It is a rare experience in the United States to travel between cities in a region as well as neighborhoods within cities without requiring an automobile. I recently spent ten days in the Pacific Northwest sans car, flying in and out of Seattle, riding trains between Seattle and Vancouver, Vancouver and Portland, and Portland and Seattle, and utilizing a combination of light rail, streetcars, buses, and my own two feet to explore the cities themselves. Here are some impressions, with a focus on the urbanized core—the “city” at the center of each city. (photos without designated sources are mine)
I grew up during the grunge era, with Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder for role models, and the notion that a city could simultaneously spawn and embrace musical icons of social and political dissidence and the bourgeois haughtiness of, say, Frasier Crane, always fascinated me. Seattle was the only major coastal city in the U.S. I hadn’t yet spent time in; I was ready to fall in love.
It was a fleeting romance that withered minutes after touching down at SEATAC. Seattle is predominantly low-density sprawl, and its urban core reeks of decay. Never have I felt less inclined to venture out after dark than in the International District or adjacent Pioneer Square. Heading out from the hostel on foot to find a bowl of noodles for dinner I was accosted twice by young men selling drugs, followed for several weaving blocks by five other young men, screamed at by a well-dressed but seemingly mentally ill young man, and propositioned by a strung-out pimp whose employees remained unseen. Roving gangs of teens and twentysomethings, faces hidden by oversized hoods, patrolled the streets. I saw no families, no police, no women, none of the eyes on the street that self-regulate their urban neighborhoods.
Public transportation in Seattle was similarly disappointing. Bus routes are labyrinthine and illogical, stops poorly marked. A streetcar running along the waterfront attracts tourists but serves little practical purpose, as does the famed monorail. The new LINK light rail system is promising but does not yet serve a large enough area to be transformative. Transit-oriented signage and wayfinding is minimal where it exists at all. All of which seems strange given Seattle’s supposedly progressive politics and massive infrastructural investment in a downtown transit tunnel. Fortunately, the central city is small enough to walk, but unfortunately hills and highways discourage it.
Seattle’s urban fabric is often gorgeous, rife with industrial era brick buildings and pedestrian alleys and marked by iconic (though not always beloved) architectural and cultural monuments such as the King Street Station, the Sinking Ship, the Seattle Art Museum, Pike Place Market, and the Space Needle. An independently-owned coffee shop can be found every third block, and a plethora of bookstores, art galleries, and artisanal shops suggest a different city than the one I encountered, as if existing pockets of refinement cloistered themselves against the surrounding neighborhood. An air of decay and desperation permeated the urban core, and the general lack of families, children, or the elderly was unsettling.
I walked the bulk of downtown Seattle, and found little that seemed to flourish in its current form. Trendy Capitol Hill struck me as shabby, Belltown as indistinct, the Puget Sound waterfront as overly touristy and dominated by an elevated freeway. There was little greenery, few parks, few places that felt genuinely inhabited. The weather was, of course, awful, but the gray pall that shrouded the sky seemed more than climatic.
source: google maps
source: google maps
And then I boarded a bus out of downtown and discovered why people choose to live in Seattle. The areas to the north – Queen Anne, Wallingford, Fremont, Ballard, University District – feature tree-lined streets, walkable neighborhood “downtowns,” reasonably priced and reasonably attractive multifamily homes. More people were on bikes, more were simply congregating and conversing. Levels of gentrification vary, but most of these neighborhoods remain middle-class and multiethnic. The lush native geography has not been extruded. True, density is low, but here I felt comfortable. I could breathe.
source: google maps
source: google maps
Downtown Seattle, for all its potential, seems to be in a downward spiral. The explosion of its local music scene in the early ‘90s made the city a Mecca for the young artistic counterculture, but also catalyzed a rampant drug problem. The dot com boom a decade later brought with it an influx of highly educated techies, but the ensuing bust saw those same companies fold or consolidate, mostly outside the central city. Major employers of old, like Boeing, have lit out for greener pastures, while newer major employers, like Microsoft, have developed sprawling campuses out in the ‘burbs.
I did a comparative analysis on Boston and Seattle last summer, and while the two cities are virtual twins in numerous statistical categories, their respective on-the-ground realities starkly contrast. Whereas urban Seattle is only a part of the city, and is surrounded by a largely suburban built environment, Boston is entirely urban, as are its surroundings. While the surrounding areas seem to drain Seattle’s central city, Boston is fed by its outliers. Youth culture in Seattle is driven by a scene, whether music, art, or otherwise. Youth culture in Boston is driven by colleges and universities. Metro Boston has nearly 400,000 students and fifteen nationally ranked universities; research undertaken at the eight leading graduate schools generates in excess of $8B annually for the region. No wonder twentysomethings don’t seem so desperate in Beantown.
I was ready to love Seattle, I really was. But human beings, like all animals, instinctively shy away from areas of instability, and Seattle felt unstable. Chock full of potential, but unstable. Few places in Boston have ever put me on edge while out at night; few places in Seattle didn’t. True, I was only there for three days, in crappy weather, and I’m probably not giving Seattle a fair shake. Lots of friends who have lived there speak glowingly of the experience. It’s also possible that my impressions are strongly colored by how they differ from my preconceptions. I hear that Seattle is a pretty safe city, highly literate, progressive, and environmentally aware, but perception can be realer than reality, as paradoxical as that sounds, and I couldn’t wait to leave the home of the latte for someplace a bit more civilized.