Westlake: where Seattle goes to fight with itself

Mayor Mike McGinn came in as an insurgent populist. Now he's the latest in a line of mayors to find himself switching roles at Seattle's perennial battleground.

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A slumber-party sit-in prepares to meet the law.

Mayor Mike McGinn came in as an insurgent populist. Now he's the latest in a line of mayors to find himself switching roles at Seattle's perennial battleground.

The battle over the heart, soul, and wealth of America has morphed into a scuffle over a half-block patch of decorative pavement in downtown Seattle. Last week Occupy Seattle, a semi-spontaneous spin-off of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstrations against corporate power and economic inequality, occupied — where else? — Westlake Park, Seattle’s meager version of a central commons. The city’s leaders—mainly ex-activist Mayor Mike McGinn, also City Attorney Pete Holmes, a former police-misconduct watchdog — flaunted their solidarity with the demonstrators. Then they declared sternly that they still wouldn’t allow some citizens to appropriate — i.e. camp in — Westlake Park. C’mon down town to City Hall, said McGinn, lots of room, though he stopped short of offering free firewood and RV hookups. Since then, come 10 in the evening, the cops on bikes have massed and swarmed around Westlake to show the flag and arrest the odd recalcitrant protestor/camper.

However sincere the officials' sentiments may be, their insistence on clearing, or sorta clearing, the park was all that was needed to pique the occupiers’ spirits and harden their determination. In the second week of Occupy Westlake, the chanting of the national slogan “They got bailed out, we got sold out!” became less frequent, giving way to the universal standby “This is what democracy looks like!” and more locally focused refrains: “Westlake belongs to us!” “Hey hey, ho ho, SPD has got to go!” “Go home! Go home!” And, briefly on Thursday, “Pigs go home!” I waited to hear a variation on the chant that made me queasy about antiwar demonstrations in high school: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We don’t need Mayor McGinn!”

This focus on Westlake may all seem a like deflating diminution of vision and ambition for a movement that’s been hailed as a late-blooming American Spring. But from a Seattle historical view, it seems all to apt, even inevitable: For nearly half a century, Westlake has been Seattle’s battleground, the Flanders field where demos and plutos, people and wealth, populist and elite forces have fought for domination. And it’s where mayors get caught in the crossfire, though never quite in the same crossfire. At Westlake, each mayor meets his, well, Westlake.

Through much of the 20th century, planners and dreamers posited various central parks and concourses downtown, including a grand boulevard running along the Westlake Avenue diagonal to Lake Union. A 1964 downtown plan placed a pedestrian mall at Westlake’s (and the monorail’s) south terminus. In 1968 what’s now called the Downtown Seattle Association proposed to redevelop the ramshackle, diagonally sliced blocks thee with heftier retail and commercial edifices, plus a small park on the pie slice beside the then-Nordstrom store. The downtown businesspeople proposed something they would later declare anathema: to close Pine Street to traffic between the new park and the development.

Proposals and counterproposals flew over the next few years. In 1975 the city’s community development director, Paul Schell, invited the Seattle Art Museum, then occupying a temporary pavilion at Seattle Center, to move in, but the idea seemed too rich to the museum. The city held an international competition and selected the Canadian developer Mondev to build an imposing hotel-retail complex with parking garage and movie theaters.

This plan became a flash point in the 1977 mayoral race between Schell and TV newsman Charles Royer, who assailed it as “a private shopping mall to be financed in part with more tax money appropriated without a vote of the people,” and vowed to make it a more public space. Populism prevailed. Royer, a political neophyte, won the race. He offered a reconfigured Westlake plan, with the hotel out and the art museum, which was now flusher after its King Tut blockbuster, in. But SAM and Mondev quarreled, and both eventually fell by the wayside. The last plan left standing was all private and entirely unexciting: a retail mall and office tower. Business as usual. The bloom was off the upstart Royer administration.

Populism reared up again, now in opposition to Royer’s City Hall. UW architecture prof Victor Steinbrueck, who’d spearheaded the successful fight to save the Pike Place Market from redevelopment, led a new campaign for a real park rather than mall at Westlake. His group Citizens for Alternatives at Westlake sued. So did several Westlake property owners, seeking to block city condemnation of their shop sites. In 1981 the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the then-prevailing plan was indeed an unconstitutional public-private entanglement. Back to the drawing board.

In 1983 the Rouse Company, which had turned Baltimore’s waterfront, Boston’s Quincy Market, and other troubled urban sites into teeming retail and tourist enclaves, arrived to rescue this one. The following year, the last citizen lawsuit was settled, with the retail mall scaled back to allow a public plaza north of Pine Street, effectively extending the park space. In 1986 construction finally started, and Rouse’s Westlake Mall finally opened in 1988. Many winced at its design, as cheesy as feared. But the town collectively sighed in relief at being done with fighting over Westlake.

Except it wasn’t done fighting. One issue festered: Whether to close Pine Street, as even downtown’s business grandees had originally proposed, and patch together more semblance of a central park, or keep it open to cars, as they now insisted. Royer’s successor as mayor, banker-turned-city councilmember Norm Rice, wasn’t the first politician you would have expected to stand up to this establishment, whose faithful enabler he’d often been. But he did: In 1990, the bollards went up on Pine Street. Score one for populism.

But this being Westlake, the fight wasn’t over. Downtown turned moribund in the recessionary early 1990s, even as the crack cocaine epidemic hit Seattle like a rock and street drug peddling boomed. Frederick & Nelson, Seattle’s original grand department store, closed, along with I Magnin and several lesser shops. City Hall, developers, and retailers conceived a campaign that would eventually bring Pacific Place, its controversial parking garage, NikeTown, enough other flashy chain retailers to fill a suburban mall, the refurbished Paramount Theater, and today’s nightly hordes of downtown shoppers and revelers. The linchpin was for Nordstrom to move into Frederick & Nelson’s vacant pile. Only if you reopen Pine Street, said Nordstrom, backed by the DSA. Blackmail! hollered the park’s defenders. The Nordstroms and their allies sponsored a ballot initiative, offering Seattle a stark choice: open Pine Street or become Detroit. Citizens believed that threat and, in 1995, voted to reopen Pine Street. Who’s populist now?

For all the squabbles and delays, design compromises and disappointments, construction bungling, and on-off-on flipping of Pine Street’s traffic, Seattle got something it needed at Westlake: a public plaza, a political crossroads, a place for rallies, demonstrations, and the occasional prank or riot. Seattleites turned out in hordes in summer 1992 to cheer Bill Clinton as he surged toward the presidency, and in a more somber crowd in January 2001 to protest George W. Bush’s inauguration.

In between, Westlake’s civic status precipitated one heartbreaking coda to the Pine Street saga. On Labor Day, 1993, an inspired young Job Corps welder-turned-artist named Jason Sprinkle, a.k.a. Subculture Joe, led a team of fellow creative populists in a dazzling prank: In a lightning raid, they shackled the Seattle Art Museum’s Hammering Man with an impeccably crafted nine-foot steel ball and chain. SAM’s director snootily called them “the fabricators of the attachment.” The Fabricators gleefully adopted that moniker and executed more pointed statements in welded Cor-ten. The site for these unpermitted, but increasingly tolerated and even welcomed guerilla installations: Westlake Park, of course. The Fabricators most remarkable follow-up was The Heart of Seattle, a 13-foot anatomically realistic steel heart with a 12-foot knife swinging/slicing through it. Among its intents was to denounce Pine Street’s then-proposed reopening as a severing of the civic heart.

But such a febrile moment couldn’t last: Monumental-scale guerilla art is a hard career to sustain unless you trade your subcultural integrity for grants and patronage, and Subculture Joe couldn't manage that. In July 1996, burned out and broken-hearted, he bade that career adieu with what he saw as a final installation: He abandoned his graffiti-scrawled utility truck with the pierced heart aboard at Seattle’s heart — Westlake — and punctured the tires and walked away. This farewell artwork bombed in the worst way: Police suspected a bomb and cleared the area for blocks around, throwing downtown into gridlock and tens of thousands of drivers into a rage. Jason Sprinkle languished in jail for six weeks, at first without his meds. Once the media glare faded, prosecutors dropped the absurd proto-War on Terror charge of “threatening with an explosive device” and released him, but his mental condition never recovered. Nine years later, late at night with no one watching, he was struck by a train in Mississippi. He’d left his heart at Westlake.

This unexceptional, undersized plaza is Seattle’s Bermuda Triangle: Public careers (even guerilla artists’) go in and come out upside down. An upstart mayor wins election campaigning against commercial development there and then builds that development. An establishment mayor defies the establishment there. And now another rookie, Mike McGinn, an even more insurgent candidate than Royer was, has entered the triangle.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.