As with the hundreds of other titles in the Images of America series (celebrating "the history of neighborhoods, towns, and cities across the country"), Seattle's Belltown has 200 images, 128 pages, and a sepia-toned cover. The book's author is Clark Humphrey, the editor of the Belltown Messenger and a former columnist for this paper. The image captured on its sepia-toned cover is the unveiling of James A. Wehn's statue of Chief Seattle. The unveiling happened on November 12, 1912, exactly 30 years after the earliest known photograph of Belltown was taken by Carleton Watkins in 1882. Forty years before Watkins's photograph, which is at the bottom of the fourth page of Humphrey's book, the Bells (William and his wife Sarah Ann) claimed as their own 340 acres of land north of what is now Pioneer Square.
The tremendous social transformation of the area, from a tiny, 19th-century settlement of land-mad white Americans to a dense, 21st-century inner-city district dominated by property-mad developers (from a wilderness of trees to a wilderness of construction cranes and "condominium canyon[s]"), is the substance of Humphrey's short and simple book. "Alexander Calder's Eagle sculpture," Humphrey writes beneath the last image on the last page, "may have landed here, but Belltown's official metallic bird is still the crane of the construction variety." Cranes that are birds, condos that are canyons—the real nature of the past has been fully replaced by the monsters of man-made nature.
Humphrey's book, however, does not express a sense of horror or sadness or wonder at the great and rapid sequence of events that shaped Belltown. The tone of his writing is always detached from the content of the pictures. For example, an image of the enormous violence of the Denny regrade (a project that has been compared to the digging of the Panama Canal) is treated in the same tone as an image of a Japanese American Chamber of Commerce float heading down Second Avenue during a parade in 1939. A good part of this bureaucratic flatness has to do with the restrictions imposed by the Image of America series, but it also has to do with Humphrey's style, which always emphasizes information and the facts—accounts of things, buildings, and events. Humphrey is less a historian and more a registrar of vanishing Seattle.
Even the architecture of Belltown's buildings receives no mention or notice. What Humphrey offers is an account of use. How this or that building was used, and who used it in this or that way. At the end of the book, you only have a sense of the recent and past uses and users of Belltown.
There is, however, a moment when Humphrey nearly offers the reader something more than an account of uses and users. This moment is the introduction to chapter three, "The Depression and War Years": "Every city, no matter how proud it was of its prestigious offices and its stately homes, needed a low-rent district... A place where cars can be fixed, trucks could be parked, and stuff could be stored. A place where more dangerous materials, such as flammable nitrate film stocks in movie distributor's vaults, could be safely and quietly warehoused... A place where people who made the city work could dine and drink and play."
In this passage, we hear a note of nostalgia—which is fine and all for other, less-critical districts of Seattle, but Belltown remains an explosive battleground of competing land use and architectural ideas, of private and cultural capital, and a variety of class issues. Even in a book as small as this, one wants the writer to take a stronger position on these pressing matters, presenting not only conclusions but also solutions. The battle of Belltown is not history, yet. It's not about mourning the death of the past (or even registering it as Humphrey does) but about fighting for new possibilities.