Courtesy of Seattle Parks and Recreation Department
By lachance/Crosscut Flickr group
A place isn't a place until it has a name. As Seattle develops as a city, as neighborhoods get more dense, as the focus on urban design becomes more intense and targeted, what are the the opportunities for giving recognition to new, rehabbed or rediscovered spaces? Doesn't everything in Seattle — the neighborhoods, the streets, the parks — already have a name?
It turns out, no. And I'd like to propose what I think is an incredible opportunity to link our changing, 21st century sustainable city with a chance to deepen our roots, reconnect with our heritage and further shape our sense of place.
The names of Seattle's streets are mostly a done deal. Occasionally, we'll change the name of one, as when Empire Way was renamed for Martin Luther King in 1983. We've also added a small assortment of others, like Mary Gates Memorial Drive in Laurelhurst, named for Bill's mom who was a respected civic dynamo. Or in SoDo, we've honored a sportswriter with S. Royal Brougham Way and a former Mariner designated hitter with Edgar Martinez Drive (presumably a line drive double). But given that most of our street names have been in place for a century or more, doesn't it seem a little odd that the last century or more of our heritage is largely unreflected on the city's face, contours, and byways, and when it is, it's left to a rather random assortment of worthies? Seattle has been a dynamic, busy place in the 100 years since we honored the Dennys, Borens, and Maynards, or chose urban generic names (Main Street, First Avenue) and expanded the tedious numbered grid (145th) for the sake of utility.
Many mature cities face this problem and have responded with "honorary" naming programs, where signs for portions of existing streets appear giving a kind of dual designation. In New York, it's resulted in streets named for Malcom X and Bob Marley; in Chicago, Hugh Hefner and the cereal Wheaties. The downside of honorary names is that being purely honorary they won't show up on maps or as addresses, and they can cause confusion. Plus, like all naming prospects, they can become controversial for being too outlandish, too commercial, or not politically correct. The latter just goes with the territory these days.
San Francisco seems to have done a good job recognizing modern heritage by naming some of its alleys (which, in places like Chinatown, are themselves a kind of tourist attraction) and designating some after contemporary writers. I am thinking about Dashiell Hammett Street honoring the author of the Maltese Falcon, or Jack Kerouac Alley in North Beach near the famed City Lights Books. Both have the advantage of being located near places associated with the writers, as well as the writers themselves who are a draw for cultural tourists. But it adds to the experience of exploring San Francisco on foot to follow the footsteps of local literary giants, be they detective novelists or Beat Generation writers. Most people can relate to them more than an obscure settler or city father.
Changing settled street names is always problematic, partly because it is inconvenient. Many Empire Way businesses opposed the MLK change because of the cost of new signs and stationary. But also, many of the old names are deeply entrenched in their neighborhoods and the community's sense of itself. People are often attached to them, and they too have history. Empire Way was a statement of ambition in tune with the coming of the railroads and the boosterism of the robber barons, like railroad mogul James J. Hill, the "empire builder." A train of that name still connects Seattle and Chicago. Like it or not, it wasn't generic like Pine or Cherry street.
One flaw in the street grid that people have complained of over the years is Seattle's numbered streets. Paul Dorpat, who is writing Keep Clam, a bio "mostly" about restaurateur and Seattle cultural figure and folksinger Ivar Haglund, says that the ever-promotional Acres of Clams owner once devised a scheme to suggest renaming some downtown streets Ivar, Salmon, Haddock, and Halibut avenues. But the semi-tongue-in-cheek proposals were also rooted in Ivar's genuine annoyance that many descriptive named streets had been replaced by numbers, as when Front Street was renamed First Avenue, or when named streets in neighborhoods like Ballard or Ivar's own West Seattle were incorporated into the grid. He especially hated numbered streets. Dorpat quotes Ivar:
With the empty designations for many of our avenues and streets as numbers, we shouldn't be surprised if our children ask, "What does 59th Avenue mean?" How pitiful to have to answer, "Well, 59 follows 58 and comes before 60" when we could be sharing the old stories, not teaching remedial arithmetic."
A city designed by traffic engineers is the antithesis of the organic process of allowing the places where we live to be shaped by the human scale and experience. Cities don't grow in straight lines and sprout numbers. Architect Patricia Fels says she once informally suggested renaming numbered streets to the Seattle Arts Commission. "When I'm standing at the corner of 45th and 40th I wonder at the lack of originality of the early Seattleites, or maybe they were just way, way too practical. Wouldn't it make people identify more with their street and neighborhood if they lived on Duwamish Drive or Richard Hugo Highway or Steinbrueck Avenue?"
Could we begin a process of renaming Seattle's numbered streets? Perhaps, but I think there's an easier, more immediate solution right in front of us, one that won't infuriate street engineers, the postal service, or 911 responders. We can tell stories by naming the unnamed, most especially our alleyways.
For the record, according to Seattle's Department of Transportation, the city has documented an estimated 144 miles of improved (paved) alleyways, and an additional 119 miles of unimproved, meaning there are at least 263 miles of alleys in Seattle. That's a lot of potential room for new names, especially if they are named in segments.
Naming Seattle's alleys is timely for several reasons. One is that it's a wide-open opportunity. Only a very few Seattle alleys are named (Post Alley downtown and Canton and Maynard alleys in Chinatown are examples). Some have unofficial honorary names, such as Roethke Mews (a great pun on "muse" if nothing else) next to the historic Blue Moon tavern in the University District where generations of Moon habitues have included the likes of madman poet Theodore Roethke, author Tom Robbins, and the late historian Walt Crowley. Roethke Mews is a perfect example of linking an alley with a historical figure associated with it: the brilliant, brooding UW poet hung out there.
Next, urban design focus is currently shifting to alleys. There is always the ongoing public safety issue (especially downtown), and they are important for deliveries and garbage pick-ups, but designers are realizing that we too often treat them as throw-away spaces. In the future, they believe we can't afford to let anything go to waste that could be greener and more pedestrian-friendly, and adapted for more urban uses (in San Francisco, some downtown alleys feature rows of outdoor restaurants). A recent Green Alleys competition in Seattle is a sign that local alleys are starting to get more notice as important public spaces. Discovering, naming and claiming alleys could help us embrace and respect these often overlooked resources. Though they're not overlooked in many cities.
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