Seattle's alleys represent an enormous opportunity for reclaiming urban space. Pioneer Square is ground zero for this with the Alley Network Project, which is trying to transform alleyways by cleaning them up, giving them identity and more public purpose than being just places for garbage, rats, and crime.
I suggested last year that Seattle start a city-wide initiative to name alleys as part of this type of transformation. We have more than 250 miles of unnamed alleys in the city. The Alley Network folks are ready to move ahead outside official city channels. That is, naming alleys unofficially with the hope that designations might eventually become established. (Roethke Mews behind the Blue Moon in the University District is an example of an unofficial alley name.)
Naming alleys is important in a couple of ways. It recognizes spaces that are otherwise off the radar screen. The naming and reclaiming process is one that can help surface or resurface interesting neighborhood cultural and heritage information. Plus neighbors working with neighbors to make alleys safer, cleaner, and eventually opening them up for other uses, builds community.
It's also an opportunity to honor the 100 or more years of Seattle's urban history that has occurred since the city's grid was named and numbered. not to mention other aspects of history that have been overlooked or left out (native place names are an example, as are controversial historic figures like early madame, Mother Damnable).
There are practical reasons too. Eventually, businesses, markets, and housing might be located along alleyways, which in many cities aren't simply utility corridors. To locate businesses in alleys, they need to have formal addresses. In other words, if you name it, they will come. And the fire and police departments, the postal service, and customers can find them.
An interesting case study is so-called Nord Alley, the unofficial name for the one-block alley from Main to Jackson, and between First Avenue and Occidental in Pioneer Square. The Nord Building is one of many historic buildings that back onto the alley, and it houses the office of the International Sustainability Institute which is involved with alley revitalization. They've been working with architecture firm Jones and Jones (located in the adjacent Globe Building, also home of Crosscut and formerly Elliott Bay Book Co.) and others in bringing art and events to the alley.
The name Nord Alley has made its way onto Google Maps, but it is neither an official name nor necessarily the name the alley folks want. The current plan is to have various alleys in the neighborhood pick names and put up alley banners with those names on them. This might involve coming up with a broader name for the network of central Pioneer Square alleys, with smaller alley segments having their own designations. Or not. It's still under discussion.
The Nord Alley people are looking at a wide range of ideas, and have been researching the history of adjacent buildings for clues. Many of the buildings on that block have been hotels (the Nord, the Globe), or associated with saloons, illegal booze, brewing, and manufacturing (candy, quilts). The alley is located in the middle of the onetime isthmus or island known as Denny Island. The buildings were all built shortly after the fire of 1889. The block is associated with venerable old Seattle figures (Chief Seattle, Doc Maynard), but also with prominent Pioneer Square personalities such as Underground entrepreneur Bill Speidel, landlord Sam Israel, and Square revitalizer architect Ralph Anderson, to name a few.
Seattle is not the only U.S. city where business districts are naming alleys. Sacramento recently approved a grid of new midtown alley names as part of a larger reclamation effort to seed them with shops, cafes, and residential development. Named alleys include Solons Alley (it is the state capitol), Tomato Alley, Democracy Alley, Government Alley, Uptown Alley, Quill Alley, Powerhouse Alley, Eggplant Alley, Jazz Alley, Chinatown Alley, and many more. Naming a bunch of alleys at once (some already had names) helps add to the sense of the range of activities and culture found in the business district.
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