Seattle is a Vortex

Seattle is a Vortex

by Matt Briggs

I often stumble into a new part of Seattle. The smell of freshly poured concrete and sprayed paint creates a sensation like vertigo, like standing on top of the Aurora Bridge, staring down into the ship canal and realizing I’m standing on a shell of asphalt and concrete and steel wrapping the wind and current and muck. I might stand on a Seattle street with crowds milling around me next to a ten-story structure. Only three months ago that high-rise didn’t exist. Only twenty-years ago, the previous building didn’t even exist as a blueprint. A hundred and fifty years ago (a catnap in the life of most cities) Seattle didn’t exist at all. The shock of Seattle’s instant architecture makes me keenly aware that all of this asphalt, concrete, steel is just a by-product of something else. I’ve run into this sensation enough now since the building spree started when I was fifteen (and maybe it was like this before?) that the sensation no longer really causes a shock but merely a sense of movement, like stepping onto a bus. On a Seattle street, I expect to hear the keen of seagulls, smell Elliott Bay brine, and have this sense of architectural vertigo. I’ve stumbled into new skyscrapers. I’ve walked along the waterfront and realized I had somehow entered into a new convention center. I’ve spilled out of a movie theater crowd onto an oddly familiar street corner and realized I came out of a mall that stands where something else stood that I thought still existed even though I couldn’t quite recall what was there before.

Seattle isn’t a city like Rome or Baltimore. It’s a new kind of city. It’s a whirlpool, sucking old buildings down the drain. In Seattle to lament disappearance is to lament the vital energy of the city; Seattle is an energy and not a geography.

A city’s architectural geography represents, in literally concrete terms, culture. How much space do we turn over to preserving the past and keeping old idioms alive? What kind of structures do we build? How does the city manage its growth and preserve its past? I’m talking about Seattle, which I know reveals my Seattle-centricity that can drive people in Redmond crazy and really, really pisses off people in Yakima, Tacoma, Centralia, Portland, Everett, and Yelm – but I think most cities on the western side of the Cascades have similar forces moving things forward. But I can’t help but seeing things through Seattle-goggles. I was born in Seattle and so Seattle is my point of reference. Compared to Baltimore where I lived for a year, these West Coast place names aren’t even recognizable as cities. Everett, Tacoma, Olympia, Portland, Seattle, and even Spokane are basically company camps with histories of rapid growth followed by economic stagnation. The business of these places is business; culture for these cities is the same as the terra-cotta ornamentation on bank buildings. The real cultural documentation of these places finds itself in corporate charters.

To locate Seattle in a sort of mass-history of disappearance, I’d like to say the nature of disappearance concerns the mass destruction and dwindling down of culture and language that has occurred since the advent of agriculture. Our milestones then would start with the 16th century, after Columbus stumbled into America and Gutenberg began using moveable type, and the Industrial Revolution, the ensuing conquest of the planet by European powers, the harnessing of electrical power and invention of the telegraph, invention of the radio, World War II, The Green Revolution, and our present post-hyphenated status where all of these big events are no longer seen as positive developments. In the 1950s, progress was good and change was good because change meant things get better and that a person didn’t have to iron their clothes with a block of steel heated on their wood-burning Franklin and that they didn’t have to haul water up from the crick. Now, progress isn’t what it used to be. Progress is often a synonym for destruction. Change means a loss of things and often a loss we can’t fathom until the thing is gone.

Seattle fits into this history as a tiny little case study of a new city in a new state-of-being on the new ocean. Maybe looking at the specifics of what has happened and is happening here can give some clues about changing culture and what is meant by cultural disappearance and loss?

The cultural shift currently underway measures along the order of the move from an oral culture to a print culture (if we look at the change as starting in the 17th century and maybe realizing itself in another hundred or two hundred years, provided we survive) – so we’re talking a shift as big as pre-agriculture to post-agriculture – and in this case not back to an oral culture but a culture fused with accelerated technology and business, where literate people use both the public domain language like English and the alphabet and also patented languages like Extensible Mark-Up Language (XML); actually XML is an open-source language as is Hypertext Mark-Up Language (HTML) but both of these languages require patented technologies to use. For those of you who don’t know what XML is, it is a convention to describe a mark-up language; that is, it is purely a language (as such as things are languages) to describe the code (HTML) that converts your vanilla alphabet into the stuff you see on the World Wide Web. In this sense XML is a good language for Seattle; it is a language to anticipate change in the language and one that requires a corporation to use.

In calculus you have a grid system showing the map of your equation; essentially the equation is invisible. The equation describes this structure, If you go to any one point in the structure things may seem stable and good, but then a little time passes and things have changed a great deal. If you are aware of everything being in a state of flux, that really what you see around is an illusion being controlled by the external properties of change, you won’t be so surprised when things disappear and new things come along, when Ben Paris on Westlake is gone one day and Westlake mall is there the next. You might think, I really liked the way things were back when x=19 and y=75. That was a nice time. And it is still there, whenever x=19 and y=75.

Anyway, to get to the very specific items I want to look at in Seattle as a sort of way of triangulating the moving target of Seattle, I have found the following three things: banana slugs, Ben Paris, and feeder stumps.

1) Banana slugs illustrating the theme of displacement

100 years ago, the only large native slug in the Pacific Northwest was the Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus). Since then, many species of foreign slugs have been introduced on imported European garden plants. These foreign invaders are extremely fierce. They attack weaker individuals of their own and other species, driving them out of shelters and away from food. Combat begins when the aggressor slug touches its victim with its tentacles. Then it lifts the forepart of its body off the ground and slashes down at its victim with its toothy radula.

My father lives at the base of Mount Si in a valley separated from the Snoqualmie valley floor by the North Fork of the Snoqualmie. Banana slugs thrive there. He has another house just two miles away and you can’t really find them there. They’ve been driven into the hills like the Picts in Wales.

2) Ben Paris illustrating the theme of submergence

A combination restaurant, lounge, pool hall, pull-tab parlor, barber shop, and sporting goods establishment, It was located on Fourth, facing the Bon Marché. A kind of “guy mall” kind of place, a bastion for fishermen (and I do mean fishermen) and other local sportsmen, it had a definite subterranean, almost speakeasy, feel to it (partly from its being down a flight of stairs, below street level). It had a large glass tank with live bass swimming in it (not a live trout pool, as I read in one account). For an account, see America’s Oldest Bass Club, an article about the Western Bass Club, which began meeting in the Ben Paris in 1938. The founder, Ben Paris, supposedly started the very first fishing derby here, back in 1931. Ben Paris also published a comprehensive NW fishing guide. (From A Seattle Lexicon, by Steve Callihan)

Ben Paris represents something that has sort of seeped away in the Northwest, what I’d like to call the Cult of the Outdoorsmen. Somewhere in the 1980s, the Outdoorsmen disappeared and has been replaced by Mountain Climbers, Bow Hunters, trail joggers, and Preservationists. REI used to supply gear to the Outdoorsmen and was more like Warshall’s and Ben Paris. But REI made the decision sometime in the 1990s not to carry fishing gear. The hunters that are left are sort of ridiculous figurers; the image of them are beer swilling, meat eating lumps looking for a place to piss in the woods. Outdoorsmen on the other hand, put on intellectual airs ala Hemingway, researched hunting routes, and viewed the wilderness as a public resource to be managed. One of their organizations, The Trail Blazers, bombed mountain lakes with trout species, transforming formally sterile Alpine Lakes into habitats for game fish, like cutthroat, rainbow, and golden trout. The Trail Blazers were an organization of überOutdoorsmen. Here is evidence, I think, of the disappearance of this entire subculture. A contemporary reaction to the activity of The Trail Blazers is: “Say what? You dropped a ton of foreign bio-mass into a pristine lake, forever obliterating its fragile ecological balance?” A Trail Blazer believes he has made something that wasn’t there before. A Preservationist believes the Trail Blazer has destroyed something that was already there.

3) Feeder Stumps illustrating the theme of superimposition.

Throughout the forest where I grew up, huge feeder stumps rose up almost to the height of the house I lived in. They were covered with moss, and huckleberries grew like afros from their scalps. Many of them were hollow and I would climb up on them and lower myself into their cavernous insides, smelling the ancient root wood of cedar and wait for my father or my brother to pass. I could hear them walking through the woods for a long ways off. Sticks cracked. Bushes rattled like ghost chains. The forest wasn’t quiet. The tall trees always made noise as they rubbed against the other trees and their whole length shifted back and forth in the wind. Birds called to each other. Wood peckers tapped at rotting trees. But it was still quiet enough to hear people walking. And these stumps were there because they grew there. They weren’t planted. They weren’t landscape designed. They fell into a bed of shady moss and slowly grew up, in a crush of competing seedlings, and one of them won out centuries ago, this tree that is now a decaying stump that’ll be in somebody’s backyard if a good landscape engineer gets his hands on this suburb, or otherwise it’ll be chipped and sent off to cushion the fall of children from swings. I grew up with a sense that there had been something here before that was a forest of gigantic, silent trees. I also had a repeated daydream nightmare of walking under the cedar trees and then coming out into a street with old sidewalks and walking into a used TV store with a big, sign hanging out over the sidewalk that said ZENITH, right next door to a 7-11, knowing that one day the second growth in Fall City would look just like Capitol Hill.

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