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Intersection or Hieroglyph?

Posted by Johnine Larsen on September 1, 2017
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Seattle’s streets—more specifically, Seattle’s intersections—are a little chaotic. Okay, very chaotic. Most of the blame falls on Seattle’s founders, especially in the Belltown/Downtown/Capitol Hill area.

Seattle began in West Seattle, but the founders soon realized they needed more space. William Bell, Arthur Denny, and Carson Boren (recognize some street names?) each staked large claims east of Elliott Bay. Bell’s claim eventually turned into Belltown, and Denny’s and Boren’s claims became downtown. Doc Maynard moved in soon after and claimed Pioneer Square, followed by Henry Yesler and his sawmill. These men are the culprits.

These city founders were responsible for setting the foundation of modern-day Seattle, but they disagreed (strongly) about how to do it. Denny and Boren wanted a street grid that ran parallel to the waterline. Doc Maynard, on the other hand, wanted a street grid that matched compass directions—pure north-south and east-west streets. Instead of coming to a compromise, they each developed their own piece of Seattle according their own ideas. No uniformity happened then, and it led to some serious hieroglyphic consequences.

But let’s cut those guys some slack. That only accounts for Seattle’s core. Other maze-line intersections exist because parts of modern-day Seattle used to have their own grids, totally independent of the rest of Seattle. Ballard and Georgetown, for instance, once were their own cities, and by the time they were annexed by Seattle, they had already laid their own streets. Merging those grids with Seattle’s led to a sudden twists, inexplicable turns, and innumerable people asking “which way do I go?”

As for the other bizarre intersections scattered about the city, those owe their contortions to nature. The hills and coastlines throughout this area forced early street planners to get creative with their roadmaking—and they’ve forcing us drivers to get creative with our navigating ever since.


PS: If you want a print of Seattle’s chaos to hang in your house, you can buy one here!