A sign of Seattle: City sells me my name for $5

WBarrett_signFor $5, the City of Seattle just sold me my name.

Sort of. Used, too.

You can see it to the right. Yes, it’s an old street sign, now resting on my sofa. I’m going to pretend the W stands for William–my first name–rather than, say, West. In my own mind, that immortalizes me like the city founder behind far-more-prominent Denny Way.

As it turns out, I live just a few blocks from the real W. Barrett Street, which I cross twice on my daily constitutional. I do the same pretending out there, too. As the sign comes into view, my heartbeat always quickens, possibly from pride but more likely from not being enough in shape.

The street sign I bought is one of the more than 8,000 the city has replaced since 2007 when voters approved a $365 million “Bridging The Gap” extra property tax levy for nine years to pay for infrastructure and transportation upgrades. The signs are all sent to the city’s surplus warehouse, a sort of municipal Goodwill store. For five bucks, it’s first come, first served.

But what I’m still trying to figure out is why with such lavish funding the street signage in Seattle remains so dodgy.

I wrote about this two years ago this week shortly after becoming New To Seattle. The headline was “Signless in Seattle.” I opined Seattle had the worst city signage I had seen since I lived three decades earlier in Cairo. My story was accompanied by examples of signs obliterated, hidden, misplaced or not put up when they should have been. In the intervening period, some of this has changed for the better. But I still see plenty of barely legible signs. And I have yet to run into anyone who thinks the signage here is up to snuff.

Part of it seems to be a failure of logic, such as signage to the Fremont Bridge from the north that disappears before indicating that final crucial left-hand turn, sending unwary travelers to middle-class Ballard instead of tony Queen Anne. Or even accuracy. As I have pointed out here before, those “alcohol limit 0.08%” signs festooned all over town are absolutely incorrect since “limit” means what’s legal (like the daily maximum catch for fishing) and 0.08% is what’s illegal under DUI laws. In Washington State the DUI “limit” is 0.0799%.

But back to replacement street signs, which come into the warehouse at the rate of about 1,000 a year.That makes for quite an inventory, with hundreds of signs stacked along one wall of the warehouse roughly in alphabetical order. When I visited, there were duplicates of many streets, including, I might add, Barrett. A four-month-old inventory listed 45 bearing the name Meridian, 33 denoting both Dayton and Elmgrove, and even 14 for Brooklyn. Other multiple common names included Barton, Boyer, Bradford, Brandon, Earl, Graham, Harrison, Henderson, Howell, Lander, McGraw, Newton and Westmont.

Now, I realize that not everyone looking for that special Seattle sign is fortunate enough to have a first name starting with W (or any of the other directional prefixes, which in Seattle include N, S, E, SW, NE and NW but for some reason exclude SE), let alone a last name earmarked for Seattle map posterity. However, the folks who run the surplus warehouse told me most people just want a sign from the street they or relatives lived on. To that end, I should note there are a bunch of signs from numbered streets and avenues, too.

If you’re not into signs, the warehouse sells other kinds of used stuff for dirt cheap prices. This includes office equipment like chairs and filing cabinets, working computers for $40 and keyboards (600 in stock right now) for a buck each. One old traffic light lying on the floor was listed for $40. For those interested, the warehouse is located in a nondescript city building at 3807 Second Ave S., in the SoDo district, more or less directly across the railroad’s main line from the world’s first Costco store. The facility is open weekdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and seems to do a brisk lunchtime business from nearby bargain-hunting workers in the heart of the city’s industrial district.

I made sure I got a receipt for my $5 (actually, with sales tax, $5.48). I figured I needed protection in case my home gets raided erroneously due to NSA overreaching and agents, trying to save face, claim I stole the sign. After all, it’s my name. Sort of. Used, too.

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