There's more to SLU than meets the eye

A UW professor and her students study the boom town block-by-block. Here's what they learned.
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Store on Westlake: part of the neighborhood's historic building stock

A UW professor and her students study the boom town block-by-block. Here's what they learned.

Stories about place are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris. — Michel de Certeau`   

In most undergraduate history classes, students take tests and write a paper or two. But University of Washington history professor Dr. Margaret O’Mara decided to tap into her students’ curiosity and their relationship with the web.

To bring urban history to life, Dr. O’Mara created an innovative project that focused on Seattle’s dynamic South Lake Union neighborhood. Each student was assigned a city block and used close observation, questioning, photography, and the study of public documents, including news articles, photographs and maps to create an online portfolio of its micro-history.

Many think of South Lake Union pre-Amazon and Vulcan as a place to drive-through to get somewhere else, but her students discovered a many-layered history that included Duwamish and other Native settlements, pioneer David Denny’s 1853 land claim and Bill Boeing’s first airplane shop.

Dr. O’Mara, a specialist in American urban and political history at the UW, has also taught at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania. Her acclaimed book Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, 2005), probed the relationship between metropolitan development, higher education, and the Cold War state in shaping the geography of the high-tech economy. Dr. O’Mara’s current research pursues these themes on a transnational scale, considering economic globalization and urban change.  She is currently writing a book that explores the high tech landscape from the 1970s to the present, including the evolution of South Lake Union.

Robin Lindley:  How did the South Lake Union project fit into your course on urban history of the United States?

Dr. Margaret O’Mara: Whenever I teach urban history, I like to have a story element about the place my students are living.  When I was in Philadelphia, I’d talk about Philadelphia.  In the Bay Area at Stanford, it was funny because they didn’t think of Palo Alto as urban, but of course it’s the ultimate post-industrial city in Silicon Valley.      

Integrating examples from places that are very familiar, very ordinary, where people are moving every single day, makes the history much more real and makes students look at their surroundings with more awareness. Urban history becomes this vehicle for history to come alive for students.

The South Lake Union project was inspired by that desire to get students to look critically at something familiar and ask questions about it.  History is all about challenging assumptions about why things got the way they are.              

What did the project involve?

South Lake Union is American history in microcosm.  Almost everything I talked about in class [on the evolution of cities], you could see played out in South Lake Union. Urban history is intellectual history as well, with ideas about planning and what cities could and should be that are so reflective of society.  

Future historians will look at the world of 2013 and the conversation on urban planning, sustainability, green building and all of the things that we’re hot on right now, and that’s a window into our soul.  Instead of asking what we wanted to be and what was done wrong, they’ll also be [asking] were we successful in this or not and how did we measure success?  Was our benchmark of success progress? Was this an advance?  Was it innovative, and if it was innovative was it a good innovation or one we look at cockeyed?      

The project must expose the hidden history of South Lake Union and forgotten people who resided and worked there before it became an expensive high-tech ghetto. 

Really South Lake Union and all of the neighborhoods around it are vivid examples of how environmental history and social, cultural and political history intersect. Human-driven [decisions] graphically altered the landscape, turning marsh into landfill and altering the coastline, from the Denny Regrade to the smaller regrade to the building of I-5. These are both the causes and the reflections of broader economic, social and political history.

The current discourse on South Lake Union is the imaginary ultimate green, high-tech neighborhood. There [supposedly] wasn’t much there before, but my student project shows that it was full: full of people, activity and perhaps things that were marginal. It was the classic light-industrial zone in transition: Laundromats, garages, homes.  There was ethnic and racial diversity.

The area shows the consequences of planning, even when things don’t get built. The freeway was a primary case in point. All around Mercer, development was frozen in amber because the freeway was going to come. That helps us understand why there was land there for Paul Allen to buy. 

It was seen as a place to get through and some of my students picked up on that insightfully. Here’s a neighborhood in the heart of the city. It can be the heart of the city — or a place you go to get somewhere else. 

With your project, students looked at the past from many angles  by photographing their blocks, creating an online portfolio of their writing and digital illustrations and using primary resources such as maps, news articles and public documents to build their narrative.

I told them the first day of class that this is a grand experiment.  It was very important to [say] that we’re all going on this adventure together and I want your feedback. I wanted to empower them to think critically about different types of writing and how they write.   And there’s a proliferation of [online] information that is poorly sourced, so I wanted to make them hyper-conscious of sources and citations. 

I want students to look at historic photographs [and] maps as texts that are just as rich in historical data points as one of Jefferson’s letters on the state of Virginia. And I wanted them to be excited and for them to think of history as detective work. They have to use evidence to build an argument.  It’s all these basic things that we try to convey in historical writing: evidence-based argumentation and critical thinking and analysis.

You also had students create an audio tour — another challenging aspect of the project.

The audio tour was an idea of my friend Phil Ethington at USC, and he’s one of the people behind the Hypercities Project. It was so great to hear their voices, and some of them were gung ho and became full-on tour guides: “Welcome. This is my block.” I don’t think any of them will look at South Lake Union the same again.  They’re going to have inside information, which is exciting because it’s a dynamic neighborhood that’s a focus of attention. 

I love the idea again of empowering students to do serious historical research and to have something that lives on past the quarter where the student can say, “I helped build that, and I was in a history class, and I’m part of this app.” 

What surprising information have the projects revealed?

I don’t know if I’m able to say that yet because this is an ongoing project. I have a next phase where I hope that question will be answered.  A graduate student [will create] a homepage with a map-based interface, so you come to the South Lake Union Stories homepage map of the neighborhood, and you click on a block and go to the report on that block.                   

The other bigger piece that this feeds into is an emerging research collaborative that I’m embarking upon with a number of UW colleagues, most notably my collaborator Thaisa Way, a historian in the Department of Landscape Architecture.  She is also interested in Lake Union and [her] students also [studied the] history of the lake.  Thaisa and I want to bring the collective work of our students together in one shared world where people can learn not only about the environmental, social and economic history of the South Lake Union neighborhood, but also about the lake and its north end.  If you ever want to learn about Gasworks, she’s your woman.            

Did your students express misgivings about the rapid growth of South Lake Union?

My students had a debate in sections on height restrictions. The groups for taller buildings had a field day and the ones [opposed] to raising building heights felt they were on the wrong side.  There was a social justice concern, but to have a lively urban environment, you’ll have to raise building heights.  Part of that reflected that they noticed if one block was lively because of mixed uses and another one was [dead]. So my students can come into the conversation as proponents of density.

You’ve mentioned that world cities consume about 80 percent of all energy but only 50 percent of people live in cities. Are cities sustainable now? With new technology, can’t people spread out and work away from cities?

Even when spread out, we still need to connect. In the last 30 years, as technology became more ubiquitous, we could all have lived conceivably in a cabin in Montana if we had a broadband connection.  But could you do all the work you need to do without any human contact?

There’s a reason that real estate prices in places like Seattle and Silicon Valley and all of the hot high-tech areas spiral up — because people want to be there. Fifteen years ago, people predicted that we didn’t need to be camped together — we could spread out.  But the broadband age has proved that we don’t.  The problem is that we’re in middle ground. We live in low density, suboptimal ways and we get in cars to connect with one another, so we have the worst of both worlds. 

There’s a robust debate, and I’m on the side of those who think that cities are more green.  Manhattan is one of the greenest places in the United States because fewer residents drive.  Cities are part of the climate change problem, but they are also a critical part of the solution. 


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