Cities don't have single "souls," but they can be more or less soulful. Some have said that the city's soul resides in its diverse neighborhoods. Urban soul is often built around commerce and a kind of egalitarian chaos that can ensue when mixtures of people come together. The Pike Place Market is an example: shopkeepers, farmers, butchers, artists, tourists, local shoppers, chefs, pensioners, flower sellers, newsies, hustlers, buskers, the homeless. It is partly by design: a district managed to nurture a unique and diverse downtown neighborhood. But it is also unexpected, full of strange passageways, hidden gems, irregularities that make it a consistently intriguing place. I've wandered there much of my life and still don't know it.
Recently on KUOW, Steve Scher interviewed urbanist Jeff Speck, author of a new book, Walkable City, on walkability and how it works. The secret is shops at the street level, lots of them. That's what brings feet and eyeballs to the streets, and you can see that in action in shopping districts like Broadway, on Pike/Pine, Columbia City, California Ave., Pioneer Square, Chinatown, the U-District, the line of food vendors between CenturyLink and Safeco, a revived Ballard. But what works is not always what planners plan; the best places have a history, an un-bottled quality, a spark that is hard to codify.
He talked with Scher about Pike Place and the Market: "Pike Place is a mess. I mean, it does not look like a European plaza, it is not beautifully shaped by, you know, classically decorated buildings. It's as much a parking lot as it is a street or a plaza and it functions wonderfully because of the concatenation of cars, and people and crowds and the way everything mixes together there.... If you were to look at a typical list of... what pedestrian advocates fight for...it is not Pike Place because it is not textbook beautiful or accessible."
It's successful, and unique. It's not entirely self-built — the public has saved it, shaped it, private enterprise and social services have come together to preserve and advance it. It's managed, but not entirely manageable. And it was not always self-evidently soulful. In the early 1970s when the city planned to level the market for office towers and a 4,000-car parking garage, many of the market's own tenants supported the urban renewal plan. Partly, it was a payday for property owners and a chance to reap the benefit of massive federal investment via urban renewal funds. Partly, there was a conviction that Seattle could have its soul and be free of Skid Road blight. It's hard to imagine now, but when the vote to save the market took place in 1971, it was unclear how the vote would go. The force was with the urban calls for taller, denser, newer. Both daily newspapers backed the bulldozers. The market's victory shook the establishment, it changed the way people saw Seattle. Blank-slate Seattle was dealt a blow.
One question kicking around is this: How to cultivate soul in our newer neighborhoods? It came up at the City Club neighborhood panel in November, where panelists scoffed at the idea that South Lake Union had one. Part of the argument goes that Seattle blew the chance to make SLU livable when it passed on the Commons, so now we have to be satisfied with the Vulcans and other developers who are turning a nothing place into a vibrant something. The trolley, the Mercer fix, the new park, the Whole Foods: all signs of thriving urban life in a neighb being homesteaded by lanyard-draped Amazonians. Critics of the proposed upzone in SLU are concerned with the views, the shadowing, the scale of steroidal blocks of high-rises, the lack of real public benefit in unaffordable "affordable" housing in exchange for heights. Much of the new development seems sterile, driven by corporate and institutional agendas. In places, it seems more like downtown Bellevue than a classic Seattle enclave. And even downtown Bellevue is trying to be less Bellevue, more livable. Affordability is a problem there, too.
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