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Naming Pioneer Square’s alleys

The totem pole in Pioneer Square Credit: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Columbia City, Missouri, also went through a major alley naming process a few years ago. The goal was the same as in Seattle and Sacramento: integrating the alleys into a modern active, urban scene. McQuitty Alley, Nowell Alley, Sorin Alley, Barth Alley, and Lancaster Alley, were some of those chosen. One alley was simply named A Alley, but that early official designation allowed the city’s first alley business — a sushi bar — to locate there. The city is now looking at making Alley A pedestrian-only.

The Columbia City naming was not without controversy. One suggested alley name was Sharp End Way, named for an old African American enclave. But it was pointed out that the original name alluded to the prevalence of knife fights and it was thought that such a name catered to the kinds of fears about what alleys have been historically (dark places of crime and violence) as to be inappropriate. Still, Seattle architect Lesley Bain, who is involved in Seattle’s Alley Network Project, points out that such history is sometimes reflected and exaggerated in alley names. “There is more myth than truth to some of the most colorful alley names such as Blood Alley in Vancouver, British Columbia, or Pirate Alley in New Orleans, Louisiana,” she says.

Still, with its rollicking history, Pioneer Square certainly would offer the opportunity for colorful and romantic alley names. Mardi Gras Riot Lane? Bootlegger’s Alley? Anti-Chinese Riot Way? Even as alleys shift from being taboo to mainstream, they could still be a repository for urban history that is sometimes at the margins of respectability.

Historian Coll Thrush, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Native Seattle, a book that examines Seattle’s Native American urban history and maps some long-forgotten indigenous place names, thinks that alleys present an opportunity for “lost” history:

The thing that is so amazing about the place that became Pioneer Square is that for much of the late 19th and early- to mid-20th century, it was home to an incredibly diverse population of people who were outside the power structures of the city and yet were central to its functioning, economically and culturally. Japanese-run hotels, Native encampments, and community gathering places, the survivors of the region’s extractive industries, gay bars, Filipino night cafés, and more. Of course, virtually none of this is commemorated on the ground currently. I wonder what our collective story might look like if we peeled back the gentrified veneer just a bit to recognize these rich, complicated histories.

One part of cleaning up alleys could be to reclaim our heritage by expanding it, by acknowledging the greater diversity in our urban culture and roots.

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