There's more to SLU than meets the eye

A UW professor and her students study the boom town block-by-block. Here's what they learned.
The page for the South Lake Union urban history project (April 2013). To view the project, go to: http://faculty.washington.edu/momara/omeka/

The page for the South Lake Union urban history project (April 2013). To view the project, go to: http://faculty.washington.edu/momara/omeka/

Dr. Margaret O'Mara

Dr. Margaret O'Mara

Store on Westlake: part of the neighborhood's historic building stock

Store on Westlake: part of the neighborhood's historic building stock Chris Moore

Stories about place are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris. — Michel de Certeau`   

In most undergraduate history classes, students take tests and write a paper or two. But University of Washington history professor Dr. Margaret O’Mara decided to tap into her students’ curiosity and their relationship with the web.

To bring urban history to life, Dr. O’Mara created an innovative project that focused on Seattle’s dynamic South Lake Union neighborhood. Each student was assigned a city block and used close observation, questioning, photography, and the study of public documents, including news articles, photographs and maps to create an online portfolio of its micro-history.

Many think of South Lake Union pre-Amazon and Vulcan as a place to drive-through to get somewhere else, but her students discovered a many-layered history that included Duwamish and other Native settlements, pioneer David Denny’s 1853 land claim and Bill Boeing’s first airplane shop.

Dr. O’Mara, a specialist in American urban and political history at the UW, has also taught at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania. Her acclaimed book Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, 2005), probed the relationship between metropolitan development, higher education, and the Cold War state in shaping the geography of the high-tech economy. Dr. O’Mara’s current research pursues these themes on a transnational scale, considering economic globalization and urban change.  She is currently writing a book that explores the high tech landscape from the 1970s to the present, including the evolution of South Lake Union.

Robin Lindley:  How did the South Lake Union project fit into your course on urban history of the United States?

Dr. Margaret O’Mara: Whenever I teach urban history, I like to have a story element about the place my students are living.  When I was in Philadelphia, I’d talk about Philadelphia.  In the Bay Area at Stanford, it was funny because they didn’t think of Palo Alto as urban, but of course it’s the ultimate post-industrial city in Silicon Valley.      

Integrating examples from places that are very familiar, very ordinary, where people are moving every single day, makes the history much more real and makes students look at their surroundings with more awareness. Urban history becomes this vehicle for history to come alive for students.

The South Lake Union project was inspired by that desire to get students to look critically at something familiar and ask questions about it.  History is all about challenging assumptions about why things got the way they are.              

What did the project involve?

South Lake Union is American history in microcosm.  Almost everything I talked about in class [on the evolution of cities], you could see played out in South Lake Union. Urban history is intellectual history as well, with ideas about planning and what cities could and should be that are so reflective of society.  

Future historians will look at the world of 2013 and the conversation on urban planning, sustainability, green building and all of the things that we’re hot on right now, and that’s a window into our soul.  Instead of asking what we wanted to be and what was done wrong, they’ll also be [asking] were we successful in this or not and how did we measure success?  Was our benchmark of success progress? Was this an advance?  Was it innovative, and if it was innovative was it a good innovation or one we look at cockeyed?      

The project must expose the hidden history of South Lake Union and forgotten people who resided and worked there before it became an expensive high-tech ghetto. 

Really South Lake Union and all of the neighborhoods around it are vivid examples of how environmental history and social, cultural and political history intersect. Human-driven [decisions] graphically altered the landscape, turning marsh into landfill and altering the coastline, from the Denny Regrade to the smaller regrade to the building of I-5. These are both the causes and the reflections of broader economic, social and political history.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 22, 6:13 a.m. Inappropriate

"Even when spread out, we still need to connect. In the last 30 years, as technology became more ubiquitous, we could all have lived conceivably in a cabin in Montana if we had a broadband connection. But could you do all the work you need to do without any human contact?"
--
A thousand times yes! Many of us, all social beings and not hermits or misanthropes by any means, have chosen small-town or rural living with hardly a backward look. It's hardly "without human contact." There's just less of it. The alternative to A is not necessarily Z. It might be R or S. The "urbanist" cult can stick their "vibrant" city life where the sun doesn't shine. Give me the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees, peace and quiet, and blessed solitude.

I lived and/or worked in or near South Lake Union for the better part of my life, so I was on street-by-street, building-by-building terms with the entire neighborhood. What has happened there perhaps was inevitable. For me personally, it might as well be Chernobyl or Fukushima, for all the attraction it holds now. Those who purport to flourish in such an environment are welcome to it.

ivan

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 1:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Ivan, I agree. SLU is ugly. I can't see that they've left anything natural.

Posted Mon, Apr 22, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

There USED TO BE more to SLU than meets the eye. Now all the diversity and sense of place has been replaced by tenements in the making, cold, hard materials, and hordes of people who apparently don't mind living like that. I'm with Ivan. There's nothing left in SLU to interest or entice me.

mspat

Posted Mon, Apr 22, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree SLU used to be a great neighborhood -- lots of great shops, small businesses, reasonably priced apartments and it was easily accessible. No matter how new and sleek Paul Allen wants it, it will always have the Mercer Mess.

Norge

Posted Mon, Apr 22, 3:18 p.m. Inappropriate

"Many think of South Lake Union pre-Amazon and Vulcan as a place to drive-through to get somewhere else" is the comment I heard from the Vulcan representative at the Town Hall forum last week.

I never thought of SLU as like that. I used to come down to SLU for furniture, house fittings, to eat, to club and for events at the Cascade CC. Oh yeah -- it used to be part of the Cascade, but now has nothing that one could consider a legitimate community council.

Now I HAVE to come down here for work and leave as fast as I can. Some decent lunch places to be had, though.

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 4:31 p.m. Inappropriate

There used to be a great electronics surplus store at Valley and Fairview. I can't remember its name, but no trip to Seattle was complete without a stop there.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Apr 22, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

RealChange has the story on this one:

http://realchangenews.org/index.php/site/archives/7702

Posted Mon, Apr 22, 10:05 p.m. Inappropriate

As much as I hate to see the Lake Union area transition, it was inevitable. I can only hope that this means less sprawl into adjacent cities. When I moved to Seattle almost 30 years ago, Issaquah, Auburn and Enumclaw were quiet and charming places to visit away from the city. These communities have suffered far worse than the potential loss of a "landmark" garage. We are a big city, but not nearly as densely populated as so many others. Let's work to keep Seattle viable and pleasant to live in, and work to preserve what's left of the outlying communities.

Posted Wed, Apr 24, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

" Let's work to keep Seattle viable and pleasant to live in, and work to preserve what's left of the outlying communities."

Party lines are often full of contradictions the public is encouraged to overlook. The Raging Moderate party's no exception? Think: "viable for whom?" "pleasant for whom?" And "preserved from whom for whom"?

afreeman

Posted Tue, Apr 23, 12:24 p.m. Inappropriate

I am not one of those who think Seattle could have thrived on its mossy neighborhoods full of people who spend their sales tax money in Bellevue, Northgate or Southcenter. Seattle faced a choice and it did not have a lot of choices to pick from. It either had to establish a critical mass of affluent residents and shoppers in its core (and shopping opportunities to rival the suburban malls) or it would have been just another broken city with a burnt out, rat infested, unsafe center, which is exactly what SLU was turning into. I worked there for close to 20 years. There are some things about it I really miss. But I think Seattle made the right choice. I am looking forward to the study.

Posted Wed, Apr 24, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I've worked in Cascade/SLU for more than 20 years. In the early 90s it was a depressing ghost town: virtually no restaurants or shops, no grocery stores, lots of abandoned buildings, lots of street people and absolutely no reason to hang around. Everybody headed home right after work.

It may not be pretty, but today there are a lot of great bars and restaurants. You can buy some groceries, meet with friends, go out to lunch (including the awesome food trucks) and feel safe on the streets.

I think there's some false nostalgia going on here, memories of a place that hasn't existed for at least two decades.

bigyaz

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »