Officially, this alley off 34th Avenue E between E John Street and 35th Avenue E is unnamed. That proved inconvenient for Jack Sussman and Cathy Nunneley, who live at 184 and 128 33rd Avenue E, respectively. Yes, 33rd Avenue E, even though their house is accessed from 34th.

I don’t know how it works in other cities, but in Seattle, you can have an address on a nonexistent — or, more accurately, unimproved — street. This is the case with W Semple Street — the three residences with a Semple address are only accessible from 45th Avenue W. And this is the case here. Unlike Semple, 33rd Avenue E is improved… but not for the entire length of its right-of-way. From about 450 feet south of E Harrison Street to about 175 feet north of E Denny Way, 33rd Avenue E is unimproved and makes up part of the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt.

Swanson's Alley and surrounding streets as shown on King County Parcel Viewer
Swanson’s Alley and surrounding streets as shown on King County Parcel Viewer. Address points appear in green, except for 128 and 184 33rd Avenue E, which appear in purple.

Sussman writes in the July–August 2010 issue of The Valley View, the newsletter of the Madison Valley Community Council:

We have a problem because our address is one that people cannot find. Get a new mailperson and we won’t see any mail for a week!… How many Roto-Rooter men, phone line fixers, and Craigslist contacts have been lost trying to find us? GPS and MapQuest systems are useless for locating my house. How many times have I run out to the street vainly searching for the delivery truck going round and round the neighborhood?

He goes on to explain that “a fine article lamenting [the] neglect of city alleys” written by Knute Berger inspired him to put up a sign reading “Swanson’s Alley” underneath the city’s official sign directing people to his and Nunneley’s houses. He chose the name to honor “Swanson, a Swedish carpenter, [who] lived here in the 1930s,” and happily reports that giving the alley a name, albeit unofficial, did indeed help people find his residence.

Swanson's Alley sign, May 29, 2010
Hand-painted Swanson’s Alley sign, May 29, 2010. Photograph by Benjamin Lukoff. Copyright © 2010 Benjamin Lukoff. All rights reserved.

In the next issue of The Valley View, Sussman reports that he was able to locate a grandson of this Swanson, to give him the news and get further details on the alley’s namesake:

The grandfather who founded the family here was Elof Svenson [1881–1958]; the name later became Swanson in America. Elof was a teenage laborer, a Swedish immigrant who spoke little English. I had one detail wrong: he was not a carpenter but a landscape worker who specialized in rockeries. He put in all the bulkheads that hold the ground above the Harrison Greenbelt.

In general, I’m not a fan of unofficial signage (especially signs proclaiming public rights-of-way to be private, which I’ve come across in Blue Ridge, Montlake, and Wedgwood) but I have no problem with this one. It doesn’t imply private ownership and it’s meant to improve navigation. And it honors someone most people would otherwise never have heard of.

By the way — in case you’re wondering why Swanson’s Alley shows up in Google Maps and OpenStreetMap even though the name is unofficial, it’s because I added it. The name, that is — the alley was already present on both. (I’m trying to get it added to Apple Maps as well, but that may be a bit more difficult.)

2 thoughts on “Swanson’s Alley

  1. Wow! So you are the one who got Swanson’s Alley on Google Maps! Thank you! I’ve lived at the end of the alley since 1977. When I moved into my house as a renter, Jerry was 51, and he had lived in his house since 1971. I was 27 at the time. I was eventually able to purchase the house and have never moved out.

    The official street sign, installed by the City, was placed after many years of concern by us and the local fire and police that our houses were so hard to find. (Our addresses are 184 and 128 33rd Ave E, even though they are nowhere near 33rd Ave E. Access is only by 34th Ave E.)

    Despite the improved signage installed by the City, people still constantly got lost trying to find our homes. Once you put it on Google Maps, all we had to do is say “go to Google Maps and find Swanson’s Alley – it’s the only one in the world”!

    Please be assured that Jerry did not intend to imply private ownership. In fact, both of our households have happily encouraged people to pass through. We repaved the alley at our own expense (the City does not maintain alleys apparently) to allow easier access. In hanging the customized sign, Jerry simply wanted to honor the man who built Jerry’s house for himself in the 1920s (and our house for his daughter in the 1930s).

    Jerry was an amazing guy who steadfastly helped to preserve the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt over many years. He also designated a portion of his property in front of his house as Open Space, pledging not to develop that land. (He was also instrumental in keeping most of Cypress Island undeveloped.)

    Jerry passed away a few months ago, at 95. The future of the Alley is of concern to many in the neighborhood. I can fill you in with more details if you desire.

    Again, thanks for telling Google Maps about us! I tried to inform Apple so that we’d appear on their map, but it didn’t seem to work. Maybe you can help?

    1. Hello, and thank you for commenting! I’m sorry if it looked like I was complaining about Jerry’s sign or thought he was trying to fool others into thinking the alley was private. Quite the opposite. I may go back and edit that part of the post to avoid any confusion. I’m sorry to hear of his passing. And yes, I would love to know more about the future of the alley. You can either comment here or email me directly at addressnerd@writesofway.org.

      As for Apple, they are quite a bit more difficult to deal with than Google Maps, but I’ll see if there’s anything I can do.

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