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.