Seattle Streets, Explained. Sort Of.

nyc street grid

It would have been so tempting to follow the contours of Manhattan Island but once the grid started, stubborn New Yorkers just paved straight lines.

New York’s urban planners were all kinds of sensible when they platted out America’s greatest city, perhaps because at the time they knew it was destined to be so, what with it’s critical shipping waterways and special talent for delicious bagels.  They drew it in a lovely, logical grid, with numbered streets counting in order paired with equally-sensible numbered avenues running perpendicular, creating an elegant grid-coordinate directions system that even the broken English of a NY cabbie can communicate. It has since been slowly bastardized by various political meanderings (I’m looking at you, Avenue of the Americas) but for the most part it’s survived intact as a testament to good city planning that serves both its residents and the city’s steady influx of easily-confused tourists pretty well. Of course, that doesn’t stop tourists standing on 34th Street from asking how to get to 14th Street, but really we can only lead the horses to water, especially when those horses are willing to pay upwards of $20 for a $2 “I Love NY” t-shirt.

Seattle downtown street map

Denny started from the North, Yesler from the South, and there’s really no excuse for what happened in the middle there.

Contrast New York’s timeless efficiency with Seattle’s street grid, a monument not to efficiency but to the power players of Seattle’s boomtown days, men like Arthur Denny and Henry Yesler for whom two of the city’s defining thoroughfares are named. Each followed their own drummer as they marched out the plat lines of their holdings on the growing city’s waterfront but in the late 1800’s Seattle was less concerned with traffic efficiency and more concerned about their rickety wooden elevated sidewalks, about the indecency of ladies climbing ladders in order to cross downtown streets, and about uphill neighbors with newfangled flush toilets pulling the chain too frequently and suddenly filling downhill neighbors’ basements with raw sewage. In short, Seattle had bigger (and smellier) problems. But after a city-wide fire and a subsequent massive land re-grading project which created nearly everything west of 4th Avenue, Seattle emerged into an awkward teenage phase and suddenly had reason to be embarrassed about its pimply roads and gangly broken avenues, so the disconnected sections of road were connected and it quickly became clear that no one had been paying attention.

So Seattleites will be forgiven for their poor grasp on the geography of their city’s urban core, with its wedge-shaped blocks, awkwardly-merging avenues and complete disregard for compass directions. It’s certainly not Boston or London (both cities whose maps can best be described as “a bag of worms”) but it’s less than ideal especially for all those luddite Amazon delivery drivers who would like to navigate by memory rather than GPS.

Enter the pneumonic device, the spelling of which could really use its own pneumonic device to trigger the memory of all those extra letters.  I have shared several of my favorite Seattle devices with dozens of Uber drivers the past several years who, predictably, have never heard them as they depend entirely on a navigation app to find their way from Dilling & Yesler to 3rd Ave & Prefontaine (that’s a distance of about 25 feet, I feel I must offer, so that you’ll understand my jab). Since Uber drivers don’t seem to need them but I still find them endlessly useful as a Seattle urbanite who likes walking places and providing confident directions to cruise ship tourists, I am sharing them with you; not just you, the reader, but the Google robots and their ilk, as well, since nothing is better for SEO than a good bulleted list.

Seattle Neighborhoods

Denny Triangle isn’t even really a triangle.

Let’s start with the heart of downtown, an area the Downtown Seattle Association breaks into two arbitrary neighborhoods called “West Edge” – which is neither the western-most part of the city nor on the edge of anything except perhaps becoming wildly overpriced – and the “Retail Core” which is a very honest name for a neighborhood that exists mostly to sell you a handbag.  For some reason that I couldn’t uncover in 2-3 minutes of absently browsing Wikipedia (read: what passes for journalism in 2016) the Eastish-Westish streets in this area are named in alphabetic pairs, making our pneumonic device especially efficient.  In order from South to North (which is also kind of right-to-left on the map, perhaps a nod to Seattle’s Japanese population?) those streets are:

  • Jefferson St
  • James St
  • Cherry St
  • Columbia St
  • Marion St
  • Madison St
  • Spring St
  • Seneca St
  • University St
  • Union St
  • Pike St
  • Pine St

As you can see, there are two of each letter, so we can boil this down to J-C-M-S-U-P (more on expanding it later) and the most common pneumonic device I’ve heard for those letters is “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Pressure” which may be an homage to the immense volcanic and tectonic pressure present in this region that contributed heavily to the formation of Seattle’s geography.  It also might have just been catchy.   The secular (and furrier) alternate I’ve heard is “Jumpy Cats May Scratch Upholstery & People” where the “&” is obviously excluded, obviously, as is the standard with pneumonic devices unless it’s inconvenient, in which case it isn’t.  Obviously.

Now that you have one of those lodged in your skull (or perhaps you made up your own already, you brainiac) you have a rough sense of where you are anywhere in that neighborhood.  Standing in the J’s and need to reach one of the U’s?  You’ll need to walk past the C’s, M’s and S’s to get there.  But perhaps you would like to be more exact?  Well, here’s something that might help you.  Notice that each pair is in reverse alphabetical order (James comes after Jefferson, Seneca comes after Spring), except for the C’s and the P’s.  That’s because “The P’s and the C’s aren’t PC”.  For those that don’t remember Bill Clinton-area political news coverage, “PC” means Politically Correct, which at some point in its heyday basically just meant “acceptable” as anything that wasn’t PC was basically unacceptable.  Thankfully, widespread use of the internet has sufficiently lowered our standards of human decency to the point that no one is trying to be PC anymore, and certainly not by calling it that.  But nonetheless, that’s a little trick to help you keep the order straight within the pairs.

I bet you can recite at least 25 words from Tommy Boy right now.

I bet you can recite at least 25 words from Tommy Boy right now.

Or you could just memorize them.  I mean, it’s 12 words, that’s probably less to remember than your favorite Chris Farley impression.  Try it: Jefferson James Cherry Columbia Marion Madison Spring Seneca University Union Pike Pine.  Read that 20 times right now, recite it in your head every time you pass one of the mentioned street signs, and in 2 weeks you will be gesticulating with aplomb at wayward tourists trying to find the public library (it’s on Madison Street) like a Seattle savant.

I know that your mind is already blown at this point and you’re nearly tearing the cords out of your computer attempting to run outside and navigate Seattle’s downtown streets like Ferdinand Magellan with an iPhone, but I have one more neighborhood to clog your noggin with.  When I moved to Seattle 15 years ago and started walking through the Belltown neighborhood in search of happy hour sushi and an old-fashioned made with a bourbon-soaked cherry (read: properly) it dawned on me that Belltown needed a pneumonic of its own.  I’ve had even less success convincing Uber drivers to adopt this one as it’s a bit longer and I – perhaps misguidedly – attempted to tackle some of the wedge-shaped convergence zone blocks resulting from the collision of several misaligned street grids that the previous device conveniently passes over.  With that hearty disclaimer, here’s  your mental map to the following Belltown streets:

  • Olive Way
  • Stewart St
  • Virginia St
  • Lenora St
  • Blanchard St
  • Bell St
  • Battery St
  • Wall St
  • Vine St
  • Cedar St
  • Clay St
  • Broad St
  • Denny Way

If you’re looking at the map you’ll notice that these streets only occur in this order at 3rd Avenue, and even then not quite exactly, as Olive and Stewart are still conjoined asphalt twins at 3rd Avenue and only begin to find identities of their own as they approach 4th Avenue.  Also, Denny Way is clearly not part of the Belltown grid but as the boundary of the neighborhood it seemed like a good anchor and the corner of 3rd Avenue and Denny Way is near-enough-as-makes-no-difference to Seattle Center, which is an even better neighborhood anchor.  As for Olive Way and Stewart St, they seemed like the longest and most significant boundaries of the two grid systems, and if one was trying to walk from Seattle Center to Nordstrom (from the city’s heart to its wallet, as it were) knowing how far one has traversed on that journey seemed useful.  Also, our previous pneumonic ended at Pine St which is (mostly) a block away from either Olive Way or Stewart St, depending on which Avenue you are standing on.  Trying to rationalize these decisions is actually doing a great job to illustrate how confusing Seattle’s street grid is and why pneumonic devices are necessary.  So let’s just move on.

Here's a guy that would bite your ear off in a bar fight.

Here’s a guy that would bite your ear off in a bar fight.

With the street names above, and in an homage to Seattle’s long history in the software economy, we have the following: Open-Source Vendors Let Big Bad Ballmer Win Venture Capital Companies’ Big Dollars.   That’s Olive-Stewart (appropriately hyphenated) Virginia Lenora Blanchard Bell Battery Wall Vine Cedar Clay Broad Denny.  Originally I had written it as “Big Bad Bill” which is obviously a reference to Microsoft’s Bill Gates but it turns out Bill is actually not a bad guy at all; rather, a very good guy with a huge heart who has dedicated his life to using his power and influence (and money) to make enormous improvements in standards of living throughout the third world.  So instead, it’s “Big Bad Balmer” which works just as well as a pneumonic and is perhaps much more true given his track record in Redmond and his penchant for chair-throwing.  Battery, Bell, and Blanchard are in reverse alphabetical order – similar to the West Edge streets – and Cedar and Clay defy that convention – just like the other C’s and P’s further south which are similarly not PC.

Never mind that the sentence “Open-Source Vendors Let Big Bad Ballmer Win Venture Capital Companies’ Big Dollars” isn’t particularly true in any obvious way and doesn’t actually make sense.  It wasn’t meant to be profound, it was meant to have the right letters in the right order and to stick in your brain like a half-eaten lollipop sticks in a shag carpet.  Your brain, in this example, is a shag carpet. With the help of your shag-carpet brain, you can now walk from Yesler Way to Nordstrom (Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Pressure) and then continue all the way to the Space Needle (Open-Source Vendors Let Big Bad Ballmer Win Venture Capital Companies’ Big Dollars), all without using your phone for anything other than music, texting, restaurant reviews, posting to your Snapchat story and sharing your journey block-by-block on Instagram.

The Belltown example is perhaps a little tougher to memorize and there are probably very few people navigating Belltown these days other than via the Uber app or, increasingly, indirectly via their food delivery service of choice.  That’s likely true for both of these neighborhoods just as it is for the elegant grid-like streets of Manhattan; our pervasive technology and its cloud-based software-as-a-service intelligence masking one city’s clever and human-friendly urban planning and another’s rambunctious and slipshod development from overgrown gold nugget repository to glittering technology boomtown. But on either coast, should a zombie apocalypse leave you without your precious Google Maps, the hardcore survivalists among you whose advance planning included committing these pneumonic devices to memory will handily find your way to Wasabi Bistro to trade a pack of cigarettes for what’s left of their fresh albacore.  And that, my friends, is how you write keyword-rich, SEO-friendly content.