Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part One

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)

Seattle, Washington

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.

continue on to part two: Vancouver

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9 Responses to Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part One

  1. billy king says:

    Thanks for cutting through the self-congratulatory crap that permeates Seattle’s sense of self. Downtown is a scary place and has been taken over by drug dealers and crack addicts from one end of town to another. The alleys are bathrooms, beggars are everywhere, only tourists make downtown Seattle seem lively. Once voted by several publications the best place to live Seattle quickly became a Mecca for everyone from someplace else whose main goal it seemed was to change everything about Seattle, make it more like where they came from. Microsoft began hiring at 66k starting wage which completely turned over the rental apartment market; long time residents and community contributors were removed for much higher rent paying newbies. Prices skyrocketed. Seattle became San Francisco; only San Francisco has less children than Seattle. Subsidised housing (medicated) and high priced condos replaced wage earner housing. The eyes and ears of a normal urban environment have been replaced by a drug dealer on every corner with a cell phone. It can only get worse.
    What made Seattle work when it worked was its inexpensive housing, quality schools, and its low profile. Today its well known, expensive and
    the weather still sucks. Portland and Vancouver, with the same weather, have made decisions that have empowered the city and its citizens. They are where the true pacific Northwest model resides. Seattle is over I’m sorry to say. As a 40+ years as a downtown resident I’ve never felt less safe and I’m big and streetwise. One saving grace is that crack addicts tend to move on when asked.

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      Nice to hear that I’m not the only taken aback by the vibe on the streets in downtown Seattle. Sorry to hear that things might even be worse than I guessed. I question whether a raised profile is what hinders Seattle’s functionality, though. As you say, Vancouver and Portland have made great strides while in the limelight (although I have some criticism I’ll be leveling at the City of Roses in an upcoming post). And given how much great urban fabric Seattle has, particularly in places like Pioneer Square, it seems hard to believe that decline is an irreversible trend.

      I’m assuming you might disagree with the commenter below…if so, on what counts? Residents of a place often end up sliding toward one pole or the other, either lambasting their city with unwarranted vigor or naively defending it in the face of unquestionable guilt…have either of you had experiences that have pushed you one way or the other?

  2. COMTE says:


    I’ve been propositioned more frequently in a two block walk through Times Square than I’ve ever been in a 20 block walk through Seattle. Perspective is where you look for it, and nobody who lives here would have been in the least surprised by your experience in Pioneer Square, since everyone here already knows what you just found out: that’s where the druggies tend to hang out, in large part due to the neighborhood’s abundance of charity missions, homeless shelters and social service agencies.

    Whatever overly romanticized notions you’ve developed over the years about Seattle are just that, overly romanticized longings for a place that only existed in your imagination, and which has very little to do with real life. But complaining that the Seattle you saw didn’t match the Seattle in-your-head doesn’t make your sense of disappointment OUR problem, now does it?

    And really, you’re trying to compare the attributes of a 380 year-old city with one not even half that old? Talk about apples and oranges.

    We’ve got our problems here, sure, and we’re in the process of dealing with yet another growth-spurt, just like we had during the first decades of the city’s founding in the mid-1800’s, and again during the Yukon Gold Rush at the turn of the last century, or the one that accompanied the War boom of the 1940’s, or during the dotcom boom of the ’90’s, and now with the New Media boom of the early 21st Century. Seattle’s entire history has been written on an intermittent series of boom-and-bust cycles; and each time we’ve struggled with balancing the desire to maintain the character of earlier days with the need to adapt to new and changing circumstances.

    The result is a public character that perhaps seems coldly accommodating to the outsider, but that’s because we have a long experience of dealing with idealistic newcomers such as yourself who eventually become disillusioned or disinterested and drift away, leaving the natives to pick up the pieces of your shattered dreams and turn them into something out of which we can actually make use. Not to worry: we’re really good at that, we’ve been doing it for a while now, which is why we’re still here.

    And so what if it’s raining? That just means more deep powder in the mountains (a mere 40 minutes away) this time of year. You can choose to see the glass as half full or half empty, but either way it’s still got water in it, and we’re a people who know just what to do with water, regardless of what state-of-matter it happens to be in at the moment.

  3. Josh Grigsby says:

    I appreciate your impassioned defense of Seattle, as well as your observations on how repeated cycles of booms and busts have shaped it. But do you think that Seattle has any more experience with idealistic newcomers than San Francisco, Los Angeles, or (recently, at least) Portland? And even if we assume age is what separates Boston’s urbanity from that of Seattle, the aforementioned similarly-aged West Coast cities (and, additionally, Vancouver) strike me as much more successfully urban.

    The article was really about first impressions. I don’t claim to have gleaned any revelatory insights from three days of walking around and riding buses. But while first impressions never tell the whole story, they don’t generally lie. A number of other sites have reposted the article, and it has been interesting to see the comments readers have left. Most seem to agree that Seattle’s urban core is not a healthy place, that reputation exceeds reality.

    I’m curious, though, as to what you see as Seattle’s strengths and weaknesses? What does it do really well? What makes it special? What does it need to work on? How long have you been in Seattle? What keeps you there? At the end of the day, it’s the efforts of concerned and caring citizens that matters, not the rantings of a random blogger.

  4. Pingback: Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part Two «

  5. Pingback: Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland by Rail, Bus, Streetcar, and Foot: Part Three «

  6. Pingback: Planologie Considers Portland

  7. cdoom says:

    20 year resident will try and answer:

    What Seattle does well: is a blank slate onto which you can start over and make something of yourself. I did not understand “the American Dream” til I moved here. The town lets one create whatever imagined reality one wants to — and then has enough economy to help make it real.

    The urban core like lots of towns has its good areas and bad. The area has always had a grungy exterior – part of our charm. A lot of thats moss and mold from the water, plus we really do skimp on city services here. Be thankful the power stayed on. As for those bums, coddling bums (sorry, “homeless”) is a 100 year tradition here. No sense stopping now.

    What we do well is provide a minimal base camp to go out and explore. The area does have a struggle between Los Angeles and Tokyo and Chicago for the soul of its city, right now Los Angeles (sprawl) seems to be winning. Chicago is in decline, and Tokyo always has some appeal. No matter what we keep replacing what we have with new, there are really few historical landmarks, and what few there are tend to get over valued because there are so few to begin with. Neon signs are big.

    As for the lack of city parks, we’re surrounded on all sides by forests and lakes and ocean. Parks just give the bums a place to sleep anyway. We have enough of those. And I don’t know if you noticed, but its fairly hilly in the urban core, clearing off land for a park implies you spent a lot of prime real estate that could be getting put to business use. We do tend to be a lot more conservative particularly business wise than you might have expected. I think you’ll find any west coast town a weird combination of social liberal yet very tight with money / commercially conservative. And transit is in a 15 year decline — it was moved out from under City administration in 1995 and given to the County, who promptly began investing only in one-way suburban commuters, to the detriment of any plan for the downtown core. We all still feel that impact today.

    Yet it is a great place to live, start a business, come up with an idea, write code, create a plan and not have people shoot it down. There’s a reason many of our local business’s went huge, like Starbucks and Microsoft (and subsequently got cited as reasons people outside the northwest hate us).. its because one can grow here, away from the cynicism and pressure of the east coast, any idea here is a good idea until proven otherwise, and then it just was an idea that didn’t sell yet. Direct confrontation is fairly discouraged, and failure is nothing to be ashamed of. So we’re an incubator community for start ups, we’re very good at that.

    We are not good at consensus leadership, in fact, we tend to be anti-leader and no civic project no matter how important is one that can’t be debated for 20 years first. That ugly waterfront road is a perfect example; some want it to be torn down, some want it repaired, some want it replaced either with another elevated road or else with a tunnel. All ideas have their strong points, all have their champions. So nothing is done. Leadership in the nortwest means achieving consensus, which generally means doing nothing til its absolutely necessary.
    Roads and transit in general tend to get put off til the last minute, then something slapped together. Why you need more roads? Shouldn’t you just go live closer to your job anyway? Seattle expects you to solve your own problems, the government isn’t going to solve it for you.

    As for druggies downtown, I live and work downtown and I never get propositioned by anyone for anything. I think you must look like an easy target. I’m also over 40 so that isn’t the reason, I guarantee I am not big or imposing or particularly conspicuously dressed. Maybe they see me every day and know my face and leave me alone cause I live here. That might be it.

    The area is skittish about outsiders ever since WTO, we kind of got our collective a** handed us by everyone from the national media to the cops to the absolutely idiotic bad planning our leaders provided, to the out of town punk protestors that showed up to break our windows and litter our streets and cause the police to go batshit insane and figure out paramilitary policing on locals for the first time. It was a lightswitch change in the relationship between police and locals — we used to trust each other quite a bit, now there is always fear. I think we got a little less trusting of outsiders and a lot less concerned what our city looks like to them after that.

  8. red breccia says:

    downtown seattle and more specifically pioneer square is a desparate and depressing shithole. i am not sure which is more off-putting the frat rats and faux toughs and their silly-assed harleys at night or the crack heads and the faux toughs and their silly assed harleys during the day. i spent alot of time in this area starting in the late 70’s and thru the 80’s. it had potential but none of the mayors could see past their desk so pioneer square just got inundated with left over irresponsible parts of society. note; left over not alternative. pioneer square is way worse way less interesting now than ever before. i rarely go down there except to elliot bay books and they got smart and left so there ain’t nothing left except frat rats, crack heads and faux tough and their silly assed harleys. at least all those losers are in the same area. too bad the cops are too chicken shit to do anything about it.

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