City of Anxiety

Bertha bores the daylights out of Pioneer Square, February 19, 2015

When I wrote these closing words in the waning days of 2015, Seattle was a city full of holes — both literally and symbolically.

The most symbolic of those literal holes could then be found by the shores of Elliott Bay near Pioneer Square, uncannily close to where Henry Yesler’s lumber mill operated during Seattle’s pioneer days. There lay Bertha, the infamous $800 million tunnel-boring machine that still sat idling in a repair pit after myriad months of comically costly bureaucratic limbo. An apparent promise by the project’s overlords to resume drilling before the approaching new year began had been met with profound skepticism by much of the local citizenry, given the appalling metastasis of the Bertha boondoggle during the preceding few years.

Several other symbolic holes could then be found in the burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood, where the city’s most recent technology boom had provoked a staggering amount of new building construction, mostly centered on and around the main campus of Amazon, the global online-commerce corporation that, there circa 2015, had come to dominate Seattle’s economy, politics, and civic life.

Amazon received much critical national attention when The New York Times published a feature-length article on August 15, 2015, titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” The article reported on the draconian workplace atmosphere experienced by the company’s employees, both blue-collar and white-collar. Among the infamous pull quotes culled from that article was one attributed to former Amazon employee Bo Olson. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” Olson said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Three days later, on August 18, a blogger named CML published an article at the popular (and now defunct) website Gawker titled “How Amazon Swallowed Seattle” that provoked much further critical chatter on social media. The provocative opening sentence: “Seattle is dead and Amazon killed it.”

What followed that sentence was a litany of grievances concerning how Amazon’s economic dominance of Seattle had negatively affected the city’s longtime sociocultural quality — especially on Capitol Hill, the neighborhood that for many years was the city’s countercultural epicenter, yet which recently had been overwhelmed by abrupt wealth acquisition and its attendant gentrification. While Capitol Hill was once a strong regional haven for gay people and gay culture, gay-bashings had recently increased alarmingly there, especially in the Pike-Pine corridor, the neighborhood’s longtime nightlife mecca. Such dangerous change was an obvious consequence of the neighborhood’s new, young “brogrammer” demographic — mostly comprising Amazon employee transplants who had moved into Capitol Hill’s recently built luxury condominiums with apparently no clue about the neighborhood’s unique demographic history.

The difference between Old Seattle and New Seattle that CML lamented in their Gawker article was ultimately qualitative, not quantitative. Yes, Seattle’s economy was buzzing once again circa 2015 — but the boom this time was unfortunately booming at the expense of a unique civic character that once was locally abundant, yet was then apparently being suffocated by rampant economic fundamentalism, an ideological pathology that Amazon both fed upon and fomented during Seattle’s most recent urban growth paroxysm.

South Lake Union circa 2015
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times

As with Seattle’s circa-1995 boom, the circa-2015 boom was yet another “tale of two cities” in which extreme prosperity was accompanied by unprecedented gentrification, displacement, and homelessness. The city’s emerging housing affordability crisis that year was acute enough to become a central issue in the November 3, 2015, Seattle City Council elections — so much so that one day before Election Day, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a civil emergency on homelessness, calling for an increase in federal and state funding for human services and emergency shelter.

Among the hot local topics related to that crisis then looming over those elections were linkage fees and inclusionary zoning, local policies which were both intended to make real-estate developers provide affordable housing in Seattle by requiring them to either designate a portion of new units as affordable or contribute to the city’s affordable housing fund. Developers clearly became a magnet for progressive activist ire during the city’s 2015 elections — especially after one developer was caught attempting to intimidate one council candidate by threatening possible political retribution shortly before Election Day.

The candidate in question was Jon Grant, the former executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, who was then running for the citywide Council Position 8 as a grassroots challenger to the establishment incumbent Tim Burgess. Grant was apparently told on October 10 by Brett Allen, an executive of the development firm Triad Capital Partners, that the company would make certain that a $200,000 independent expenditure committee set up specifically to attack Grant would “go away” if Grant would contact a certain Tenants Union attorney with whom he had once worked and convince the attorney to settle a lawsuit against Triad sponsored by the union. Triad had been contracted in 2007 by the City of Seattle for a major construction project downtown on city-owned land: namely, the $400 million Civic Square complex across from Seattle City Hall, which had then been delayed for years by the lawsuit.

After Grant refused Allen’s clumsy blackmail attempt and publicly revealed the Scorsesean encounter between himself and Allen, the incident was reported in The Seattle Times on October 12, immediately starting a full-scale Internet wildfire among Seattle’s political cognoscenti. Such was the strength and urgency of that discursive blaze that Mayor Murray announced on October 14 that the City of Seattle would not renew its contract with Triad because of the intimidation tactics they had apparently employed against Grant.

Such clandestine political chicanery within Seattle’s municipal machinery was clearly nothing new for those who then remembered similar shenanigans during the city’s mid-1990s boom — such as the $23 million Pacific Place/Nordstrom parking garage corporate welfare giveaway. Recalling that episode now should underscore the uncanny similarities between the two booms — such as the respective ways in which the city dealt with its underclass in the context of extreme economic inequity.

Which inevitably brings us back to Mark Sidran, Seattle’s infamously draconian city attorney circa 1995. Even Sidran, among the city’s most avid municipal boosters during the 1990s, acknowledged the city’s apparently incurable collective anxiety during that decade in a speech delivered to the Rotary Club of Seattle on August 4, 1993, which would later appear in permanent print as a Seattle Times guest editorial column published on August 10, 1993:

“And yet, we Seattleites have this anxiety, this nagging suspicion that despite the mountains and the Sound and smugness about all our advantages, maybe, just maybe we are pretty much like those other big American cities, ‘back East’ as we used to say when I was a kid and before California joined the list of ‘formerly great places to live.'”

Circa 1993, the anxiety Sidran spoke of was the same collective civic insecurity that drove the city’s longtime aspirations towards “world-class” status during the 1990s. Circa 2015, the anxiety felt by many longtime Seattleites was driven by a collective sense that much of what once made Seattle special was disappearing as a consequence of the recent fruition of those very erstwhile global aspirations.

When one considers how Mark Sidran and Kurt Cobain uncannily represented the sociocultural yin and yang of Seattle circa 1993, it should make perfect sense that Nirvana released their final studio album In Utero merely one month after Sidran’s dog-whistle op-ed appeared in The Seattle Times. While Sidran prepared to unleash his draconian civility ordinances upon Seattle’s underclass that same year, Cobain responded to the absurdity of global mega-stardom with a deliberately shrill set of glorious anti-anthems, guaranteed by Nirvana’s fame to sell at least one million copies that same autumn, despite its brazen gadfly stance.

When one considers in turn Cobain’s iconic self-destruction the following spring in the context of Sidranism’s local political ascendancy — as well as the nascence of Amazon that same year — Seattle’s perpetual collective anxiety should seem inevitably dystopian.

City of Anxiety at Night
photographer unknown

While Seattle settled uneasily into its erstwhile namesake century, all was not yet lost for the city’s rich and gritty history during the waning days of 2015. Despite the city’s increasingly upscale electorate, that year’s November municipal elections ushered in the most genuinely progressive new city council in several election cycles, led by the decisive re-election of the controversial socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant and the election of Lisa Herbold, the longtime legislative aide to the brazenly liberal five-term departing council member Nick Licata.

Anxiety still covertly governed Seattle as the centennial anniversary of the city’s world-famous general strike approached. The city’s first establishment lesbian mayor even admitted so during her first full day in office. Interviewed by The Stranger on November 28, 2017, Jenny Durkan intriguingly declared, “The city has grown so quickly that people are feeling anxious, and rightfully so. The growth has really changed the character of the city, and that’s reflected in what shows up here at city hall.”

Six months later, when Seattle City Hall hosted an historic showdown between economic fundamentalism and economic justice ignited by the city’s controversial proposed Employee Hours Tax, a legislative measure designed to mitigate the city’s intersecting housing affordability and homelessness crises, Durkan would pick the predictable side of that battle. While clashing pro-and-con demonstrators converged inside and outside the city council chamber, Durkan demonstrated her inevitable fealty to Seattle’s political establishment’s apocryphal wisdom.

Seattle has prospered socioculturally during the twenty-first century by continuing its gradual transformation from an isolated and provincial city into one that is now genuinely and profoundly cosmopolitan, multicultural, and multiethnic — yet the increasing economic inequity that has accompanied that positive demographic change ironically now threatens to undermine it.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s erstwhile progressive municipal promise remains today uncertain, indeed.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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City of Tribes

Chief Seattle statue, Pioneer Square

We begin with identity.

Among the myriad misconceptions long surrounding Seattle, our city has acquired an unfortunate reputation as a strictly white city — in other words, one where European Americans dominate the demographic milieu. While it’s true that white people have long defined the city’s character superficially, Seattle is in fact an ethnically complex metropolis — and has been so since its founding.

When the Denny Party landed at Alki Point on November 13, 1851 — the standard historical date of Seattle’s municipal birth — they were immediately greeted by a multitude of Duwamish persons. Rather than running from the pale new strangers in their midst, the Duwamish people quickly integrated themselves into the new society established by the Midwestern settlers. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, while the majority of Seattle’s citizenry remained ethnically European, any quick study of the list of distinct ethnicities who then resided within the Seattle city limits would reveal a dazzling ethnic multiplicity, regardless of demographic percentages.

Such was the case on October 4, 1998, when The Seattle Times published a feature-length Sunday front-page article titled “Anyone Speak Amharic?” The article reported how public school teachers in Seattle and Washington state had recently been overwhelmed with new students whose natal languages — such as Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia — were unfamiliar to the teachers, making everyday classroom instruction a profound challenge.

Seattle’s ethnic diversity is best defined beyond the deceptive appearance of its alleged whiteness. In 2010, the Rainier Valley district, located in southeast Seattle and a longtime ethnic cornucopia, was declared America’s most diverse ZIP code — namely, 98118 — by the United States Census Bureau, based mainly on the number of distinct ethnicities who then resided there. While the designation may have been arguable compared to other ZIP codes in other major American cities, it still holds true that Rainier Valley’s ethnic diversity contradicts the facile urban myth of Seattle’s whiteness. East Asian and other Pacific Rim peoples — especially Filipino/Filipinas — have long predominated that district demographically, followed by African Americans, European Americans, and Latino/Latina peoples. Historically, Rainier Valley during the early twentieth century was a strong Irish-American and Italian-American enclave — a demographic rarity among West Coast cities. Linguistically, Rainier Valley’s mixed population of global immigrants comprises speakers of at least 59 different languages, including Chinese, Khmer, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

Seattle’s infamously reserved social climate — sometimes referred to derisively as “The Seattle Freeze” — can be partially attributed to the two broad ethnic groups who have long predominated the city and its environs demographically: Scandinavians and East Asians. Within the social cultures of both ethnicities, being reserved is viewed as a positive personality trait rather than a social liability. While Seattle’s ethnic diversity has grown kaleidoscopically since the late 1980s, the deep cultural influence of the historically stoic character of these two ethnic groups upon Seattle’s longtime social climate should never be underestimated.

Let us never forget the people — and the peoples — who resided in the Salish Sea region for centuries prior to the Denny Party’s arrival at Alki Point. While Seattle’s indigenous population in the twenty-first century might seem invisible, during the first decades after the young town’s founding, the Duwamish tribe played a profound role in determining the future city’s ultimate historical character.

Seattle is inevitably a city of tribes — both indigenous and immigrant. The major tribes of local indigenous peoples in the Salish Sea region include the Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, and Suquamish tribes. The language spoken by the majority of these tribes historically — and thus the indigenous language of Seattle and its environs — was Lushootseed, a Salishan language. The linguistic gap between the Duwamish tribe and Seattle’s first white settlers was bridged by Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trade language developed mutually by the two ethnic communities.

The city of Seattle was of course named after Sealth (Lushootseed: /siʔaɬ/, c. 1786 – June 7, 1866), the leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes at the time of the Denny Party landing. Sealth was intrigued by Europeans and their culture, and as the new village developed, he pursued a path of accommodation rather than antagonism towards the white settlers, forming in particular a strong personal relationship with David Swinson “Doc” Maynard (1808-1873), the progressive, hard-drinking entrepreneur who more than anyone else helped establish the town of Seattle.

Reciprocating Sealth’s friendship, Maynard would become a staunch defender of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Puget Sound region, even when they were otherwise betrayed by other white government leaders during Seattle’s early growth. When the first plats for the new village were filed on May 23, 1853, due to Maynard’s insistence, it was designated as the “Town of Seattle.”

Not all was copacetic between the Europeans and the indigenous tribes of Puget Sound during Seattle’s early years, as evidenced by the Puget Sound War of 1855-56, which was instigated by a dispute over land rights, and which culminated in the Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856.

The dispute was provoked by the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, a treaty between the U.S. federal government and the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other Puget Sound tribes imposed by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens. The treaty removed prime farm land from tribal control while granting 2.24 million acres of that land to the United States in exchange for the establishment of three tribal reservations, cash payments over a period of twenty years, and federal recognition of traditional native fishing and hunting rights. The original Nisqually reservation granted by the treaty was located in rocky terrain and was therefore unacceptable to the Nisqually, who were a riverside fishing people. Anticipating a militant reaction by the Nisqually, Governor Stevens mobilized local militias, and fighting began in October 1855 with several skirmishes, the first of which occurred on October 28, 1855.

The Battle of Seattle began with a coordinated attack on the town involving several hundred members of the tribes who were outraged at the terms of the Medicine Creek treaty. Adding fuel to the fire, just five days before the attack, Governor Stevens had declared a “war of extermination” upon the tribes in response to the earlier skirmishes. Among the leaders of the attack was Leschi (Lushootseed: /ˈlɛʃaɪ/, 1808 – 1858), chief of the Nisqually tribe. Leschi rejected the treaty and joined an alliance of Klickitat, Spokane, Yakima, and other tribes who also rejected the treaty.

The night before the Battle of Seattle, Leschi and Owhi, chief of the Yakima tribe, snuck into the town to conduct a reconnaissance. The attack was launched early in the morning, and the battle raged through the day until 10 p.m. that night, when the tribes finally withdrew. No more attacks on Seattle would occur after that, but it would take years for white settlement on Puget Sound to resume.

Leschi was later captured, and as punishment for his role in the attack and the alleged murders of two Territorial militiamen, he was hanged on February 19, 1858, sparking much long-lingering controversy concerning the question of his guilt. He was finally exonerated by the Washington State Supreme Court on December 10, 2004, on the grounds that he was in fact a lawful combatant in a war. Justice Gerry Alexander announced the decision, stating, “Chief Leschi should not, as a matter of law, have been tried for the crime of murder.”

Bergen Place, Ballard, U.S.A.

Apparently, Scandinavians go where the fisheries are.

Many people have remarked how Seattle has long been predominated by Scandinavian peoples and culture. When one learns the history of Scandinavian immigration to America, this quirk should make perfect sense. Emigrants from the Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden — settled in great numbers during the nineteenth century in those regions of the United States whose landscapes were familiar to them: places filled with fjords, forests, and mountains that reminded them of home.

While the Great Lakes region first welcomed Nordic peoples to America, the Pacific Northwest quickly followed as a transatlantic Scandinavian mecca, receiving a multitude of first-generation immigrants and, later, Scandinavian-American transplants from the Upper Midwest. Most of the emigration from the Nordic countries to America took place during the period from 1840 to 1920. A major influx occurred in the Pacific Northwest between 1890 and 1910, when close to 150,000 Scandinavians settled here, thus making them the largest foreign-born ethnic group in Washington state, comprising more than 30 percent of the state’s foreign-born population, mostly centered in the Puget Sound region.

Scandinavians determined Seattle’s politics as well as its dominant social culture quite early. Nationally, the Scandinavian tradition of collective action led many Nordic immigrants to pursue active roles in American social reform movements. From the 1840s onward, Scandinavians were well represented in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and when the Civil War began, they volunteered in great numbers to fight for the Union.

Many Scandinavians also played an active role in the burgeoning American labor movement during the 1890-1920 Progressive Era — especially in Washington state, where the degree of progressivism and radical leftism at the time would eventually lead to the state’s famous red-baiting denigration by U.S. Postmaster General James Farley in 1936 as “the Soviet of Washington.” Seattle would naturally become the urban locus of this explosion of statewide progressive activism as it emerged to become the foremost city of the Pacific Northwest during the 1910s.

There was in fact a Scandinavian presence in Seattle as early as the mid-1870s, as evidenced by the Scandinavian Immigration and Aid Society, founded in Seattle in 1876, whose purpose was to encourage immigration to Seattle from Scandinavia. The society’s efforts achieved fruition when Scandinavian immigration to Seattle began to surge circa 1890. Like many immigrants of that place and time, Scandinavians first settled in the Skid Road area surrounding Yesler Way between Sixth Avenue and the city’s waterfront. As their fortunes improved, most Scandinavian Seattleites left Skid Road and moved north to the emerging town of Ballard, where familiar employment could be found in its lumber and shingle mills, as well as with its fishing fleet.

Prior to its annexation by Seattle in 1907, Ballard was a thriving sawmill town, where the Stimson Mill Company had operated since January 1890. The annexation added 17,000 persons to Seattle’s population — as well as a significant component to its internal ethnic chemistry. Ballard soon became known among Seattleites as “Swedetown” — even though Norwegians actually outnumbered Swedes there, as their descendants do today. Salmon Bay on Ballard’s southern shore soon became the home of the majority of the city’s fishing fleet, thus fully integrating Scandinavians into Seattle’s economic infrastructure.

During the twentieth century, the Scandinavian influence within Seattle would fully blossom, leaving many enduring local icons in its wake, from the zany folksinger and seafood restaurateur Ivar Haglund to the Nordstrom family’s nationwide retail empire to Washington state’s powerful U.S. senators Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) and Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), who for decades used their clout in The Other Washington to secure federal funding for the bills that supported many of Seattle’s mid-century civic improvement projects.

Hing Hay Park, International District

Along with Scandinavians, the other broad ethnic group that would determine Seattle’s notedly stoic social culture was East Asians.

Seattle is of course a Pacific Rim city, and East Asians would inevitably migrate to and settle in Seattle as a result of the city’s early economic expansion. Chinese people provided cheap labor for the transcontinental railroads that were built across the United States during the late nineteenth century, and many of those workers naturally remained in the cities that attracted the railroads after their construction was completed — including and especially Seattle.

Unfortunately, when the Chinese were no longer useful to the railroad companies, they were suddenly subject to a labor surplus, as well as the Chinese Expulsion Act of 1882, which outlawed further Chinese immigration to the United States. Combined with rampant xenophobia, this situation led to the anti-Chinese riots of 1885-86, which occurred throughout the western United States, sparked by intense labor competition. The Seattle riots of 1886 occurred from February 6 to February 9 of that year. The first riot began when a mob affiliated with a local Knights of Labor chapter began a campaign to carry out a forcible expulsion of all Chinese persons from the city. To quell the rioting, U.S. President Grover Cleveland ordered in federal troops, leading to a clash between the rioters and the troops. This episode resulted in the removal of more than 200 Chinese persons from Seattle and left two militiamen and three rioters seriously injured.

After the Chinese Expulsion Act was passed, a wave of Japanese immigration began that brought an abrupt influx of Japanese persons to Seattle. The Japanese quickly became the most numerous among the city’s non-whites, and they would perform much of the menial work that the displaced Chinese had done previously. Both the Japanese and the remaining Chinese settled largely in what is now known as the Chinatown-International District, which became an official city district in 1910 and would eventually include residents of Filipino and Vietnamese origin.

Seattle’s “new Chinatown” was born when Goon Dip, a prominent businessman within Seattle’s Chinese-American community, organized a group of Chinese Americans to found the Kong Yick Investment Company, a benefit society. Their money and efforts would soon lead to the construction of two crucial buildings intended to serve together as the commercial anchor of the new neighborhood: the East Kong Yick Building and the West Kong Yick Building.

Meanwhile, Filipino immigrants would settle in some of the new neighborhood’s hotels and boarding houses, attracted by opportunities to work as contract laborers in agriculture and Alaskan salmon canneries. Among them was Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan, who would later describe his formative local experiences in his now-classic 1946 memoir America Is in the Heart.

Other ethnicities will always exist among those who dominate and/or predominate within any given global city. While African Americans have always been marginalized within the stoic Scandinasian paradigm of sociocultural Seattle, our city’s most globally famous municipal native musician remains today James Marshall Hendrix (1942-1970). Scion of sorts of a working-class black family residing in the Central Area during World War II, Jimi Hendrix of course achieved great fame during his brief life by revolutionizing the language of the electric guitar.

Among the persistent misconceptions regarding the life and work of Jimi Hendrix remains his identity as a hometown hero. Make no mistake: Seattle for Jimi Hendrix was always a place from which to escape, not a legendary destination for fulfilling creative ambition.

The most recent significant wave of foreign immigration to Seattle occurred during the 1990s, when refugees from violent conflicts in both East Africa and Eastern Europe came to the Puget Sound region almost simultaneously, further distancing the city from its monochromatic past both ethnically and culturally. This wave was yet another step in Seattle’s gradual transformation from an isolated and provincial city into one that is now genuinely and profoundly cosmopolitan, multicultural, and — urban mythology notwithstanding — multiethnic.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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Zioncheck for President

Marion and Rubye Nix Zioncheck circa summer 1936
Museum of History & Industry

Seattle is full of stories of What Could Have Been. Among the most poignant of these is the story of Marion Zioncheck, at once one of Seattle’s greatest rabble-rousers and one of our city’s most tragic historical figures.

Marion Anthony Zioncheck was Seattle’s elected representative in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 until his tragic death by suicide on August 7, 1936. That tragedy was merely the tip of the iceberg of Zioncheck’s brief yet fascinating life. At his life’s nadir, he became the only U.S. Congressmember ever sent to an insane asylum. During his finest hour, at the peak of his congressional career, as a passionate champion of our nation’s underclass, he famously proclaimed, “I am a radical and I am damn proud of it. What do you think of that?”

Born Marion Antoni Zajaczek in Kęty, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (now part of Poland) on December 5, 1901, Zioncheck immigrated with his parents to the United States at the age of three, moving first to Chicago, then to Seattle in 1905. Raised in poverty on Beacon Hill, he attended high school in Olympia and enrolled at the University of Washington in 1919, but had to withdraw without graduating because he ran out of money. He then toiled for several years in menial jobs on fishing boats and in lumber camps to earn his college tuition. He was thus able to re-enroll at UW at the age of 25, financially supporting both his studies and his parents. His experience as an impoverished and non-traditional student among privileged young classmates would profoundly determine his future character and career.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Zioncheck first made his mark as a rabble-rouser in 1928 while attending the UW School of Law. As president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), he brazenly challenged the dominance of the Greek system and the UW athletic department over UW’s funding decisions when he campaigned for the creation of a student union building on campus. His activism at UW earned him a head-shaving and a dunking in Lake Washington from ungrateful UW football players, yet it also led, several years later, to the financing and construction of the Husky Union Building, which finally opened on October 25, 1949.

Zioncheck would later describe his life as a UW student leader in a third-person autobiographical sketch written while he served as a U.S. Congressmember. That sketch demonstrated how his populist passions were already in full flower at that early stage of his career:

“As a champion of the poorer students as opposed to those who belonged to the fraternities and sororities, Zioncheck preached the policy of just recognition of all groups on the campus, with special favors to none. . . . He stood for democracy in campus life, and wanted all the students, regardless of whether they lived in hut or palace, to mingle freely as one great educational fraternity.”

Along with his ASUW escapades, Zioncheck earned a law degree while also becoming involved in the local Democratic Party. After passing the bar exam in 1929, he built a name for himself as a lawyer who fought for the destitute and underrepresented, including unemployed workers, radicals, and labor union figures, often working pro bono. His combative side, which would reach full flower during his congressional career, first emerged during his early legal career, and he was often cited for contempt of court, once appealing a $25 fine all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court.

From his legal career, Zioncheck graduated into Seattle city politics in July 1931 by helping lead a successful recall campaign against Mayor Frank Edwards, who was then attempting to sell off Seattle City Light, a public utility, to private interests. Zioncheck was co-chairman of the organization that campaigned for the recall.

The incident that provoked the recall occurred on March 9, 1931, when Edwards fired the popular head of Seattle City Light, James Delmadge Ross, a strong advocate for public ownership of municipal utilities. Edwards opposed that cause, and thus Ross’s firing was widely viewed as politically motivated. The Municipal Utilities Protection League, an ad hoc group led by Zioncheck and his fellow attorney (and future Seattle mayor) John Dore, quickly organized the recall campaign. Support for the recall was strong enough that, while only 25,000 petition signatures were needed to place the recall on a ballot, more than 200,000 were collected. On July 13, Edwards was recalled by popular vote in a special municipal election. Newly appointed mayor Robert Harlin then reinstated J. D. Ross. Seattle City Light’s customer rates quickly dropped by 75 percent as a direct result of the recall, and Zioncheck thus became a local hero in Seattle.

Zioncheck would then parlay his resulting local popularity into greater political stature in 1932. That November, as part of the national progressive electoral sweep that landed Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House, Zioncheck was elected to Congress, winning Washington state’s First District seat — then representing Seattle and Kitsap County, and formerly occupied by a Republican — on an openly radical platform. He took office in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1933.

During his first term, the populist Zioncheck was considered by many of his colleagues to be a studious and serious legislator. Unlike all too many Congressmembers then and now, he read every bill brought before the House before voting. This was partly due to the job he was assigned as a freshman by the House Democratic leadership: a degrading bill-reading job. From his performance in that position, Zioncheck gained a reputation as an obedient and unobtrusive liberal freshman.

In the 1934 national midterm elections, unlike with typical midterms, there was no backlash against Roosevelt or his fellow Democrats in Congress. In fact, that year FDR built upon his 1932 landslide victory — and Zioncheck was among the many beneficiaries of FDR’s considerable coattails, also receiving the support of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, the erstwhile liberal-to-socialist political organization that was powerful in Seattle during the 1930s. His popularity had then also increased in his home district, and he was thus re-elected by a 20,645-vote plurality, an even larger margin than he received in 1932.

Congressman Zioncheck falls from grace
The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), April 25, 1936

An ardent supporter of the spirit of FDR’s New Deal, Congressman Zioncheck was nevertheless a critic of the lukewarm nature of certain New Deal policies, which made him a target of certain money-friendly senior Congressmembers who, soon after his 1934 re-election, formed a coalition aimed at isolating and disempowering him. He then gradually reacted to his loss of power in The Other Washington by engaging in reckless public escapades that unfortunately earned him far more national notoriety than his radical legislative affinities.

The first among these escapades occurred in the wee small hours of New Year’s Day, 1936, when he strolled into the lobby of a posh Washington, D.C., apartment building, drunk and looking for some friends. Not finding them, he woke up everyone in the building by throwing open the switchboard and wishing all the tenants a Happy New Year. He then spent several hours in jail and was fined for drunk and disorderly conduct and for disturbing the peace.

Zioncheck’s combative side, dormant during his first term, began to emerge on the job dramatically as the year 1936 unfolded. One infamous day on the House floor, on March 11 of that year, he started an argument with William Ekwall, the Republican congressman from Oregon. When Ekwall requested to speak on the floor, Zioncheck interrupted, asking, “Does the gentleman from Oregon wish to make a fool of himself?”

Accustomed to such disruptive behavior, which by then had become Zioncheck’s legislative norm, Ekwall replied, “If anyone could make a bigger jackass of himself than the gentleman from Washington, I do not know who it is.”

Ekwall then indirectly threatened Zioncheck, telling another legislator, “Let him come out in the corridor and I’ll take care of him.”

Another noteworthy escapade was Zioncheck’s eloping in April with a 21-year-old Works Progress Administration secretary from Texarkana, Texas, named Rubye Louise Nix, whom he had only recently met. When reporters asked him how well he knew his new bride, he replied, “I met her about a week ago when she called me up one night. She asked me down and so I went down and looked her over. She was okay.”

The love-struck May-September couple couldn’t get married immediately in Washington, D.C., due to a three-day waiting period for marriage licenses. Instead, they crossed into Maryland where no such statute existed. Zioncheck paid for the marriage license fee there by borrowing two dollars from the deputy clerk, who refused Zioncheck’s watch as collateral.

Marion and Rubye were married on April 28, 1936. Rubye told the newspapers that “excitement and hubbub” just seemed to follow her new husband everywhere, and that she was “glad to go along with him.”

The following weeks would bring an escalation of the antics that would earn Zioncheck notoriety in the national press. Among these antics, he drove onto the White House lawn, sent a truckload of manure to the house of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover, and sent a package of empty beer bottles and mothballs to President Roosevelt in response to a perceived insult. Such incidents would become less amusing, more frequent, and more infamous. The nature of Zioncheck’s work was clearly taking its toll, which caused him to drink excessively, which further drove such outrageous behavior, which at its worst resulted in jail time.

He was finally taken in a straightjacket to the Shepherd and Enoch Pratt Hospital, a sanitarium in Maryland. A few days of observation there was apparently all it took to declare him insane. But on July 4 he escaped from the sanitarium by jumping over a seven-foot wall. He then returned to Washington, D.C., where he assaulted his landlady, who had sent his belongings away from his trashed apartment, and had a major quarrel with Rubye, leading to the couple’s temporary separation.

Thus, Marion Zioncheck, who had spent his first three years in Congress as a sober, hard-working, and dedicated legislator little known outside of Washington state, became known to the rest of the nation as nothing more than a drunken clown, a circus act, a frivolous amusement for avid readers of a sensation-hungry national press. Alternating between depression and outrageous antics, he announced that he would not run for re-election in 1936, then changed his mind mere days later. In Seattle on August 4, he addressed a paying audience of more than one thousand on the topic, “Who’s Crazy?” Of course, he denied that he was.

Marion Zioncheck’s apparent suicide note
August 7, 1936

Marion Zioncheck’s dark descent into political and personal pathos became tragic on August 7, 1936, when he leapt to his death from the window of his campaign office on the fifth floor of the Arctic Building at Third Avenue and Cherry Street in downtown Seattle. Adding to the tragedy, his body landed on the sidewalk directly in front of the parked car occupied by Rubye. It was shortly after 6 p.m., and Rubye had been waiting outside to attend a campaign banquet with her husband later that evening. Zioncheck’s brother-in-law, William Nadeau, who had accompanied him to his office that evening, was the first witness to the suicide, having tried in vain to stop Zioncheck’s abrupt rush towards the office window.

“If I’d been just a second quicker I could have caught him. I only missed him by a foot when I grabbed for him as he jumped,” Nadeau later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Nadeau found on Zioncheck’s desk a hastily written note, which read, in full and verbatim:

“My only hope in life was to improve the condition of an unfair economic system that held no promise to those that all the wealth of even a decent chance to survive let alone live.”

One can only wonder today how important a figure in American politics and government Marion Zioncheck could have become had he not been ostracized by his capital-friendly and reform-hostile colleagues in Congress. By all accounts, his eccentric behavior did not develop until after his political marginalization was complete. On the day after his death, The Seattle Daily Times had this to say about his alleged mental illness:

“[Zioncheck] had been advised by his physician to take a long rest, away from political turmoil, and [he] had been told that he could recover completely. His mental ailment had been diagnosed as manic depression.”

Zioncheck was mourned in Seattle with much public ceremony. More than two thousand people attended his funeral at the Senator Auditorium at Seventh Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle, with another thousand waiting outside, and Boeing and the University of Washington both closed down for half a day in his honor.

On the bright side, Zioncheck was succeeded in Washington state’s First District seat by his friend and former UW law school classmate Warren G. Magnuson, who would go on to become one of the most consistently progressive legislators in Congressional history — likely due in no small part to his long-lingering grief over his friend’s tragically aborted political career. According to Magnuson’s biographer, former Seattle P-I reporter Shelby Scates, Magnuson was deeply affected by what happened to Zioncheck. In a memorial speech, Magnuson once said of his late friend:

“He was the most brilliant of our young Democrats, passionately devoted to the idea of leadership. He felt the corporate structure must be made amenable to community spirit. He was opposed to the application of force by an armed minority. He believed the days of Cain and the exploitation of neighbors must give way to the Golden Rule.

“Marion felt too profoundly and too intensely, a heavy responsibility to his fellow man. These are my impressions and recollections of our dead comrade. I give them to you with only one hope — that we shall continue together where he left off.”

Marion Zioncheck is buried at Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park in North Seattle.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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The Seattle Seven

Several of the Seattle Seven and friends, circa November 1970 University of Washington Libraries Special Collections

Several of the Seattle Seven and friends, circa November 1970
University of Washington Libraries Special Collections

“Did you ever hear of the Seattle Seven? . . . That was me . . . and six other guys.”

And that stonily-intoned quote, culled from the script of the Coen Brothers comedy film classic The Big Lebowski, has likely introduced many to the memory of Seattle’s radical-historical counterpart to the Chicago Seven, the antiwar troublemakers so infamously indicted for their alleged role in disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Continuing the theme of Seattle’s longtime desire to become some other city, for one brief historical moment in the year 1970, Seattle was a shadow of Chicago.

The story of the Seattle Seven began from the story of the Chicago Seven. The similarities between the two intertwining stories are uncanny, indeed: both groups were loose collections of antiwar activists who were indicted and brought to trial by the United States federal government for the charge of conspiracy to incite a riot; both groups began as groups of eight, then became groups of seven.

The Chicago Seven trial began in September 1969. The defendants in that profoundly publicized trial were Jerry Rubin (1938-1994), Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989), Tom Hayden (1939-2016), David Dellinger (1915-2004), Rennie Davis (b. 1941), John Froines (b. 1939), and Lee Weiner (b. 1939). The eighth defendant, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (b. 1936), had his trial severed during the proceedings.

The Seattle Seven were all members of the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF), a radical anti-Vietnam War organization formed in January 1970 at the University of Washington. They were Michael Lerner (b. 1943), Susan Stern (1943-1976), Charles Clark “Chip” Marshall III (b. 1945), Michael Abeles (1951-2016), Jeff Dowd (b. 1949), Joe Kelly (b. 1946), and Roger Lippman (b. 1947). They all ironically achieved their collective infamy due to their alleged involvement in a February 1970 protest demonstration in Seattle in support of the Chicago Seven, whose verdict was due that month.

The Seattle Seven story played out mostly through the year 1970. It began on January 17 of that year, when Chicago trial defendant Jerry Rubin came to Seattle to speak about the trial. On that early Saturday afternoon, Rubin addressed an overflow crowd of approximately 4,000 in the UW’s Husky Union Building (HUB), where he sermonized on the trial, among other then-controversial topics.

Rubin first gained nationwide fame sufficient enough to attract such a crowd to the HUB when, as a younger and more austere antiwar activist at the University of California at Berkeley in May 1965, he organized the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC), an ad hoc coalition which then held a massive antiwar teach-in attended by an estimated 30,000 people. The VDC teach-in was one of the first major public expressions of protest against the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, then rapidly being escalated. On December 31, 1967, after his antiwar tactics had grown more strategically absurdist, Rubin (along with Hoffman and several others) co-founded the Yippies, a group of intentionally irreverent ideological pranksters, later self-designated with mock pomposity as the Youth International Party. The Yippies’ disruptive antics in Chicago led directly to the indictments of the Chicago Eight.

Rubin was invited to speak at the UW by Lerner, a former VDC comrade of Rubin’s at Berkeley who was then a 27-year-old visiting UW philosophy professor. While teaching Philosophy 110, an introduction to Karl Marx and New Left avatar Herbert Marcuse, Lerner was then attempting to organize a new antiwar group at the UW to fill the void left there by the nationwide implosion of Students for a Democratic Society (including the UW chapter) the preceding summer. Lerner hoped that Rubin’s appearance in Seattle would be a sufficient catalyst for such a group. Lerner’s gambit soon worked: two days after Rubin’s HUB appearance, Lerner hosted the first formal organizing meeting of the SLF, a group whose own local Yippie-like antics would soon, for better or worse, guarantee Seattle its own aggressively radical and courthouse-bound Seven.

The Chicago Seven, September 25, 1969 L-R: Lee Weiner, John Froines, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman photo credit: Richard Avedon

The Chicago Seven, September 25, 1969
L-R: Lee Weiner, John Froines, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman
photo credit: Richard Avedon

The next chapter in the Seattle Seven story began on February 17, when the SLF sponsored a protest rally in downtown Seattle that turned into a riot. The chaos of that event was reflected in the chaos of the wildly conflicting accounts later given by, respectively, the protest participants and Seattle’s then-two leading daily newspapers. All involved in the story would likely agree, at least, that the Chicago Seven trial was at the heart of the clash that shook Seattle that day.

In mid-February 1970, the Chicago Seven trial was obviously winding down towards a highly anticipated verdict. The seven defendants, cueing the nation’s anti-Establishment masses, had then called for their many disparate supporters to organize local demonstrations nationwide on “The Day After” (TDA) the impending verdict.

Enter the Seattle Liberation Front.

The SLF wasted no time in planning a TDA demonstration to be held at Seattle’s Federal Courthouse downtown at Fifth Avenue and Spring Street — never mind the inconvenient mystery of the Chicago verdict’s exact date. Seeking to effectively promote Seattle’s TDA, one member of the SLF, Charles “Chip” Marshall, approached the office of Helix — then Seattle’s leading countercultural newspaper — with a copy of a manifesto calling for a “Stop the Courts Day” beginning at 2 p.m. in front of the courthouse on the still-unknown day of the verdict, seeking its publication in the paper. As Helix editor Walt Crowley (1947-2007) would later recall in his 1995 book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, “While Marshall’s [manifesto] never explicitly called for a violent action, it all but invited it, and this made us very nervous.”

The manifesto was published in Helix on February 12, but not without an editorial disclaimer. Crowley’s anxiety, along with that of his kindred Helixistas, would soon prove well founded.

On the Saturday prior to TDA, Julius Hoffman, the presiding judge in the Chicago trial — already then loathed by much of America’s radical youth — sentenced all of the Chicago Seven, along with their attorneys, for contempt of court. This was before the Chicago jury had yet reached a proper verdict. For the Chicago Seven’s nationwide supporters, Hoffman’s abrupt action served as both a deadline cue and an inflammatory catalyst for the impending Day After. Despite several pacifist pleas for restraint — such as, in Seattle, the earlier, written pledge of Michael Lerner on behalf of the SLF “that we have no intention of introducing violence into [Seattle’s] demonstration” — Hoffman’s pre-emptive legal strike apparently infused the nation’s antiwar movement with a collective rage that no pacifist sentiment could possibly contain.

When 2 p.m. on TDA arrived in Seattle, roughly 2,000 agitated activists — many more than expected, and most ranging in age from juvenile to twentysomething — had assembled downtown in front of the federal courthouse, obviously ready for a confrontation. Seattle’s then-acting police chief Frank Moore would later describe the situation for Seattle’s mainstream news media with standard escalative rhetoric:

“The demonstrators came prepared for war . . . They were armed with pipes, clubs, chains, paint, and tear gas . . . and they used them all.”

Thus, what could have been a relatively peaceful demonstration against injustice in the American legal system became instead an anti-everything free-for-all, with protesters tossing rocks and paint bombs, breaking windows, and violently scuffling with police, from the courthouse to the Federal Building at First Avenue and University Street, and vandalizing several downtown storefronts in between.

One major point of contention between the protesters’ accounts of the melee and those of The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concerned the massive use of tear gas, which was plentiful enough for clouds to be seen rising over downtown from Interstate 5. While the Seattle Police Department officially denied using tear gas, and the Times and the P-I both unskeptically reported the SPD’s allegation that it was the protesters who had brought the tear gas with them, eyewitness accounts published in Helix two days later declared the opposite: the police had brought the tear gas, and one sole demonstrator at one point had lobbed a tear gas bomb into the courthouse — after it had been thrown outside by police from inside the building.

Additionally, despite initial statements from the SPD and the Mayor’s Office commending the officers on the scene for their apocryphal restraint, the degree of police violence was apparently drastic enough that the P-I soon joined Helix in reporting several instances of police recklessly attacking protesters and innocent bystanders alike. When the smoke finally cleared — literally and figuratively — up to eighty-nine persons had been arrested, scores were injured, and an estimated $75,000 worth of property damage had been done downtown.

The Seattle Eight, represented unflatteringly on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970

The Seattle Eight, represented unflatteringly on the front page
of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970

The next chapter in the Seattle Seven story began on April 16, when eight members of the SLF were indicted by a federal grand jury for the charge of conspiracy to incite a riot. The indictments were prompted by the February 17 demonstration. Charges were filed against Lerner, Stern, Marshall, Abeles, Dowd, Kelly, Lippman, and Michael Justesen (b. 1950). These SLF members then became known as the Seattle Eight and, after Justesen quickly disappeared, the Seattle Seven.

Five of the Eight were arrested on the same day the indictments were issued: Lerner, Stern, Abeles, Dowd, and Kelly. Marshall was arrested two days later at the Century Tavern on The Ave in the University District, where the SLF were then known to congregate. Lippman was already in jail in Berkeley, California, having been arrested the day before in conjunction with an antiwar protest there, while Justesen immediately went underground to avoid arrest. All of the Seven were soon released on personal recognizance pending trial.

Some SLF members and supporters suspected that the timing of the indictments was intended to provoke a riot at an antiwar march in downtown Seattle planned for that weekend on April 18. Stephanie Coontz, then a leader of the UW’s Student Mobilization Committee, told The Seattle Times about that suspicion on April 17.

“The Student Mobilization Committee feels that yesterday’s arrests were timed in an attempt to provoke an incident,” Coontz said. “We are not going to fall into the trap that the Justice Department has set.”

Contrary to the charge of conspiracy, the Seattle Seven in fact only became acquainted with each other as a group after the indictments. Roger Lippman would later recall, writing in 1990 for the twentieth anniversary of the conspiracy trial:

“While some of the defendants actively organized TDA, several of them didn’t like or didn’t even know each other. This conspiracy existed primarily in the minds of the U.S. Department of Justice. Chip Marshall, Jeff Dowd, Mike Abeles, and Joe Kelly were recent transplants from SDS in Ithaca, NY, but Kelly didn’t move to Seattle until after TDA. I didn’t meet Abeles until after the indictment. Susan Stern, who had been an activist in Seattle for several years, had differences with most of the defendants, as did I. Mike Lerner was a visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Washington. As far as I could tell none of the other defendants got along with him.”

The final chapter in the Seattle Seven story began on November 6, when a pre-trial hearing was held in Tacoma, Washington, 32 miles southwest of Seattle, presided over by Federal District Judge George H. Boldt (1903-1984). One noteworthy moment in the November 6 hearing occurred when Lerner and Marshall attempted to make the case that the political implications of the pending trial — much like the Chicago Seven trial, according to its respective defendants — reached far beyond the geographical confines of its legal jurisdiction. Lerner, directly addressing Judge Boldt, declared:

“The key issues [in this trial] are the war in Vietnam and the use of the courts as an instrument of repression in this society. . . . You [as a member of the U.S. federal judiciary] are a party to the initial dispute. . . . The federal judiciary has its hands dirtied by not declaring the war immoral and unconstitutional.”

The actual trial, which formally began on November 23, was equally marked by such ideological drama. While roughly 200 protesters picketed outside the Tacoma courthouse in support of the Seven, defendants and supporters alike inside the courtroom refused to stifle either their emotions or their political opinions. Adding to the ideological weight of the legal proceedings, one of the Chicago defendants, David Dellinger, came to Tacoma in person to aid the Seattle defendants in making their case, but Judge Boldt denied a request by Lerner and Marshall to allow Dellinger to speak in the Tacoma courtroom towards that end.

Aggravated by the constant courtroom chaos, Boldt declared a mistrial on December 10 and cited all seven defendants for contempt of court. He then summarily sentenced them all to six months in prison and refused to grant bail. While most of the Seattle Seven eventually did serve time for Boldt’s contempt charges, the original conspiracy charges against them were unsuccessfully prosecuted. Most observers agreed that the prosecution’s case was weak, and the defense was aided greatly by the admission of the prosecution’s key witness, Horace “Red” Parker, that he had played a covert role in instigating the violence at the February 17 demonstration. The contempt charges were settled in court on March 28, 1972, and the Seattle Seven, save for Lerner, all served brief sentences in federal minimum security prison. The original conspiracy charges were quietly dropped in March 1973.

As for the other aftermath, the SLF disbanded acrimoniously in late 1971, but some individual SLF collectives survived the schism and went on to establish social programs in the Seattle area, such as Capitol Hill’s Country Doctor Community Clinic. Stern died on July 31, 1976, at the age of 33 of heart and lung failure from an accidental drug overdose, and Justesen was arrested in 1977 in California by the FBI as part of an infiltration of the Weather Underground. Today, Lerner is an ordained rabbi and editor-in-chief of the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun. Dowd eventually became a cineaste and helped found the Seattle International Film Festival in 1976. He’s now most famous as the inspiration for “The Dude,” the celebrated fictional character from The Big Lebowski.

Among the many things the Seattle Seven and the Chicago Seven had in common, the most important historically is that both were ultimately examples of government intimidation of antiwar activists by way of the American legal system. In both examples, a group of loosely affiliated activists was charged with conspiracy to incite a riot that was in fact beyond their control; in both examples, the prosecution’s case was ultimately too weak to withstand courtroom scrutiny. Today, history has proven much kinder to the memory of these two kindred groups than to the war that ultimately created them.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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West Coast Reciprocities

San Francisco's Postcard Row photographer unknown

San Francisco’s Postcard Row
photographer unknown

Seattle has always wanted to be San Francisco.

This historical contention explains much of the collective behavior — political, civic, and cultural — of the citizenry of Seattle during the first century-and-a-half of its existence. Nevertheless, although Seattle depended heavily on San Francisco during the younger city’s formative years, there were in fact several strong municipal reciprocities between the two sibling cities during that crucial historical time.

These reciprocities began with the lumber trade. Many of San Francisco’s famous historic buildings were built with lumber sourced from trees harvested from the Duwamish land where Seattle was established during the 1850s — the decade of the California Gold Rush and the decade of Seattle’s first toddling municipal steps. In truly foundational reciprocity, many of the bricks now found in Pioneer Square’s historic buildings were made in San Francisco.

While the first reciprocity between the two cities was catalyzed by the lumber trade, it eventually expanded into other areas, from the sordid milieu of prostitution and gambling to the sublime milieu of the American West Coast counterculture. Several examples abound showing how the respective municipal evolutions of Seattle and San Francisco have been intertwined throughout many decades. Nevertheless, San Francisco has always been a municipal big sibling to Seattle. The older city, founded in 1776 as a Spanish colonial outpost, was until very recently an obvious role model for the younger city in many ways.

“San Francisco was a bustling multiethnic city long before the first settlers of Seattle cried in the rain off Alki Point,” was how the legendary Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson (1918-2001) once described the relationship.

The economic reciprocity between Seattle and San Francisco began less than a month after the Denny Party landed at Alki Point. On December 10, 1851, the brig Leonesa, commanded by Captain Daniel S. Howard, entered Puget Sound while searching for timber for harvesting. The ship sailed close enough to Alki Point to spot the small settlement there. The brig then anchored nearby the newly settled community, and Captain Howard came ashore to introduce himself.

Captain Howard told the settlers that San Francisco, then still a small shack town, was suddenly booming with gold from Alaska, and was therefore on the verge of becoming a permanent city. New piers were being built on the waterfront there, and he had been sent to Puget Sound for a cargo of lumber — specifically, 50-foot-long pilings for use in constructing docks at San Francisco. Howard and the settlers, led by John Low, wrote and signed a contract on the spot, and the seven men of the Denny Party then got out their axes and went to work.

The Puget Sound region was then an ideal source for such a cargo. Prior to 1851, the place now known as Seattle was a climax forest of trees, many more than a thousand years old and towering as tall as 400 feet. Today, no trees of that size remain anywhere in the world: the tallest California redwood, named Hyperion, is a mere 379.7 feet tall. The abundance of premium timber in the Puget Sound region was the main factor in Seattle’s eventual emergence as an early Pacific Northwest city. Although there were few other settlers in the region when the Denny Party arrived at Alki Point, there were already boats and ships traversing the Sound, searching for timber to take to San Francisco.

Along with the timber transaction, the settlers at Alki Point likely placed orders for provisions with the Leonesa crew before the brig returned to San Francisco. The Leonesa returned to Alki Point on February 10, 1852, likely loaded with San Francisco goods. Thus, the longtime economic reciprocity between Seattle and San Francisco was evidently born.

Lumber magnate Henry Leiter Yesler (c. 1810-1892), widely considered Seattle’s first genuine entrepreneur, came to Seattle in October 1852 because of advice he received in San Francisco. During his search for an ideal sawmill site on the West Coast, Yesler was alerted to the advantages of the Puget Sound region by a ship captain he met in San Francisco who told him that Elliott Bay was ideal for a sawmill because the land there was thick with trees nearly to the shore, and deep-water moorage was available close to the shore.

The ship captain Yesler met was one of many who were then transporting lumber from Puget Sound to San Francisco for pilings on the older city’s waterfront. Once he secured a site for his mill on Elliott Bay, Yesler sent an order to San Francisco for his equipment. He then founded the first steam-powered sawmill in the region in March 1853, thereby ensuring Seattle’s status as an early commercial and industrial center in the Pacific Northwest.

With Yesler as its local pioneer, the lumber trade soon came to define Seattle and its environs, and by the 1860s there were several lumber mills operating throughout the Puget Sound region, including town sites at Port Ludlow and Port Hadlock on the Quimper Peninsula, Port Gamble and Port Madison on the Kitsap Peninsula, Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island, and Port Discovery on the Olympic Peninsula. San Francisco-based companies owned many of those operations.

Five-hundred-room brothel on Seattle's Beacon Hill, built during the mayorship of Hiram C. Gill, circa 1910 University of Washington Libraries Special Collections

Five-hundred-room brothel on Seattle’s Beacon Hill, built during the mayorship of Hiram C. Gill, circa 1910
University of Washington Libraries Special Collections

Inevitably, when speaking of early Seattle, one must speak of vice. After lumber made Seattle, prostitution sustained it. By 1861, ten years after the Denny Party landing, Seattle had become a rough logging town largely populated by young, virile men — with scarcely any women to potentially quench their primal desires. It was then a town of bachelors with an established payroll and no commercial entertainment available. Within such a scenario, prostitution was inevitable — and San Francisco also played a major role in this stage of Seattle’s early economic growth.

In the summer of 1861, John Pinnell (or Pennell, in some sources), the proprietor of several lucrative brothels in San Francisco, arrived in Seattle on a lumber schooner and quickly established the young town’s first brothel. Due to objections from the young town’s mavens of morality, the brothel was built on land rejected by more respectable business tenants: an area of sawdust fill just south of Mill Street (now Yesler Way) at Second Avenue and South Washington Street. Pinnell got approval from the town authorities in return for paying a $1,200-per-year license fee and a promise to keep his business activity confined to the designated area. He named his new brothel Illahee — Chinook Jargon for “home away from home” — but locals would soon call it the Mad House and the Sawdust Pile. The surrounding neighborhood would quickly become Seattle’s first red-light district.

Since white women were few in the new town, Salish women staffed Illahee at first: few of them locals, many of them most likely from British Columbia. Pinnell lured these women to Illahee with promises of a better life for both the women he recruited and their families. He began by approaching the Salish tribes in the region and offering a trade: he would provide each tribe with provisions and trade goods, and in return the women would work in his brothel, bringing comfort and company to the many lonesome lumberjacks of the region. He also promised to educate and otherwise attend to the needs of the Salish women.

This local civic arrangement apparently worked quite well for the first few years. Illahee soon became the most profitable business in Seattle and was tolerated by the local morality mavens due to the tax revenue it generated for the town’s more respectable endeavors. However, after Asa Shinn Mercer famously imported several marriageable maidens from Massachusetts to Seattle in May 1864, Pinnell responded by recruiting a dozen unemployed comfort women from San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, all apparently minor-league prostitutes, over the age of 30 and thus past their nubile prime, who couldn’t quite make it in the red-light big leagues in the Bay Area.

Along with the San Francisco piers built with lumber from Seattle in the wake of the California Gold Rush, there also remain today several famous Victorian townhouses built in the late nineteenth century with lumber harvested in Seattle. Most notable among these are a row of buildings known appropriately as the Seattle Block. Located near Alamo Square Park at the intersection of Golden Gate Avenue and Steiner Street, the Seattle Block was commissioned by Oregon shipping magnate Daniel B. Jackson in 1892.

Jackson hired architect William H. Armitage to design his mansion at 1057 Steiner Street along with three adjacent apartment buildings going up Golden Gate Avenue. Armitage, born and educated in England, was one of San Francisco’s leading architects. When the buildings were all completed, Jackson had the entire block painted similarly, giving the appearance of one unified façade beginning on the corner and continuing up the block.

Another noteworthy San Francisco landmark, also located on Steiner Street and commonly known as Postcard Row, was also built beginning in 1892. Comprising six identical townhouses along with a similar adjacent mansion, this group of buildings has appeared on countless postcards representing San Francisco photographically, hence the nickname. It remains unconfirmed whether or not Postcard Row was also built with lumber from Seattle, but it’s very likely, since the younger city’s chief export remained lumber at the time of Postcard Row’s construction.

Jefferson Airplane circa summer 1966 L-R: Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner, Jack Casady, Marty Balin, Signe Toly Anderson, Spencer Dryden

Jefferson Airplane circa summer 1966
L-R: Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner, Jack Casady, Marty Balin, Signe Toly Anderson, Spencer Dryden

Yet another significant historical reciprocity between Seattle and San Francisco was countercultural. While San Francisco was clearly ground zero for the counterculture that bloomed on the American West Coast during the 1950s and 1960s, Seattle’s counterculture during that era emulated San Francisco’s closely, while still developing a strong regional character and identity of its own.

Most of Seattle’s countercultural activity during that time occurred in the University District (known to locals as the U District), the residential neighborhood surrounding the main University of Washington campus. One key epicenter of such activity was the Blue Moon Tavern, which was founded in the U District in April 1934. Originating as a typical working-class tavern, the Blue Moon became a crucial West Coast countercultural mecca during the 1950s, hosting many of the luminaries of the literary Beat movement that originated in San Francisco, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey.

During the 1960s, the U District became a West Coast countercultural mecca second only to San Francisco’s fabled Haight-Ashbury district. Among other ways Seattle then emulated San Francisco was by creating its own “Hippie Hill.” The older city’s Hippie Hill was a countercultural gathering place in Golden Gate Park whose regular visitors included members of the celebrated San Francisco rock bands Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Seattle’s Hippie Hill was the stretch of lawn on the western edge of the UW campus between 15th Avenue Northeast and Denny Hall, near University Way Northeast (a.k.a. “The Ave“). Seattle’s counterculture circa 1967 thus emulated the Bay Area’s — yet it also once again contributed something in return to the older city. While Haight-Ashbury became the locus of the celebrated San Francisco music scene of that decade, certain young musicians from Seattle and its environs played a crucial role in catalyzing that scene. Among these were Signe Toly Anderson and Don Stevenson.

Signe Toly Anderson (1941-2016), born in Seattle on September 15, 1941, and raised in Portland, Oregon, was one of the founding members of Jefferson Airplane. She first achieved local fame as a folk and jazz singer in Portland, then moved to San Francisco, where she was discovered by Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin while singing at the Drunken Gourd club. She then joined the nascent band in summer 1965 and sang on their debut album and early singles prior to leaving the band amicably and being replaced by Grace Slick in October 1966. Quite uncannily, Anderson passed away on January 28, 2016 — the same day as original Airplane member and San Francisco native Paul Kantner’s passage.

Don Stevenson, born in Seattle on October 15, 1942, was the drummer and a singer and songwriter for Moby Grape, which was formed in San Francisco in late 1966. Stevenson first obtained local recognition in Seattle as a member of the Frantics, a band that included Tacoma native Jerry Miller on guitar. Miller and Stevenson moved the Frantics from Seattle to San Francisco after a 1965 encounter with guitarist Jerry Garcia, who was then playing with the Warlocks at a bar in Belmont, California. Garcia encouraged them to move to San Francisco, due mainly to the older city’s then-superior music scene. The Frantics relocated to San Francisco in 1966 and formed the nucleus of what would become Moby Grape.

Miller and Stevenson brought the no-nonsense working-class garage rock sensibility so typical of Pacific Northwest bands of that time to mingle with the bohemian Bay Area sensibility of the other members of Moby Grape. Their debut album, released in June 1967, remains today among the most perfect rock music albums ever made.

Among celebrated West Coast anthems of the psychedelic era, one stands out for its mutual birth between Seattle and San Francisco: namely, “White Bird.” Recorded by the San Francisco ensemble It’s a Beautiful Day and released on their eponymous debut album in June 1969, the song was conceived in Seattle in December 1967 by the band’s violinist and songwriter David LaFlamme and his keyboardist wife and bandmate Linda. Manager Matthew Katz had sent the fledgling band to live in Seattle in order to polish their act in a local club before committing them to the competitive San Francisco rock club circuit. While the band was there, the resulting isolation ironically inspired what would become their signature song, a poignant orchestral epic on an otherwise typical Frisco-circa-1969 acid-rock album. LaFlamme would later describe the song’s uncanny origins like so:

“We were living in the attic of an old Victorian house in Seattle, and performing at the Encore Ballroom. It was a typical Seattle winter day, rainy and drizzly, and we were looking out from the attic window over the street in front of this old house. It was on Capitol Hill, the old section of town across from Volunteer Park. There was a statue of some famous general right across the street in the park.

“The song describes the picture Linda and I saw as we looked out this little window in this attic. We had a little Wurlitzer portable piano sitting right in the well of this window, and I’d sit and work on songs. When you hear lines like, ‘The leaves blow across the long black road to the darkened sky and its rage,’ it’s describing what I was seeing out the window.

“Where the ‘white bird’ thing came from . . . We were like caged birds in that attic. We had no money, no transportation, the weather was miserable. We were just barely getting by on a very small food allowance provided to us. It was quite an experience, but it was very creative in a way.”

Seattle’s countercultural media would also draw crucial inspiration from San Francisco’s, as best evidenced by Helix, the legendary underground newspaper whose debut issue was published on March 23, 1967. Helix was conceived in late 1966 during discussions at the Free University of Seattle, an alternative college and countercultural meeting place located in the U District. These discussions were inspired by the recent flowering of underground newspapers in other counterculturally rich cities, such as San Francisco’s Berkeley Barb and Oracle, and New York City’s East Village Other. Helix‘s prime instigators included Paul Dorpat, then a wayward UW grad student, and Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian minister. This circle quickly grew to include future famous novelist Tom Robbins, Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist Ray Collins, and Jon Gallant, co-founder of Seattle’s legendary underground radio station KRAB-FM.

Serendipitously named after Watson and Crick’s famous description of DNA during a particularly productive session of beer-drinking and brainstorming at the Blue Moon Tavern in February 1967, Helix emerged from its fertile countercultural cocoon to immediate success. The debut issue’s cover announced the new paper’s mission in an editorial that began as follows:

“You have in your hand the first issue of a fortnightly newspaper. It is dedicated to no cause, no interests, no point of view; it is dedicated to you.”

The first 1,500 copies of the 12-page, vividly colored, wildly illustrated tabloid were quickly snapped up off the streets of the U District, and its initial success would eventually become a three-year reign of weekly publication. During that time, Helix would sponsor a number of important countercultural events in the Puget Sound region before finally folding in June 1970.

Among such events was the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, a three-day concert series held near Sultan (50 miles north of Seattle) from August 31 to September 2, 1968 — a full year before the more famous Woodstock festival — featuring such now-legendary San Francisco musical luminaries as the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and Santana. Helix also played an important role in promoting local political activism, serving as both catalyst and chronicler of many local protest events organized by the antiwar, environmental, and black liberation movements.

Among other positive effects Helix provided for Seattle’s countercultural community, it provided a decent (albeit modest) living for a number of the hippies who served as the paper’s street vendors. It also launched the media career of Walt Crowley (1947-2007), the much-revered local writer, historian, and rabble-rouser, who joined the paper’s staff, first as an illustrator and later as an editor, in May 1967.

Crowley would later attribute the paper’s demise to the splintering of the American Left, both in Seattle and nationwide, in the wake of the Kent State Massacre — as well as other dark turns the American counterculture had taken by mid-1970. “After Kent State, the left had gone totally wiggy,” Crowley told Seattle Weekly in 1989. “And the drug scene was brutal.” In the wake of Helix, the media needs of Seattle’s counterculture would be served — if only temporarily — by the more overtly political and militant Sabot and Puget Sound Partisan.

Today, Paul Dorpat has made a name for himself as a celebrated Pacific Northwest photographer-historian, mainly as author of the long-running Seattle Times weekly pictorial feature “Seattle Now & Then.” Crowley would also ascend to broader local fame as a KIRO-TV news commentator in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Helix‘s heady brew of radical politics and groundbreaking graphic design has rarely, if ever, been surpassed locally, its closest competition arguably being The Rocket, Seattle’s greatest music-centric monthly to date. An ongoing digital archive of complete issues of Helix can be viewed online in PDF form at Paul Dorpat’s blog.

During the 1970s, as a positive consequence of the gay liberation movement that emerged in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, San Francisco became a crucial haven for openly gay people, eventually becoming known as the most gay-friendly city in the United States. Seattle would soon compete for that honor, as the younger city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, formerly a strictly straight working-class stronghold, became a national gay mecca second only to San Francisco’s Castro District. While gay residential settlement of Capitol Hill began in the early 1960s, the neighborhood became openly gay in the mid-1970s, helped by new anti-discrimination laws enabled by the gay liberation movement. Capitol Hill was also then becoming a gathering place for Seattle’s counterculture and the politically progressive, a trend that would reach full fruition in the late 1980s.

Before Capitol Hill’s transformation into Seattle’s residential mecca for openly gay persons and couples, Pioneer Square was the city’s de facto epicenter of gay nightlife, led by the legendary Shelly’s Leg, which opened there in November 1973. Shelly’s Leg was both Seattle’s first discotheque and its first openly gay nightclub. A huge, hand-painted sign above the bar declared, “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”

Most recently, in May 2014, Seattle finally trumped its big-sibling city for the title of America’s most gay-friendly city, according to a survey conducted by the progressive financial website NerdWallet. The survey was based on the metrics of the percentage of households with same-sex partners, the number of LGBT-friendly laws and opportunities, and the degree of LGBT safety and tolerance. Seattle was followed closely, of course, by San Francisco.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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On The Ave

And what would The Ave be without its flamboyant desolation angels? photographer unknown

And what would The Ave be without its flamboyant desolation angels?
photographer unknown

Anyone familiar with Seattle’s University Way Northeast — better known colloquially among longtime locals as “The Ave” — surely knows that it’s long been one of our city’s most lively stretches of urban thoroughfare. Indeed, The Ave has hosted a cavalcade of colorful characters and anecdotes going back several decades. After gaining its famous nickname circa 1919 due to its increasing social and commercial importance within the University District, The Ave would eventually become a major countercultural mecca — not only within Seattle, but also along the entire American West Coast. Unfortunately, that erstwhile streetwise history may now soon become part of The Ave’s permanent past.

Given the impending arrival of Sound Transit’s University District light rail station in 2021 — and the inevitable gentrification it will surely bring to that sublimely gritty neighborhood — now’s a perfect time indeed for looking back poignantly at the glory days of The Ave. The peak years of The Ave’s countercultural blooming were clearly the late 1960s, when freak flags flourished abundantly there and University of Washington student protests against the Vietnam War and other contemporary social injustices inevitably flowed down that celebrated Cascadian street.

The Ave’s grand countercultural crescendo began in the autumn of 1965, when the UW welcomed a record baby-boom enrollment of some 26,000 students. During that crucial academic quarter, The Ave, and the U District in general, became the stage for a rather amusing manufactured controversy concerning a certain segment of Ave regulars known alternately as “beatniks,” “fringies,” and — depending on whose opinion one was then asking — other terms which were much more derisive.

That manufactured controversy became journalistically official on September 22, 1965, when the University District Herald, a weekly neighborhood newspaper catering mostly to the U District business community, published the first in a series of front-page articles lamenting “The Beatnik Situation” in that neighborhood. The tone of the articles, all written by Herald publisher Lillian Beloin, was blatantly alarmist and condescending towards their chosen subject.

The series mostly painted the many young bohemians who had become a regular presence in the U District by that autumn as a parasitic scourge. In support of her rhetorically vivid scorn, Beloin cited several recent incidents of absurd “beatnik” activity on The Ave, including the following amusing anecdote:

“In the wee small hours of the morning, a group of ‘individuals’ dragged a coffin to a spot in front of a business establishment on the 4200 block. One of the ‘beats’ remained lying in the coffin for two hours. When he vacated his ‘resting place,’ the coffin was placed in the doorway of the business firm.”

The Herald received several letters to the editor in response to the series. Some were sympathetic to the “beats,” and some accused the Herald of practicing “irresponsible journalism” in its overly dramatic depiction of Seattle’s bohemian scene, while others went even further than Beloin in terms of rash anti-“beatnik” rhetoric. Among the letters the Herald received was one from Assistant King County Prosecutor William L. Forant, who berated the local liberal elements who were then preaching tolerance for the U District malcontents whom Forant described, within the space of one short letter, as “juvenile delinquent[s],” “monsters,” “8 balls,” “teenage hoodlums,” “human sludge,” and, in one particularly apoplectic rhetorical flourish, “robbers, burglars, thieves, sex-deviates, hopheads and alcoholics.”

It should be said here that Beloin and Forant were calling attention to a genuine concern among certain U District merchants and residents that the presence of the “beatniks” may have then been scaring away potential customers from that neighborhood, which had long been a commercial district for the entire city as well as for members of the UW community. At one point Beloin asked a question which was reportedly then being asked among the neighborhood’s more conservative population:

“Is there a solution [to the ‘beatnik’ problem], or must the University District become Seattle’s second ‘skid row’?”

The term “beatnik” is being framed in scare quotes here because it was rather contentious among the crowd it was then being used in the local press to describe. Radical Seattle icon Walt Crowley (1947-2007), himself a UW freshman and a regular Ave presence at the time of the Herald articles, noted wryly in his 1995 book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle:

“[We] never called ourselves ‘beatniks.’ Anyone halfway hip knew that [San Francisco Examiner columnist] Herb Caen had coined that word as a put-down. If you were ‘beat,’ you didn’t need a label.”

Crowley also recounted how the lifestyle so lamented by the Herald had already been an undercurrent in U District life for a good few years previous, its kindred-spiritual epicenters on The Ave being the Pamir House, a folk music magnet on the northwest corner of Northeast 41st Street, and the Eigerwand Kaffeehaus one block north, a haven for, in Crowley’s words, “rancid coffee and fiery conversation.”

In response to the first of the Herald articles, the UW student newspaper The Daily published its own series during the first week of Autumn Quarter 1965 classes, titled “The Beatnik Scare,” which was more sympathetic towards The Ave’s bohemian crowd. The Daily coined the alternative term “fringies” to describe their chosen subject, and the denoted crowd apparently preferred this term enough that, according to Crowley, “some clever entrepreneur printed ‘Fringie’ buttons to make it official.”

Seattle’s fringie scene would soon bloom into something much more flamboyant. Lillian Beloin and her local kindred spirits should have been counting their blessings in autumn 1965. Within a few short years the U District would see the relatively benign antics of Seattle’s “beatniks” superseded by massive antiwar protests on the UW campus and violent riots on The Ave.

University Way Northeast and Northeast 43rd Street during the 1969 Ave riots Stan Stapp

University Way Northeast and Northeast 43rd Street during the 1969 Ave riots
Stan Stapp

Circa spring 1967, the conflict between Seattle’s countercultural community — which by then had firmly established the U District as its physical and spiritual home — and the U District business community was already approaching a boiling point. At issue at the time was the latter’s recent attempts to expel hippies, homeless people, racial minorities, and other apparent undesirables from the neighborhood, by means both superficially civil — such as lobbying Seattle City Hall and the UW administration — and more direct. The latter means included the aforementioned police harassment, which consisted of discretionary ticketing of jaywalkers, detainment and arresting of hippies for frivolous charges, and other, more brutal forms of harassment — all considered by its target group to be sanctioned, de facto if not de jure, by the University District Chamber of Commerce (UDCC).

Organized opposition to such harassment arrived in the form of the University District Movement (UDM), an ad hoc coalition of activists crucially co-led by Robby Stern, then a 23-year-old UW law student and a key member of the UW chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. The UDM’s immediate goal was to document alleged instances of police harassment of “undesirables” in the U District, along with cases of direct discrimination by restaurants, rental agencies, and other businesses. Working with the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the UDM gathered affidavits aimed at convincing the UDCC to formally cease the harassment and discrimination in question.

On April 11, the UDM, with recent editorial support from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, met with the UDCC board of directors to discuss the UDM’s demands. Along with a prepared opening statement, they brought with them a pile of petitions bearing roughly 8,000 signatures in support of their goals. The UDCC’s formal response was politely hostile: they read a five-page prepared statement effectively rejecting the UDM’s demands, and refused to let UDM leaders speak further in counter-response. They did, however, pledge that a UDCC committee would meet with UDM leaders at a later, undetermined date.

Later that afternoon, the UDM met with some 500 UW students in front of the UW’s Husky Union Building (HUB) to discuss the UDM’s next step. Stern told the crowd, “We need the 8,000 who signed the petitions to rally tomorrow to tell them we’re tired and we’re mad. Who’ll say, ‘We care, we want our district for us’?”

The crowd was not completely united: some vocally supported the UDM, while others supported the UDCC, with one student proclaiming, “What’s wrong with the police putting on a little pressure to clean [the U District] up?”

The next day, the UDM met with a group of six U District merchants, who tentatively agreed to the UDM’s demands, with minor changes in language and no guarantee of approval by the UDCC. Later that afternoon, another rally, called the day before, comprising some 2,000 persons was held in front of the HUB to discuss a potential solution to the UDM-UDCC standoff. Just as on the day before, a rift developed between supporters of a potential compromise with the UDCC and more assertive supporters of the UDM. A vote was taken to decide whether the group should march down The Ave as a “show of strength” to the UDCC — a move the UDM had been warned might alienate the UDCC and thus jeopardize any chances for a meaningful solution to the UDM’s grievances.

The vote was narrowly in favor of marching, and a debate began between the pros and the cons in the crowd. At a particularly tense moment, Stern spontaneously proclaimed, “I’m marching down The Ave, and anyone who wants to join me is welcome to follow.”

And so they did so — roughly 1,500 of them, thus introducing the U District to an activist tactic that would see even more spectacular use there during the next half-decade. The UDCC’s immediate reaction to the march was predictably negative, with at least one U District merchant declaring the UDM’s action a “breach of faith.” While negotiations still continued between the UDCC and the UDM, the UDM’s grievances would also continue. Among the UDM’s last acts before disbanding that summer was to document many further instances of police harassment and present them to Seattle City Hall at a downtown rally that May.

Marching on The Ave circa May 1972 photographer unknown

Marching on The Ave circa May 1972
photographer unknown

The summer of 1969 was a time of infamous turmoil in several major American cities, including Seattle. On August 11 that year, a series of riots began in the U District that would shake The Ave over several days. During that week, street people on The Ave would battle with Seattle police, leading to several arrests and injuries and much vandalism and looting. While the origin of the riots remains contentious today, the aftermath would lead to significant changes in the character of the U District, both as a neighborhood and as a community.

The Ave riots were preceded by an incident across town in West Seattle the previous evening, during a Sunday night rock concert at Alki Beach. Despite the concert being an officially permitted event, several Seattle Police Department officers on the scene began harassing attendees. In response, someone — allegedly a member of a local motorcycle gang — dumped a container of gasoline into the back seat of a police patrol car parked nearby and threw in a lighted match, setting the car ablaze. The police, in counter-response, abruptly declared the concert over, donned riot gear, and began throwing canisters of tear gas into the crowd — not ordinary tear gas, but rather the CS variety, which sickens its victims. The thick toxic fumes drifted into the nearby neighborhood, thus transforming a peaceful rock concert into a major public disturbance.

The following day, in the U District, many regular denizens of The Ave shared news of the Alki fracas with disgust. Police harassment of youth — especially countercultural youth — was a regular fact of life in that neighborhood at that time. (It was also then a regular fact of life citywide, which partially explained the heavy police presence at the Alki concert.) In fact, the police presence in the U District had recently been doubled by Seattle’s acting mayor Floyd Miller as part of a crackdown on drug traffic in the neighborhood. Thus, as the evening of August 11 arrived, many on The Ave were ready for a confrontation with the cops.

And thus, the first riot on The Ave that week began at approximately 9 p.m. that night, when a random young man kicked over a trash can at the intersection of Northeast 42nd Street and The Ave. According to witnesses, police officers standing nearby quickly grabbed and handcuffed him. His girlfriend then objected, screaming at the officers and pleading for bystanders to intervene. When the cops grabbed her next, another bystander punched one of the cops, Officer Mike Bolger, in the jaw, and the scuffle quickly escalated into a riot. Spectators began throwing everything they could get their hands on. Bricks struck two other officers, Marvin Queen and Thomas Grabicki, and a stray object shattered the window of the Coffee Corral, a popular hippie hangout on the southeast corner of that intersection.

By 9:30 p.m., the crowd of rioters had grown to roughly 150. Witnesses later noted that many in the crowd had also been present at the Alki fracas. More police soon arrived, along with a local TV news crew, but by 10:15 p.m. the rioters had drifted away and the police withdrew. All in all that night, seven rioters were arrested and three police officers were injured.

The next day, August 12, the U District was buzzing with news of the previous night’s incident. While The Ave was quiet that night, and the police then kept a low profile, the following night would be a different story entirely.

While the riot on August 11 may have been politically motivated — some attributed it to the antiwar activists who were a regular part of the Ave scene at the time — the rest of the week’s rioting was evidently the initiative of restless teenagers from across the city coming to the U District strictly for kicks, lured by news of Monday’s incident. The most intense and destructive of the riots would occur on the nights of August 13 and 14 — and most regular U District denizens who witnessed the riots later claimed they did not recognize most of the participants on those nights.

The evening of August 13 began with a spontaneous community meeting of about 50 people at 7:30 p.m. on “Hippie Hill,” the stretch of lawn on the UW campus near the intersection of 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 42nd Street, then a popular gathering place among Seattle’s countercultural community. The meeting was called to discuss the recent disorder in the U District. Much anger was vented there concerning police harassment, but the apparent consensus was that all concerned there should avoid further confrontations with the police.

Among the topics of discussion was a pair of flyers that had been circulating in the neighborhood since the morning of August 12. One urged calm in the name of “the New American Community,” while the other was unsigned and much more militant, bearing a sketch of a pistol with the caption “We’re looking for people who like to draw,” an apparent parody of the matchbook ads for art school so common at the time — and an obvious attempt at violent provocation.

After the meeting on Hippie Hill adjourned around 8:30 p.m., several attendees headed towards The Ave and immediately noticed two strange things: there were no police visible anywhere, and The Ave was filled with hundreds of teenagers, both white and black, whom no one at the meeting had ever seen in the U District before. All was calm until around 9:30 p.m., when a group of the unfamiliar teenagers began looting Bluebeard’s, a hippie boutique on the western side of the 4200 block of The Ave. Several locals tried to intervene, proclaiming that Bluebeard’s wasn’t the enemy — but to no avail.

Meanwhile, no police appeared, despite the returning chaos. Someone dragged a trash can onto The Ave and lit it on fire — still, no police came.

The cops finally appeared at precisely 10 p.m., when a banshee wail erupted from the roof of the Adams Forkner Funeral Home on the eastern side of The Ave, where police had installed a “howler,” a high-frequency noise generator designed to disorient crowds. Moments later, a loudspeaker announced, “You are ordered to disperse. If you do not disperse, you will be removed by force.”

Soon afterwards, scores of Tactical Squad officers in full riot gear charged onto The Ave from nearby alleys, and CS gas grenades began exploding. The rioters, undeterred, began pelting the police once again. As the chaos quickly escalated, trash cans were ignited to bait the police, parking meters were smashed, and stores were looted. Meanwhile, on 15th Avenue Northeast, a mobile crane was set on fire, and when firefighters arrived, they had to withdraw under a hail of stones.

Around 11 p.m., the Neptune Theatre’s evening showing of Franco Zeffirelli’s hit film Romeo and Juliet ended, and hundreds of moviegoers — many themselves young people, the film’s target audience — exited into the middle of the chaos. They were promptly attacked and gassed by police as they attempted to return to their cars. Amazingly, the police never blocked off traffic along The Ave, and several motorists at the intersection of The Ave and Northeast 45th Street found themselves trapped among clouds of tear gas and agitated hordes of teens and police.

The chaos that night continued until 3 a.m., and the night of August 13 ended with 21 rioters in jail and three police officers in the emergency room.

The night of August 14 was almost an exact replica of the previous night. As dusk fell, roughly two thousand young people from outside the U District gathered on The Ave, obviously anticipating further violence. The events of the previous night began to replay promptly at 10 p.m., when a group of teenagers broke into a TV repair shop on the northwest corner of The Ave and Northeast 43rd Street, and also began looting other stores nearby.

Squads of cops quickly appeared at that intersection, coming from both north and south and surrounding a crowd of about 200, while a truck-mounted howler sonically swept the street. The cops ordered the encircled mass to disperse — but when the officers moved in, there was nowhere for the crowd to go. Finally, the police opened a narrow gap onto 43rd Street, and people escaped through a gauntlet of clubs and fists.

Another crowd gathered at Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast and trashed the brand-new plate-glass windows of the Pacific National Bank building before police chased them away. Eventually, the cops grew tired of the cat-and-mouse fracas and closed The Ave to traffic, then gassed the street from 42nd to 45th with foggers and grenades. All in all that night, the police arrested 21 rioters and roughed up five local news reporters, including KOMO-TV’s Don McGaffin and Brian Johnson. Order was finally restored just before one o’clock in the morning.

On August 15, in the aftermath of the riots, police finally detoured traffic from The Ave while volunteers spread out to prevent any further unrest among teenagers. As the community discussed what to do next, everyone agreed that the police could neither prevent nor contain any further violence in the neighborhood. The city was considering ordering a curfew and summoning the National Guard when a delegation of community leaders from the U District met with Acting Mayor Miller and Deputy Mayor Ed Devine. After that meeting, the police agreed to step back and let the community try to handle the situation.

The police closed The Ave to traffic at dusk and parked several hundred Tactical Squad officers out of sight nearby, while several volunteers wearing peace-symbol armbands spread out along The Ave. Whenever a significant number of teenagers gathered there, street monitors stepped in to prevent any attempts at looting or vandalism. The same tactic was repeated the following night with equal success. By Sunday, August 17, The Ave was back to normal and the police finally withdrew.

The success of the U District community’s response to the Ave riots led to months of negotiations among street people, merchants, residents, clergy, students, police, and city officials, all aiming to reduce police harassment and to establish a community center. Not all of this coalition’s goals were realized, but the U District would become a much more closely-knit neighborhood as a result of the catharsis.

Among the other aftermaths of the Ave riots, several of the women who participated later came together and formed the core of the Seattle Weathermen — crucially including radical feminist and antiwar activist Susan Stern (1943-1976), who later became one of the Seattle Seven. Stern would eventually present her own particular interpretation of the Ave riots in her 1975 memoir With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman.

Who provoked the Ave riots? Some said it was political agitators; some said it was juvenile delinquents; some said it was the cops. For a few years prior, Seattle police had been constantly harassing countercultural youth, mostly at the behest of business owners in the U District and elsewhere in the city who loathed the fringies’ local presence. While SPD Chief Frank Ramon told The Seattle Times that the riots were simply “violence for the sake of violence,” members of the local countercultural press had a much different explanation. In a commentary on the riots published the following week in Helix — then Seattle’s reigning underground newspaper, founded in the U District in 1967 — Helix editor Walt Crowley explained the profoundly volatile situation which had likely set the stage for the riots:

“Since 1966 when the aberrant individuality of the Beatniks gave way [to] en-masse migration of middle-class youth from the suburbs, the University District has become the scene of ever-growing police harassment and internal conflict. Merchants and long-time residents, disturbed by the influx of unorthodox young people, loitering and drug traffic, have applied economic pressure against their long-haired tormentors and sought police cooperation. In the name of ‘cleaning up the District’ hippies have been discriminated against by retailers, restaurants, and realtors. They have been subjected to arbitrary law enforcement, harassment, and brutality and humiliation at the hands of the police. Thus over the past four years the tension has slowly grown and the antagonism between the various sectors sharing this same geographical area has deepened and entrenched.”

Despite the initial trauma of the Ave riots, positive and permanent outcomes quickly resulted from the aftermath, including and especially the University District Street Fair, Seattle’s first modern street fair, which continues as of this writing. Organized by the UDCC as one means among many of healing the neighborhood in the wake of the riots and other tumultuous events in the U District during the preceding year, the first University District Street Fair was held during the weekend of May 23 and 24, 1970.

And then there was the time when a protest march along The Ave became an historic freeway occupation, instigated by the infamous Kent State Massacre.

During that event, on May 4, 1970, four students at Ohio’s Kent State University were fatally shot by National Guardsmen during a protest against the previous week’s controversial U.S. military invasion of Cambodia. That tragedy should have served to sound an efficient alarm for any American citizen still in denial about how our absurd military involvement in Southeast Asia had politically divided the nation during the otherwise prosperous 1960s. For the remaining still slumbering, the nationwide and passionate campus reaction the following day was surely the test to separate the merely politically timid from the hopelessly complacent.

This was especially the case in Seattle, where several thousand UW students, faculty, and staff members spontaneously marched from the UW campus onto Interstate 5 via The Ave as part of a nationwide student strike against the Vietnam War — thus instigating the first antiwar freeway occupation in U.S. history.

As student strikes and campus building occupations ensued that day at more than 100 universities and colleges across the United States, nearly 7,000 UW students participated in a strike that would last throughout the month of May. The inaugural strike demonstration began at 10:30 a.m. in front of the HUB. There, striking students and faculty members overwhelmingly approved a list of demands to be presented to the UW administration, including a pledge by UW President Charles Odegaard never to call National Guard troops onto the UW campus, and an end to University complicity with the war effort, including military recruiting, ROTC, and war-oriented research.

After a long, serpentine march through campus, the strikers arrived at the UW Administration Building around noon. There, Odegaard, while expressing outrage over the Kent State killings, refused the strikers’ demands. In response, the students voted to begin marching en masse off campus and through the U District. Eventually, marching north on The Ave, some 5,000 of the strikers reached Northeast 45th Street. When some of the strike leaders began chanting, “FREEWAY!” the march spontaneously but swiftly surged towards I-5. Reaching the freeway just before 2 p.m., still 3,000 strong, they spilled out onto I-5 from both sides and began marching south towards downtown, blocking southbound traffic for over an hour, and for several miles, in the process. By all accounts, there were no serious confrontations between marchers and motorists, with many motorists reportedly honking and flashing peace signs in approval.

Near the Roanoke Street exit, the march was confronted by about 30 riot-gear-clad Washington State Patrol troopers. After voting to stage a freeway sit-in that lasted roughly one half-hour, the marchers then voted to leave the freeway and continue south on Eastlake Avenue East. They eventually reached the Federal Courthouse downtown at about 4 p.m., where they were joined by striking students from several other local colleges and high schools for an hour-long rally.

The following day, a much larger group of strikers would again march from the UW campus to downtown, this time through the Montlake and Central Area neighborhoods. They would again occupy I-5, this time downtown, meeting with much more resistance from police, who used tear gas and clubs to move the strikers from the freeway. The remainder of that week would see random outbreaks of violence in the U District related to the strike, including attacks on antiwar protesters by right-wing vigilantes — some of whom would later be revealed to be off-duty Seattle police officers. Overall, though, the strike was a largely peaceful affair — on campus, at least.

The 1970 UW student strike would continue throughout the month of May. The strike would eventually lose its momentum and power as the UW administration began to clamp down on both the strike itself and coverage of the strike in the UW Daily and on KUOW-FM, at the time still a student-run radio station and often host to radical journalistic voices.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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Seattle’s Concrete Dragons

Bertha Before the Fall WSDOT

Bertha Before the Fall

Seattle might be America’s Smartest City, but when it comes to transportation, we’ve always been appallingly inept.

As I write these words in early 2015, Seattle remains deeply mired in the Bertha fiasco, with our world-infamous tunnel-boring machine still stuck underground after more than a year, and Pioneer Square threatening to sink due to the seismic side effects of the Bertha rescue operation. The Bertha fiasco has now made Seattle a civic laughingstock among major American cities, as reported in the pages of none other than The New York Times. Yet it’s only the latest episode in a long history of ridiculous decisions made by Seattle citizens and/or civic leaders, all related to transportation — always a contentious topic in a city as geographically confined as Seattle.

Seattle’s history of collective transportation ineptitude arguably began in the year 1912. That was the year when Seattle voters rejected the Bogue Plan. Named after civil engineer and municipal planning director Virgil Bogue (1846-1916), the Bogue Plan would have established Seattle’s first comprehensive civic plan along with several major civic improvements, including a large train station on the south shore of Lake Union, a civic center complex of government buildings in the recently leveled Denny Regrade, the possible acquisition of Mercer Island for a city park, and — crucially, for the history that follows here — a rail transit line linking Seattle and Kirkland by way of a tunnel beneath Lake Washington.

The Bogue Plan was very much a product of the Progressive era that peaked during the 1910s. Bogue, a respected city planner, civil engineer, and colleague of the Olmsted Brothers, was retained by Seattle’s Municipal Plans Commission (created in 1910 by Seattle voters) to prepare a detailed plan to guide the city’s future development. He had the foresight to imagine Seattle in the twenty-first century as a major metropolis of more than one million people, extending as far as the eastern side of Lake Washington — and his proposal was designed for that long-term vision.

Bogue submitted his proposal to the city on August 24, 1911. On March 5, 1912, in a special municipal election, Seattle voters rejected the Bogue Plan by a 10,000-vote margin. During the weeks preceding that election, Seattle’s three leading daily newspapers had all editorialized against the plan, and public confusion over its potential implementation costs contributed to its defeat by a vote of 24,966 to 14,506. Thus, Seattle collectively rejected its first chance for regional rapid transit, more than a century ago. This would not be the last of our fair city’s appalling transportation decisions.

World-class I-5 traffic jam, May 29, 2013 Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times

World-class I-5 traffic jam, May 29, 2013
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times

What would Seattle look like today without Interstate 5 slicing straight through it?

Once upon a time, Seattle was not dominated by the concrete monstrosity that presently divides the city into two absurdly disconnected halves like the result of a brain operation gone horribly awry. In fact, citizen activists once strongly opposed the unfortunate location of I-5 through the heart of Seattle while it was still under construction.

One demonstration of that opposition occurred on June 1, 1961, when a group of roughly 100 Seattle residents staged a protest march against the impending construction of I-5 through the city. Since the new freeway was already a done deal at the time, having been previously approved by the Washington State Legislature, the march was aimed at persuading the Seattle city government to construct a lid over the portion of I-5 that would run directly through downtown.

This protest was actually an anomaly, and there was in fact minimal opposition to the I-5 route during the early planning stages, since the freeway was planned mostly through quiet bureaucratic process in Olympia until late in the game. The Seattle portion of I-5 began conceptually as the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma Superhighway in 1951, and was approved by the Washington State Legislature in 1953. Funds for construction were provided by the Federal Defense Highway Act of 1956, signed by President Eisenhower. Why the very heart of Seattle, rather than an alternative route through the then-underdeveloped eastern side of Lake Washington, was chosen for the location of a major interstate freeway is a lengthy story in itself.

The protest group consisted mostly of First Hill and downtown neighborhood activists concerned about the negative effects the new freeway might have upon the quality of everyday life in the area. Escorted by Seattle police, the group marched along the proposed freeway route through a seven-block stretch of downtown, with many carrying placards proclaiming “Block the Ditch” and “Let’s Have a Lid on It,” among other noteworthy slogans.

Among the organizers of the protest were members of the First Hill Improvement Club and architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993). Best known as the primary architect of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Thiry was also one of the first Seattle citizens to propose a lid over I-5 where new businesses and apartments could be built. Downtown interests also supported the proposed lid, due to their concerns about the loss of parking spaces and the increase in automobile traffic from the freeway. Among other significant local figures who had publicly opposed the freeway route was former Seattle mayor George Cotterill (1865-1958), who was concerned about the potential dangers of building the freeway through a slide-prone area.

The citizen activist campaign against the proposed I-5 route continued on September 14, 1961, when a coalition of First Hill residents and Seattle civic leaders spoke out against the route during a public hearing held in Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus. The hearing drew a crowd of some 200 First Hill residents, along with Thiry and local architect and activist Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985).

Objections against the route were raised there from both pragmatic and aesthetic angles. Steinbrueck, who represented the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and who would later lead the movement to save Seattle’s Pike Place Market from demolition, cautioned that there was a need for further study of automobile traffic patterns and pedestrian access between downtown and First Hill before finalizing the proposed route. The First Hill Improvement Club, assisted by Thiry, advocated a landscaped lid over the downtown portion of the freeway between Madison and University Streets and between Pike Street and Olive Way for aesthetic reasons and to preserve economic development downtown.

The campaign against I-5’s location through Seattle was ultimately too little, too late. After nearly a year of public debate on the topic prior to the Meany Hall hearing, Washington State Governor Albert Rosellini demanded a halt to the construction delays on the freeway project, despite the fact that the lid issue was not yet resolved. The Seattle portion of Interstate 5 would be officially completed on January 31, 1967. The lid desired by the June 1961 marchers was finally realized (albeit only in a limited area) when Freeway Park was dedicated on July 4, 1976.

Another historic failure of Seattle’s electorate to support regional rapid transit occurred in 1968 and 1970, when Seattle and King County voters rejected the Forward Thrust transit propositions. These propositions were part of the Forward Thrust ballot initiatives, which were a series of bond propositions presented to King County voters in special elections on February 13, 1968, and May 19, 1970. They were designed by the Forward Thrust Committee, which was founded in 1966 by the celebrated local citizen activist James Ellis (b. 1921).

Seven of the twelve propositions on the 1968 ballot were successful. Of the five remaining propositions, four were repackaged for a vote in 1970, but were defeated again due mainly to the local economic malaise of the Boeing Bust. Had they been approved, those propositions would have mandated a regional rail transit system, along with new storm water control facilities, new community centers, and new King County public health and safety facilities.

The Forward Thrust package’s total local cost of $615.5 million apparently alarmed voters amid the deepening Boeing Bust. The failure of the rapid transit propositions meant that a nearly $900 million federal funding earmark that had been secured by U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson for regional rapid transit in King County went instead to fund Atlanta, Georgia’s MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) system — Seattle’s loss, Atlanta’s gain.

James Ellis and other local civic leaders disbanded Forward Thrust after the 1970 ballot defeat.

Seattle's "ramps to nowhere," photographed in July 2014 Omar Willey

Seattle’s “ramps to nowhere,” photographed in July 2014
Omar Willey

Although the opposition to I-5’s construction through Seattle was minimal and moot, the damage done to Seattle’s general quality of life by its location would soon motivate much more fervent efforts against future freeway construction within the city limits. Beginning in 1966, a citizen activist group mobilized to stop the construction of another massive freeway project that, if completed, would have further diminished the now-globally-noted quality of life in Seattle. That project was the R. H. Thomson Expressway.

Anyone familiar with Seattle’s State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington likely remembers the curious sight of the erstwhile exits on SR 520’s southern side, near the Montlake end, that once led away from SR 520 and then abruptly stopped, leading ultimately to nowhere. Prior to their demolition beginning in 2015, one could see these concrete curiosities from a distance while driving across SR 520 to or from Bellevue, or up close while engaging in the popular Seattle pastime of canoeing through the lilypad-saturated waters of the Washington Park Arboretum.

Seattle’s “ramps to nowhere” were once the modern remnant of the R. H. Thomson Expressway, a major infrastructure construction project that, had it been completed, would have stretched along the full length of Seattle’s eastern edge, from Interstate 90 in South Seattle through the Central Area, Montlake, and the Arboretum, and onward through Lake City towards a northern interchange with an also-planned Bothell Freeway. The Thomson Expressway project was named after Seattle’s erstwhile city engineer Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949), the man responsible for, among other major city development projects, the massive regrading of the city’s downtown core at the turn of the twentieth century.

Seattle voters initially approved the Thomson Expressway project in 1960, but after inevitable changes of plan that would have bulldozed much of Montlake became apparent to local neighborhood activists in 1966, an ad hoc coalition calling itself Citizens Against R. H. Thomson (CARHT) organized to oppose the project, thus bringing Seattle firmly into the fold of the Freeway Revolts.

Along with the high-profile nationwide antiwar and civil rights movements that played out during the 1960s, a low-profile yet high-impact citizen activist movement against major freeway construction projects also emerged during that decade. Citizens concerned about the negative impact such projects would have upon the quality of urban life organized to fight such projects in several major U.S. cities, including New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and, last but not least, Seattle, which first became involved in the Freeway Revolts on June 1, 1961, the date of the aforementioned “Stop the Ditch” protest march. From that humble beginning, our local freeway revolt would reach fruition with the CARHT campaign.

In April 1967, Helix, at the time Seattle’s reigning alternative newspaper, reported on the beginnings of the movement against the Thompson Expressway. In a satirical commentary that reflected much of the growing skepticism among Seattle residents concerning the city’s planned freeway projects, Helix writer Jon Gallant wryly observed that “long-range planning is the essence of progress, so Seattle’s long-range planners should bear in mind that the [Thompson Expressway] is only a temporary stage. The next step in the foreseeable future is clearly the removal of expressways.”

Gallant continued, satirically opining (as well as hinting at the true beneficiaries of such projects) that “perhaps the master plan could coordinate the two activities, so that the demolition crew moved closely behind the construction crew, tearing down each section of the expressway as soon as it was built. That would be progress with a capital P.”

Seattle’s heaviest involvement in the Freeway Revolts occurred between 1969 and 1972, the latter being the year of passage of a ballot referendum that withdrew funding for both the Thomson project and the proposed Bay Freeway, a similar project that would have run east-to-west from SR 520 through the South Lake Union neighborhood and on to a connection with Highway 99 near Seattle Center. The surge began on May 4, 1969, when several thousand Seattle citizens marched through the Arboretum to publicly protest the Thomson project. The march was organized by CARHT, and the Arboretum was chosen for the march location because the majority of that popular landmark would have been destroyed to make way for the expressway.

One of the key leaders of CARHT was Maynard Arsove, a University of Washington professor of mathematics and a local environmental activist. In the February 1969 issue of Puget Soundings, a local not-for-profit community newsletter, Arsove published an essay on the anti-freeway movement that was then gathering steam in Seattle and nationwide. That essay was later published in the April 3, 1969, issue of Helix under the title “Concrete Dragons.” There, Arsove articulated the increasing skepticism about notions of technological progress that fueled the Freeway Revolts:

“In America in general, and here in Puget Sound in particular, roaring concrete dragons breathing noxious fumes have been clawing and eating their way through our neighborhoods and parklands, spreading social and environmental destruction as they go. These are the freeways and expressways built in the name of progress with our own tax dollars. The miracle of courage that may yet save what is left of our metropolitan regions consists of a rising public indignation, based on growing awareness of the social and environmental values at stake.”

In a passage lamenting “the de facto planning of Seattle and its metropolitan region by highway engineers,” Arsove described a potential “one-mile grid” of freeways — i.e., a grid several miles in scope, with freeways at roughly one-mile intervals running both north-south and east-west — that could have covered Seattle’s metropolitan core if the Thomson Expressway and similar projects then being planned were completed:

“The Northwest (or Alaskan) Freeway, the Aurora Expressway, the Central Freeway (Interstate-5), and the R. H. Thomson Expressway [would] all run north-south at one mile intervals. To feed cross-lake traffic into this freeway network, a total of five Lake Washington bridges has been proposed. Along with their cross-linkages and feeder roads, these freeways [would] virtually cover the face of the Seattle area with a one-mile highway grid. If actually carried out, this would give Seattle the densest freeway network of any city in the world.”

Arsove sardonically concluded, “From ‘All-American City’ in 1967 we could thus advance to ‘All-Freeway City’ by 1987.”

CARHT was not the only group to oppose new freeway construction projects in Seattle at the time. In 1968, Citizens Against Freeways (CAF) organized to oppose the construction of State Route 522. The plan for SR 522 was to connect the Eastside with I-5 by linking Interstate 405 with I-5 by looping around the north end of Lake Washington, “deep ditching” through Lake City, and connecting with I-5 near Green Lake. The effort against SR 522 failed, but CAF would later aid CARHT in opposing the Thomson Expressway and Bay Freeway projects.

Aside from the Arboretum march in May 1969, the anti-freeway movement in Seattle at its peak was largely conducted in city hall and in the King County Courthouse, rather than through dramatic acts of public protest. (Indeed, in contrast with the antiwar and civil rights movements of the time, the anti-freeway movement was largely led by people well over 30 years of age.) CARHT and CAF both filed suits against the city in 1970, charging that both the Thomson and Bay freeway projects had changed dramatically from what Seattle voters had originally approved in 1960.

Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and the Seattle City Council effectively abandoned the R. H. Thomson Expressway in June 1970 and submitted the project to a referendum. That referendum was finally presented to Seattle voters in a special election on February 8, 1972. It passed overwhelmingly by a two-to-one margin, thus revoking authorization for $11.1 million in bonds for the project. That same day, Seattle voters also chose to cancel the proposed Bay Freeway, thus saving Seattle from the fate of the “one-mile grid” that Maynard Arsove had earlier envisioned.

While the construction of the Bay Freeway project was never begun, the Thomson Expressway was already in the starting stages when it was canceled, since the original SR 520 bridge (constructed from 1960 to 1963) had in fact been designed with the expectation that the Thomson Expressway would eventually connect with it. Whence the “ramps to nowhere” that until 2015 remained in the northern end of the Arboretum, making a most curious local landmark.

One of the most poignant historical artifacts of the campaign to stop the R. H. Thomson Expressway can be found in Roger Sale’s 1976 book Seattle, Past to Present, today still considered among the most authoritative introductions to Seattle’s civic and social history. There, one can find a photograph dating from the summer of 1975, taken in the Arboretum, of a group of Seattle-area children and teenagers gleefully leaping from the safely automobile-free remnants of the Thomson Expressway into the water below. For many native and/or longtime Seattleites, diving from the ramps to nowhere into the water below was once a legendary local summertime rite of passage ever since the Thomson project’s cancellation. Like the ramps, that ritual is now merely history. Such is progress: bittersweet, indeed.

And then there’s Bertha.

The infamous tunnel-boring machine that was absurdly named after Seattle’s only woman mayor, Bertha Knight Landes (1868-1943), now stands as the ultimate ironic monument to Seattle’s collective transportation ineptitude. When Seattle held its second world’s fair in 1962, it named that fair the Century 21 Exposition and filled the fairgrounds with spectacular monuments to an imaginary progressive future. How ironic, then, that our civic solution to a drastic transportation dilemma birthed at the beginning of the actual twenty-first century would be regressively based within the rampant car culture that preceded the 1962 fair.

That dilemma began on February 28, 2001, when Seattle was shook by the Nisqually earthquake, the Puget Sound region’s worst seismic event since the Great Alaskan earthquake on March 27, 1964. Crucially, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the ancient and infamous concrete eyesore that once carried up to 110,000 vehicles daily, was damaged in the Nisqually earthquake. Although the damage was merely cosmetic and not structural, it put the city on alert about the potential for future — and possibly fatal — disasters involving the viaduct.

In the Nisqually earthquake’s aftermath, Seattle faced an urgent question: What to do about the viaduct? There were three basic options: replace it with a new, seismically sturdier elevated highway; replace it — at least the part that went through downtown — with an underground tunnel, thereby allowing downtown to connect with the waterfront once again; replace it with a modest four-lane surface street and a walkable waterfront, along with transit upgrades and street improvements in the surrounding area to accommodate traffic overflow.

Despite being the least pragmatic option, the tunnel was eventually railroaded into a done deal by Seattle’s municipal government, Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire, the Downtown Seattle Association, and several of the construction-contract interests who then stood most to gain financially from the resulting project — including and especially Seattle Tunnel Partners, the private contractor hired by the Washington State Department of Transportation to design and build the tunnel.

There’s a telling anecdote from the tunnel’s early planning stages in the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Washington, D.C.-based city planner Jeff Speck:

“[I]n September 2004 . . . Seattle’s Mayor Greg Nickels came to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and brought along the Alaskan Way Viaduct as his planning challenge. Like [San Francisco’s] Embarcadero, the two-deck, six-lane viaduct had been damaged in an earthquake and needed replacement. The state DOT proposed replacing the highway with an elegant surface boulevard . . . and a $4.2 billion highway tunnel.

“‘That sounds perfect — just cut the tunnel!’ the planners around the table shouted in unison. ‘But where will all the traffic go?’ asked the mayor. ‘Not to worry!’ we responded. But we apparently weren’t very convincing, as Mayor Nickels returned to Seattle still committed to the tunnel.”

Thus, even though a group of city planners from several major cities agreed early on that the tunnel option was the wrong choice for Seattle, Nickels wouldn’t listen — and neither did the civic leaders who would absurdly cheerlead for the tunnel later that decade, despite significant popular opposition and early warnings about the potential drawbacks. Three of the primary supporters of the tunnel option during early discussions in Olympia would later occupy crucial positions within Seattle’s city government: Mayor Ed Murray, Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, and City Council member Tom Rasmussen. Murray backed the tunnel as a state legislator, Joncas backed it as president of the Downtown Seattle Association, and Rasmussen backed it while serving on council.

While the original proposal called for a cut-and-cover tunnel, the final plan emerged in 2009 when government officials in Seattle and Olympia decided instead on a deep-bore tunnel.

Much like Interstate 5’s location through Seattle, the deep-bore tunnel was opposed by grassroots activists. In March 2011, a coalition of local citizen activists organized under the banner “Protect Seattle Now” (PSN) and mobilized a last-ditch effort to stop the tunnel project by way of a ballot referendum that would allow Seattle voters to decide the ultimate fate of the tunnel. PSN’s organizers placed the referendum on the city’s August 16, 2011, municipal primary-election ballot. PSN’s campaign appeared hopelessly quixotic at that point in time, given how ruthlessly determined the pro-tunnel crowd had then shown itself to be. Ultimately, PSN was outspent massively by tunnel advocates, and the referendum — and therefore the tunnel — was approved by Seattle voters.

Walt Crowley (1947-2007), editor of Helix, went on after that paper’s June 1970 demise to become a noteworthy local citizen activist in his own right, playing a major role, among his many other life accomplishments, in the 1971 campaign to save Pike Place Market from demolition. In his 1995 book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, Crowley had prescient words to say about one of the great paradoxes of progressive activism in Seattle:

“The principles of citizen participation revolutionized local politics in Seattle. It has become a national leader in routinizing public consultation and involvement in its municipal administration under Mayors Wes Uhlman, Charles Royer, and Norm Rice and a solidly liberal and remarkably diverse City Council. Unfortunately, most examples of effective citizen participation [in Seattle city politics] are reactionary, e.g., halting a freeway or unwelcome development. As citizen participants, we have become very good at stopping bad things; we are not so practiced at starting good things.”

Obviously, citizen activists were unable to stop the deep-bore tunnel project, which has now become the worst transportation debacle in Seattle’s history. Clearly, America’s Smartest City still has crucial civic lessons to learn.

–Jeff Stevens. Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.

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