Naming places may be one of the shared aspects of human civilizations, so it is hard to believe that there are so many nameless places in our inner-city neighborhood. It is clear that long before non-native people arrived in Washington State, indigenous settlers had names for significant places. ‘Tahoma’ is a marvelous example, although that wasn’t the only name in Salishan languages for Mount Rainier. All those watery ‘mish’ places — Snohomish, Stillaguamish, Sammamish — are other familiar indigenous place names.
Following the settlement of the region by non-natives and the founding of the state of Washington, choosing place names became an important matter. The state created a Board on Geographic Names, but it is limited to overseeing the names of geographic features such as rivers, streams, lakes and mountains. The federal government under President Benjamin Harrison created its own Board of Geographic Names in 1890.
Seattle has a Street Naming Committee, but, founded in 1958, it was late to the game. How our hills, ravines, valleys and creeks got their names and why they stuck remain a history mystery. Queen Anne pioneer Thomas Mercer apparently gave Lake Union its English name at a picnic on July 4, 1854, the same day he named Lake Washington. Walt Crowley (Historylink Essay 1445) says the settlers adopted the names a few weeks after Independence Day 1854, but he omits who those settlers were and who gave them that power.
The Seattle Parks Department has its own naming committee responsible for park names. Don Sherwood notes in his history of Seattle parks that following the adoption of a new city charter in 1892, the Engineering Department (now Seattle Department of Transportation) “began a long and painful process of renaming all the streets.” Sherwood quotes the assistant chief of the Engineering Department George Cotterill, a future mayor (1912-1914) and a Queen Anne resident whose home is now a city landmark, as saying that “anybody platting a piece of land did pretty much as he pleased: he didn’t bother to join up with the streets of adjacent plats –nor use the same names for streets – resulting in one street having many names along its length or many streets about town with the same name: i.e. half-a-dozen named Lake St., Pine St., etc.” Queen Anne residents no longer recall that teetotalers named its main arterial Temperance Avenue, reflecting pioneer real estate developer David Denny’s commitment to a dry town.
With all this effort going into the naming, renaming and attempts at standardization, it is a great wonder that Queen Anne has lots of nameless places. There are, for example, about eight or nine nameless triangles that give our historic Queen Anne Boulevard its exceptional flavor. You may think that the triangles are corrections to the jumble of conflicting plats, but only a few of them appear to meet that criteria. Highland Place, the triangle formed where First Ave N meets Highland Drive, exceptionally has a name, but it pre-existed the creation of Queen Anne Boulevard. Its nameless neighbor at Prospect and First North wasn’t created until 1927 as one of the last pieces of the boulevard encircling the top of the hill. Oddly, the older and named triangle belongs to SDOT whereas the nameless one is managed by our parks department.
Here is a link to the Google Map of the unnamed places. In the map below — a repeat of the linked map — the blue symbols indicate unnamed green spaces, the orange ones mark the triangles of the Queen Anne Boulevard. All but the one at Wheeler and 10th Ave W are part of the landmarked boulevard. This one, while on the boulevard, appeared decades after the landmark designation.
In putting this map together, I came across a number of nameless tracts to which I hadn’t given any thought. The large green piece of land encompassing the Galer St. stairs west of Aurora is the largest of the three I’ve found. The strange uncared-for space between the street that passes under Aurora near Canlis (called 6th Ave N on Google Maps), and Raye St is another. The odd zone where 5th Ave W meets W Kinnear Place is a third example. There may be others!
In addition, there are any number of rather large nameless tracts. Take for example the huge greenbelt west of Dexter Way N and Aurora Avenue. There is also a nameless patch under the Aurora Bridge, near the north end of Dexter Avenue. A friend of mine who worked in the City Attorney’s office complained about these neglected and protected properties as huge liabilities for the city. I find them wonderful lungs in our increasingly urbanized inner-city neighborhood.
The catchy name of the Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt is almost as good as the more concise official moniker of the Southwest Queen Anne Greenbelt which extends north from Kinnear Park above Interbay. Both names reflect laziness, bureaucrat-eze and election strategizing. They figure among 17[i] greenbelts and natural areas that added 91 wild and undeveloped acres to city-own lands after voters adopted an Open Spaces and Trails Bond Program in 1989. The program authorized the purchase of generally wild and unbuildable land throughout King County and Seattle. In addition to the two greenbelts, the city also acquired 2.2 acres of Queen Anne’s Wolfe Creek Ravine. Seattle Parks Director Holly Miller commented in an article appearing on May 1, 1989, “We want to carry on the tradition of the Olmsted Plan, linking parks with trails and greenbelts.”
Indeed, the Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt is a spot for which the Olmsted Brothers in their 1903 report to the Board of Park Commissioners recommended a park: “Between the [QA] parkway and Lake Union, at or near Howe Street, there should be a local park extending down to the lake.” They further note that it would “pay the city in the long run to take considerable area on this steep slope, because it is subject to landslides, and its occupation by streets and houses would involve difficulties and expenses which might eventually cost the city far more than the present value of the land.” As it turned out some 86 years later, we paid a lot!
Noting the steep slopes, the Olmsted Brothers inadvertently explain why those greenbelts survived without streets or buildings. Unfortunately, the brothers, John Charles and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., didn’t explain why no one had ever bothered to name them.
[i] This number omits some smaller parcels also acquired in Seattle as a result of the bond program’s passage.