Should Seattle rename its streets?

Since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, set off a wave of protests and demonstrations that has not yet abated, calls to rename streets dedicated to Confederate leaders have grown ever louder. Among them are Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Jefferson Davis Parkway in New Orleans; Confederate Avenue in Tyler, Texas; Stonewall Jackson Drive and Bedford Forest Drive in Wilmington, North Carolina; and Stonewall Jackson Drive and General Lee Avenue in Fort Hamilton, a U.S. Army base in Brooklyn.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the county council has called for “a comprehensive review of all County owned and maintained street names and public facilities to determine all those named for Confederate soldiers or those who otherwise do not reflect Montgomery County values.” The pull-quotes WTOP News chose from the council’s letter were spot-on:

As we work to dismantle the structures that perpetuate racism, we must target the symbols that normalize and legitimize it. The names of public streets and buildings are not merely a reminder of the past; they are a very clear indication of who and what we value today.… We cannot recreate history, but we can decide how accurately we reflect it, and who we choose to glorify from it. The names of our buildings and streets should reflect the people in and on them, not threaten and intimidate them.

Calls for renaming Seattle streets haven’t been as loud — perhaps because we, fortunately, have none named for Confederates. In fact, we have both a Union Street and a Republican Street.

However, those honored by Seattle street names are not without their own issues. Without even considering the streets named for the settlers and developers who displaced the Native American inhabitants, there are:

Returning to the issue of settlers and developers, in 2008, I wrote “Is it wrong to have a Negro Creek?” for Crosscut. (Tl;dr: Yes, it is, and stringers don’t write their own headlines.) After discussing the Chelan County creek in question, I started wondering just where the line should be drawn. (I mentioned the other day to my friend Thomas May that if it came to light that Beorma was found to be an unsavory character we could hardly change the name of Birmingham.) I wrote:

As for the settlers, though men like “Doc” Maynard (of the International District avenue and alley) may have maintained excellent relations with the city’s original inhabitants, Seattle is also home to neighborhoods like Hawthorne Hills and Kinnear, which are named for men (Safeco founder Hawthorne K. Dent and developer George Kinnear, respectively) who saw fit to exclude non-whites from owning property in their subdivisions.

Yet to eradicate all possible traces of offense from the map seems to be a losing proposition. Kinnear’s story isn’t cut-and-dried: he also served as captain of the Home Guard during Seattle’s anti-Chinese riot of 1886, which militia prevented Seattle’s Chinese from being forcibly deported, as had happened the previous year in Tacoma. And King County is named for a slaveholder, Franklin Pierce’s vice president William Rufus deVane King, though the county and state governments have managed to “rename” it after Martin Luther King, Jr.

Case-by-case, as these issues come up, seems the only sensible way to go. I am brought to mind of Liverpool’s Penny Lane, which was forgiven its association with the slave trade on account of its Beatles-related fame. Blanket proclamations can’t help but run into trouble.

I still do largely agree with what I wrote, although the idea of a renaming that isn’t really a renaming is less objectionable to me now. (My issue with King County’s name wasn’t that I thought William Rufus DeVane King deserved the honor, but that nothing was actually changed — the county’s name remained King County, not Martin Luther King Jr. County.) I would say this to those who still would want to rename Penny Lane: consider it named for the Beatles hit rather than for James Penny. (However, as it turns out, it wasn’t named for him in the first place, so the issue is moot.)

What of Kinnear, though? Does he get a pass for defending Chinese laborers he wouldn’t want living in his neighborhood?

It makes you appreciate the system in Center City Philadelphia that much more — generally speaking, north–south streets numbered and east–west streets after trees.

So… besides Madison, Jackson, Stevens, Lane, and Kinnear — are any other Seattle streets ripe for renaming?

E North Street

Seattle has a number of streets whose names incorporate directions, such as Northlake Way, Eastern Avenue, Westlake Avenue, and Southern Street. But the one I drove by most growing up — and the only one to simply bear the name of a direction in its uncompounded, nominal form — is E North Street, which runs between E Montlake Place E and 24th Avenue E in Montlake, just south of the 520 interchange.

Two questions should spring to mind with a street name like this: North of what? and What happened to South Street?

Portion of Plan of Union City, 1869

The answer to the first question is north of where H.L. Pike had planned to dig a canal between Union Bay and Portage Bay.

And the answer to the second is that it seems to have been subsumed in Roanoke Street when the Glenwilde Addition was platted in 1925. But North Street’s name was never changed.

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NW Locks Place

Seattle’s newest street name is no longer E Barbara Bailey Way but NW Locks Place — formerly the block of NW 54th Street that ran between NW Market Street and the entrance to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, more commonly known as the Ballard Locks.

Ordinance 125947, passed by the city council in late September, was signed by the mayor the next week and went into effect a few days ago. As the Seattle Department of Transportation explained this summer, the name change stemmed from a request by emergency dispatchers: previously, there were two locations in which NW Market Street and NW 54th Street intersected; once in front of the locks and once over a mile to the east, where Market descends from Phinney Ridge. This name change will serve to eliminate any confusion about what is meant by “the intersection of 54th and Market.”

A similar change was made to Green Lake street names in 1961, when the various segments of Green Lake Way north of NE Ravenna Boulevard and N 72nd Street were changed to Green Lake Drive — previously, Latona Avenue NE, Sunnyside Avenue N, and Ashworth Avenue N (to name a few) had intersected Green Lake Way twice.

Interestingly, only the Lockspot Cafe’s address (3005) is affected by this name change. The other buildings fronting NW Locks Place have addresses on NW Market Street, and the address of the Ballard Locks remains 3015 NW 54th Street.

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Expedia Group Way W

“Look! They’ve finally signed the W Galer Street Flyover!” I thought to myself the other day as I drove onto the Magnolia Bridge onramp from 15th Avenue W. “I wonder why they took so long?” (It was built in 2002.)

Then I saw the sign that directed drivers to take the flyover if they were headed toward Expedia Group Way W. Of course… it was because Expedia was moving their corporate headquarters from Bellevue to Interbay, and the first employees were scheduled to arrive this month.

It made sense for the private road — originally Amgen Court W after the campus’s previous corporate occupants — to change its name… but why to Expedia Group?

Yes, Expedia’s official name is Expedia Group — it’s the parent company not only of the eponymous online travel agency but of many other brands, including Hotels.com, Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotwire, and CheapTickets — but still. Wouldn’t Expedia Way W sound and look better? Adding the “group” makes the name sound much more corporate to my ear.

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E Barbara Bailey Way

As of this writing, Seattle’s newest street name is E Barbara Bailey Way — formerly the block of E Denny Way between Broadway and 10th Avenue E.

Barbara Bailey, who died on September 1, 2018, was best known for Bailey/Coy Books, which she founded on Broadway in 1982. As Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan wrote,

Barbara’s commitment to action made her an early pioneer for LGBTQ+ rights. Her bookstores – B. Bailey Books and Bailey/Coy Books – were nationally beloved independent book stores that regularly brought communities together and hosted renowned authors. They were also safe and welcoming spaces for the LGBTQ+ community, particularly for those just coming out and during the height of anti-LGBTQ+ actions.

Barbara Bailey Way is one of five “festival streets” in the city of Seattle. 

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SW Seattle Street

What better way to start things off than with SW Seattle Street?

SW Seattle Street is a minor residential street in West Seattle that runs about ³/₁₀ of a mile from 42nd Avenue SW in the east to Sunset Avenue SW in the west.

It might seem strange that such a short street would be chosen to bear the city’s name — it was the only one to do so until 2010, when the first two blocks of Airport Way S were renamed Seattle Boulevard S — but this has more to do with unimaginative naming than with civic pride.

On August 4, 1869, Ike M. Hall — the executor of the estate of Norman B. Judkins — filed the Judkin’s (sic) Addition to the Town of Seattle, located just southwest of where the interchange between I-5 and I-90 is today. From north to south, the east–west streets are named Norman, B, Judkins, Addition, Town, and Seattle.

Portions of the original Seattle Street were vacated over the years (for example, in 1900, 1957, and 2000), and the construction of I-5 took care of the rest. However, when the city annexed West Seattle in 1907 it changed the name of Maple Street to W Seattle Street as part of rationalizing the street grid… and so the name lives on.

(The city itself, of course, was named after Si’ahl [siʔaɫ], better known in English as Chief Seattle of the Duwamish and Suquamish Tribes.)

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So, why SW Seattle Street instead of Seattle Street SW?

In Seattle, east–west streets have the directional come first, and north–south avenues have it come last. The Wikipedia article “Street layout of Seattle,” which I helped write, has a more comprehensive description of Seattle’s addressing system, including the answer to this question:

Why was it W Seattle Street in 1907 but SW Seattle Street now?

In 1961, city ordinance 89910 “established a standard system of street name designations” so that in almost all cases streets within a given zone would carry the same directional. West Seattle avenues already carried the SW designation.

The signs of my times

I’ve been fascinated by streets, signs, maps, and addresses since I was very young. As I look back, I can identify three books that set me upon the path to becoming a certifiable “address nerd.”

Cover of What We Find When We Look at Maps, by John Oliver

1. My parents bought me John Oliver and Robert Galster’s What We Find When We Look at Maps toward the end of the 1970s. I had apparently shown great interest in street signs and maps as a preschooler: I would make my own paper signs for the hallways at home and hang them on the door frames with Scotch tape, and I would draw my own maps — sometimes of my own neighborhood, sometimes of imagined locations. Even though it’s almost a half-century old and so of course has nothing at all about electronic maps, I’d still recommend What We Find When We Look at Maps to the parents of any budding cartographer.

Book cover of Pig-tail Days in Old Seattle by Sophie Frye Bass

2. Sophie Frye Bass, the author of Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, was born here in 1867. Her parents were George and Louisa (Denny) Frye. Louisa’s parents were the settlers Arthur A. and Mary Ann (Boren) Denny, who, as part of the Denny Party, are credited with founding Seattle in 1851. Toward the end of Bass’s life, she wrote this recollection of her early days. What fascinated me most about it was that she used the city’s streets as a jumping-off point to tell the stories of her childhood:

In the years that have followed [Pike Street] has had its ups and downs…. We, who grew up in the street, love it. There were many happy days spent there — some sorrowful ones too, but still we love it. When we drive about, we try to visualize the blazed trail, the stumps, the johnny-jump-ups and the best wild blackberry patch that ever grew.

Bass would also provide the etymology of each street’s name she mentioned. For example, she informs us that Pike Street was named for John Henry Pike, “who helped build our old University building,” and that Spring Street was named for Tzee-tzee-lal-litch — where springs of clear water bubbled from the earth and the beach was sandy and free from rocks, there the Indians camped.”

Dad bought me Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle at the old Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) gift shop in Montlake when I was around 6.

Cover of The Young Detective's Handbook by William Vivian Butler

3. The last one I’ll mention is William Vivian Butler’s The Young Detective’s Handbook, which my sister gave me for my 7th birthday. As the title implies, it’s a guide for young folk who want to play at being detectives (and, along the way, gain observational skills that might actually help them later in life).

One of the questions — #86, to be exact — in the “Exercise Eye-Opener” chapter was this: “A police car, in pursuit of a gang of thieves driving a fast Jaguar, roars past your house in a westerly direction, and the chase goes on for half a mile. Where would it wind up?” The problem with this for me was that this would have been physically impossible. My street was ²/₁₀ of a mile long and my house was just about at the midpoint.

However, at its western end my street became a stairway. My father informed me that the street right-of-way continued down the hill, and later my curiosity led me to discover that it was really ⁴/₁₀ of a mile long — half of that either as stairway or unimproved right-of-way. Still not half a mile, but close! And since, in Seattle, street names are used for discontinuous segments, one could make a fair argument that the street was really 4 miles long, from Lake Washington in the east almost all the way to Elliott Bay in the west. So began my realization that a street wasn’t just a stretch of paved road.