A city of memory

Seattle has undergone stunning changes. But what is sometimes more remarkable is what hasn't changed.
Crosscut archive image.

Franklin High School, 1917. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Seattle has undergone stunning changes. But what is sometimes more remarkable is what hasn't changed.

One thing about living in the place where you grew up is that the city often seems like a rain-soaked sponge. Everywhere I step, memories and associations ooze out. The landscape has become part of my mind, and vice versa. Even the smallest things carry a personal significance. It is one reason I find change so difficult, even painful, sometimes.

I complain a lot about how the city has evolved, but despite growth, upheaval and displacement, I am often struck with ways in which Seattle hasn't changed. Vacant lots have disappeared, housing is more expensive, some parts of the city have been radically over-hauled (South Lake Union, the light-railed portions of Martin Luther King Way), landfills are now parks, downtown sprouts a fungi of ugly high rises. But many parts of the city are stoic in the face of a century of radical transformation.

When I was 12 or so, my father loaned me a camera and I decided to document aspects of my neighborhood that I was certain would not be there when I grew up. I photographed overhead telephone pole and trolley wires because surely these ugly wires wouldn't withstand the tide of progress. As a child of the Century 21 Exposition era, I expected big things from the future — Space Needles, not power lines.

An old friend once told me he was in a science fiction writer's group back in the 1960s or '70s, and he brought in a short story he'd written to share with his pals. His tale took place in the 1980s or thereabouts. In one scene, his character stepped off a bus. My friend said the whole group protested and scoffed that buses wouldn't still be around in the 1980s! Having a character riding the bus in a futuristic story was just not credible. I often think of this as I ride a rattling electric trolley to the U. District.

Old technologies are reluctant to go away, and often find uses in new ages. Major parts of the region's transportation debate are about walking, biking and electric trains, not flying cars. Our police officers ride horses, and mountain bikes. Remember when wood stoves made a comeback? And now locally grown food and hand-made goods? All these things were familiar in turn-of-the-century Seattle. Sure, we wear Gore-tex and blab away on invisible mobile phone headsets, but the old world is still present, and sometimes, even cutting-edge policy (Car-free Sundays, anyone? Grazing mini-goats?).

I was particularly startled by the slowness of some change when I came across a memoir of my father's childhood in Seattle. My dad dictated some of his childhood memories late in life, after he had gone blind. My mother dutifully transcribed the tapes, put them in a binder on a shelf, and they've been forgotten ever since. I stumbled across them a couple of weeks ago, nearly two decades after my father's death.

My father, also Knute Berger, was born in 1915 at Mrs. Mote's rooming house, now gone, which stood on Capitol Hill near the corner of 12th and Pine. After a couple of other stops (Green Lake, east Queen Anne), the family moved into the house my grandfather (another Knute, by the way) built in the mid-1920s. My dad spent his boyhood prime in this small stucco home on Mt. Baker Boulevard, just off McClellen St.

I grew up just a few blocks away along that same street, across from Franklin High School and a series of Olmsted-designed parks that run from Lake Washington to Rainier Avenue where it collides with Martin Luther King Way. My dad and I attended the same grade school, John Muir, played in the same parks, had paper routes on the same streets. Three generations of my family lived there over half a century, and while my people have died or moved on, the neighborhood is still part of my weekly orbit 35 years after the last of us moved out.

What strikes me about my dad's memoir is how recognizable the neighborhood is. The parks are still there, still used, still full of beautiful old trees. My father mentions a chestnut tree he loved as a child, and I know just which one it is because I played there too and it's still there. My dad describes the row of houses that were on the block where his father built their home, and they are still standing too, some exactly as described. A few have been up-sized, but a Rip Van Winkle from the 1920s would know where he was.

Nearby, the Mt. Baker Community club, where both my father and I learned to "dance," is much the same. Adjacent, there is a small commercial stretch. In the '20s, there was a grocery store there (Kefauver's); in my youth there was the local drugstore (McNamara's). My dad used to rush over to scan the latest issue of Amazing Stories; I parked myself on the drug store stairs to read Superman comics. Now Mio Posto's pizza and a pilates studio keep up the tradition of commerce on the site.

The exterior of Franklin High School was restored in the late 1980s to its Beaux Arts glory. Some ugly additions put on in the 1950s and '60s were removed, so it actually looks better than it did in my time, more like my father's era. It is a solid landmark for the neighborhood and appears to defy time — it will reach its centennial in 2011.

I was interested to learn from his oral history that dad's paper route for the Shopping News partially overlapped with my old Seattle Post-Intelligencer route. We both delivered papers south of Franklin and John Muir in the Rainier Valley. Here's what my dad wrote about how he found it in the 1930s:

My paper route was such that I covered some of the better class of homes, and on down to those that were south of John Muir School toward Genesee St. where there were a fair number of quite poor people. One caught glimpses of poverty, drunkeness, the difficulties of old age, people who were irresponsible with their children, people who were mean, and people who were beautiful, and people who faced the Depression with great dignity and courage.

That description pretty much fits the area as it was when I delivered papers in the wedge between Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King Way thirty years after my dad had his route. There were drunks and poor people who couldn't afford to subscribe to a daily newspaper. There were houses toppling over from rot, tough, scary kids, weird smells, and wrecked cars. I encountered fascinating people too, like an elderly Russian couple who lived like pretty ghosts in a bungalow filled with brightly colored glass figurines.

The wealthy Mt. Baker homes are still up on the hill, and the valley still has the poor, immigrants, gangs, drugs, and housing projects, much as it was in my dad's and my day. Some parts of Rainier Valley are more upscale — Columbia City is gentrifying — but enclaves like Courtland near John Muir, supposedly home to Seattle's first crack house, still fit dad's general description, though the ethnic and racial mix has changed. Once mostly white, the valley now has some 60 different ethnic and cultural groups. The Italians, Irish, and Scandinavians have given way to Cambodians, Sudanese, and Mexicans.

Having the measuring stick of my father's memoirs and my own memories helps me learn more about where I live. I'm a product of both the changes and the constancy. The city of memory is moving as I move around it: Landmarks large and small hold my experience and trigger reflection — so too when they disappear. That jolts me into taking stock of the changes within. It helps me know and navigate my inner landscape. This is one of the ways that multi-generational residency in a place shapes both the environment and the people inhabiting it: The boundaries between the two begin to blur. Mossbacks are made, not born.

Were my father to come back to life, he could still visit his old barbershop, Mike's, across from where Sick's Stadium used to stand. He would see much that is familiar along the commercial clutter of Rainier Avenue — places where we bought lumber or firewood or tires, an Italian bakery. Lake Washington Boulevard would take him to many familiar places, and he could point out where he and his pals made Huck Finn rafts. I can take my granddaughter to the playground in Mt. Baker park and know that she is the fifth generation of Bergers to mess around there. That means nothing to her now, but one day it will.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.