Seattle is a young city. I’m reminded of this most when I think about Brewster Denny, former Dean of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the UW and now living downtown. Dean Denny is a descendant of the Arthur Denny Party, those early settlers who arrived in what’s now Seattle back on a rainy November day in 1851.
I’ve often heard Denny tell that, as a young man, he remembers spending time with an uncle of his named Rolland Denny (who passed away in 1939). You see, Rolland Denny was an actual member of the Denny Party, an infant carried ashore at windswept Alki by his mother. Viewed this way, Seattle’s non-Native history so far spans less than two human lifetimes. I’ll say it again: Seattle is a young city.
So it’s sometimes a challenge to get local history taken seriously in Seattle. That was something I experienced with regularity when I was deputy director of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). For instance, you are forgiven if you don’t remember the sesquicentennial celebration back in 2001 (or, for that matter, if you don’t know what “sesquicentennial” means). It took an email blast from the late Walt Crowley of HistoryLink sent to, among others, every single City Council member and nearly every reporter in town, to really get the 150th anniversary of the landing of the Denny Party taken seriously by the civic establishment. Walt’s infamous email questioned the city’s financial commitment, comparing the proposed celebration (not favorably) to a “potluck” rather than a “potlatch.” It was pure vintage Crowley — full strength, 200 proof.
While celebrating the 150th anniversary of any event is possibly a questionable activity, one need only look south (or turn on a radio or look at an ad on the web) to see the massive “Oregon 150” tourism campaign under way this year to see what’s possible when interested parties cooperate and devote resources to celebrating local history with an eye to generating revenue. Oregon 150 is using the anniversary of the Beaver State’s 1859 admission to the Union to draw regional tourists, and is likely to have serious economic impact at a time when it will really help local businesses.
Meanwhile, witness the centennial this year of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition or “AYPE.” If you’re unfamiliar with the AYPE, you are, once again, forgiven. The AYP was Seattle’s first world’s fair, held on the UW campus in celebration of Seattle’s role in the Klondike Gold Rush and the city’s prominence on the Pacific Rim. By all accounts, it was a big deal and put the city on the map in countless ways that most people can’t exactly remember.
There have been some special events this summer that are sure to be memorable for the usual history suspects who took part (my favorite was the cross-country Model T rally that ended on campus with a massive July downpour). But the AYPE centennial (like the city’s sesquicentennial before it) hasn’t exactly grabbed hold of the wider public consciousness.
It could be that celebrating 100 years is more problematic than most of us thought. First, there’s nobody alive who actually remembers attending the AYPE. Second, 100 years could be just too recent for the anniversary to seem very important. In other words, maybe the original event isn’t yet distant and “mythical” enough (Seattle is a young city, as I may have mentioned already). Add to this the fact that, other than the layout and a handful of landmarks on the UW campus (the fountain, the old architecture building), the AYP’s legacy is invisible to the students who daily tread or pedal across its former home.
Fortunately, another important civic anniversary lies just over the horizon, and our city has been given another chance. The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair will celebrate its 50th birthday in less than three years. The ’62 fair was a success by any measure, and, rather than looking back on past successes, the fair looked forward to Century 21. Ironically, the ’62 fair was originally envisioned by Seattle City Councilman Al Rochester as a 50th anniversary celebration of the AYPE (so it was three years late, but who’s counting?).
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