and purchase ‘Hell is frozen over’ postcards. The publicity has enabled Hell to stage numerous events including the annual Hell Blues Festival, and even the RallyCross World Championships.