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Seattle soul-searching

Urban soul is like porn, you know when you see it. It's hard to define, hard to create, impossible to codify. Yet it exists.
Pike Place Market

Pike Place Market David Herrera/Flickr

A scene at Ballard's popular Sunday farmers market.

A scene at Ballard's popular Sunday farmers market. Rafaj/Flickr

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.

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.

The new waterfront is also a concern: As the funk on the front will struggle to survive the Viaduct/tunnel/Seawall years, what can be done to keep the little guys alive? Businesses there are "livid" over the seawall construction schedule. How do you eventually attract more small shops and kiosks that bring the vital, grassroots essence that seems so necessary to urban soulfulness.

It's a concern in a city too often focused on how to incentivize the big and inevitable instead of planting the small, entrepreneurial, and unexpected, the things you cannot permit or plan. Granted, food trucks and pea patches are good things. But we need more stuff that works but that's one of a kind, that goes a bit off-grid but someday gets grandfathered in (see our houseboat communities) as part of "who we are."

Soulfulness involves history and time, but also commerce, art and the all-embrace of a marketplace for everyone. Such places, like the Market, are often jumbled, complicated, ugly and functional, like a used Filson shirt with stains on it. The urban fabric needs more of that.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Emmett Watson warned you
to avoid this trap,
but you did succumb.
Now you have the city
you think you wanted.
Older and wiser and
less than you were,
reality returns your
thoughts to days gone by.
With each passing year,
ideas of old lore set sail
and in their place are
open young minds not
cloistered by the past.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/

A good read, inspiration for similar poems, and a source of amusement whenever Jeramiah, despite his subtitle— A.K.A. THE BOOK OF LAMENTATIONS: A BITTERLY NOSTALGIC LOOK AT A CITY IN THE PROCESS OF GOING EXTINCT protests an accusation of being "judgmental."

In short, few answers to Mossback's lament are to be found in the usual source of our inspiration and refugees.

afreeman

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Good post Mossback. I hope otherwise sterile places like SLU and Bellevue (Boxview?) can cultivate the diverse urban flavors which make places like Columbia City and Pike Place so rich.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Too bad we can't loan our neo-urbanists to Bellevue.

ddmiller

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

We used to talk about neighborhoods evolving, but this has become more difficult with the large scale of projects, since their character is literally set in concrete. Every place evolves a building at a time, but when there are fewer bigger buildings, this evolution is less "granular" and the buildings themselves are far more like giant erratic boulders that have been left behind by the events of an age. What will people think 30 years from now about the age of Amazons and Vulcans?

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Sears Roebuck.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 6:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Soul? Stop building codes from being so horribly boring, stultifying and negative. Most of what we adore from the past could not be built today.

I also realize that a many storied tower has life in a different way than in the past, but please. We've been homogenized by our own quest for code perfection, which is actually code hell.

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 11:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Well spoken.

Djinn

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks D.

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

No possibilities for soul in the current popular dense designs. All they do is block light and blight the landscape. Maybe they're great inside the individual pods, but I don't intend to enter one so I'll never know. I've been thinking a great photographic project would be to place photos of these buildings, and those horrendous 4-pack or 8-pack "townhomes" right next to pictures of the jails/prisons they most closely resemble. Maybe that would be entertaining. But to speak of soulfulness and what's happening to Seattle in the same breath is sacrilege. As the writer said, that which we see as soulful has nothing of what they're building these days. I've been in SLU at lunch time and would not choose to go there and mingle in those crowds. I've been there after 5 and it's all closed up--or at least everything I passed was. UGH! No soul there.

mspat

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:26 p.m. Inappropriate

They could park those dinky $24/hour rental cars in those tight little townhouse garages easily. A bonus round for horrible uban lifestyle.

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Fine. Mention Jeff Speck "Walkable City" then follow with zero perspective on how to make Seattle walkable other than what to buy where, the commercial perspective typical of Seattlers who by all appearances don't understand how safe crosswalks are built nor convenient transit arranged nor bicycling around town done and who can't see the traffic nightmare emerging with all the street reconfigurations associated with the deep bore tunnel travesty. And the seawall plan as proposed will fail, historic buildings will be razed, the Underground lost. Seattle has a generally abhorant culture.

Wells

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 12:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow. This certainly must be the end of the world as we know it. I guess I'll just go get a Dick's Special, fries, and a small coke.

gabowker

Posted Wed, Dec 5, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

The bore tunnel will destabilize building foundations above and nearby. Many historic and modern buildings will soon develop unrepairable cracks along their facades thus forcing their demolishment. Many buildings won't show such wear but in a major earthquake those whose structural integrity is compromised could collapse. Odds are much of The Underground will be lost.

Meanwhile, up to 20,000 cars AND 100's of big rig trucks will be diverted from 'commercial' Elliott/Western (SR99 access in Lower Belltown) along the steep hillclimb of Mercer Place through high-density 'residential' Queen Anne (new SR99 access) and further to I-5 thus making the Mercer Mess worse.

The Alaskan Way boulevard design is for 13 stoplights between King and Pike streets where daily traffic is expected to triple from 12,000 to 36,000. Those 13 stoplights will jam traffic to a halt, intimidate pedestrians in crosswalks and lead to a high accident rate, including fatalities.

The proposed cheap & dirty semi-seawall of cast concrete pilings will be damaged in a major earthquake and set up new water flows below that further degrades bore tunnel integrity. The proposed 'stabilization' of waterfront soils will not prevent damage.

The current FEIS Cut/cover tunnel proposal (stacked 6-lanes) makes the strongest seawall, the most stabilized waterfront soils, the best utility relocation, displaces the least traffic onto surface streets. Seattle environmentalists are simply too stupid to realize leaders are lying. Even the habitat restoration proposed is less ideal with the bore tunnel travesty. Not the end of the world, but possibly the end of Seattle and State of Washington villianous corruption.
Boycott Ivar's.

Wells

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 11:29 p.m. Inappropriate

.... ditto, ditto, ditto: ... who can't see the traffic nightmare emerging with all the street reconfigurations associated with the deep bore tunnel travesty. And the seawall plan as proposed will fail, historic buildings will be razed, the Underground lost. Seattle has a generally abhorant culture

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 8:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Good discussion on soul. Since I have a 37 year old business in a neighborhood with lots, the Pike Place Market, and a much newer shop in a neighborhood with little SLU (notice I did not say none because there are pockets. In fact my shop is named Soul Wine). There is little said about those that can most directly affect the soul of the neighborhood, the developers, in the case of SLU, but also landlords in general. There are those like Mike Malone and Ted Schroth on Capitol hill that make a conscious effort to make it possible for unique, local businesses to thrive in their spaces. Many others simply don't care. I could not be in my (privately owned) building if the owner had wanted to "maximize" his earnings and put a corporate store or business. Instead our building (including Serious Pie and Serious Biscuit, with which I am not involved, is open from early morning to late in the evening (check it out mspat).

Soul is a complex thing and now having seen both ends of the spectrum I will always opt for soul. But it doesn't come fast and it doesn't come easy and it really can't be created. Ultimately it comes not from the buildings but the people that make up.

Mteer

mteer

Posted Thu, Dec 6, 7:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I've been spending a lot of time in Portland in the past few years. A good friend is an Oregon native and a former city planner. He has made me aware of the differences between Portland and Seattle to a degree that I wouldn't have otherwise noticed so quickly, if at all.

Not to join the Portland worshippers. They do a lot of things wrong. Tragically, Seattle seems to want to import only their mistakes, like fixed rail transit, anti-automobile radicalism, fake environmentalism, outrageous kowtowing to 20-something bicyclists, disregard for economic sustainability, and the celebration of dereliction on the streets.

What Seattle lacks is Portland's respect for its architectural heritage, and for the integrity of its neighborhoods. Who hit Seattle's architects with the ugly stick, anyway? Their buildings are eyesores with all the appeal and authenticity of a 1984 Cadillac Cimarron. What made arrogant, insufferable, smug, aggressively stupid jerks like Michael McGinn, Tim Burgess, Mike O'Brien, and the rest of the city's thoroughly corrupt city council so despise Seattle's neighborhoods?

What's really remarkable is that they even hate downtown! Just walk around. Compared with Portland's downtown, Seattle's downtown has no soul at all. Portland has a major problem with rampant dirtbaggery on its streets, but its downtown and nearby districts remain head, shoulders, kneecaps, and toenails more attractive than Seattle's sterile canyons. All Portland needs is a weekend sweep with some water cannons, and they'll be pretty much okay. Seattle, on the other hand, has cast its ugliness in steel, too much glass, and concrete, not to be undone in our lifetimes, or those of our children or grandchildren.

Soon enough, their "vision" will be completed on the waterfront, later to be mocked and then studied as a world-class example of a once-promising city's suicide by design. An uneducared, lottery-winning accidental software billionaire e-Clampett's money can buy plenty of weak people and strong materials, but it cannot purchase class, heart, soul, or artistic coherence. If you doubt me, just look at his vacant sci-fi palace, for God's sakes. No Branson, Missouri temple to one of yesterday's manufactured country music stars has anything on Paul Allen's laughably crass "Experiece Music Project," or his forthcoming South Lake Union viewscreen.

I look around Seattle, and see a city disrespected to the point of apparent hatred by the pathetics who run it. As a cityspace, the only redeeming features are natural: Lake Washington, Puget Sound, the Cascade and Olympic mountains in the distance, Lake Union. But even those are being auctioned, one by one, to the highest bidders.

It's sad and worrisome to think of what will become of our city in the next 50 years. It will have all the charm and mystery of a shopping mall -- financed by hollow-brained tycoons; built by well-connected developers; CAD-CAM drafted by "educated," "progressive." frightened architects who have no feel or regard for design; and blessed by politicians who never had any integrity to sell. To those who pretend to be flummoxed by how the New York bankers and Red State oil barons can be so selfish and morally insensitive, I suggest looking closer to home at Seattle's developers and the usual architects and other toadies and hangers-on who suckle at their teats. Take a good, long, fearless look at the ugliness they are inflicting on the next generations -- this in return for custom bicycles, shopping sprees at Whole Foods, Montessori schools for their privileged children, and all the iPods and Kindles they can break.

Is it worth it? What are we worth if we can be bought this cheap?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Dec 11, 10:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you.

Posted Mon, Dec 10, 1:52 a.m. Inappropriate

In West Seattle, which has several, very vibrant, walkable shopping districts, we're facing Ballardization. A 340-unit apartment building is proposed for the old Huling Brothers block at Alaska and Fauntleroy, one of the major gateways into West Seattle. How anyone thinks adding 340 households and their cars to that corner can enhance a neighborhood, I don't know. Maybe the current administration thinks it'll be completely populated by bike riders. But if this is the City's revenge for Greg Nickels, that's just mean.

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