Invisible Cities: The city of memory

In the city, sometimes it's hard to remember what was there before what's there now existed. It may have been a building you used, enjoyed, admired as you walked past. It burned or was neglected to death or demolished for new development. How easily it is forgotten.

There are iconic buildings that are remembered even if never seen in actuality. For example, every time I walk by the "sinking ship" parking garage I see the old Hotel Seattle that it replaced. How could this tiny garage be more valuable than that building? Its loss was the impetus for historic preservation in Seattle. It may have eventually been lost anyway, to fire or earthquake, we'll never know, now.


We lose bits, or major portions, or even entire cities for reasons preventable or not (think climate change; earthquake). Many places are thoroughly documented in the digital record thanks to omnipresent cameras and cellphones. I'm not up to date on the tech but I believe there are apps that can show you the historic record of the place in the city you are currently looking at. You might see the city in composed layers of transparency and diffusion, like layers of history over time (see poem in previous post).

This reminds me of Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo is using objects from cities he has visited to explain them to Kublai Khan, who doesn't share a common language. Now (or soon) we can say "there's an app for that".

On design in the context of history


Contrast and balance of past and present
Compressive stone, tensile steel
Steady past containing (in part)
The springing moment of now
History and its secrets hold
A new language, to be deciphered
Over time.

Light invades the depths, askew
Gently washing bones of ancient earth
Worked and placed by long-dead hands
More brashly it meets the youthful now
Sometimes stubborn, unperceptive, impenetrable
Rejecting, reflecting what is offered
But gradually, as it deepens and matures,
Accepts in part, and sometimes completely
In composed layers of transparency and diffusion,
Like layers of history over time.

Past and present in dialogue
Face to face, acknowledging
But ever separate.
congress1                                     706-30

This untitled poem was part of a project in the historic preservation district in downtown Austin, Texas. I like to think poetry and art are relevant parts of the design process.

The Weight of History

I was dismayed to read that this building in London was to be demolished as part of the rebuild of London Bridge Station. As part of a grad student project I had developed my own plan for the station which retained this building. How could this destruction be allowed to happen? I looked at it for a while until I could understand the reasoning. "Let it go", a commenter said. Letting go can be difficult.


It's something I struggle with, as I personally love old buildings in cities. I also love density, adaptability, and survival of the cities I love, and sometimes those things are hard to reconcile. Older buildings have elements of hand craft and diversities of scale in the details that are rarely seen with modern construction methods. Mixes of buildings from different eras of history add to the interest of the cityscape and give a sense of continuity, of caring investment, of permanence.

Yet buildings are not permanent. Walking around Seattle I take note of all the buildings that will be lost in the next big earthquake. Or the beautiful and well-used low-rise buildings in areas that need to grow, to accommodate more people in the space these precious beauties occupy. I think of cities much older than ours that could easily be crushed and suffocated by the massive weight of their own history.

London deals with its history in pragmatic ways that sometimes seem destructively cruel. Venice, a city that for centuries rebuilt itself on the higher foundations of previous generations of buildings, is drowning because it tried to freeze history at a certain glorious point in time.

We may be losing many coastal cities in the future. Cities are organisms, ecosystems, they have to adapt or die. Do we perform triage, allowing loss of some (buildings) for the greater good, for overall survival? How do we learn to say goodbye, to admit when it may be time to let go? It's a painful question for which I don't have a satisfactory answer.
It was a Twitter post from Project for Public Spaces (@ PPS_Placemaking) that caught my eye. "Inquiry into Seattle's many failed attempts at Placemaking", it read, and linked to this Crosscut article, "Why does Seattle have so many bleak public spaces?" by Lawrence W. Cheek, former Seattle P-I architecture critic. The substitute for the P-I no longer supports such things as architecture critics, but they still exist.

If interested you should read that article, it drew a lot of fairly reasoned commentary. What jumped out at me, though, was the difference between the examples Mr. Cheek listed as successful as opposed to the failed (meaning dead and bleak and without public life) ones. The Federal Courthouse plaza was marked as a success. It has a beautiful and lively design, but the success is not just because of that. It's because there are security guards at the top of the steps, federally funded, who make sure no bad behavior takes place.

Our truly public spaces, the ones that belong to the city and are maintained through city funds are bleak because there are no funds for operations and maintenance. If there is a lovely living landscape, someone has to maintain it. Water features have to be cleaned of trash, leaks repaired and pumps maintained. If the design is interesting and variable, it creates spaces where bad behavior can occur and will, unless you have either authoritative presence to prevent it, or enough varied and lively activities to draw lots of people throughout the day that provide safety in numbers.

It's a vicious cycle. Normally it's fairly easy to get funding for capital improvements, the initial big expenditures, such as acquiring and building new parks and urban spaces. What's much more difficult is funding the ongoing operations and maintenance costs. Because the people who will be responsible (i.e. Parks) know this in advance, it's very difficult to get "high maintenance" park plans approved unless there are outside guarantors, business and community groups, who will agree to take on responsibility for O&M. This in now happening with the Bell Street Park, for example. It happened with little McGraw Square; the design was to include water runnels but was built without them, because they would have to be cleaned and maintained. There's precious little living landscaping, for the same reason.

Bryant Park in NYC is often mentioned as a successful public space. It's successful because the city hired a vendor to intensively manage programming, actively recruiting and organizing public events to keep the space active and lively, to keep the unchained and movable tables and chairs from disappearing. Seattle does this, to some extent, for Westlake Park but for few other spaces. This is an expensive but apparently necessary proposition. When we ask the city for parks and open spaces, are we willing to pay the true ongoing costs?


1912 Baist's Map of Belltown


The incomparable Paul Dorpat has given Seattle a great gift - many gifts, actually, over the years, but this one is mind-boggling. He had a set of 1912 Baist's Real Estate Maps for Seattle, originally gifted to him by a retired real estate salesman. With the technical savvy and aid of Ron Edge, who produces the Edge Clippings feature of Paul's blog, the maps were photographed, digitized and made into indexed, interactive pdf files. The maps and how they were digitized are here.

There are 34 plates you can browse and even download. Most of Belltown, along with Uptown, is on Plate 8, pictured above. One item of immediate interest is the dashed line overlay of the Bogue Plan, which would have put a new civic center for Seattle in the heart of what is now Belltown. This plan included rapid rail transit from the steamship dock on Elliott Bay, and a huge station on Lake Union with a tunnel under Lake Washington to Mercer Island, which would have been a 4,000 acre park under this plan. This ambitious, to say the least, City Beautiful plan was voted down in 1912.

Another notable feature is the street end rights-of-way that extend past the piers to the Outer Harbor line, at the same angle as the piers. That just suggests all sorts of possibilities. These maps are a wealth of information and will be a lot of fun to play with. Thank you, Paul Dorpat.

beautiful days in the neighborhood

We've been having some fine sunny fall days, and glad for it - but there's more than that to be happy for. If you only read the occasional news or SPD blotter report - short and limited to specific and negative content, in most cases - Belltown gets a bad reputation. For most of us living here, that's not the Belltown we know.

Most of the bad stuff happens two nights a week, between 10 pm and 4 am. If you care to count, that's twelve hours out of 280 hours in the week. Even if you counted the other weeknights, there are still 240 hours of the week for good things to happen. Normal, everyday good things that are not newsworthy, but can be appreciated by those experiencing them. Belltown might be an "Entertainment District", a regional destination, 15% of the week, but its a neighborhood 100%, all the time.

You can cross Second Ave on a sunny morning, pause, and count 24 people walking between Bell and Blanchard, for instance. Eight are sitting outside in front of businesses, even though its a bit cool out and not yet lunchtime.


In the afternoon the dog park is full of dogs, but outnumbered by people - too many to stop and count, but looks like forty or fifty, maybe. Both dogs and people climb the Regrade sculpture, vying for King of the Mountain. There's a light rain and two young girls are sitting under a dog training ramp, using it as a tent. There are children in Belltown, a small percentage of our nearly 12,000 residents, but they are here. They aren't out between 10 pm to 4 am. For them this is only a good neighborhood, with lots to see and do and places to go.

There's a "LEASED" sign at the new commercial space under Bhakita Gardens at Second and Bell. Work is flying along in the old Flying Fish space, putting in tenant stalls for the new Local 360 Market. We lose a regional restaurant, but gain a local service business. Something good for the neighborhood. That's a change worth thinking about. Good news.


Back in the City


My mother drove me from one corner of the country to the other in four days. I was still pretty incapacitated, but anxious to be back for the Seattle Founders Day Festival in Belltown. I was playing Mother Damnable. I had spent weeks of illness-enforced time indoors sewing a period correct costume, undergarments (petticoat, drawers, chemise, corset) included. I sewed finishing touches by hand in the car, on the way.

We stopped along the way - in Paducah, Kentucky, then to see Mount Rushmore - so she drove 22 hours the last day to get me to Seattle in time for the festival. That weekend the temperature was in the nineties, the hottest of an otherwise cool summer. My internal thermostat was artificially regulated by my medication, so the full costume was bearable, aided by the shade from a parasol - an extremely practical item.

I had moved to a different apartment, still in Belltown, just days before flying to Florida. I had been considering it for months. When my old lease was about to expire, I took the final step towards going car-free and sold my Prius, which I had only driven about four times in the previous year. Free of the need for car storage, I rented a smaller studio in a vintage building in the heart of Belltown, just two blocks from Bedlam, my favorite coffee shop and neighborhood living room.

Everything is more convenient here. The Walk Score at my previous address was 97. Now I get a perfect 100 for both Walk Score and Transit Score, and the difference is very evident. The old address was by the Sculpture Park, which was lovely but I didn't really visit that often. My primary destinations were in or towards downtown. A bit far to walk comfortably with shopping or for multiple trips, and inefficient from a transit standpoint (just outside the free zone but too close to make sense of paying full fare or waiting for the bus).

The move was another downsize (to 400 sf, down from 700 sf, which was down from the 900 sf house I sold). I selected the space in preparation for (perhaps) inhabiting a London bedsit for a year or more. I miss a few pieces of midcentury modern furniture I had to give up, but the space works out quite well. The location is the selling point, as most of my favorite destinations are nearby. I go to the Market almost every day. It's so good to be back. 

In the Dark

This blog was dark for a time. This is an explanation.

I almost died. It wasn't that serious a cause, normally; Grave's Disease hyperthyroidism that built up subtly for months, undiagnosed and unsuspected, until it reached a critical toxicity. Overproduction of thyroid hormone raised my metabolism. I lost almost 60 pounds. My heart rate rose above 140 bpm, became erratic, and threatened to stop altogether.

I thought I was being very healthy and enjoying the result. Watched what I ate. Had at least two servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Walked a few brisk miles each day, worked out at the gymn. I could see bones and muscle definition that I had hardly ever seen in my life except during times of illness or starvation. Yet I felt healthier than ever before, and congratulated myself.

I had nothing to do with it. It wasn't because I was suddenly doing all the right things. I wish people with naturally high metabolism would recognize their sheer genetic luck. Mine was due to a disease, an autoimmune disorder sort of like lupus. Grave's Disease causes the body's immune system to attack very specific tissues; primarily the thyroid gland and tissues similar to thyroid - the muscles around and behind the eyes, under the skin, the fingernail beds of the fourth and fifth fingers.

It raised my metabolism to dangerous levels. It started last year, with something like hives, itchy red spots that had me looking for bedbugs. The weight loss began the same time as a wellness competition at work, which I gave the credit to. Then came heart palpitations, shortness of breath. I would be in a meeting, speaking or about to speak, when my chest would go still, just come to a halt. I couldn't speak. My anxiety levels rose. I thought it was panic attacks. I was shaky, with tremors in my hands and the long muscles of my arms and legs. I began to have muscle wasting and weakness. After a few months of that and worse I left my job, thinking the symptoms were stress-related.

It came to a head when I went to Florida for an aunt's memorial service. The heat was like a blow to the chest. I couldn't breathe or walk. The sunlight was painful. I was constantly and hugely hungry, eating day and night, yet rapidly losing weight. I went to my mother's doctor, who immediately sent me to an emergency room, beginning a round of doctors and cautions about suddenly dropping dead.

I had a radioactive iodine treatment in an attempt to kill the thyroid gland and was told to wait a few days before driving home, as I might poison every public restroom on my route across the United States. I'm not infectious and no longer poisonous. The thyroid issue is unresolved and will be for at least another six months. But I'm finally back home in the city.


At the Salmon Homecoming, More Thoughts on the Waterfront

I'm a fan of Park(ing) Day, but rather than roaming around looking for participants I went to the waterfront to check out the Salmon Homecoming. The first thing I noticed was the Waterfront Fountain, turned off to prevent overspray. It was very reminiscent of the ruined columns of the Embarcadero elevated freeway after Loma Prieta, and the remnant they had left along the waterfront for a time. There's a lot of interest in preserving some portion of our viaduct, as memorial ruin or observation deck. Maintenance is a big issue there. If it's fallling down, you have to put in some work to keep it standing.

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There were plenty of people out on a gray, foggy and then drippy day. Lots of them were Nebraska fans in red, unwittingly resembling flows of spawning salmon. The outdoor part of the festival wasn't much to speak of - Restore Our Waters had a booth of T-shirts for $15, and the Lummi tribe had barbecued salmon dinners, frybread, and a lemonade stand. The salmon serving was huge and delicious.

I sat next to a familiar face, Gary, 72, of the Makah tribe, who you can often find sitting outside the Blue Moon Tavern. He'll be quick to tell you that he doesn't drink, he just likes mixing with the people that come by. That's how I first encountered him, on a group photowalk (with the Alives in the Superunknown - I miss our walks). Some of the Lummi folk sat down to eat and asked where his tribe is. He says Neah Bay. There was some talk of tribal funds and he said he hoped his money would arrive soon.


I had refused the sodas that came with the meal, so he handed me a small bottled water from his bag. I ate, said goodbye and went on my way, off to Market to shop. No fat pigs purchased (unless you count sausages), but I always say hello to Rachel.

My usual route leaving the Market is to walk north on Western, where I always look for the Williams family out carving. I first met Rick Williams when my mother was in town. She purchased a small owl totem - a 1937 pattern, handed down in the family - from Rick's 16-year old son Thunderheart Dave. "You're good" she told him, "but not as good as your father", who had a larger totem he had been working on for months. When I first heard of the shooting of Rick's brother, John T. Williams, I was horrified, thinking it was the man we had met, and still horrified when I got the identities straight. They're on the benches carving in good weather, and the younger generation on weekends, now that school is in.

It's a great relief to see them there, each time. You don't know how much you'll miss something until you think its gone. There was a lot of talk, at the waterfront presentations, about First Peoples and incorporating native heritage and input. They are still here, and active, friends and neighbors, part of day-to-day life in Seattle, if you look.

public space has a price tag


The use of the Fun Forest site at Seattle Center controversy rages on, with the selection of the Chihuly exhibit as the most appropriate of nine proposals submitted. In an ideal world, I, like others, was completely enamored of the Urban Forest open space, that encircling green grove expanding in concentric waves outward from the Space Needle, and felt the walled, private, for-profit one-more-in-the-chain glass exhibit to be a gross intrusion. We in Uptown and in Belltown, especially, are crying out for park space, being about 5 acres short of our 13-plus acre projected need through 2025. That Urban Forest shown in the Seattle Center masterplan images had a mighty appeal.

The problem is that Seattle Center is not a park. It is publicly owned - we own it, via the city - but it has to raise revenue for two-thirds of its funding. We only pay, via taxes to the general fund, one-third of Seattle Center expenses. It's fine to say what we would like there - but we haven't exactly put our money where our mouths are, and what we want isn't going to appear for free. Seattle citizens are more willing to tax themselves for a good cause than in any other city I know - but surely there are limits to such largesse?

We could, with some time and effort, change the purpose and funding of Seattle Center. If we want a park there, a portion might be put under control of the Parks Department - which is severely underfunded as is. All budgets are in shambles right now, but in order to get what we want, we may need to focus on fixing and funding the Parks department, long-term - rather than trying to change or parcel off the governance of Seattle Center, which is its own beast.

The Urban Forest is part of the 20-year time frame of the Seattle Center masterplan, and under that plan would be the last piece scheduled for completion. Until then that site was intended to generate revenue for the other big moves of the plan. Twenty years is a long time, and many of us won't be around to enjoy the Urban Forest, which in twenty years may morph to something else entirely. That's what happens with long-term masterplans; that's why the image is not a "design" per se - just a visualization of concepts and principles of a plan.

Visualizations these days are so realistic, however, that a concept takes on concrete shape and form in our minds. A solid, private exhibit that many of us locally will not enjoy certainly doesn't fit that vision - but bringing the vision to reality has a high price tag. Even with our generous tax levies, we in Seattle rely heavily on public-private partnerships and patrons with deep pockets to help create significant public good. Perhaps we have to let the Wright family, via Chihuly exhibit receipts, help pay for this one. I can only wish it were otherwise.