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Who gets to decide how Seattle’s neighborhoods are mapped?

You hear it all the time: “Seattle is a city of neighborhoods.” And it’s true. To a lot of us locals, our neighborhoods aren’t just shapes on a map. They’re part of our identity.

But sometimes, it’s not clear how each neighborhood identity should apply. Is it called the Central District or the Central Area? The International District or the Chinatown-International District? Lower Queen Anne or Uptown? Does the Central District (or Central Area!) border Atlantic and Squire Park or does it include Atlantic and Squire Park? And if you say you live in Stevens, Mann, or Morningside, will enough people even know what you’re talking about?

“It’s organic,” Kathy Nyland told us. “It’s totally organic.”

Kathy heads up the Department of Neighborhoods, which is not, as you might expect, the ultimate authority on all these questions. She had a bunch of Seattle maps laid out in her office in City Hall when we stopped by yesterday — each with its own interpretation of neighborhood names and boundaries — and she couldn’t pick a favorite. There is no ultimate authority on all this, and to her, there probably shouldn’t be. Different communities need freedom and flexibility to relate to their neighborhoods in whatever ways they want.

“When people have pride in it,” she said, “I want to honor that.”

Here are four quick things we learned:

» There is no current official neighborhood map of Seattle. Some more or less official boundaries were set after neighborhood planning in the 90s, but even those had literal grey areas planners weren’t sure about.

» People can advocate for a certain neighborhood name — and it’s worked. Kathy shared the story of Denise Gloster, who spent years boosting Hillman City in South Seattle, and Susan Pierce, who’s been promoting West Woodland in Ballard.

» Google Maps does not work with the city to tweak neighborhood labels. And Kathy has no idea how Google selects the names it displays. “I’ve never asked, and I don’t know how it’s happening,” she said. “It’s amazing the little things that pop up and the big things that disappear.”

» Neighborhood names can shift and stick based on all kinds of things, including history, the name of a local school, real estate listing trends, what neighborhood organizations choose to call themselves, what local businesseschoose to call themselves, and — yes — gentrification.

For more on all this, check out our conversation with Kathy, below, and the Facebook thread where several of you asked your questions. We’ve added more answers and context there.

 

As for Google Maps, we’re curious about how they label neighborhoods in our city. Know someone in the Fremont or Kirkland offices who’d be up for shedding light on that? E-mail us at [email protected].

And keep your questions coming. About everything.

By Mónica Guzmán
Mónica is the cofounder and editor of The Evergrey. She's been a Seattle journalist for a decade and adores this city.