Monday, October 22, 2007


Seattle is the first place that I am conscious of, so I will begin there. Seattle is the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, the forgotten corner of the United States. This fairly large city has a huge downtown skyline and sprawling suburbs along I-5 south towards Tacoma, north towards Everett, and east across Lake Washington to the high-tech and posh East Side community of Bellevue. Today Seattle is a major high tech center in addition to being an aircraft manufacturing center and a port city, but despite this industrial side, it also has its artistic and leisure elements, with numerous art galleries, houses overlooking Puget Sound, the looming Olympic and Cascade Mountains, coffee shops, bookstores, and theaters.

My earliest memories of Seattle are of the big city where my father worked for much of the 1970's. At that time we lived in the growing bedroom community of Bellevue, a suburban mecca of malls and housing developments on forested hills with wood panelled Country Squire station wagons. Seattle was the opposite of this orderly suburban setting- heavy traffic, tall buildings, buses going every which direction, ferries cruising across the Sound, and the energetic pace of the downtown city sidewalks.

In those days, driving from Bellevue to Seattle involved the two floating bridges, much like today, except the Evergreen Point Bridge (SR 520) was still rather new and therefore had a toll; thirty five cents for a solo driver and ten cents for someone with passengers. The Mercer Island Bridge (I-90) was still the original Lacy V. Murrow bridge that had opened in 1940 and was only four quite narrow lanes with no divider. At that time the two middle lanes were reversible, so during the morning commute, three lanes headed into Seattle and the reverse was true in the evening. Illuminated green arrows and red X’s marked the designated lanes. After the Mount Baker Tunnel, the highway became city streets until the junction with I-5, which was surrounded by freeway ramps that went nowhere because an earlier extension had been cancelled. In the early 1990's the entire route from Factoria to I-5 in downtown Seattle was replaced by the much wider extension of I-90 that incorporated all of those incomplete ramps.

I remember a bit of the seventies funk and counterculture that was present along First Avenue in downtown Seattle, but from the perspective of an awestruck six year old being sent with his older sister to a downtown diner to buy a seventy five cent cup of chili for lunch. We frequently went downtown to visit my Dad's office in (I believe) the Federal Building and later, to attend a Scientology communication course that he enrolled us in. I remember being so wide eyed at the soaring buildings, which seemed huge even then, when it was just the Federal Building, the Smith Tower, the black boxy Seafirst Building (the box the Space Needle came in), and the Rainier Tower which always seemed like it was about to topple off of its inverted pyramid base. The streets were filled with business men in suits, street musicians with wild hair and colorful clothes, police officers chasing drug dealers, and other pedestrians in coarse sweaters, wooden clogs, and flared jeans with white splotches.

I also remember the Pike Place Market, a jumble of street musicians, fish hawkers selling their product to tourists, and numerous artists selling paintings, beadwork, photographs, musical instruments and the like. At the time I was not aware of a small coffee shop marked by a siren that dominated the north end of the market in the 1970s, but would come to dominate much of the world twenty five years later.

Even in the 1970's downtown Seattle reached for the sky from Elliot Bay, a jumble of concrete, steel, and glass high-rises towering over the fading wooden piers along Alaska Way. This used to be the working waterfront of a nineteenth and early twentieth century port city of clipper ships and steam trains shunting wooden boxcars while streetcars climbed the steep hills leading into the city. By the seventies, the beginnings of the huge cluster of skyscrapers that now blot out the mountains and the noisy two-level Alaska Viaduct were already in place, the streetcars were gone, and the harbor had moved to the south end of Elliot Bay. Even then I remember being enthralled with the huge red cranes that unloaded massive containerships that came from Asia, and the trains that serviced them. Trips to some city beach in West Seattle would take us past this fascinating terrain of freight trains, trucks and ships alongside the red gantry cranes.

We frequently visited the various beaches throughout the city on warm summer days, especially Golden Gardens near Ballard or Carkeek Park in North Seattle. I remember swimming in the chilly saltwater of Puget Sound for a few minutes before shifting my attention to dead crabs, mussels, barnacle covered rocks, and seaweed floating in tidepools. My favorite attraction at these beaches was the double track mainline of what used to be the Great Northern Line, which headed north from Seattle to Everett before heading inland towards Stevens Pass. Every thirty minutes or so a long freight train would rumble by, two or three green and black locomotives pulling a long string of graffitied boxcars and lumber cars, before it receded into the distance, the tail end marked by a green and yellow caboose bearing a red pulsing light. Occasionally a silver passenger train would pass by, an early version of the relatively new Amtrak.

Another place that I fondly recall visiting as a small child was Seattle Center, with the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center. I particularly remember the hands on science experiments, the laser theater, a replica of the lunar module, and a planetarium. In fact that was a common field trip destination for grade school kids. We would show up in yellow buses and wander about in single file lines while wearing construction paper name tags. I remember crawling all over the International Fountain, even when it was spurting water like a giant sprinkler. I used to run laps around it and I refused to cry the time that I fell and skinned my knee.

We also went to Green Lake, a modest sized lake surrounded by North Seattle. Since I went to Green Lake Elementary School, I frequently went on outings to the playgrounds by the lake and also a Halloween party at the community center. That winter (’77 I believe) it was cold enough that most of the lake froze.

One last enduring memory of Seattle is driving into the Cascade Range to the east. After braving the summer evening traffic snarls on the floating bridges, we would sail past Eastgate and Issaquah into the Snoqualmie River drainage on the densely forested western slopes of the Cascades to fish along the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie or to hike segments of the Pacific Crest Trail near Chinook Pass and Mount Rainier. There were also late spring trips into the mountains to play in the huge patches of snow that were just beginning to melt into swollen icy rivers.

Seattle was still a large provincial city in the 1970’s, and a company town driven by the fortunes of Boeing. Periodically the city’s economy slumped while Boeing went through a series of layoffs. An especially severe episode of this took place around 1970, the year I was born, and I heard mention of a huge billboard alongside I-5 that said something like: “Would the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights!” Well Boeing is still a major employer, and the Seattle area suffered a little more than average after the post September 11 downturn in air travel. Nevertheless, the economy has expanded to the point that Microsoft and Starbucks have become household words and many people are now employed in the high tech industry, so this latest recession was probably not as severe as the one in the late 1960’s. Also, Seattle itself became a prominent national center when Nirvana and Pearl Jam became popular in the early 1990’s. The movie Singles implied that Seattle was a perfect place for Generation Xers to head to for progressive politics and a happening music scene. This has had an impact on the housing market, which soared to the point that the median house price in Seattle was over $300,000 and landlords invited dozens of desperate prospective tenants at a time to open houses where they would draw a name to fill the scarce empty apartments in the city during the 1990’s. Meanwhile, the apartments in the suburbs offered a free month of rent to attract young people who were bypassing the 'burbs for the city. Seattle is probably not quite the draw today that it was a decade or so ago (that is probably Las Vegas now), but its diversified economy and steady growth has extended suburban sprawl past established rural enclaves like Monroe, Northbend, and Maple Valley and also resulted in clusters of new condominiums around Lake Union. This is a strong indication that the lights won’t be going out anytime soon.

No comments: