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What’s in a (street) name?

August Wilson Way, a new "street" at Seattle Center

Your resident address nerd wishes he had thought of writing Mossback’s recent call for the naming of Seattle’s unnamed spaces. Having been asked to provide input, however, is the next best thing.

Starting with our over 260 miles of mostly nameless alleys is a good move. Name changes, unless they run through property controlled by one entity (such as the University of Washington for Mary Gates Memorial Drive N.E., or Safeco Field for Edgar Martinez Drive S.), tend to be more expensive, contentious, and drawn out than new christenings. (This may be the reason the last such general call, made by Jean Godden in 1997, failed to make much headway.) Given all this, we’re unlikely to rearrange our street grid to eliminate numerals and flowers until it’s rearranged for us. But here are some other places through which our heritage could be brought to life:

  • Bridges. The ones over the Ship Canal are already named, but most of the others — nearly 150 of them — are not. Think of 20th Avenue N.E. over Ravenna Creek, or Queen Anne Drive over Wolf Creek, both city landmarks.
  • Major intersections. The closest thing we have to an Oxford Circus is Pioneer Square, which already has a name. But why not officially sign the intersection of S.W. Alaska Street and California Avenue S.W. as The Junction? The red-light camera trap sometimes referred to as Five Corners, at N.E. 45th Street, N.E. 45th Place, Union Bay Place N.E., and Mary Gates Drive, is another candidate.
  • Pedestrian stairways and paths. Because of our topography, 463 stairways and a handful of pedestrian paths are incorporated into our street grid. There are already the (private) Harbor Steps — let’s follow their lead, perhaps beginning in Queen Anne.
  • Park drives and paths. Google Maps already thinks the Arboretum’s Azalea Way is a city street. Why not make it official? The Volunteer Park and Green Lake loops are unnamed, as are the roads — open to traffic or only to foot — in the eastern portion of Magnuson Park. (Those running by the old Naval barracks have been integrated into the numerical street grid.) If it’s paved or otherwise maintained, it should be fair game (think the pedestrian lanes on the University of Washington campus). This especially applies to Seattle Center, where August Wilson Way is waiting for company.
  • Privately owned public spaces. POPOS, as they’re known, are made open to the public in exchange for greater development rights. As of this writing, they are all downtown. We’d need to take care that names could not arbitrarily be changed, and that we didn’t end up with the equivalent of “Free Checking Square.”
  • Underground passageways. Think of all the Pioneer Square sidewalks doomed to darkness by post–Great Fire reconstruction until Bill Speidel opened up a few of them in 1965. Let’s open up some more. If London can have highwalks (also the result of involuntary urban renewal), we can have our low ones.
  • Public waterways. From No. 1 in Laurelhurst to No. 23 in Fremont, they include old ferry docks, “one of the few remaining natural shorelines of Lake Union,” and other such joys. But they’re barely known. Would names and signs help?
  • Shoreline street ends. We have 149 of them, and talk about contention! I have mixed feelings about these — leave the name of the already-existing right-of-way and you help drive home the point that these are, and have been since their platting, public property. Give them new names, however, and perhaps they’ll feel more park-like. Either way, I submit we should do a better job of signing them.
  • Springs and creek branches. A few of the latter remain unnamed, such as the stream that runs into Ravenna Creek near the sulfur spring. Yet I am told by Caleb Maki, executive secretary of the Washington State Board on Geographic Names, that “if Nature made it, the BGN has authority over it; if it is man-made, then man-made laws apply,” which means that these changes could take longer than any other.

This could also be an opportunity to expand our use of street-type designations. Mossback already mentioned the University District’s Roethke Mews: how about some walks, closes, and rows in addition to our handful of lanes, courts, and terraces? (Please, though, no stravenues.)

A few closing words of advice. This is one of those times when the Seattle process is a good thing. Nobody takes seriously names imposed from without (“West Edge,” anyone?). And let’s keep things short: who uses “Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.” in its entirety, let alone Gates and Martinez Drives? (I make an exception for Royal Brougham: only three syllables, and a synonym for “king’s carriage,” which is what I thought it meant till I was a teenager.) But even if things do get bogged down, and we never progress beyond a few names sprinkled hither and yon, the conversation itself could prove to be a great antidote to what’s been called our civic dementia.

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