The myth of the 'jerkwater town'

Seattle was already a modernizing city before its Century 21 fair.
Crosscut archive image.

This promo for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair envisioned a red Space Needle.

Seattle was already a modernizing city before its Century 21 fair.

In 1962, The Seattle Times published a series of articles and cartoons about the city in the year 2000. In one of them, Seattle is portrayed as a dense, sprawling megalopolis of monorails, freeways, heliports, spacecraft dealers, and high rises. A small human figure in the foreground turns to another and says, "I remember back when this was just a little jerkwater town of a half-a-million!"

Many of us can wax nostalgic for that "jerkwater town," the city of Ivar, J.P. Patches, and the Gold Cup hydroplane races. But while bits of old Seattle still persist in neighborhood enclaves and at the Stan Sayres pits in the Brigadoon-days of summer when Seafair appears, that Seattle is almost as stuffed and stored away as the city's iconic 1950s and '60s-era celebrity, Bobo the gorilla. And while that Seattle was, and is, real to a point, it has never been the whole story.

Proof of that was the world's fair itself. That it happened was something of a civic miracle; that it was successful was truly shocking, especially in retrospect. Most of the American fairs that followed in the quarter century after were disappointments. They either lost money, failed to boost image, left little real urban legacy, or were tinged with scandal, or all of the above (see New Orleans '84).

It's interesting that arguably three of the most successful post-WWII fairs in North America were in the Pacific Northwest in successive decades (Seattle '62, Spokane '74, and Vancouver '86). They occurred in relatively young, emerging Cascadian cities that were able to achieve a kind of civic unity around the fair's purpose: setting their cities up for the next generation of development. Seattle's produced Seattle Center, Vancouver's stimulated an urban development boom, and Spokane's was an environmental restoration project that renewed the landmark Spokane River and Falls and also set up the city for a post-railroad yard future.

Still, a truly "jerkwater" town is unlikely to have ever hosted a fair in the first place. And while the fair is a key touchstone, or a turning point, in the city's history, Seattle before the fair had a lot going for it beyond civic moxie.

The Seattle of 1962 was already a city dedicated to creating a high-tech future, and making money doing it. Boeing is the chief example here. If Seattle was a company town, it was a town whose company was committed to aerospace and defense work that put it on technology's cutting edge and sopped up every available federal dollar to do so. Before the fair, Boeing had introduced commercial jet travel, was building a new generation of jets, was involved in Saturn rockets and Minuteman missiles, and was designing super sonic aircraft.

A major Boeing program of the era, now largely forgotten, was the Dyna-Soar. This was an Air Force program to create a reusable space craft. It looked very much like, and was a precursor, of the Space Shuttle (one of its assigned test pilots was Neil Armstrong). NASA was shooting the first astronauts into space; Boeing was already working to make space an everyday destination. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1958 called the Dyna-Soar "truly...the first step to the stars for man."

Boeing was a late booster of the fair. Boss Bill Allen had attended the New York world's fair in 1939-40 and hated it. Boeing sponsored the Spacearium and used the fair to recruit engineers. Still, while the fair promoted a speculative Space Age, the city's major employer was actively engaged, long before the fair, in making that age a reality. While mythical logger Paul Bunyan made his appearance on the "world's biggest birthday cake" at the fair's Food Circus, the era of sawmill Seattle was already past.

And it is often said that the fair was the birth of "the arts" in Seattle. It's true that Seattle Center made homes for and expanded facilities for the opera, symphony, theater, ballet and art museum. However, long before the fair the city had a thriving fine arts scene that was distinctly modern. The fair itself showcased indigenous talent.

One example: It was in 1953 that LIFE magazine featured the Northwest "mystic" abstract artist Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. These painters were already nationally known by '62 and a permanent Tobey museum was proposed for the fair.

In terms of architecture, Seattle also had distinctly modern and nationally impactful architects who not only helped to design a great fair, but had influence before and beyond it. John Graham, Jr. whose firm did the Space Needle was already well known for having come up with the best prototype of the modern auto-centric mall in Northgate, an idea that was Seattle's perhaps the city's biggest contribution to urban development. Historian Murray Morgan credited Graham with having "touched off the regional shopping center pandemic in the United States."

Minoru Yamasaki, born and trained in Seattle, was already influential before he did his famous Federal Science Pavilion at the fair (a commission that also led to his being hired to do the World Trade Center's twin towers). His mid-1950s airport design in St. Louis set the pattern for jet-age terminals everywhere, and that project was a major reason he caught the attention of Seattle's jet-era fair planners.

In addition, while the fair emerged in an era when suburbanization was a powerful dynamic, it also was an attempt to "renew" the city by adding a cultural center and galvanizing development. As a result, before the fair opened, Seattle was looking at major downtown improvements. A flurry of modern construction occurred before the fair, from offices high-rises like the Logan and Norton buildings in the late 1950s, to the new downtown library and municipal building.

In 1961, the Central Business Association outlined a scheme for mass transit, a ring highway system, more parking garages, making downtown more pedestrian friendly (malls like Westlake, street plantings, more street-level open space, sky bridges), and building up (more high rises). They also recognized the appeal of the Pike Place Market and parts of Pioneer Square as preserving the "atmosphere of Old Seattle." Seattle's leaders did not see the city only as a blank slate of pure potential, but as complex city in need of renewal. Urban renewal "will determine whether we allow our city to become run down at the heels or remains a vital city," said new mayor Gordon Clinton in 1956. Urban renewal was a source of federal funds, but also a way to complete the job of modernizing a city mature enough to need modernizing.

One of the most prescient observers of the period was University of Washington professor and urban planner Myer Wolfe, who warned that Seattle was both getting denser and sprawling and would, by the year 2000, be like "little Los Angeles." He argued for better region-wide planning. When asked for an idea of a post-fair program, Wolfe suggested that "Seattle Ugly" tours should be organized "to disprove the thesis the West doesn't have slums or blight." Having been dazzled by future possibilities, he thought Seattle also needed to have its eyes opened to the realities on the ground.

Seattle wasn't all boosterism. There were skeptics, urbanists, planners, and visionaries who had a sophisticated sense of how the city ought to grow, and the plans to do it right. Many of them would fit in with the theories of "smart growth" urbanists of today, not to mention Jane Jacobs revivalists. New York's powerbroker Robert Moses even expressed envy at Seattle's process. While Forward Thrust is remembered for its post-fair ballot measures, Jim Ellis had been speaking publicly about the need for regional governance reform and environmental clean-up since the early 1950s, before the fair was conceived.

Seattle might have been a modest provincial city with little national profile, but it was also a hub of energy, creativity, and innovation in the post-war, pre-fair period. The fair itself was a signal that the city wasn't a "jerkwater" town, but became a showcase and catalyst for pre-existing accomplishments and talent, as well as a projection of what that might amount to over the next generation. Century 21 wasn't the birth of modern Seattle, but a stage to showcase a modern city that wanted a higher profile.

(Note: Some of the ideas in this story were taken from a Next50 lecture, "From Bobo to the Bubbleator: The social and cultural context of Century 21," presented by the author on June 5th, 2012 in a series put on by Historic Seattle and Docomomo-WeWa.)




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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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