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 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. 

Center map

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.)

Center map

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.