Seattle's history: 'S' is for 'Fake'

Seattle embraces a fake history and fake future to create the city and heritage we love, even if it never happened.

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A Seattle celebration of New Year's.

Seattle embraces a fake history and fake future to create the city and heritage we love, even if it never happened.

Recently, The Stranger's perceptive art critic Jen Graves, wrote an interesting essay, "This Land is False Land," about how Seattle's landscape and history are constructions, and she makes an excellent point. I have tried to remind people over the years that far from being "Metronatural," Seattle's landscape has been massively terra-formed what with logging old growth, rerouting rivers, building canals, and washing away hillsides. 

A much-quoted figure is that the "re-grading" of our original hillsides and dumping the fill into Elliott Bay (which created a lot of new developable land in Belltown, the Waterfront, Pioneer Square, SoDo, the industrial area, and elsewhere) moved an amount of earth equal to the diggings of the Panama Canal. If nothing else, that stat, correct or not, gives a sense of the massive scale that our city-builders intended, and what it took to create a place where a modern city could sprout. But apart from the engineering involved, as Graves points out, a key ingredient in making it work is glossing over the details of landscape reformation and to sculpt what came after with a sense of mythology about its inevitability and livability. She writes, "Seattle's history is the history of making the artificial seem authentic, turning what's become merely normal into something 'natural.' "

So aside from one of the greenest cities in America being shaped by human forces that devastated the natural environment in ways we would not even consider (and indeed are trying to reverse) today, we have also worked hard to create a history that tells a happier story. 

One problem that faced 19th century landscape architects (like the Olmsteds) was that many newer American cities did not have the advantage of centuries of Western art and history to make urban environments as respectable and pleasing as ones in European cities. And, they were faced with a city-building style that treated nature and its beauties as the enemy. Industrialization, boom towns, and sprawl took their toll: they neither pleased Old World sensibilities rooted in classical art and architecture, and they were devastating to nature.

As one critic lamented in 1876 while critiquing the grounds of Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition (now Fairmount Park), "(I)t is a real cause of regret in this country — where ancient and abiding forms of beauty are lacking, where ugliness grows spontaneously under the footsteps of man, like those evil weeds unknown to the virgin prairie which spring up after cultivation..." One way to make it right was to fabricate classicism, and pull the weeds. This helped give Seattle its pretty Olmsted parks and boulevards, and some of its Beaux Arts architecture.

Repairing the landscape meant engaging in a kind of visual storytelling, evoking a past that never existed here. This is the kind of thing most easily seen on college campuses, like the University of Washington, where college Gothic architecture evokes a medieval European world that is now, a century on, part of our local history.

In addition to faking the past, Seattle has also avidly faked the future, most notably at Seattle Center, which is a collection of historic landmarks that memorialize a fantasy of a future that has never come to pass; Bubbleators, atomic cars, and "Space Gothic" arches are hardly common. Seattle has been working both ends of the fabrication equation, which is one reason we're a city still fighting Utopian battles between an idealized past and a magical dream of the world of tomorrow. 

It is hard for the present ever to live up to such active, embedded fantasies. The Space Needle is actual history (it was built nearly 50 years ago), yet it is also part of a future history that expressed our former dreams of what would come to be right about now. It mediates our past, present, and future, even if it has no bearing on reality: we never grew up to live in Space Needles like the Jetsons and no one is taking PanAm to the Moon, yet the Needle is utterly emblematic for us. It is our main tourist attraction, the platform from which we can best see what we've created, yet it is also compelling because it embodies a charming kind of unreality. Yes, it is possible to be nostalgic for the future.

Seattle is full of other fakes. Hollywood creates them: Sleepless in Seattle's affordable houseboats, for example. Then there's Alfred Bierstadt's preposterous, romantic 1870s landscape of Puget Sound at SAM, demonstrating that avid imaginations go back to our beginnings. And there are those fake smokestacks on the landmark City Light steam plant that houses Zymogenetics in South Lake Union, reproductions put there after the building was "restored." Smokeless smoke stacks: that is progress.

There are outfits in town that actively fake a past and future, most notably the Ivar's restaurant chain. They got a lot of publicity for a marketing campaign that relied on a hoax about underwater billboard advertising purportedly placed under Elliott Bay by its founder, folksinging chowderman Ivar Haglund. The local newspaper was tricked, then exposed the hoax. But Ivar's fake history was convincing (like all good hoaxes), and most of us wanted to believe that the restaurateur was clever enough to imagine that one day we'd be cruising Puget Sound in personal submarines looking at ads for Ivar's chowder. It absolutely sounded like something the real Ivar would have done, and we hoped he had.

The hoax angered some, so the chain shifted tactics last fall and created a new campaign to imagine the future leading up to their 2038  Centennial celebration: a floating restaurant, a social media iSpoon, a take-out clam bar in the new downtown tunnel, and seagull skywriting.

While Ivar's and clever ad agencies have understood the appeal of faking it by making up stuff that's too good not to be true (like Wild Rainiers), the creation of history has been happening at the most basic civic level for many decades. A walk from the Waterfront to Pioneer Square offers a couple of lessons.

From the 1980s, the area was connected by a streetcar line that ran the length of the waterfront to Pioneer Square. The old trains were fun to ride and gave you an old-timey feel, but the popular ride was shut down for the new Olympic Sculpture Park a few years ago.

But it wasn't historic transit. It was a tourist amenity, a "vintage" train ride conceived in the 1970s and backed by a Seattle city council member (George Benson) who loved trains. The streetcars, by the way, weren't even from Seattle or the Northwest or even North America, but were historic imports from Melbourne, Australia.

The line has disappeared, living on in abandoned tracks (some imported from Luxembourg) and trolley stops, like the old fashioned looking one on Main Street near Occidental Park, and in the Metro buses that run the waterfront ghost route and are painted in green and yellow like the old train cars, a visual reference that likely means nothing to anyone except the few locals who remember "Benson's Folly." It's a wonderful example of the city investing millions of dollars in fake history to sell an image of Seattle that would be carried around the world in snapshots and Flickr albums.

In Pioneer Square, there is Pioneer Park, the centerpiece of the neighborhood. Once treeless, it is now full of mature trees, hardly the open area it once was. It features a Tlingit totem pole, which is not the original one (that was stolen from the Indians, put up in the park, and later burned), but a replacement carved by a tribe that was not resident to Puget Sound, indeed a tribe that many local Salish Indians (and later pioneers) feared because of their raids. The park also has a bust of Chief Seattle, which was not the chief's real name. He was mostly famous for an eloquent speech he might not have made, at least not in the well-quoted words ascribed to him.

The park's famous turn-of-the-century pergola was destroyed by an errant truck in 2001, and thus the one standing there today is not the original, but a wonderful replica. It was not the defining fixture in the original park, but has become one, so important that putting up a hardy reproduction Pergola wasn't even a question. And while the park's main function is a place where tourists, walking tours, and street people mingle, its most famous function, the thing that put it on the map, was being home to what was once believed the most beautiful public bathroom in America. That facility has long been rendered moot.

A model of state-of-the-art public comfort in 1909, the bathroom is underneath the park, but it was sealed off in the 1940s as an obsolete, high-maintenance nuisance. Seattle has a real history of trouble with public toilets.

The park embodies the kind of historic blending Seattle loves: artful and wise native culture mixed with Victorian sophistication: the best of two cultures blending in our early years, forging a hybrid classical Northwest culture where none existed, and leading to the cosmopolitan city we imagine today.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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