Historians of urban planning like to divide cities into two primary groups.

The first has streets laid out in an orthogonal grid with the streets at right angles to one another just as the Romans did. The second group describes urban plans as onions, with cities growing out organically from a founding center. Its Roman roots notwithstanding, Paris is an example that immediately comes to mind.

No one would say that Seattle and our Queen Anne streets resemble the rings of an onion, but they sure seem to have been randomly organized. We’ve got simple grids that don’t line up. We’ve got military roads like Dexter Avenue that skedaddle all over the place, and diagonal trails, such as Gilman Drive, that appears to meander to avoid the hills. We have curvy streetcar lines that blend street names. There is a randomness to our streets that defies orthogonal reason.

The explanations for this randomness are many. Wild-west platting is one, while trolley routes, military roads, waterways, stairs and pioneer rivalries are others.

Seattle’s 1853 street layout fight is well known. Arthur Denny and Carson Boren wanted the grid to follow the curve of Elliott Bay’s shoreline. Dr. David “Doc” Maynard wanted it to follow compass lines. When they couldn’t agree, the three pioneers went ahead and laid their land out however they damn pleased.

As Denny, an adamant opponent of the use of alcohol, noted in his memoir:

“It was found that the doctor, who occasionally stimulated a little, that day had taken enough to cause him to feel that he was not only monarch of all that he surveyed, but what Boren and I had surveyed as well.”

The irony of Denny’s sobering comment is that in the 1930s the city determined that he had platted his streets in violation of the law under which the original land claims were filed. Denny’s brother David obeyed the law. His claim, which includes much of Queen Anne — upper and lower — and the north side of Denny Way (named for David, who also opposed using alcohol) lines up with true north, as do all the plats in King County except those downtown bits that follow the shoreline.

My house is in Blewett’s Second Addition on First Avenue North. It documents Seattle’s underlying do-whatever-you damn-please planning gestalt that lasted until at least 1876. In fact, until that time the only rule seems to have been the federal one Arthur Denny violated.

I assume the Blewett mentioned in my deed are Edward and Carrie Blewett, real estate investors who divided up most of the east side of Queen Anne Hill. When you roam the neighborhood east of First Avenue North, you notice that the Blewetts chose to omit alleys from their plat. We can only speculate why, but either they needed extra room to accommodate a couple of named streets (Warren and Nob Hill) or simply figured they could sell more land if they didn’t set aside space for alleys. Whatever their reasons, they didn’t work for the folks who developed the west side of First Avenue North and all the plats stretching west to 10th Avenue West. They all have alleys (I know, I know: Queen Anne Park has none.) and don’t lineup with the Blewett grid.

You can read the difference in plat design at the intersection nearest our house where Newton Street hits First Avenue North. Although Newton looks like it tees there, it really extends to the property line of the houses after Newton’s right-of-way crosses First. We know that the right-of-way crosses to the west side of the sidewalk because of the sidewalk stubs that run from the curb. Until the city added No Parking signs in early August, the short stretch of the street was a mini gold mine where folks who inadvertently parked along the sidewalk stubs were cited for blocking the intersection and therefore won $40 parking tickets.

In Queen Anne, geography and the need to grade the route for those the streetcars climbing the hill added to our confusion. Taylor abandons the grid at Lee, and then swerves across the hill to Fifth Avenue North at Trolley Hill Park. You’d think the strange curve where Queen Anne Avenue almost tees at Galer was drawn to accommodate the streetcar, but I think it simply marks the strange intersection of four randomly designed plats. The northern end of Dexter, where that street sweeps under the George Washington Memorial (Aurora) Bridge, may be another streetcar adjustment, but it may also reflect another important aspect of street planning in our neighborhood.

Dexter was laid out by the U.S. Army as part of the Military Road that began in Steilacoom and was supposed to terminate in Bellingham. It’s curve under the Aurora Bridge may have been created to bring the road down to the narrow neck of Ross Creek where it crossed Lake Union’s outlet to the sea and may have had nothing to do with the streetcar line. I think it could be a combination of the two explanations.

The surrounding waterways also contribute to the zaniness of Queen Anne’s unruly streets. Westlake Avenue originally followed the shoreline on trestles, and almost no streets run straight through down the slopes above Lake Union. The shoreline that ran through the mud flats north of Smith Cove didn’t get a real road until 1923. Along the bluff above Elliott/Interbay, streets try hard to follow the grid, but the topography makes that part of the neighborhood feel all higgledy-piggledy.

The Army Corps of Engineers almost got the Ship Canal to line up with the grid, but it runs on a bit of a diagonal, following the old streambed from Lake Union to Salmon Bay. The concrete walls marking the edges of the canal make it seem like it is parallel to our east-west streets, but it isn’t. 

There are those folks who will contend that the many stairs climbing our slopes also contribute to the confusion, but nearly all of them line up with the grid. The map the Queen Anne Historical Society sells at qahistory.org proves that to be true for folks on foot. For those of us on bikes and scooters, or in cars and trucks, the stairs contribute to that old-world charm of the (faux) European onion rings that make Seattle and Queen Anne special.