Goodbye Seattle, Hello Honolulu

Although our deep dives into the histories of New Orleans and Mexico City revealed how race, gender, and class affected the lived experience of urban residents, our coverage of Seattle was especially focused on the “alternative”–Seattle residents living in opposition to socially agreed upon norms or fighting for the expansion of these norms to include them. Maki Smith kicked off the month with a look at how “a cadre of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino Americans joined with radical activists from the city’s Black and Latino communities … to articulate an inclusive, anti-racist politics in a city that had long heralded its exceptional commitment to racial harmony.” In describing the history of LGBTQI organizing in the city, Gary Atkins pointed to Seattle’s “being a rather tolerant, get-along kind of place with lots of niche groupings” to explain how such a diverse activist community emerged. After leaders realized that they “ultimately were going nowhere in public influence unless they learned to form coalitions,” they began consulting “multiple voices … resulting in a low-key Seattle style of LGBTQ organizing and expression that continues to this day.” And finally, our three-part review of the city’s depiction in pop culture reflected on “alternative” music, portrayals of the 1999 anti-capitalist WTO protest in fiction and film, and satire of the hegemonic tech culture of present-day Seattle.

Next month, we’ll move on to an equally laid-back city but leave the rain behind in the Pacific Northwest. Leaping halfway across the Pacific, we will explore the history of Honolulu, share travelogues, and mine more pop culture for insight into the city.

Featured photo:Aerial view of Seattle, with the Space Needle on right, Mt. Rainer in background“, 1962, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

JUH Round Up: Seattle

One final note regarding the outgoing Metropolis of the Month. Regrettably, as noted in our bibliography of the city, Seattle remains an understudied metropolitan region.   Accordingly, the Journal of Urban History’s publication record reflects this reality. Over the past 11 years, the JUH has only published two articles about Seattle. That being said, one could argue the two it has published complement one another and do much to explore relevant issues regarding urban space, property rights, economic development, conservation and environmentalism in American cities. Below are two far too brief summaries of each article.

“The leveling of the hills to make Seattle [Denny Hill]”, photograph by Asahel Curtis, 1910, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Matthew Klingle, “Changing Spaces: Nature, Property, and Power in Seattle, 1880-1945”, Journal of Urban History 32.2 (January 2006): 197-230.

“[T]he story of how environmental injustice manifested itself in the urban landscape begins with property relations,” Matthew Klingle writes. Seattle’s history is an urban environmental history tangled up at once with engineering, politics, and property rights. “Seattle’s engineers and reformers, in thought and practice, fused nature, property and social welfare together; and regrading was the result of their synthesis … Reformers wanted to regrade property to enforce propriety, land speculators and businesses wanted to generate profits, and city engineers wanted to plan an ordered metropolis.”[1] Klingle’s 2006 article for the JUH delves into the intersection of urban politics, economic and land development, and environmentalism employing Seattle as its focus. Reminiscent of William Cronon’s classic work about Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis, Klingle reorients his study to better address “politics and power brokering so central to urban history,” which Cronon relegates to the periphery.

All cities have origin stories, and Seattle’s rests on pioneering engineer R.H. Thomson. “Thomson saw engineering problems as environmental and social problems,” writes Klingle. “[H]e understood Seattle as a system where interconnected arrangements of energy, commerce, and culture intertwined. It was an engineer’s way of seeing.”[2] With this kind of perspective, city leaders embarked on a regrading campaign. For example, the Denny Hill regrade, where today the iconic Space Needle stands, lasted from 1903 to 1911 and resulted in 5.5 million cubic yards of soil and rock being “shoveled or sluiced into Elliott Bay.”

Dirt and rock recovered from regrading was deployed to reclaim land as well. “As engineers leveled mountains, they brought forth land from the sea,” notes Klingle. [3] Needless to say, the city’s aggressive regrading resulted in a number of legal suits involving assessments, “local improvement districts,” “injury to lives and property,” and “breached contracts,” among other issues. Class and race also factored into developments such that rather than bringing equity and landscapes into alignment, these efforts brought inequality into stark relief: “changing Seattle’s terrain reinforced [inequality], concentrated it, and made it more visible …. Class distinctions that boosters and engineers had hoped to erase from the city’s topography were now inscribed in it.”[4]

In the end, Klingle concludes that property cannot be reduced to “money or location it is also another avenue through which the contingent forces of nature can minimize or magnify discrimination.”[5]


“Seattle Cloud Cover” from Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, photograph by Ryan Reft, 2008

Amanda Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development: The Alignment of Public Art and Conservation to Build Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park”, Journal of Urban History 43.3: 493-516.

As demonstrated by Klingle, Seattle leaders long held tightly to a belief that engineering proved the solution to the city’s ills. “Seattle used to believe that there was an engineering solution to every problem,” one former public official told Amanda Johnson Ashley in 2014. In many ways, Johnson Ashley’s 2017 article for the JUH builds on Klingle’s work from decade earlier. If Klingle examined late nineteenth and early twentieth century urban engineering and legal battles over the physical landscape, economic development, and individual property rights, Ashley Johnson explores the role of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), and possible alternatives to them, in twenty first century efforts to transform the “contested and privatized waterfront into public open space” today known as the Olympic Sculpture Park (OSP).

PPPs, as many urban historians already know, have become the coin of the realm in urban planning and economic development. Ashley Johnson uses Seattle’s experience, including failed efforts like Seattle Commons, to test the PPP waters: “This study acts as a starting point for a conversation about how to create urban assets beyond those strategies and mechanisms outlined and promoted by conventional wisdom.”[6] The creation of the OSP depended not on a PPP but rather a Dual Non Profit Partnership between the Seattle Art Museum and the Trust for Public Land.

Yet as Ashley Johnson points out, it is not just about the here and recently passed now, but also the parallels between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century City Beautiful movements and today; the former being an era that “prioritized arts and open space to reshape and reimagine the ills of urban life” through civic and business cooperation in the organization and design of urban environs while also advocating for municipal funding and citizen approval. “These histories provide insight into whether these two early pillars – arts and open space – are still relevant for contemporary urban revitalization,” she notes. Indeed, Ashley Johnson highlights the use of both the arts and urban conservation efforts as a means to create public space and drive economic development. “Whispering firs, running waters, running paths, multifamily housing along the fringes,” one Seattle Times journalist muses. “A brand new salmon run, maybe all the way to a fake pond in the back of City Hall. How absurd. How delightful. How about it?”[7]

The OSP opened a decade ago this past January and encapsulates the benefits and drawbacks of DNPs. Since it’s Friday let’s highlight the positive. “The success of the DNP project was far less about creating a public art sculpture park and far more about creating a civic waterfront space after centuries of privatized waterfront in a city with a history that demonstrated that ‘land was a marketable commodity and civic rights had no place or presence,’” asserts Ashley Johnson.[8] Should DNPs replace PPPs? Not necessarily, she notes, but they should be considered since they offer a “different option in communities where PPPs are politically tenuous, where private actors are not interested in the complexities of PPPs, or where the public is not willing to continue to pay out of pocket for urban improvements.”[9]

[1] Matthew Klingle, “Changing Spaces: Nature, Property, and Power in Seattle, 1880-1945”, Journal of Urban History 32.2 (January 2006): 199.

[2] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 207.

[3] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 210.

[4] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 216, 219.

[5] Klingle, “Changing Spaces”, 224.

[6] Amanda Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development: The Alignment of Public Art and Conservation to Build Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park”, Journal of Urban History 43.3: 497.

[7] Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development”, 501.

[8] Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development”, 507.

[9] Ashley Johnson, “Examining an Alternative Take on Urban Development”, 512.

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