On old maps, the Duwamish River bends like discarded ribbon as it passes through a valley on the southern end of this city, winding across land that was once marshes and tribal fishing villages and then emptying into the salt water of Elliott Bay. Melt from nearby mountains carved this path, rich with salmon that fed the Duwamish Indians in the years before their last unfettered chief, Si'ahl, learned his name would be hammered by white settlers into the name of a new American city: Seattle. Not long afterward, the US Army Corps of Engineers showed up and spent a few years straightening and deepening the Duwamish for the purposes of large-scale commerce. Now the river looks more like a ribbon pulled taut.
Heavy industry lines its sides, dingy barges fill its moorings, and its last five miles have been declared a federal Superfund mega-site, so thick with PCBs, mercury, and arsenic that eating anything that lingers here is inadvisable. This is Seattle's only river. At what's been called its dirty mouth sits a mammoth artificial island built from dredged Duwamish silt: flat, paved over, and planted with tall orange cranes for unloading shipping containers at the international port. Upriver, toward the other end of the Superfund stretch, is a shallow bend that seems an homage to an earlier time, and tucked in the crook of this bend, across from a former Boeing plant where World War II bomber production helped begin the river's fouling, is the neighborhood of South Park.
In the summer of 2009, the best way to reach South Park's main strip of taquerías and tire shops was by crossing an ailing drawbridge over this bend in the Duwamish. The decks of the bridge swelled in summer heat so that opening and closing became impossible. Its two halves, and their identical brick watchmen's houses, were drifting in opposite directions. Its support pilings failed to find solid purchase beneath the toxic river-bottom muck. As a consequence, the South Park Bridge ranked as one of the least safe spans in the state.
Near the riverbank where one of the bridge decks descended into the neighborhood, on the wall of a bar called the County Line, a hand-lettered sign urging downtown politicians to do something other than the stated plan, which was to close the bridge and let residents find other ways into the neighborhood. The back route, for example, along a highway that, like the Duwamish, faintly bends as it passes by...
While the City Slept can be purchased here.
Eli and Jennifer talked about the book, in conversation with KUOW's Marcie Sillman, on February 3, 2016 at Town Hall. A recording of that conversation is here.