In photographs from the time of the Denny Hill regrade, it looks like the city has been bombed, and is putting out fires. There are hoses everywhere. Artificial buttes created by the washing away of millions of cubic feet of earth stand 100 feet tall. Seattle resembles a muddy, ruinous version of the Southwest.
"Holdout hills" or "spite mounds," as the buttes were called, were the resistance. The people who owned them didn't believe that the 62 hilly blocks at the northern end of downtown needed to be flattened.
But a determined city engineer who envisioned a business zone unencumbered by the steep native slopes had gone door-to-door selling the prospect of rising property values, and the holdouts were far outnumbered. Denny Hill would be leveled. Pioneers asked for one last vestige of the early days to remain, a place set high in the air with its original, glorious views of the city and the water: Denny Park.
For 17 years, from 1911 to 1928, the park—the city's first—was 60 feet above its regraded surroundings.
Then, in the name of progress, it fell, too.
Jerry Garcia, an architect, wants to put it back up. The name of his proposal is Make Believe, and a model of it is on display at Western Bridge. The plan is as practical as it is revolutionary.
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As it is, unless you are stopped dead in traffic on Denny Way, you can miss Seattle's oldest park entirely. David T. and Louisa Denny donated the land in 1884 for "intelligent use of leisure," but 122 years later, the shaded five-acre area isn't exactly a recreational hub. One recent afternoon, there was nobody in the park except for a man in a suit just passing through. The church next door was locked. At the church next to that one, pastor Doug Lindsay explained that at certain hours the park is run by pimps and prostitutes. After a drug overdose last year, the park bathrooms were bolted permanently.
For two years, Garcia, now principal in the firm Universal Nonlinear Design, walked by Denny Park every day on his way to work. He developed a relationship with the place and a curiosity about it. When he learned its history, he dreamt of elevating its tall 1930s-era trees to a soaring position starting 60 feet in the air. He wanted to transform the dark, hunkered-down spot into the place in the sun that its founders envisioned, while monumentalizing the outrageous land mutation that happened there. It would be impossible to move the trees, he was disappointed to learn. The current trees would have to die. But that didn't deter him. His plan includes deep root beds so that new trees can grow.
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The current park's landscape is formal and symmetrical, a radiant shape that would look pretty in an aerial photograph, where everything is flattened. But the park isn't flat: The land slopes steadily downward to the east, dropping more than 40 feet. Walking the paths, which shoot diagonally down the rectangular site like runoff gutters, is uncomfortable. The centerpiece of the design is a flowerbed in the shape of an oval with points on either side, a copy of a design that was once in Pershing Square in Los Angeles. Angelenos demolished that oval long ago.
Garcia's finished park would be an exact replica of the land as it was before the regrade. It would have meandering, Olmstedian paths; a museum-like pavilion describing the events of the regrade; a natural amphitheater; and the children's playground that is already being planned for the park with $100,000 that the city council gave to a South Lake Union neighborhood group—in acknowledgement that Denny Park needs to be upgraded along with its gentrifying surroundings. It would look something like a massive rooftop garden with a glass fence, resting on a concrete structure hidden by rammed-earth exterior walls that, amazingly, could be made of dirt from the original Denny Hill. If Mayor Greg Nickels's proposal passes to excavate the Alaskan Way Viaduct into a tunnel, the earth removed will be the very same that was taken for the regrade and turned into a foundation for the viaduct. That dirt could be trucked back up, and brought home.
Underneath the park, Garcia foresees room for a cinema, a health club, or parking, or all three. To get up to the park from the street, you'd ride two exterior elevators that echo the ones at the nearby Space Needle. Taking elevators to a nature preserve: there's something great about that.
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Yes, the whole thing is a crazy idea, but it's only an opposite and equal reaction to the mind-boggling regrade, and the timing couldn't be better. The contemporary moving of earth would give dimension to real environmental consciousness, instead of a hasty forgetting. It would be both more and less absurd than the regrade, and certainly funnier and smarter.
The project's power is that its theatricality is equal to its utility, its deceit equal to its truthfulness. It solves the park's practical problems while endowing Seattle with an unparalleled urban earthwork of art. It inspires, and is the product of, investigative zeal. It exercises the imagination, the memory, and the body. The Dennys were so dedicated to the idea of "intelligent use of leisure" that they had their own son's grave dug up and moved so that their land could be converted from cemetery to city park. The knowledge embedded in Garcia's new-old curves would honor that.
This plot of land is no stranger to ambitious attempts to make this a better city, and this attempt is only stranger than any other in good ways. It is time to begin talking about how to make Make Believe real.