Better places than this

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery breakin’ my mind”

— Five Man Electrical Band

I was escorted off the premises a week or so ago. I’ve written before about having been assailed as a youth with a perverse desire to be in places where I shouldn’t be, but that desire has largely dissipated over the years and, in any case, this was not that. No, I was merely taking pictures, as I am wont to do, of the built environment in my city and I happened to run afoul of heightened security.

Only the streetlamps give the date away.

It’s happened before. The winter before Mara was born I bought an old Graflex Speed Graphic press camera, with the object of using 4×5 black and white film to document the older buildings in parts of town that are undergoing much redevelopment. Around that time, a mid-century public building had been demolished between James and Cherry and Third and Fourth avenues, leaving an open view of the back of the courthouse and Smith Tower and surrounding buildings. I took my camera and tripod and set up on the plaza of the new City Hall.

Now for a digression. To appreciate it, you must understand that it takes a long time for me to set up and take one of these shots. There are a lot of steps, some of which have to be done in a particular order or I will get blank negatives back. First I have to compose the shot, which is hard to do in daylight because I have to look at the back of the glass with the shutter open and it only presents a dim image. This is why photographers used to stick their heads under a dark cloth. It does not help matters that the image on the glass is upside down. I next pull out my smaller 35mm SLR camera and use its light meter to ascertain what shutter speed and f-stop I should use on the large format camera. Once this is done, I put the small camera away, close the large camera’s shutter and adjust it for the appropriate speed and then set the lens aperture. With the shutter closed I am now effectively working blind, but it’s moot anyway because the next thing I do is insert a 4×5 film holder between me and the lens. Next I must remember to pull out the metal plate that shields the film from light while it’s in the holder, first double-checking to make sure I did not leave the shutter open. Also, I am praying that there is film in the holder, because, you know, there might not be. There are so many ways to screw this up. Then I check to make sure the building didn’t run off, take a deep breath and depress the shutter release, and an image is made. Then I have to replace the metal shield, remove the holder, and begin the process again for the next photo.

Smith Tower with its top ball clipped off. Not my best day out.

I did all these things properly and took a photograph of the courthouse and Smith Tower. The photo I made was framed so that it was only by noticing the streetlamps or some other small detail that you could know that it is not, say 1938. Less than a minute after I released the shutter, a B-25 bomber lumbered through this prospect, burbling right past the upper stories of the Smith Tower on its way south to Boeing Field. I stood staring, unable to set up another shot in time, thinking what a coup it would have been to capture a scene in the summer of 2005 that might have been easily mistaken for the summer of 1945.

But on with the story. I had moved my tripod to the sidewalk for a shot down what old-timers used to call “Cherry Canyon” when I was approached by a man in the blue shirt and black pants of Security, who seemed nervous and told me I couldn’t take pictures there. I hoisted the most benign and ignorant expression onto my face that I could summon, and asked why. He said that a lot of the buildings hereabouts were public buildings (including the Arctic Building, which I hadn’t known), and something about terrorism. The gist of it was that I might be — with my antique view camera — scoping out which window I might want to pilot my Piper Cub into as an attack on America and all it stands for, or otherwise amassing information about the buildings to exploit with a view toward their destruction. I started to explain that this camera was an old film camera that had no zoom. This made no difference to the security officer, who radioed back to headquarters somewhere up behind us in the City Hall Building, that he was on the scene and had the situation in hand. I asked if it made any difference that I was now on the sidewalk rather than in the plaza, but then he referenced a rule that prohibits tripods on the sidewalk without a license. While we were talking, a family of Chinese tourists strolled along Fourth Avenue, the paterfamilias pausing to lift a digital movie camera to his eye and indiscriminately sweeping the area’s buildings.  

The Arctic Building (closest), the Dexter Horton Building, center, the Hoge Building (yay!) behind the Horton, along with the Alaska Building (left) and the Broderick and other buildings on the south side of the street (out of view behind the Alaska) created a narrow slot that was once known as Cherry Canyon.

I asked where I could get such a license. He told me the mayor’s office. I thanked him for dispatching his duty and packed up my gear and left. He went far enough away so as not to seem eager, but made sure that I am-scrayed before he retreated into the public building, which by the way is owned by me and, depending on where you live, probably you too.

Later, at the mayor’s office, which is in that very City Hall Building that my presence had so threatened, I was told they wouldn’t be able to help me and that I really wanted Seattle’s Film & Music Office, a division of the Office of Economic Development. This office, whose mission is to lure the music and film industry to the Emerald City, is in the Municiple Tower diagonally across Fifth and Cherry. I called first and spoke with a woman who empathized with my situation and pretty much dismissed the terrorism rationale right away.

“Security guards are under a lot of pressure now because of Nineeleven,” she said. “I’m sure he was just doing his job.”

The Municipal Tower is the curvy-topped one.

However, she admitted that she didn’t know what particular rules he was trying to enforce about the actual taking of photographs in public. As far as she was concerned, it was the fact that I wanted to use a tripod on a city sidewalk that was of interest. She said the City regulates this because people can get hurt tripping over cables and tripod legs when large professional outfits set up their equipment in places where people walk, and the City doesn’t want to get sued. The license provides the necessary language to indemnify the City so that anyone who biffs on a tripod and breaks their leg will have to take it up with the particular production company they tripped over. These licenses started at $25 as I recall. I whined that I was not a film production company but a hobbyist with an antique camera taking pictures for my own use, and that such a fee would end my ability to practice my hobby downtown. She listened and heard — I wish I could remember her name — and was embarrassed to admit that the Film and Music Office was still pretty new and they hadn’t yet figured out how to go about licensing “amateurs”. But then from down in some wellspring of resourcefulness within her, she came up with the idea for a special modified license and said she’d work on it.

A few days later I went forty or fifty floors up in this green-capped high-rise to meet with her and recieve from her a unique license, signed by herself, that vouchsafed me permission for six months to shoot pictures with a tripod on city sidewalks. It had the number 001 handwritten in ink at the top. She told me to laminate it and tether it to my tripod and show it to anyone who gave me trouble. And to please be careful so I didn’t cripple anyone. I left feeling well served by my municiple government. Sad to say, I never used that license because it was more than a year before I got downtown with my camera again, by which time it had expired.

A place of conflicting interests: public access and security against the Axis of Evil. Between the end of the walkway and the blue-gray building in the center is Fourth Avenue.

It was not my cumbersome Graflex, nor even my 35 mm Canon, that I had with me two weeks ago when I stumbled upon a delightful little plaza between the newish 5th and Madison Condos and the old Bank of California skyscraper. I had the little digital camera that I use for most of my blog shots, one we bought when Mara was a baby after it became evident that our film cameras couldn’t keep up with her cuteness quotient. This plaza is simultaneously the roof of the Bartell’s drug store (below on Fourth Avenue) and the side-yard of the condominium building, where the hip urban residents are expected to recreate next to the little waterway that runs through it overshaded by ornamental trees. I know this because…well, I’ll get to that later.

The far end of the plaza affords wonderful prospects up and down Fourth Avenue, but no sooner had I taken a photograph of the YMCA across Fourth than a security guard came flapping out of the Bank of California Building and told me I couldn’t take pictures there, that this was private property. 

As before, I put on my Friendly Bumpkin face and said things like, “Really?” “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…” and “Why is that?” in a humble and solicitous tone. This helps deflect hostility, and scaling down her bluster she addressed me in an almost entre nous tone.

I got the shot I came for, anyway.

“Well,” she said as we strolled back toward the sidewalk on Fifth, “it’s mainly because of the terrorism. And then we also have two banks in the building. They don’t allow people taking pictures here.”

It was at this point that I realized that she had come out of the BoC Building, not the condos, and that she probably had no authority where I was standing. A lot of what security personnel do, I realized, is bluff and hope people go away. So I kept up my incredulous prattle with my tongue, all the while moving the rest of my person in the direction she wanted me to move in, so that she would have no reason to call someone to put their bootheel on my neck.  

“But this is such a beautiful plaza with the canal and everything,” I said, “and the walkway comes right up here from Fifth Avenue.” My inference was that anyone would assume this was a plaza meant to be used and enjoyed by bipeds.

“Well,” she drawled again, “the city made them put that access in, but it’s private property.”

Hmmm. That’s all I’m saying. Hmmm.

"You can't take pictures here". Click for a larger image to see annotations. Image copyright Microsoft.

Later I looked at the condos’ website, where an animated movie* made before the building was completed showed an artist’s rendition of the plaza populated by youthful residents enjoying the fresh city air.* You can’t tell me that they envisioned this little paradise as a place where anyone brandishing a camera would be jumped by the nextdoor neighbor’s security guards. 

*In the less than two weeks since this episode occured the website has been changed and the video has disappeared from it. The link above is to the same video on YouTube.


3 Responses to “Better places than this”

  1. 1 kiwidutch January 28, 2011 at 03:25

    The old and new buildings manage to go well together and I bet that there have ALWAYS been people in a huff getting territorial over boundaries that have been stretched beyond the realms of practical probability LOL
    The Smith Tower was a building before it’s time I think.. it doesn’t look at all out of place against it’s more modern counterparts. I LOVE local history (no matter where “local” is…)Great post!

    • 2 jstwndrng January 28, 2011 at 09:36

      Thanks kiwidutch. People love the Smith Tower now, in part because Seattle is such a comparatively young town and we have so little that’s really old. But at the time of its completion, the architectural establishment regarded the structure as sort of a Frankenstein’s monster of architectural elements, blocky and heavy and inelegant. I can sort of see that, objectively, but I love the old thing anyway.

  1. 1 Aqua urbana – Part II « Just Wondering Trackback on June 29, 2011 at 14:18

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