Monday, January 31, 2011

What's the Deal With King of Prussia?

Like Darryl Hart, I have never been to the King of Prussia Mall--the "East Coast's Premier Shopping Destination." This despite the fact I have I spent about six or seven years living in the Philadelphia-area, I have a sister who lives about two miles from the mall, and I now live about 90 miles from it.

But until I read Hart's recent piece at the Front Porch Republic, I have never really thought about just how odd it was for Pennsylvania settlers to name a town after a Prussian monarch.  Here is a snippet:

Since the eighteenth century the area has not escaped its commercial or travel origins. Although King of Prussia is a place according to those who take the national census, it is not an incorporated town or borough. A U.S. Postal Office bears the name – now that makes it local. Its boundaries are two roads – U.S. Route 422 and Interstate 76 – and the Schuylkill. These are all the ingredients to make King of Prussia more than a mall, but also one of the earliest examples of the suburban phenomenon known as Edge Cities. Before the arrival of the mall in 1963, the area was known largely for George Washington’s stay at nearby Valley Forge – now part of the federal park system. With the mall came lots of development – and even more traffic.

As understandable as King of Prussia’s history is as a kind of place, it is still one of the oddest geographical names in the United States. Not even suburban planners have come up with names like Archduke Ferdinand Estates or King of England Place. But thanks to the power of commerce and travel, the virtuous commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a region and commercial center named after a ruler known for his enlightened despotism. Given the way that malls and highways constrain cultural life in the United States, that may make King of Prussia, despite its oddity, one of the more fitting names in the lexicon of American places.