Excerpt: Imagining Seattle

The following is an excerpt from Imagining Seattle: Social Values in Urban Governance by Serin Houston (May 2019).

An urban symphony purred, squealed, and rattled around me as I trod over pavement, concrete, discarded items, and occasional patches of grass on a fourteen-mile meandering transect through Seattle, Washington, a large city located in the Pacific Northwest of the continental United States. By the end of that October day in 2005, the contours of this urban context infused my body. The wonderment in my eyes reflected the array of façades and landscapes I had encountered during this walk. The savory aromas I smelled spoke to the multiplicity of people and cuisines populating Seattle. The dirt clogging my pores revealed the grit and grime of this mass of living and nonliving beings. The sounds of the lapping waters of Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound emphasized the fluvial activity sculpting the city. The quickening of my heart rate beat out the fear and dislocation that often accompany dark city streets. The wincing of my feet reminded me of the many paths and travels that have brought people to and from this place. I had lived in Seattle for over a year at that time, yet I was experiencing the city entirely anew.

The long walk exposed me to profound juxtapositions: the social services office located next to the plush dog groomer in gentrifying Columbia City; the extended line outside the Salvation Army shelter practically reaching the doorstep of the sparkling new Starbucks in the Central Area District; and the array of compost bins dotting the porches of City Hall and the noticeable absence of such bins, and public trash cans for that matter, in parts of Rainier Valley. Through movement, I traversed spaces of inclusion and exclusion, and boundaries (mine and others) slipped in and out of focus. As I trudged the last few miles past the famous Lusty Lady, a now closed strip club, and the swanky bars of gentrified Belltown, I gazed at the sea of twenty-and thirty-somethings out carousing, and I felt viscerally the many divergent ways that we inhabit space. I was not part of their groups, and yet we shared the same sidewalks. Clearly Seattle as a city holds multiple meanings, experiences, and manifestations. It is a nexus of contradictions and assumptions. This evolving place emerges through and comprises varying social, political, cultural, environmental, and economic processes. By experientially occupying the liminality of the city, I became further attuned to a handful of the many urban realities that constitute Seattle. New sensory engagements with Seattle lodged themselves in my being just as I contributed to the ephemeral formation of the city. By the end of the day, I wondered more acutely: what experiences do Seattleites carry with them, and what stories do they tell about this place?

The sunlight refracting off the glass walls of Seattle’s South Lake Union (SLU) Discovery Center added a blinding glow to this notable addition in the urban landscape. My fingers curled around the solid metal handle of the front door, and with a pull I left the bustle of Westlake Ave and walked into a sparsely adorned entrance. Another doorway beckoned me farther into a circular viewing room where a handful of well-padded chairs sat waiting for occupants. No one else was discovering South Lake Union that July afternoon in 2009. As soon as I stepped into the round room, the door automatically closed, the lights dimmed, and I was ensconced in promotional visuality. Images of the five neighborhoods of the SLU filled the screen in front of me, and narratives about these new places burst forth on surround sound. Captivated by all the stated amenities, I momentarily forgot that something existed before a massive influx of corporate money powered extensive material changes in the SLU. The glitz and the glam—and all the high-tech gadgets—started to feel convincing. Ah yes, it would be great to live, work, and play here.

Just as I was settling in for more enticing offerings about the up-and-coming neighborhoods of the SLU, the video concluded, the screen slid away, and I was set free to explore the rest of the Discovery Center. A model of Seattle commanded the middle of the next room. The white plastic skyscrapers, the mini trees, the empty roads—it all looked so tidy and coherent, a poignant contrast to my fourteen-mile walk through the city. Kiosks flanked the walls of the room. With titles like “creative + diverse,” “urban + natural,” and “swift + central,” they helped orient me to a potential future in the SLU. A metal dog sculpture sat below a sign that outlined all the perks of the area for dogs (a nod to the stat that Seattleites are more likely to have a dog than a child). The potential reality for my life, replete with numerous lifestyle amenities, assumed tangibility as I followed the bamboo-flooring path to information and models about condos under construction in the SLU. The flow and format of the center told a persuasive narrative about this self-described innovative neighborhood redevelopment. The exhibit fanned expectations for what daily life would entail and offered a concrete mechanism for purchasing part of this dream. The near erasure of histories, contestations, and plural views of this place struck me. How innovative could a development project be if it rests on a tacit assumption that places are blank slates?

The perfect temperatures and bright sun of June 2014 welcomed me back to Seattle. I had returned to read recently released archival material. I was curious about how often I would become disoriented during my visit due to the seemingly frantic pace of redevelopment. Wandering 12th Avenue in the Central Area District on my way to the Seattle Municipal Archives in City Hall, I saw multi-colored street banners proudly proclaiming as they hung from street lamps, “12th Avenue, Live, Learn, Work, and Play.” What did the people waiting for food, clothes, and household goods behind the banners at the adjacent St. Francis House, a non-profit that supports people in need, make of such depictions of 12th Avenue? What did these banners signal to the anticipated new residents and businesses that would occupy the buildings going up right next to St. Francis? A friend told me that the number of cranes on the Seattle skyline rivaled Dubai. I believed it. I was overwhelmed by all the construction. I felt the light and wind in different ways as I walked once recognizable streets; the new infill construction cast long shadows and sent the breeze whipping along the street. I turned off 12th Avenue and headed under Interstate 5 toward City Hall. A blue nylon tent sat askew under the highway. Access to the live/work/play new urbanist vision promoted on the 12th Avenue banners seemed distant and remote here. The contrasts were stark and painfully familiar.

As I passed by the encampment, a comment came to mind from an interview with Sebastian, one of the fifty-eight city and county employees, non-profit and for-profit employees, and community activists whom I interviewed for this research. When I asked him about Seattle’s attributes, he explained, “Seattle is ‘the city of’ whatever word you want to put back there. And I really mean that. . . . It’s Seattle the City of Music. . . . It’s Seattle the City of Business. It’s Seattle, the city of. There’s so much going on here that whatever people are identifying with or want to do, Seattle is accommodating that right now. . . . It’s just the city of.” For Sebastian, from his positional authority in municipal government and in the prime of his career, this depiction was clearly motivating. With palpable enthusiasm, he listed different endeavors unfolding in Seattle, “the city of.” There was tremendous hope in this perception of the place.

Yet when he reclined in his office chair and kicked his leg onto his desk to describe Seattle as simply “the city of,” I found myself both inspired and concerned about this vision. I too felt energized by the sense of possibility inherent in such a moniker, and I wondered about the acknowledgment of poverty and disparity in such renderings. I could not imagine Sebastian exuberantly stating, “Seattle: The City of Segregation” or “Seattle: The City of Gentrification,” even though these realities are just as potent and significant as “Seattle: The City of Music” or “Business.” Other questions began to demand my attention: How does the Seattle city government navigate the contradictions evident in urban space, particularly when prevailing representations of place leave little room for ambiguities? How do systemic inequities and discrimination fit into popular depictions of Seattle? How, and with what impacts, does the translation of social values into practice unfold in Seattle’s urban governance?

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