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San Jose Is The Most Forgettable Major American City

What’s that California city again? Starts with “San,” has a million people, near the coast?

Almost everyone can think of San Francisco or San Diego. But San Jose, the nation’s 10th most populous city, just doesn’t jump to mind in the same way.

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We know this because nearly half a million people have taken a Sporcle quiz that asks them to name the 100 most populous U.S. cities. Sporcle is a leading provider of brain teasers for procrastinators: Name the 50 states in 10 minutes (a quiz taken more than 15 million times) or the 47 countries of Europe in eight minutes (taken nearly 11 million times).

More than 99 percent of quiz takers name New York as one of the 100 most populous cities, more than any other city. About 90 percent name San Francisco and San Diego. But just two out of three remember San Jose before the allotted 12 minutes is up. That makes it the least named city of any of the 10 most populous ones.1 And people are more likely to remember much smaller cities, such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati. “I always miss San Jose in these quizzes!” one commenter lamented.

It’s not just Sporcle. At our request, Google’s News Lab sent over U.S. search data since 2004 for the 100 Sporcle cities. The data matched Sporcle extremely closely: The more a city is searched, the more it’s recalled on the quiz.2 San Jose ranked 42nd in Google searches.

Sam Liccardo grew up in Saratoga, a suburb of San Jose, before studying at Georgetown and Harvard. He got used to telling people he was from San Jose and having them ask where it was. “It’s fair to say we don’t bat our weight in terms of marketing and reputation,” Liccardo, who is now the city’s mayor, said in a telephone interview. “In some ways it’s a point of pride for many of us. San Jose is a place where we’re quite comfortable outperforming and underbragging.”

What’s holding San Jose back? It doesn’t help that it’s so close to San Francisco, which gets nine times the number of international visitors and has more than three times the number of hotel beds (even though it has about 150,000 fewer residents). There may be an East Coast bias at work: Cities in Arizona, California, Colorado and Texas all are named less often, on average, than you’d expect based on population, while cities in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts all outperform their population.

San Jose once saw a Major League Baseball team as a ticket to fame. In 1992, the owners of the Giants announced plans to move their team from San Francisco to San Jose. Susan Hammer, mayor of San Jose at the time, said the team’s move would be “the next step in this whole effort to make San Jose a major city.” That step was never taken: The city’s residents voted down a tax increase to build a stadium. And the city’s drive to boost its image stalled after the dot-com bust in 2001.

Last year, Team San Jose, a partnership of the city’s convention and visitors bureau with hotels and other local organizations, started targeting tourists, something it essentially hadn’t been doing at all, Laura Chmielewski, the group’s vice president for marketing, said in a telephone interview. I asked her what the pitch was. She cited Silicon Valley innovation, diversity, and the energy of invention and entrepreneurship. Her colleague Ben Roschke, director of business development, said visitors tour garages where tech companies were born, and go to visitor centers at the nearby headquarters of Google and, soon, Apple. “Venture capitalists are meeting with skater kids doing billion-dollar deals at the coffee shop,” Chmielewski said. “This is a future city.”

Does that mean that in the future, San Jose can catch up to San Francisco on Google or Sporcle? “I don’t know that it’s realistic for us,” Roschke said.

Liccardo said he was fine with that, citing San Jose’s strong standing on lists he said mattered more to him: job growth, patents and future readiness. “If San Francisco gets the headlines, they can take the problems that come with those, too,” he said.

Here’s a list that matters less to Liccardo, showing how San Jose and the 99 other most populous U.S. cities rank in population, Sporcle results and Google search data.

Google search data is from Jan. 1, 2004-Feb. 18, 2016. Sporcle data is from Sept. 26, 2009-Feb. 22, 2016.

Correction (March 12, 11:40 a.m.): An earlier version of the table in this article contained an incorrect column heading. The third column shows the rank of each city in the percentage of Sporcle quiz takers who named the city, not the rank of the city’s population according to Sporcle.

Footnotes

  1. Sporcle lists a population ranking for the cities, but doesn’t name its source; I used 2010 census data, which differs slightly from Sporcle’s list for some cities. ^
  2. The R-squared for the correlation between cities’ ranking by Sporcle guesses and by Google searches is 0.85. ^

Carl Bialik is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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