The Biggest Little City

I’ve seen and read a lot about Reno’s image through the years–concerns about the city’s persistent “identity crisis,” complaints about its unfair reputation, its incessant mocking by everyone from the Muppets to David Sedaris. Heck, I even wrote a book about it. We’re the city with a communal chip on its shoulder, ever crouched in a defensive stance, fists up, already flinching in expectation of the next jab.

But yesterday felt consequential, with the unveiling of a new grassroots marketing campaign, spearheaded by an alliance of creative professionals in advertising, PR &  communications, but clearly intended to embrace citizens from all fields & backgrounds in a massive outpouring of civic pride: The Biggest Little City.

Reno Arch, ca. 1940s. Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Library.

This campaign stands out for a number of reasons: first, it embraces the city’s longstanding nickname, the Biggest Little City in the World–one of its most recognizable and enduring assets.

Second, it echoes the very origins of the nickname itself, which was not born in 1929 when a Sacramento man won a contest to come up with a slogan for the Reno arch, as is often reported. G.A. Burns’ suggestion did win the contest, but the phrase had already been introduced to the world by the town’s own business community, nearly twenty years earlier.

The summer of 1910 was huge for Reno. That July, the city hosted the heavyweight championship of the world, pitting Jack Johnson against the hopelessly outmatched returning champ, Jim Jeffries, in a bout that gained global attention, not least for its divisive racial politics. The city’s divorce industry was in full swing, and the state was enjoying what was thought to be its last season of legalized gambling, after the 1909 state legislature approved the prohibition of all gambling, effective October first, 1910.

1910 postcard, Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Library

All eyes were on Reno, and its citizens knew it. That fall, the Reno Business Men’s Association and the Commercial Club met the attention with a booklet featuring an image of the globe and the words “Reno, The Biggest Little City on the Map.” As the local paper reported that year, people were already replacing “map” with “world,” noting, “Isn’t that something to be proud of? It is a merited title, to a certain extent, but should be earned in its entirety. It is the duty of every public spirited citizen…to make the title true.”

What made Reno so big for its modest population of approximately 11,000? The booklet outlined it all: its economy, beauty, climate, recreational opportunities, community spirit, university, and abundant energy. The Biggest Little City–not a tourist slogan chosen by an outsider, but a badge of honor, generated from within, encouraging every resident to help spread the word–to “make the title true.”  Everything old is new again. Hear hear.