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.