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News / Northwest

‘It’s like being stoned.’ How Bellingham got its nickname: The City of Subdued Excitement

By Daniel Schrager, The Bellingham Herald
Published: March 11, 2024, 6:04am

BELLINGHAM — In the 29 years since its first use, Bellingham’s unique nickname, “The City of Subdued Excitement,” has become a key part of the city’s identity. Here’s how Bellingham got its unofficial slogan and what the now-ubiquitous phrase means.

Mr. Peanut and an antique store

Kolby LaBree, a local historian and tour guide with the Good Time Girls, remembers a time before Bellingham had its now-iconic nickname.

“In the scenes that I hung out with, I’m kind of old; back in the day, we used to call it ‘Bad Town.’ But it had a very different vibe back then. It was like a dirty, old, depressed mill town in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so it made more sense,” LaBree said in a phone call with the Bellingham Herald.

But along came Stephen Stimson, then-owner of Lone Wolf Antiques on Prospect Street.

“He’s just kind of an eccentric guy,” LaBree said. “He used to dress up in the Mr. Peanut costume and play saxophone around town on the street.”

In 1995, Stimson painted a mural on the side of his store, at the suggestion of his mother. He scrawled the words “Ye Olde City of Subdued Excitement” across the bottom. The phrase was inspired by the art of his friend, Gary Stephenson, Stimson said in 2007, according to Herald archives.

“It was art without bloody eyes coming out of a socket,” Stimson said, referring to Stephenson’s work.

How the name caught on

According to LaBree, the phrase didn’t catch on immediately.

“I don’t remember it being a huge deal really until sometime in the 2000s,” LaBree said. “It really feels pretty recent.”

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Jeff Jewell, archivist and historian at the Whatcom Museum, said he also doesn’t remember it becoming popular until after the turn of the millennium.

“People just picked it up and ran with it,” Jewell said. “I don’t know if people understood that he came up with that and put it on that wall, or [thought that] he put it up there copying somebody else like it was some official thing. Once it gets a little momentum, it doesn’t take much, and everyone’s using it.”

Now, the phrase is on everything from a podcast to a cannabis facility and an album. It’s the subheading of the Bellingham sub-Reddit, and it’s listed on the city’s Wikipedia page.

While neither could pinpoint exactly why it took off, LaBree speculated that the rise of cell phones made the mural one of Bellingham’s most iconic photo opportunities, fueling the phrase’s rise.

“I would guess that, kind of parallel with cell phone use, it spread a little bit because it’s such a visible wall when you’re outside of the museum,” LaBree said. “And I think it kind of became a spot where [people could say] ‘let’s take our picture by the sign.’”

Jewell said he thinks it caught on largely because of how well it describes Bellingham.

“I could tell people really liked it,” Jewell said. “And it does kind of fit Bellingham, at least the way I understand Bellingham.”

What the nickname means

For all of the slogan’s popularity, its meaning is pretty vague. LaBree recently saw a Reddit thread where users debated the slogan’s meaning. She found one explanation particularly interesting.

“I did appreciate the people who were like, ‘It’s like being stoned,’” LaBree said. “I’m not a big stoner, but Bellingham does have that vibe of you’re high, you’re having fun, but it’s chill. So that’s probably what it is.”

Jewell had a more sober interpretation of the phrase.

“I think it is a certain hesitant enthusiasm,” Jewell said. “We kind of carry around a lot of background anxieties that when something good happens, we’re not ready to take it all on at once and to revel in it. Instead, we’re kind of hesitant to admit that this was something good.”

Regardless of its intended meaning, Jewell says it’s important that the city have a unique identity and that Stimson’s slogan has done a lot to contribute to that.

“It’s an iconic thing from Bellingham,” Jewell said. “We don’t have tons of those, and it’s important for us to hold onto things like that.

“I don’t want to be all gloomy about it, but in 50 years, the monoculture of corporate America along [the Interstate 5] corridor is kind of moving toward uniformity,” Jewell continued. “We’re all going to — ‘Oh look, another Target, another Walmart, another mall,’ that redundancy of corporate culture. So it’s important for the little provincial iconic things that make a certain community unique [to] persevere over time.”