Seattle soul-searching

Urban soul is like porn, you know when you see it. It's hard to define, hard to create, impossible to codify. Yet it exists.
Crosscut archive image.

A scene at Ballard's popular Sunday farmers market.

Urban soul is like porn, you know when you see it. It's hard to define, hard to create, impossible to codify. Yet it exists.

Cities don't have single "souls," but they can be more or less soulful. Some have said that the city's soul resides in its diverse neighborhoods. Urban soul is often built around commerce and a kind of egalitarian chaos that can ensue when mixtures of people come together. The Pike Place Market is an example: shopkeepers, farmers, butchers, artists, tourists, local shoppers, chefs, pensioners, flower sellers, newsies, hustlers, buskers, the homeless. It is partly by design: a district managed to nurture a unique and diverse downtown neighborhood. But it is also unexpected, full of strange passageways, hidden gems, irregularities that make it a consistently intriguing place. I've wandered there much of my life and still don't know it.

Recently on KUOW, Steve Scher interviewed urbanist Jeff Speck, author of a new book, Walkable City, on walkability and how it works. The secret is shops at the street level, lots of them. That's what brings feet and eyeballs to the streets, and you can see that in action in shopping districts like Broadway, on Pike/Pine, Columbia City, California Ave., Pioneer Square, Chinatown, the U-District, the line of food vendors between CenturyLink and Safeco, a revived Ballard. But what works is not always what planners plan; the best places have a history, an un-bottled quality, a spark that is hard to codify.

He talked with Scher about Pike Place and the Market: "Pike Place is a mess. I mean, it does not look like a European plaza, it is not beautifully shaped by, you know, classically decorated buildings. It's as much a parking lot as it is a street or a plaza and it functions wonderfully because of the concatenation of cars, and people and crowds and the way everything mixes together there.... If you were to look at a typical list of... what pedestrian advocates fight is not Pike Place because it is not textbook beautiful or accessible."

It's successful, and unique. It's not entirely self-built — the public has saved it, shaped it, private enterprise and social services have come together to preserve and advance it. It's managed, but not entirely manageable. And it was not always self-evidently soulful. In the early 1970s when the city planned to level the market for office towers and a 4,000-car parking garage, many of the market's own tenants supported the urban renewal plan. Partly, it was a payday for property owners and a chance to reap the benefit of massive federal investment via urban renewal funds. Partly, there was a conviction that Seattle could have its soul and be free of Skid Road blight. It's hard to imagine now, but when the vote to save the market took place in 1971, it was unclear how the vote would go. The force was with the urban calls for taller, denser, newer. Both daily newspapers backed the bulldozers. The market's victory shook the establishment, it changed the way people saw Seattle. Blank-slate Seattle was dealt a blow.

One question kicking around is this: How to cultivate soul in our newer neighborhoods? It came up at the City Club neighborhood panel in November, where panelists scoffed at the idea that South Lake Union had one. Part of the argument goes that Seattle blew the chance to make SLU livable when it passed on the Commons, so now we have to be satisfied with the Vulcans and other developers who are turning a nothing place into a vibrant something. The trolley, the Mercer fix, the new park, the Whole Foods: all signs of thriving urban life in a neighb being homesteaded by lanyard-draped Amazonians. Critics of the proposed upzone in SLU are concerned with the views, the shadowing, the scale of steroidal blocks of high-rises, the lack of real public benefit in unaffordable "affordable" housing in exchange for heights. Much of the new development seems sterile, driven by corporate and institutional agendas. In places, it seems more like downtown Bellevue than a classic Seattle enclave. And even downtown Bellevue is trying to be less Bellevue, more livable. Affordability is a problem there, too.

But there is history in South Lake Union. Historic landmarks like the Troy Laundry and Seattle Times buildings, old row houses, cool row bungalows, old warehouses. Some of these are being worked into new projects (the Vulcan/Green Lab Stack House/Supply Laundry experiment is one example). There is the adaptive reuse of the Naval Armory for the new MOHAI and the Center for Wooden Boats. Can the neighborhood tap its own history to enrich was the developers are doing?

Lake Union itself is rich with heritage, to say the least, from Native American use to shipyards to Gasworks. My father lived near its shores in the 1920s and remembered his father rowing them across the lake to chat with the Boeing workers who were building wooden planes on the lakeshore. And before SLU shoreline gave way to clusters of waterfront eateries during the 1980s boom in young urban professionals (Kathryn Robinson of Seattle Weekly once infamously referred to the area as the "Herpes Triangle"), there were not only boat works and docks but the Pike Place Market-like thrift complex of St. Vincent DePaul.

St. Vinnie's was set up like an outdoor village street lined with little stalls organized by stuff: There was a stall for kitchen utensils, clothes, toys, tools. At the water's edge, the path brought you to a landfill area that jutted into the lake, half submerged in places. It was a graveyard of old ceramic sinks and bathtubs, some with feet, and toilets that had paid their dues many times over. They sat out in the rain and gloom, waiting for buyers who never seemed to come, turning green.

Seattle of that era was less known for national brands than it was for second-hand emporia from First Avenue pawn shops to Army surplus stores. Places like the Market and South Lake Union were the fodder of the Whitmanesque Beat poets who passed through town and equipped themselves for stints building their working-class cred in the forests, fire lookouts, and ships of the Pacific Northwest. Here's a bit from a Gary Snyder poem called "Bubbs Creek Haircut" about a visit he and Allen Ginsberg made in the 1950s:

Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul,
   Salvation Army up the coast
for mackinaws and boots and heavy socks
--Seattle has the best for logger gear
once found a pair of good tricouni boots
at the under-the-public-market store,
Mark Tobey's scene,
torn down I hear--
and Filson jacket with birdblood stain.

A.G. and me got winter clothes for almost nothing
at Lake Union, telling the old gal
we was on our way
to work the winter out up in B.C.

Tricouni boots are loggers' hobnails. Getting winter clothes at Lake Union almost certainly means St. Vinnies. And the Market, thankfully, did not get torn down then or later or now.

The Seattle of that era is mostly gone, but soulful enclaves can survive and morph; they don't stay the same, that is part of what makes them work. They are dynamic. Even if they can't be created by formula, they can be cared for and encouraged, supported, loved.

But how can it then emerge from new projects? The track record is sobering.

As important a civic creation as Seattle Center is, it still lacks a certain soulfulness save for the way it is used during Bumbershoot, Folklife, or the fountain in times of public grief. The Gothic Arches of the Science Center, the Needle catching sun as is emerges from mist: these can provide soul-stirring moments. The arts facilities are important to Seattle's overall cultural scene. But it also often has a coldness, a flatness that one associates with high-minded things called "civic centers." And one imagines what might have been if Seattle had built the fair elsewhere and rehabbed the old Warren Avenue neighborhood where the Center sits into what could have been an incredibly appealing, affordable, multi-family urban neighborhood.

The new waterfront is also a concern: As the funk on the front will struggle to survive the Viaduct/tunnel/Seawall years, what can be done to keep the little guys alive? Businesses there are "livid" over the seawall construction schedule. How do you eventually attract more small shops and kiosks that bring the vital, grassroots essence that seems so necessary to urban soulfulness.

It's a concern in a city too often focused on how to incentivize the big and inevitable instead of planting the small, entrepreneurial, and unexpected, the things you cannot permit or plan. Granted, food trucks and pea patches are good things. But we need more stuff that works but that's one of a kind, that goes a bit off-grid but someday gets grandfathered in (see our houseboat communities) as part of "who we are."

Soulfulness involves history and time, but also commerce, art and the all-embrace of a marketplace for everyone. Such places, like the Market, are often jumbled, complicated, ugly and functional, like a used Filson shirt with stains on it. The urban fabric needs more of that.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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