The myth of the 'jerkwater town'

Seattle was already a modernizing city before its Century 21 fair.
This promo for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair envisioned a red Space Needle.

This promo for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair envisioned a red Space Needle.

In 1962, The Seattle Times published a series of articles and cartoons about the city in the year 2000. In one of them, Seattle is portrayed as a dense, sprawling megalopolis of monorails, freeways, heliports, spacecraft dealers, and high rises. A small human figure in the foreground turns to another and says, "I remember back when this was just a little jerkwater town of a half-a-million!"

Many of us can wax nostalgic for that "jerkwater town," the city of Ivar, J.P. Patches, and the Gold Cup hydroplane races. But while bits of old Seattle still persist in neighborhood enclaves and at the Stan Sayres pits in the Brigadoon-days of summer when Seafair appears, that Seattle is almost as stuffed and stored away as the city's iconic 1950s and '60s-era celebrity, Bobo the gorilla. And while that Seattle was, and is, real to a point, it has never been the whole story.

Proof of that was the world's fair itself. That it happened was something of a civic miracle; that it was successful was truly shocking, especially in retrospect. Most of the American fairs that followed in the quarter century after were disappointments. They either lost money, failed to boost image, left little real urban legacy, or were tinged with scandal, or all of the above (see New Orleans '84).

It's interesting that arguably three of the most successful post-WWII fairs in North America were in the Pacific Northwest in successive decades (Seattle '62, Spokane '74, and Vancouver '86). They occurred in relatively young, emerging Cascadian cities that were able to achieve a kind of civic unity around the fair's purpose: setting their cities up for the next generation of development. Seattle's produced Seattle Center, Vancouver's stimulated an urban development boom, and Spokane's was an environmental restoration project that renewed the landmark Spokane River and Falls and also set up the city for a post-railroad yard future.

Still, a truly "jerkwater" town is unlikely to have ever hosted a fair in the first place. And while the fair is a key touchstone, or a turning point, in the city's history, Seattle before the fair had a lot going for it beyond civic moxie.

The Seattle of 1962 was already a city dedicated to creating a high-tech future, and making money doing it. Boeing is the chief example here. If Seattle was a company town, it was a town whose company was committed to aerospace and defense work that put it on technology's cutting edge and sopped up every available federal dollar to do so. Before the fair, Boeing had introduced commercial jet travel, was building a new generation of jets, was involved in Saturn rockets and Minuteman missiles, and was designing super sonic aircraft.

A major Boeing program of the era, now largely forgotten, was the Dyna-Soar. This was an Air Force program to create a reusable space craft. It looked very much like, and was a precursor, of the Space Shuttle (one of its assigned test pilots was Neil Armstrong). NASA was shooting the first astronauts into space; Boeing was already working to make space an everyday destination. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1958 called the Dyna-Soar "truly...the first step to the stars for man."

Boeing was a late booster of the fair. Boss Bill Allen had attended the New York world's fair in 1939-40 and hated it. Boeing sponsored the Spacearium and used the fair to recruit engineers. Still, while the fair promoted a speculative Space Age, the city's major employer was actively engaged, long before the fair, in making that age a reality. While mythical logger Paul Bunyan made his appearance on the "world's biggest birthday cake" at the fair's Food Circus, the era of sawmill Seattle was already past.

And it is often said that the fair was the birth of "the arts" in Seattle. It's true that Seattle Center made homes for and expanded facilities for the opera, symphony, theater, ballet and art museum. However, long before the fair the city had a thriving fine arts scene that was distinctly modern. The fair itself showcased indigenous talent.

One example: It was in 1953 that LIFE magazine featured the Northwest "mystic" abstract artist Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. These painters were already nationally known by '62 and a permanent Tobey museum was proposed for the fair.

In terms of architecture, Seattle also had distinctly modern and nationally impactful architects who not only helped to design a great fair, but had influence before and beyond it. John Graham, Jr. whose firm did the Space Needle was already well known for having come up with the best prototype of the modern auto-centric mall in Northgate, an idea that was Seattle's perhaps the city's biggest contribution to urban development. Historian Murray Morgan credited Graham with having "touched off the regional shopping center pandemic in the United States."

Minoru Yamasaki, born and trained in Seattle, was already influential before he did his famous Federal Science Pavilion at the fair (a commission that also led to his being hired to do the World Trade Center's twin towers). His mid-1950s airport design in St. Louis set the pattern for jet-age terminals everywhere, and that project was a major reason he caught the attention of Seattle's jet-era fair planners.

In addition, while the fair emerged in an era when suburbanization was a powerful dynamic, it also was an attempt to "renew" the city by adding a cultural center and galvanizing development. As a result, before the fair opened, Seattle was looking at major downtown improvements. A flurry of modern construction occurred before the fair, from offices high-rises like the Logan and Norton buildings in the late 1950s, to the new downtown library and municipal building.

In 1961, the Central Business Association outlined a scheme for mass transit, a ring highway system, more parking garages, making downtown more pedestrian friendly (malls like Westlake, street plantings, more street-level open space, sky bridges), and building up (more high rises). They also recognized the appeal of the Pike Place Market and parts of Pioneer Square as preserving the "atmosphere of Old Seattle." Seattle's leaders did not see the city only as a blank slate of pure potential, but as complex city in need of renewal. Urban renewal "will determine whether we allow our city to become run down at the heels or remains a vital city," said new mayor Gordon Clinton in 1956. Urban renewal was a source of federal funds, but also a way to complete the job of modernizing a city mature enough to need modernizing.

One of the most prescient observers of the period was University of Washington professor and urban planner Myer Wolfe, who warned that Seattle was both getting denser and sprawling and would, by the year 2000, be like "little Los Angeles." He argued for better region-wide planning. When asked for an idea of a post-fair program, Wolfe suggested that "Seattle Ugly" tours should be organized "to disprove the thesis the West doesn't have slums or blight." Having been dazzled by future possibilities, he thought Seattle also needed to have its eyes opened to the realities on the ground.

Seattle wasn't all boosterism. There were skeptics, urbanists, planners, and visionaries who had a sophisticated sense of how the city ought to grow, and the plans to do it right. Many of them would fit in with the theories of "smart growth" urbanists of today, not to mention Jane Jacobs revivalists. New York's powerbroker Robert Moses even expressed envy at Seattle's process. While Forward Thrust is remembered for its post-fair ballot measures, Jim Ellis had been speaking publicly about the need for regional governance reform and environmental clean-up since the early 1950s, before the fair was conceived.

Seattle might have been a modest provincial city with little national profile, but it was also a hub of energy, creativity, and innovation in the post-war, pre-fair period. The fair itself was a signal that the city wasn't a "jerkwater" town, but became a showcase and catalyst for pre-existing accomplishments and talent, as well as a projection of what that might amount to over the next generation. Century 21 wasn't the birth of modern Seattle, but a stage to showcase a modern city that wanted a higher profile.

(Note: Some of the ideas in this story were taken from a Next50 lecture, "From Bobo to the Bubbleator: The social and cultural context of Century 21," presented by the author on June 5th, 2012 in a series put on by Historic Seattle and Docomomo-WeWa.)


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 18, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for that, Knute. This assessment has been largely missing in the Century 21 anniversary hoopla.
For example, it took a full decade of research, neighborhood outreach, and serious horse trading to win the approval of Seattle’s first comprehensive plan in 1957, without which the Fair would not have qualified for all those federal dollars – a process led by an “Easterner” John Spaeth, the city’s first professionally trained city planner, who overcame plenty of suspicion that what he was doing was at best “socialistic.”
Spaeth lobbied Olympia to get necessary legislation underpinning the Fair and persuaded the wary city council, jealous of its ability to control what went where. He also worked with King County and even the imperious State Highways Department to foster regional planning. Spaeth’s outreach connected the best practitioners in contemporary architecture to the Fair, such as Charles and Ray Eames and Harry Bertoia with whom he’d collaborated as a protégé of Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook in Michigan. He also championed the work of local architects, including Playhouse architect Paul Hayden Kirk, who initially had been shut out of the Century 21 projects because some hinted he might have had “Commie” leanings.
Sophisticated and well-developed entertainment, arts and cultural institutions were on offer in Seattle well before the idea of Century 21 was first proposed. After all, Seattleites had learned during the Gold Rush that their city’s success was not to be found by running off to dig, fish or log for treasure, but would come instead by providing terrific, tempting ways to transport, entertain and shelter those who did.

Posted Mon, Jun 18, 3:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you. I love the memories Mossback brings forth. And I appreciate your additional contribution.

s_calvert

Posted Sat, Jun 23, 3:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Quite interesting to read: "it took a full decade of research, neighborhood outreach, and serious horse trading to win the approval of Seattle’s first comprehensive plan in 1957, without which the Fair would not have qualified for all those federal dollars."

Within minutes of reading that (and posting my comments below), I stumbled onto this statement in an article Peter Gordon of USC mentions in his blog: "zoning in New York City was largely unrestricted outside of lower Manhattan between the first zoning code in 1916 and the first comprehensive zoning map in 1961." (from Developing densely: Estimating the effect of subway growth on New York City land uses David King, Columbia University; Journal of Transport and Land Use Vol.4 No. 2 [Summer 2011] pp. 19–32)

So, you ask, of what significance is this? Well, it strongly suggests that "comprehensive planning" was avant-garde in the planning field in the post-war 1950's, extending well into the 1960's. (Thus, what happened in Seattle wasn't exactly 'home-grown' but rather imported from the East, consistent with the "Easterner" appellation Ms. Spaeth uses to portray John Spaeth.)

Further, drawing from Ms. Spaeth's note, such comprehensive planning likely arose from -and was nourished by- significant levels of funding from Washington, D.C. (i.e. Uncle Sam, or as some would have it, Uncle Sugar.) Curiously, this same outside force also propelled most of Seattle's transportation planning, including Metro Transit but most noticeably that of Sound Transit, the successor to the failed Forward Thrust rail proposals of 1968 and 1970. The 1968 measure proposed a 330 rail-car, 47-mile rail transit system costing $1.2 Billion to be financed via $385 million local match to an anticipated $770 million in federal funds. (Do the math: that's $2 from D.C. for every $1 locally. btw: after the Urban Mass Transit Administration was created in 1969, that ratio got even richer: $4 federal for every $1 local.)

The lure of federal $ to cities and their "planners" was clearly evidenced by these words, from 1967, of Mayor Braman to the city council: "the fight we face will require money in unprecedented amounts. We must use federal, state and local resources to attack these problems in one place and at one time. The Model Cities application submitted to the Federal government is an effective and comprehensive approach. One principle is to use public works to reshape the urban environment. We will use urban renewal in conjunction with transportation efforts to create a core around which commercial and high-density residential areas may develop. To this end, we have proposed that the R. H. Thomson Freeway be converted into a parkway, reduced in scale, and integrated with a high-speed mass transit subway line. Instead of a divisive element, it can then serve as a beautified corridor which will tie the area together and encourage the more complete physical regeneration of the structures in the area. Full utilization of all federal programs could assure the availability of housing units to people at all economic levels."

======

My question would be: where has all this planning, fueled by so much federal money, lead us? Might not the dreams & advice of planners schooled 'back East' have proven extraordinarily costly, delivering limited amounts of the benefits they promised? And, further along this line of questioning, might not their visions have out-lived their usefulness? Did any of them foresee Bellevue or Redmond? Lynnwood? I didn't think so. Yet their wool remains pulled over our eyes.

A favorite quote, buried deep in a textbook of mine, 'Urban Analysis: Readings in Housing and Urban Development' [Page and Seyfried; 1970], serves as a prescient warning of the excesses that planning brought to bear in many urban areas: "Unless urban redevelopment policy obtains a prominent place on the economist's agenda, it will be shaped in accordance with the wishes of special-interest groups. We will then be giving credence to Henry Wallich's [professor of economics at Yale and a Federal Reserve Board member] remark that "just as experience is another word for mistakes we have already made, policy is another word for mistakes we are about to make."

That's deep, really deep. Those 'special interests' are still at work, advancing those ill-considered policy "goals" at our expense. So, Ms. Spaeth, let us not indiscriminately cheer federal dollars.

Posted Sun, Jun 24, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Those 'special interests' are still at work, advancing those ill-considered policy "goals" at our expense.

The policy goals you describe as having existed in the 1960s -- ginning up local megaprojects to attract a pile of federal dollars at a relatively-cheap local property tax cost -- is nothing like the policy goal now.

The local megaproject planning policy goal now is to maximize local regressive taxing. Taxing that impacts the poorest in our community without limit is the goal. The plan these days involves pledging sales taxes at or near the maximum rates as security for bonds while they remain outstanding. That results in grossly-excessive taxing, far in excess of reasonable operations and capital costs for governments such as Sound Transit. That way the bond counsel firms, local financial advisors, and Goldman Sachs can obtain fat cuts off the top when the billions of dollars of muni-bonds are sold.

The local muni bond megaprojects now barely use any federal money. The monorail financing plan called for no federal money. The developing ST2 financing plan calls for scores of billions of dollars of local regressive tax confiscations and very little federal money. Sound Transit is NOTHING like the rail plans put on the ballots around here by old-Metro in the 60s and 70s.

You must understand that what goes on around here now is a function of an ENTIRELY different policy goal, intended for entirely different reasons, than the attempts in the '60s and '70s to obtain federal money for projects at a small local property tax cost. Are any of those differences news to you, "Tom"?

The bond plan to pay for the 1962 World Fair was fair to the public, now the bond sale plans are abusive to the public. You understand that very large difference, right Tom?

crossrip

Posted Mon, Jun 18, 5:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute's paragraph that begins "In 1961, the Central Business Association outlined a scheme for mass transit, a ring highway system, more parking garages, ..." and ends by endorsing the city's plans for urban renewal is significantly misleading. Knute writes, "They also recognized the appeal of the Pike Place Market and parts of Pioneer Square as preserving the 'atmosphere of Old Seattle.'" This statement is completely off the mark. They may have "recognized" these places as old, but that does not mean they had any interest in keeping such places.

As is very well documented in multiple published accounts, the Central Association's plans for ring freeway around downtown, multiple parking garages, etc., included urban renewal to replace most of Pioneer Square and all of Pike Place Market. These areas were designated as "blighted" so that urban renewal funds and the power of eminent domain could be used to assemble land for favored developers. It would take a decade of fighting by those not associated with the business elite of the Central Association, led by people like Victor Steinbrueck, to prevent the destruction of Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market in the name of "modernization."

Posted Mon, Jun 18, 5:30 p.m. Inappropriate

This Seattle Native agrees with Jeffrey O.-

Posted Mon, Jun 18, 9:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Fact: Century 21 has had no impact one way or the other on the supply of jerkwaters here and about.
If Roger Sales is still among the living, he really really needs to record Seattle's history from where he last left it!

afreeman

Posted Tue, Jun 19, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Prof. Ochsner is absolutely right about the battles to come on preservation. What interested me, and what I tried to reflect here, was that in the 1961 plan in the Times I was referring to, there were small pieces extolling the charms of the Market and the "old Seattle" of Pioneer Square. The plan did contain inherent contradictions, and "urban renewal" was used as an argument to demolish the Market. But even as they created plans for remaking the city, it was understood that, in principal, Pioneer Square and the Market added, at the very least, character and personality. The Market was already recognized as a tourist attraction before it was saved. Yes, there were plenty of people in powering willing to bulldoze all that and thank goodness they were stopped.

Posted Wed, Jun 20, 9:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Ochner is completely right to remind us of the horrid Central Association campaign that began as the World's Fair was being built,to surround Seattle with a "ring road" that would have destroyed Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market. It was developed by Planning Consultant Donald Monson, hired by the city to justify the need to address density/transportation issues caused by Seattle's earlier failure to invest in high speed regional transit. Seattle could not create the density the downtown developers sought without some transportation enhancements in the days of "Seattle Transit," a badly run totally inadequate municpial-only city bus/trolley system. So the the ugly response: ring roads and mega garages!

Downtown property owners in 196i, intimidated by surburban shopping malls, loathed the Market and Pioneer Square and hoped to profit from the recently acquired access to urban renewal money, just as the UW was doing in 1962 when it was blowing away perfectly good buildings to expand its medical school. CBD building owners saw the chance to grab the PPMarket and Pioneer Square for high rise auto-oriented development. They ran the Planning Commission and thus directed the work of the professional staff. This was part of the Central Business District "CBD" planning process that began well after the Seattle Center project was not a plan but a fact. The 1957 Comprehensive Plan had left the "CBD" a blank, to be planned later.

Those of us who battled the "CBD" Ring Road monstrosity and ultimately were forced by the City Council to campaign to Save the Market with the 1971 initiative knew that those who had great power could have prevailed without the "grass roots." UW professor Victor Steinbrueck, Attorney Bob Ashley and a few brave merchants swam upstream for what we love about Seattle.

The CBD is a different chapter in a complicated era of "who knows best" for the City. Planning Director John Spaeth was right in 1948-57 about comprehensive planning and including access to essential federal funding for his city. He was tone deaf in 1962-70 (he retired in 1972) and most likely was powerless to stop the Central Association in its misguided campaign to bulldoze what we love - Seattle's folksy pioneer heritage.

Posted Wed, Jun 20, 10:05 p.m. Inappropriate

One minor correction. We COULD NOT have prevailed against the "RING ROAD" culture without the grass roots so well cultivated by Victor and Bob. I was glad to be on their team, doing the TV ads for the 1971 initiative, that was so strongly opposed by Mayor Wes Uhlman! Mercifully he moved on to implement the will of the people.

Posted Thu, Jun 21, 3:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Glad to see that Stenson Spaeth got her recall cap adjusted. And as for the "They ran the Planning Commission and thus directed the work of the professional staff"— the more times change the more they stay the same. According to Jeff Reifman, the "grassroots" part of that recall may be slated for another round as well, provided there is anyone skilled enough and willing enough to wade through the lip service. One can always hope.

afreeman

Posted Sat, Jun 23, 2:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's some more names, from the bubbleator era:

1956: A "Metropolitan Problems Advisory Committee" --chaired by Jim
Ellis-- is appointed by Seattle Mayor Clinton and the King County
Board of Commissioners and recommends state legislation to
allow the formation of metropolitan councils, modeled upon one
employed in Toronto, with authority for several 'regional' services
(e.g. sewage and garbage disposal, water supply, transportation,
parks, parkways and planning). Toward the close of the year, the
Seattle-King County Municipal League president Harold Shefelman
announces the resignation of Jim Ellis as the League's legal counsel.

The same day, Shefelman is named chair of Seattle's Civic Center
Commission, responsible for "basic planning" toward a $7.5
million center to be the site of the 1962 World's Fair -- and which
will require redevelopment of a working-class neighborhood at the
foot of Queen Anne Hill. (Seattle Times, Dec. 6, 1956, p 11, 24)
Ellis and Shefelman and their respective law firms are to become
key players in shaping Seattle's development.

1957: Seattle Mayor Clinton's Transportation Survey Subcommittee
recommends engaging the Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm
from New York to conduct a preliminary survey of Seattle
metropolitan area transportation facilities that "will best serve
the long-range needs of the people" and to solicit proposals from
consultants to prepare a 50-year transportation report.

==========

And the rest, as they say, is history. Plus ca change...

Posted Sat, Jun 23, 2:50 p.m. Inappropriate

No name-dropping here:

1975: In January, a SEPA-based lawsuit is filed by four private citizens against the City of Seattle and the UW Board of Regents to prevent construction of the Rainier Tower and Rainier Square in downtown Seattle, on the University's Metropolitan Tract property. Seeking injunctive relief, the plaintiffs allege damages to shopping activities, increased automobile & truck traffic downtown and congestion, air pollution and health hazards. Additional alleged damages include reduced availability of public parking near to shopping opportunities, destruction of historic buildings, glare from the building's exterior surface, destruction of a unique urban environment, disruption in community patterns and pedestrian traffic patterns, interference with views of Seattle's scenic beauty, wind and shadows endangering the health, comfort and safety of plaintiffs, and "a sterile office building environment similar to many others constructed in this city." (Citizens Interested in the Transfusion of Yesteryear (C.I.T.Y.), plaintiff; King County Superior Court Case No. 784 151) Ultimately the case is dismissed but it serves to show how in the decades to follow, SEPA will become a significant hurdle to development of any kind, increasingly employed as a device to impede controversial projects of all types.

=========
And I didn't have to mention the fire-bombing, by four private citizens, of the UW's Horticultural Research Center.....

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