Visual Art

The Arboretum’s Ramps to Nowhere

They’re Doomed—Come See the Paradise While You Still Can

The Arboretum’s Ramps to Nowhere
  • comments (23)
  • Print

For half a century, the raised ramps of bald concrete rising from the marshlands of the Washington Park Arboretum have represented the best of Seattle. They are not pretty; rather, they are of the essence. The ramps were intended for a highway system defeated by citizen revolt; they were left abruptly unfinished in 1972. Leading nowhere, they instead became somewhere, a zone free from prescribed purpose, unmonitored by authority, ready for everything. They are diving boards, dance floors, picnic spots, a kayak course, open-air bars where nobody cards, cruise spots. They’re bare skin for the temporary tattoos of graffiti. Someone once walked a tightrope between the ramps, or maybe it happened more than once, when nobody saw.

Every summer, the ramps light up again with new invented purposes—except that this is their final summer. They’ll be torn down for the expansion of Highway 520, a stretch of nowhere between home and work, those first and second places of cities. The ghost ramps are a classic third place, not home and not work, but a playground that never met a lawyer. Seattle needs its Space Needles and Columbia Towers and nature preserves, but a city without self-governing third spaces is just a machine.

If you look at one of the ramps today, you’ll see something like a mirage: two structural columns that disappear into the marshy surroundings. They disappear because they’re wrapped in a silvery casing that dissolves the concrete into pure reflective surface, makes the support structure go missing. The casing, which looks like a gate that would lead someplace otherworldly, is a temporary art installation called Gate to Nowhere by a group called Re-Collective. A public party is planned for June 19 to memorialize this magical era between freeways, a time that felt like an exit to a parallel world where anything except cars was allowed.

Re-Collective is a crew of architects and urbanists who are also activists and de facto public artists. The group formed in 2008 around the graduate thesis project of an architecture student named Abby Martin. They wanted to preserve a building that nobody seemed to remember had housed a nuclear reactor on the University of Washington campus. It was slated to be torn down to make way for a new engineering building, but Re-Collective covered the reactor in red balloons and hosted a big party. Since then, it’s been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

The three ramps to nowhere will come down, it seems. Thanks to a grassroots campaign including Martin (now Abby Inpanbutr), another architecture student who also worked on the nuclear reactor site named Rainer Metzger, and many others, a memorial to the ramps is now in the planning stages. The memorial may incorporate actual pieces of the original concrete. It may even be a stand-alone pair of original columns stationed in the marsh like an ancestor with a stiff upper lip. That would be a ramp to the past, not a ramp to the great somewhere you land in when you’re going nowhere in particular.

But it would be better than nothing. There was a freeway revolt here, an uprising that worked. The Washington State Department of Transportation did not include the ramps at all in its recent cultural assessment of the area. Why would it? The ramps are invisible to authority. They’re something only the divers, the drinkers, the picnickers, the artists can see. recommended

 

Comments (23) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
1
I grew up in Montlake and these things (along wiht the sadly doomed old MOHAI) were a big part of my childhood (including warnings from my mom that I was bound to land on a canoe and die if I jumped off). What are they going to do about the Marsh Walk?

By the way, the freeway to nowhere also served as a climbing wall at one point: about 15 years back someone installed holds, since torn off, all the way up one of the columns; if your hand slipped, you fell into the water.
Posted by Jude Fawley on June 16, 2014 at 2:44 PM · Report this
2
Ah, the good old days. It's so true---you can never go home again....*sigh*
Posted by auntie grizelda on June 16, 2014 at 5:10 PM · Report this
Reutte 3
I saw some swimmers jumping off the ramps into the lake. It looked like they were having a lot of fun.
Posted by Reutte on June 16, 2014 at 6:25 PM · Report this
Real Estate Gals 4
Beautifully written. I don't think I've ever felt so heartbroken about abandoned on/off ramps... Now it feels like we're losing a friend, and I think it's a very true feeling.
Posted by Real Estate Gals http://realestategals.com on June 16, 2014 at 6:37 PM · Report this
ams_ 5
This reminded me of this documentary about the train tracks in Armstrong BC. I think you'd enjoy it, Jenn.

http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/mobil…
Posted by ams_ on June 16, 2014 at 9:02 PM · Report this
6
Ah... what sweet memories of my well-spent youth. Time wasted, me wasted, taking in the absurd beauty of the place. I'm sad this is happening. This column was a lovely elegy.
Posted by Mothra24 on June 17, 2014 at 12:41 PM · Report this
7
Don't forget it's been a skatepark of sorts for the last few years. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danbarnett…
Posted by Danbar on June 17, 2014 at 3:45 PM · Report this
Bub 8
This is beautiful tribute, Jen. Jumping off those ramps into Lake Washington inspired one of my plays. I hope there is indeed a memorial structure to keep them in mind.
Posted by Bub on June 17, 2014 at 4:09 PM · Report this
9
Spent many days there. When we were kids, we built a raft and launched it in their shadows. It sank. We weren't very good at rafts. The big kids would jump off then. We were in awe. We were still too small to jump though. I've moved far away since and still wish I was big enough then to jump. Or at least build a raft that floats.
Posted by Bean on June 17, 2014 at 5:06 PM · Report this
10
I spent such a great part of my youth jumping off those things. It makes me miss home... Thanks for the lovely tribute.
Posted by gnarly on June 17, 2014 at 6:27 PM · Report this
11
Did we dodge a bullet or what?
Posted by Lou Sainis on June 17, 2014 at 9:38 PM · Report this
Paul Kuniholm Pauper 12
this zone of the city is so metaphysically charged, there is the nightly roost of trillions of crows, a vast black murder of corvids and the crowning masterpiece of Seattle public art, Max Gurvich's Aurora Borealis.
Posted by Paul Kuniholm Pauper http://bit.ly/paulkuniholmpauper on June 17, 2014 at 10:02 PM · Report this
13
If my husband and I pinpoint the moment we fell in love, it occurred on this bridge. We only referred to it as the abandoned freeway. We looked into the water, we stared up at the stars. A rare opportunity to exist in the city, and feel completely alone.
Posted by dyst86 on June 17, 2014 at 11:15 PM · Report this
skidmark 14
We were jumping of the bridge there one day and a couple of road maintenance workers drove up and started eating their lunch. Because they were grownups we were hesitant to jump off in front of them. Then one of them yelled at us "Go ahead and jump, I want to watch you die!"
Posted by skidmark on June 17, 2014 at 11:19 PM · Report this
15
Wonderful article-- you say it well.

I agree also with comment 12-- that part of the city is a strange, powerful place.

I'm guessing it was so before the ramps, too. I hope it will remain so.

They're finally going somewhere, though, aren't they? Those ramps, laughing as they fall, paving the way for the future.

They know that sometimes
The only way to move forward
Is to just
Stand
Still.
Posted by iraw on June 18, 2014 at 12:03 AM · Report this
16
Wonderful article-- you say it well.

I agree also with comment 12-- that part of the city is a strange, powerful place.

I'm guessing it was so before the ramps, too. I hope it will remain so.

They're finally going somewhere, though, aren't they? Those ramps, laughing as they fall, paving the way for the future.

They know that sometimes
The only way to move forward
Is to just
Stand
Still.
Posted by irjowo99 on June 18, 2014 at 12:06 AM · Report this
17
There must be something we can do to save them. How about starting a campaign to save the ramps?
Posted by jrocketboy on June 18, 2014 at 6:29 AM · Report this
18
Note that the map on The Stranger web site is incorrect...you can find an accurate one at gatetonowhere.org
Posted by Brookesing on June 18, 2014 at 10:06 AM · Report this
19
Seems like, with some vision, this could be turned into a sort of "high line" instead of being torn down.
Posted by Jude Fawley on June 18, 2014 at 12:22 PM · Report this
Paul Kuniholm Pauper 20
selling spiritualism, commodifying a place of natural beauty. If the condo sodomy cannot by impeded, give the people an offset. Sell the overpasses to avaricious development beasts and ise the revenue to fund free mass tramsit. Even the crows will cackle at that altruism.
Posted by Paul Kuniholm Pauper http://bit.ly/paulkuniholmpauper on June 18, 2014 at 12:43 PM · Report this
21
This article made me so sad. I have so many memories of the park and canoeing and just relaxing... the city keeps edging toward something I no longer want to be part of. And I was born and raised here...
Posted by Nick H on June 20, 2014 at 9:57 AM · Report this
22
It's already a kind of High Line...it is whatever those present want it to be, a Rorschach High Line. The article, nicely and poetically written, says that it is being torn down to make way for the new 520....but is it actually, in fact in the way? It is attached, but they could separate it, no?
Posted by LawrenceD on June 24, 2014 at 8:26 AM · Report this
Josh Bis 23
The first time I saw these, I was 90% sure I was hallucinating since it seemed so incredibly unlikely that there would be a series of ramps just hanging there over the water. Sad to see them go away.
Posted by Josh Bis http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Author.html?oid=3815563 on June 24, 2014 at 10:57 PM · Report this

Add a comment