Nearly 30 years ago, I lived for a spell in Cairo. Finding addresses around Egypt’s teeming, 20-million population capital city was challenging, due in no small part to problems with street signs. I could read the right-to-left Arabic okay. But many of the signs were incomprehensible because they were faded, missing paint or covered with dirt. Directional signs with arrows often pointed in the wrong direction, either because they had been spun around a bit over time or had been poorly designed. Much of the citizenry–and, eventually, I–navigated more by using urban landmarks like odd-shaped buildings, mosques, waterways and even, in a desert environment, trees.
I never again encountered such confusion over official street signage and a need for landmarks–until I became New To Seattle. From my perspective, the only differences here are that it’s Mount Rainier off in the distance instead of the Great Pyramids, and Puget Sound as a watery reference point rather than the mighty Nile.
More than a few Seattle signs are weathered to the point they simply can’t be read. One example (of many) can be found along 11th Avenue NW in Ballard three blocks north of the Fred Meyer store. Many years ago, the sign on the northwest corner said it was NW Ballard Way. It’s virtually unreadable now; see for yourself here in the photo to the right. But everyone going to Fred Meyer knows to turn at the gaudy Jack In The Box restaurant (exactly the landmark I was given when I first asked for directions to there.)
Does Ballard get any respect from whoever controls the signs? Two blocks farther south on 11th Avenue NW, the street sign at NW 45th Street is almost completely obscured by a railroad crossing signpost.
Heading north on Elliott Avenue W out of Belltown, one encounters (right) a freeway-style sign for, among other destinations, the Magnolia Bridge. It overhangs the right lane and reads “Exit Only” with an arrow pointing straight down. The positioning clearly implies the lane goes to the bridge. But it doesn’t. You have to make a 90-degree right-hand turn. Even worse, you have to guess where. It isn’t at the first street sign after the overhang. It’s at the second–but it’s not marked unless you jerk your head sharply to the right at the exact right moment to catch another sign off in the distance.
Another well-kept secret involves Seattle’s most controversial road, the Alaskan Way Viaduct heading south from Belltown along the waterfront. That this leads quickly and easily to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport does not appear to be indicated for miles.
In discussing my perceptions with some of my now-fellow Seattlites, I found that the lousy signage is well known. “You’re lucky to be learning the streets now,” I was told. “Wait until you try to read dirty signs in the winter when there’s no sun and it’s dark by 3 p.m.” (Having driven around Seattle in early February looking for a house, I heartily agree; I kept missing turn after turn, especially on the edges of downtown.)
I’ve heard several theories on why this state of affairs exists. One person told me it dated back to the Californians-Stay-Away attitude prevalent some years back: People who got lost would go away (it was hoped). Another attributed the absence of airport markings on the Alaskan Way Viaduct to a desire to keep the road clear “for those in the know.”
I’d say the most common overall theory offered to me was a mix of official incompetence and a lack of financial resources.
I certainly find this all puzzling. People in Seattle seem proud of their city, but sketchy street signs don’t exactly reflect that love. I’ve spent time in some terrible places, like Camden, N.J.; East St. Louis, Ill; and the Watts section of Los Angeles. When trouble arose, at least you knew immediately and exactly what corner you were at.
In Seattle, maybe not. When it comes to signage, the Emerald City seems to me more like — the Sphinx.
UPDATE: After this note was posted earlier today, someone wrote me, “Seattle is a city that loves to fund the bizarre and non-essential at the expense of infrastructure.” Opined another correspondent, “The mayor is too busy painting bicycle lanes with the funds!“