Needles, Corsets, and Melancholy
Considering Seattle's Distinguishing Features
The Needle Needs to Go
Enough. The tyranny must end. It's time to obliterate the Space Needle—preferably by angry mob, with blunt instruments. We should at least box it up for a year, Christo and Jeanne-Claude style, to show the doubters that we can live without it. Oh yes we can.
The Needle was a mistake from the start. Originally called "the Space Cage" and sketched on a coffee-shop place mat, it was hastily thrown up by architect John Graham Jr. for the 1962 World's Fair and allegedly peed on by Elvis. (Graham also gave birth to the nation's first shopping mall, in Northgate—thanks, John!) In the 1980s, the City of Fife offered Seattle $1 million to move the Space Needle to its downtown. Hey, Fife: Does the offer still stand?
Like the high-school football trophy too prominently displayed in the home of a middle-aged failure, the Needle is an embarrassing relic of past glory and unfulfilled promise. It was a Cold War–era advertisement for a Seattle that no longer exists—a city of aeronautical engineering and military might that was going to spearhead the space race and help whup the Soviets. It's lost without its southern counterpoint, the Kingdome, the now-demolished concrete hump that held down the other end of the Seattle skyline. The Needle was the sophisticate of the pair, evoking a probe (science!), a rocket (technology!), and an aerie (aloof power!) in homage to an imaginary future of technocratic totalitarianism. The Kingdome, its handmaiden, was a proletarian concrete mound where the masses could huddle for entertainment or, come a Katrina-style disaster, shelter. The destruction of our temple to bread and circuses has left the Space Needle unmoored, but always there, an irrelevant architectural crutch that keeps us from reaching for anything new or better. Let's give our tourists, our postcard photographers, and our children something to strive for. It's time to free our city and our skyline. It's time to snap the Needle. BRENDAN KILEY
The Viaduct Is Our Concrete Corset
Route 99 runs from Fife to Everett, but its aesthetic apotheosis is in downtown Seattle, where it wraps around the midsection of our city like a monolithic garter. The debate over what to do with Seattle's only elevated transportation system—bury it? restore it? reroute it?—is really a debate over the proper presentation of our city's midriff. Should it be restrained, in a demure concrete corset, or should we let it all hang out, our glass and steel and concrete rushing to the water's edge like a tsunami of commercial flab? The argument over the viaduct exemplifies the fundamental tension of Seattle culture—a city that imagines itself as liberal and freewheeling, but is nationally infamous for its jaywalking tickets, high-strung property owners, and a Victorian sense of righteous propriety.
But there is a beautiful compromise in the contentious viaduct—during its construction, in 1953, three inches of the guardrail on the southbound side were cut away to accommodate a brick building standing at the corner of Bell and Western. Those few inches of brick, gently pushing into the viaduct, are precious—a cease-fire zone between the libertines and the scolds, a place where Seattle stops arguing with itself. BRENDAN KILEY
The Cranes Are Multiplying
Gazing at construction cranes was an indecipherable obsession for me as a young girl. I rarely saw them in rural Iowa, where I grew up, but when we moved to Tacoma in the late '70s, they seemed to be everywhere, most notably in my own backyard, where Route 16 was being built. Now I notice their increasingly protracted presence in downtown Seattle, dotting the southern skyline as I drive westward along Denny Way, their precisely angled necks swiveling slowly and purposefully. In one respect, they are beautifully independent, powerful machines moving mountains of debris and massive slabs of freshly forged metal with impressive speed and tireless purpose. But they are also cold, single-minded creatures vividly dismantling the city I love (in fact, we are in the throes of a crane shortage, thanks to our compulsive gentrification drive—there are currently more than 45 deployed in Seattle, according to the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce). Consequently, my relationship with these gray and blue beasts is not unlike the one many people have with sharks: They're fascinating, impressive things that wield the power to brutally extinguish. Oddly, I find emotional reprieve in their brothers: the stationary orange cranes that work the waterfront, moving shipping containers from boat to shore in a historic labor echoed in their nostalgic look, like AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. Together, the cranes are a shadow race of Seattleites, pushing robotically for the future, working to hang on to the past. HANNAH LEVIN
The City Is Alluring in the Way That a Person In a State of Melancholy Is Alluring
In environmental and scientific circles, there is a term for the glow a city gives off at night: luminous pollution. The ambivalence of the phrase feels correct. On the one hand, cityscapes that stay lit at all hours are a wasteful indulgence. They suck up energy, blot out the stars, and draw migrating birds toward their twinkle, only to kill them, by the millions, against hard panes of glass. And on the other hand, perpetually lit cities are luminous.
At dusk, on a clear night, Seattle's skyline is an illumination in blue. Hues of purple and green accompany, as well as antenna flashes of red, but the primary sentiment is drippy and cool—as if the city had self-consciously positioned itself on the opposite side of the color wheel from all those hot, orange-glowing megalopolises on the Eastern Seaboard.
With the sun down, the mountains recede, allowing the urban core to compete on its own terms rather than being dwarfed by nature. Darker towers recede, too, blending into the blackening sky and becoming negative space made known only by the office lights of workaholics. What steps to the fore, in these moments, is a young, attractive place with a humble demeanor and a penchant for the blues. It is alluring, in that way that a person in a state of melancholy is alluring, begging to be either joined or rescued. One can understand why so many birds would make it the last thing they see. ELI SANDERS