City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Journal: Brief notes on Seattle

Written in


I visited Seattle recently, for the IDEA 2006 conference at the Seattle Public Library. More on both of those subjects later. Meanwhile, some brief notes from my glance at the city. Sadly I didn’t have time read around the place much (as opposed to book-supported trips to Australia, Barcelona or Boston, for example) so you’ll have to make do with observations and photos.

Surrounded by sublime terrain – sublime in the original, God-fearin’ sense of the word – Seattle is one of those cities where the water reaches right in, as with Sydney. There’s a wonderfully crisp atmosphere to the place, perhaps due to the icy cold Pacific waters and all those pine trees, and also the natural focal points that a waterfronted, un-super-sized city affords. I’ve been three times, all on business and therefore with frustratingly little time for a look around. This time I managed to escape the magnetic pull of the Seattle Public Library in order to cram in couple of visits to Pike Place Market (thanks to excellent local guide, Andrew Otwell.)

I always like to check out the local market when visiting a city. David Sedaris suggests the local gun control laws can tell you a lot about a place; me, I like to get a feel of the market. The layout and architecture; the signage; the produce on display; opening times; how well-used it is; whether it’s a working market or a tourist attraction, and so on. They can all tell you a fair bit. For instance, many of London’s central, formerly significant markets are now aimed at tourists; in Barcelona, the Mercat Santa Caterina strikes a magical balance between local producers and consumers, contemporary architecture and tourism; Melbourne’s Victoria Market and Sydney’s Growers’ Market tell stories of how food culture has developed in Australia; Zurich’s Burkliplatz is all flowers, organic produce and glossy brown ‘marroni’ for the Bahnhofstrasse bankers; markets in Milan and Monastir are among my key memories of those cities …

The Pike Place Market felt pretty good. There are elements aimed
squarely at tourists – the throwing of giant fish over counters is pure
show business – but it feels scruffy, work-a-day and utilitarian enough
to suggest a useful, working market for everyday people. A Wednesday
morning had a decent background level of activity; a Tuesday lunchtime
was packed. There’s a cracking newsstand in the entrance – thanks again
for the tip, Andrew – and a mish-mash of stores in the covered stands
inside, on varying levels. The Market dates from 1907, with several
revisions along the way, and has ended up a haphazardly complex
structure straddling old warehouses, loading bays, stalls and shops,
and propped up over the steep hills of downtown.




The produce is mainly fish and seafood, featuring monstrous versions of
both. Ice chips submerge razor clams; a collection of fearful lobster
tails, divorced from their owners’ superstructures, next to a packed
box of giant crabs, fleshy underbellies up. Casting your eye over this
frozen mass of shells, claws and tendrils, It’s hardly surprising that
the North-West waters have generated many tales of sea monsters over
the years. (Raban’s ‘Passage to Juneau‘ is great on the native American
tales of this sea, as well those from bewildered English sailors of the
18th century, struck dumb by the terrain.)

The distinctive neon signage is particularly noteworthy. It tells you
straightaway that you’re in a US city with a bit of history. It’s
difficult to know how much of the great interior signs are originals,
but the fantastic huge signs atop the market entrance and building date
back to the ’30s at least. Apparently the one over the entrance was the
first large neon sign west of the MIssissippi. It’s a great thing.



In front of the market lies the sea. Almost. There’s actually a bloody
great expressway on a viaduct right there, cutting this element of the
city off from the bay, as per Boston and Storrow Drive (and
elements of London and Paris; see also Barcelona for a city that
turned its back on the sea, only to subsequently discover that its future involved regenerating that waterfront.) The
viaduct is structurally unsound, allegedly, and so questions are being
asked anyway. Hopefully the whole thing can come down with the traffic
routed elsewhere. It would open up the waterfront to the downtown,
providing the kind of opportunities realised by cities like Barcelona, though with a solution rooted in Seattle’s history alone.
It’s a beautiful thing, that bay, and the viaduct is both an eyesore
and an obstruction. As a result, the bay-front, at these points directly below downtown, is still full of storage depots and dead-ends.




The container port of Seattle appears to be thriving, as is
Barcelona’s, so we’re not talking about changing the function of the
waterfront wholesale nor gentrifying it beyond all recognition – simply opening up that large section which is at the bottom
of the hill walking from downtown, re-connecting the city with the sea. Jonathan Raban, who is basically the
only author I’ve read on Seattle, talks of the
natural attraction of a city which leads you downhill towards the
sea. Seattle has an intimate, liveable feel, despite its size, and
opening up this waterfront could complete the picture of an extremely
appealing city. However, these are the observations of someone largely uninformed by local debates around this issue, which I know are fierce and long-standing.

In terms of other ‘edges of the city’, Seattle-Tacoma airport is very
good – in the same elegant mold as other cityofsound favourites,
Helsinki and Zurich. And in stark contrast to the horrific Minneapolis
airport, which took shabby to new levels, almost approaching Heathrow’s
entropic demise. Ugly, poorly-lit spaces, with awful fittings and
terrible shops. Litter all over the place. Confusing layout and
unfocused wayshowing. All apparently combined to drain the life out of
the stolid denizens of the mid-West suffering the airport and, as if in
response to the surroundings, uniformly wearing some kind of informal
dress code of shapeless fleeces and hunting gear; quietly giving thanks
before shovelling in unholy bread from Subway … OK, maybe I was jaded
by it being my fourth airport of the day at that point, on a weird long
haul from Zurich to London to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Seattle in
one day, but put it this way: Minneapolis airport needs a bit of work.
Given that airports are amongst the ultimate in ‘first-impressions’ –
perhaps even cities in their own right,
increasingly – there’s really no excuse for the endemic neglect hitting
Heathrow and Minneapolis. (This builds on Tyler Brulé’s notion that
countries need a ‘Ministry of First Impressions’ responsible for
running the various entry points: airports, seaports, trains, taxis

Seattle-Tacoma airport, however, makes the most of the beautifully
delicate North-West light, with huge glass windows curving round the
apex of its boomerang-shaped structure. To my mind, an airport should
make as much of the sky as possible, given the eventual function of the
thing, and as with Zürich airport’s departure areas, Sea-Tac does this
just fine. If, as with Helsinki, that sky is shrouded with a horizon of
pine trees, all the better.

Taxi drivers are also conveyors of first-impressions. And although my
taxi to Sea-Tac on the way out was more of a last impression, I got
into a great conversation with the driver. He had just moved up from LA
three months previously, and was shifting nervously in the seat as he
was beginning to realise just how much colder the Seattle winter was
going to be compared to SoCal. Taxi driver by day but rapper by night –
in a duo called Flame Spittas. I bought a CD off him on the way. He was pretty illuminating on the issue of gangs in
Seattle, something I’d never really heard about. Yes, they weren’t in
the same league as the ones he’d been on the fringes of in LA – which
partly precipitated his move north – but they were there in Seattle,
apparently, and fairly brutal. Having steered clear of that scene, and
begun to settle in, he was enjoying Seattle and seemed to be staying
put. Good luck to him. You don’t find this kind of insight, whether
talked up and subjective or not, in the guide books.

All in all, every trip I’ve had to Seattle has left me wanting to stay
there a little longer, which can only be a good sign. As well as being organised, like most North American cities, there’s also a civilised feel to the place – perhaps sharing
a ‘northern’ sensibility with other cities in Scandinavia, Canada,
Northern Europe? – with an unusually liberal agenda. (Raban
is very good on the latter, in numerous essays.) On the basis of less
than a week of total elapsed time, split over three visits and largely
spent in corporate environments or a public library, the glimpses of
the city within, and the terrain without, are tantalising indeed. It
feels like A Good City.

(Thanks to Peter Merholz for inviting me to IDEA 2006 in the first
place, and again to Andrew Otwell for showing me round. Here are a few more photos.)


8 responses to “Journal: Brief notes on Seattle”

  1. bv Avatar

    glad to hear you had a nice time in seattle. i’ve lived here for 2 years now and enjoy it but will probably be moving again soon. i just like moving every 2 years or so…
    anyway, stop back someday in the summer and then you will really see seattles beauty when you can see the mountains, volcano, deep blue skies, the blue waters etc. also, make sure you stop by pioneer square, the historic district downtown.


  2. Rex Avatar

    The thing that interests me about the Seattle Market is that it’s the only place in America (that I can think of) that mixes tourists with locals with perfect efficiency and equanimity. I live a few blocks away and do all of my grocery shopping there, as of course a great many other people do with all that produce and fresh fish. The Market feels like about half tourists, half locals. I honestly can’t think of another place in America like that, except for maybe Central Park.


  3. Dan Avatar

    Thanks for the comments, all, and particularly that link to the Seattle Underground, Kim. Looks fascinating.
    Another note I took, that I forgot to fold in here, is the interesting Pacific Asian influence, particularly of Japan. It seemed discernible here more than in California, which is interesting given the proximity, and again suggested a parallel with Sydney and other Australian cities.


  4. K Avatar

    It’s rather fun; I remember the tour (taken about 14 years ago) as being very good. There’s something odd about a city that raised itself a story; you can see remnants in the architecture in places, where it was presumed two stories would be submerged, so you have elaborate porticeaux on the first (UK) floor level.
    The other factoid that sticks out (other than all of the newfangled flush toilets backing up when the tide was in) was that in the early days, Seattle had a huge number of Seamstresses working there; something like one in every three women in a 19thC census. It turns out that it was polite cover for prostitution…


  5. catherine Avatar

    Hello, I like what you’ve written about Seattle. I live there and think it’s an interesting place with a good, liberal, Northern European-type culture. However, like the earlier poster, I will probably move on; I too like to move every few years. I’m also partial to somewhat sunnier places — a bit more Northeast in terms of seasons is probably my ideal. However, I agree that Seattle has a nice crisp feeling, and the combination of water and pines is ever-wonderful. Cheers!


  6. K. Showalter Avatar
    K. Showalter

    Seattle is my beloved hometown, and I love it dearly. You really should read Timothy Egan’s “The Good Earth.” Like Raban, he gives a good sense of the culture and ethic of Northwesterns, including Seattlites. In my opinion, Seattle’s zenith occurred in the late 80s/early 90s, when artists still congregated in Belltown and the whole place was alive with eccentricity and quirk.


  7. lark griffin Avatar
    lark griffin

    Do you mean Timothy Egan’s A Good Rain? I believe that The Good Earth was written by Pearl Buck. Unless there are two books with that title? I would rec. Speidel also. Sons of the Profits is perhaps a little dated but it does offer some humorous insight into the building of Seattle and is in large part what the underground tour is based on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: