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But there is history in South Lake Union. Historic landmarks like the Troy Laundry and Seattle Times buildings, old row houses, cool row bungalows, old warehouses. Some of these are being worked into new projects (the Vulcan/Green Lab Stack House/Supply Laundry experiment is one example). There is the adaptive reuse of the Naval Armory for the new MOHAI and the Center for Wooden Boats. Can the neighborhood tap its own history to enrich was the developers are doing?
Lake Union itself is rich with heritage, to say the least, from Native American use to shipyards to Gasworks. My father lived near its shores in the 1920s and remembered his father rowing them across the lake to chat with the Boeing workers who were building wooden planes on the lakeshore. And before SLU shoreline gave way to clusters of waterfront eateries during the 1980s boom in young urban professionals (Kathryn Robinson of Seattle Weekly once infamously referred to the area as the "Herpes Triangle"), there were not only boat works and docks but the Pike Place Market-like thrift complex of St. Vincent DePaul.
St. Vinnie's was set up like an outdoor village street lined with little stalls organized by stuff: There was a stall for kitchen utensils, clothes, toys, tools. At the water's edge, the path brought you to a landfill area that jutted into the lake, half submerged in places. It was a graveyard of old ceramic sinks and bathtubs, some with feet, and toilets that had paid their dues many times over. They sat out in the rain and gloom, waiting for buyers who never seemed to come, turning green.
Seattle of that era was less known for national brands than it was for second-hand emporia from First Avenue pawn shops to Army surplus stores. Places like the Market and South Lake Union were the fodder of the Whitmanesque Beat poets who passed through town and equipped themselves for stints building their working-class cred in the forests, fire lookouts, and ships of the Pacific Northwest. Here's a bit from a Gary Snyder poem called "Bubbs Creek Haircut" about a visit he and Allen Ginsberg made in the 1950s:
Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul,
Salvation Army up the coast
for mackinaws and boots and heavy socks
--Seattle has the best for logger gear
once found a pair of good tricouni boots
at the under-the-public-market store,
Mark Tobey's scene,
torn down I hear--
and Filson jacket with birdblood stain.
A.G. and me got winter clothes for almost nothing
at Lake Union, telling the old gal
we was on our way
to work the winter out up in B.C.
Tricouni boots are loggers' hobnails. Getting winter clothes at Lake Union almost certainly means St. Vinnies. And the Market, thankfully, did not get torn down then or later or now.
The Seattle of that era is mostly gone, but soulful enclaves can survive and morph; they don't stay the same, that is part of what makes them work. They are dynamic. Even if they can't be created by formula, they can be cared for and encouraged, supported, loved.
But how can it then emerge from new projects? The track record is sobering.
As important a civic creation as Seattle Center is, it still lacks a certain soulfulness save for the way it is used during Bumbershoot, Folklife, or the fountain in times of public grief. The Gothic Arches of the Science Center, the Needle catching sun as is emerges from mist: these can provide soul-stirring moments. The arts facilities are important to Seattle's overall cultural scene. But it also often has a coldness, a flatness that one associates with high-minded things called "civic centers." And one imagines what might have been if Seattle had built the fair elsewhere and rehabbed the old Warren Avenue neighborhood where the Center sits into what could have been an incredibly appealing, affordable, multi-family urban neighborhood.
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