Wasteland

Ravenna Boulevard follows the path that once, not so very long ago, a creek of the same name traveled from the eastern edge of Green Lake southeast to the shores of Lake Washington at Union Bay. It is a true boulevard: two lanes running in opposite directions separated by a tree-lined median. The old Craftsman houses that line it were once some of the poshest properties in North Seattle. At one end they still are — the eastern end. But closer to Green Lake where it intersects with Roosevelt Avenue and Northeast 65th Street the boulevard loses some of its charm and a lot of its real estate value. Partly this is because Interstate 5 crosses over it in three broad swaths at 65th.

What it's good for.

The freeway thunders overhead on pillars that lift it above what can be thought of as Ravenna Valley. It plies this elevated path for a considerable distance before meeting the valley’s opposite edge, its concrete pillars creating a dark colonnade that cuts across the Ravenna neighborhood at an angle, thereby dividing it not once but twice, north from south and east from west, and marches over the shoulders of nearby houses and a church, casting shadows over them on sunny days and a dull, throbbing gloom on cloudy ones. Since the space directly underneath this juggernaut of infrastructure is best suited to parking lots, that is what has been built under it.

When I get off the bus at the end of the day — ‘disembark’, I like to say, or if I’m in a particularly springy mood, ‘alight’ — I do so almost directly underneath the freeway. Many commuter buses stop in this vicinity. Depending on which bus I take, I may be on the other side of the freeway from my home, and no matter which bus I take I will have to cross Ravenna. Many days, I am disgorged on the wrong side of both, so that I imagine a large X of traffic that I have to walk through the three-dimensional center of.

Ravenna passing under the freeway, sans its one-time charm.

There are sidewalks under the freeway if I take the long route along 65th, but if it is not too rainy I risk a shorter way among the tall concrete columns next to the parking lots, columns that were painted a few years ago with a pattern that I think was intended to make them seem like graceful, hourglass-shaped pillars. The yellow paint cheers the space but little. It’s a zone where nothing grows, not even moss or weeds. The earth under there is dry and hard almost the year round; the only water this land gets drips off the edges of the highway above and between its three major sections, creating strips of muddy ground that are narrow but also very long and difficult to get around. If it is wet out I avoid this shortcut for the sake of my shoes, even though I prefer walking on the bare earth — even the forsaken earth under the pillars — to walking on a sidewalk that seems  unconvincingly to suggest that the underside of a freeway is a natural place to stroll.

In fact the underside of a freeway is not a natural place for doing anything, and for that reason it fascinates me in a dark way. Whenever I pass through there the deadness of the space distracts me, its purposelessness agitates my mind. A man with a shopping cart camped under here for a time, almost a year, and collected a heap of rumpled, trashy things around him. But he did not thrive; he leaned against one of the pillars, often asleep and looking dead. He never asked for money, never even looked up, but sometimes I’d see him shuffling around nearby. Joggers jogging to Green Lake from the southeast have to jog through the muddy strips there, but mostly the place is empty. A blank space, a space removed from the turnings and functions of the earth on which it sits.

This field used to be the backyards of houses along Ravenna and Eighth avenues.

The place is almost perfectly blighted, and yet — and here’s the fascination for me — it is both a planned space and an unplanned space. In the sense that it is the result of the construction of a freeway deck thirty feet above, this wasteland underneath was created intentionally, even designed. And yet it is nearly accidental space. It is space whose particular properties no longer matter. It only need be there, and not for its own sake but for the sake of the lanes above. What it looks like or what happens or doesn’t happen there means nothing to anyone. From a strictly Christian perspective, it is the opposite of what the Creator intended for Earth, even for “placeness”. It is anti-place, a kind of Tartarus on the surface of the globe.

Other areas of wasteland that are less dead-looking attend this and all freeways in the form of the banks that ascend and descend from the freeway on either side and that get wider around clover-leafs and other rampy installations. Freeways are ideally flat and straight, which means that they are not often at the level of the surrounding topography for very long, especially around here where we have lots of ridges and valleys. Accordingly, the ground must either be dug out for the lanes, leaving the remains of the “cut” on either side, or built up to support the lanes, leaving the freeway on a sort of raised bed. On these banks that cradle or undergird the road there may be grass, or trees and shrubs tolerant of exhaust and open sun. If the banks descend away they are often rolling with waves of blackberry canes. If they rise up from the road they are often covered in grasses that are infrequently mowed. Red-tailed hawks circle above these slanted meadows, waiting for the misstep of a rodent.

These spaces often look park-like, but they are not parks and they only exist as a buffer between neighborhoods and the freeways that plough through them. The buffer must exist because the worlds are too different. Neighborhoods are places where people live. “Being” happens there. But it is “going” that happens on freeways. The beautified edge of the freeway is meant to reduce the friction created by the juxtaposition of a world of going with places of being. As such, it has a designed purpose, but it is really another kind of wasteland, a placeless space.

These houses on the east side of Fifth Avenue NE just north of 53rd Street, photographed in 1937 by the City Engineering Department, were razed or moved less than a quarter century later and replaced by the southbound lanes of the new freeway. A tiny stretch of Sixth Avenue NE, where the northbound lanes are now, is visible between the houses.

This particular freeway, Interstate 5, was cut through the heart of Seattle in 1961. It’s path unfolded itself overtop of what used to be the west side of Seventh Avenue and the east side of Sixth downtown and continued north along the side of Capitol Hill, cutting that venerable neighborhood off from the city center forever, then bridging what we hereabouts call the Ship Canal to subsume the northern incarnation of Sixth Avenue, separating the University District from Wallingford and the hill of Latona where I now live. Our old not-quite-neighbors Gordon and Vivian, whose home on the west side of Fifth Avenue Northeast just north of 50th Street faced the gigantic trench that was dug at that spot for laying the highway in, say they remember how their little old house shook and rumbled for months. Except for 45th and 50th streets, which were fitted with bridges to go over, and 65th Street, which went underneath, cross streets were closed and made into dead ends where they encountered the new throughway and metal barriers were erected that are now covered with the blackberries that have overrun the banks alongside the great road. The houses here were either razed or hauled away and set on new foundations elsewhere (commentor Colin over on VintageSeattle.org pointed out that the house on the east side of 100th Avenue in Kirkland, an arrowshot south of Simonds Road, is of one of them, and in fact it is one of the houses just behind the ones shown in the picture above).

I have benefited much from the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and I realize that we woke up in the ’50s and were shocked to find that while we’d successfully shipped uncounted tons of tanks and other heavy equipment overseas in World War II to rescue Europe and Asia from the Double H Club, we would be hard put to move a Jeep across the United States using the old wagon roads that comprised most of the nation’s network of highways. (I once heard that the Interstate system is fitted every so many miles with a mile of straight highway, so that military planes can land on them. I don’t know whether this is true. UPDATE: This is not true.)

Nevertheless, I’m not a fan of the thinking that says that the most important thing in the world is to get our cars moving faster to more places. Really, I’m just not usually in that much of a hurry. And as a person who values the footedness of humans, our ability to walk from one place to another, I feel kind of crabnacious when I am confronted with these dead spaces that cluster around the skirts of these Great Big Ideas, like freeways, that came about as a result of the last century’s nascent fascination with imposing rational order on everything by means of huge quantities of concrete.

Gotta go under it. My walking choices from where the #76 drops me. Ravenna runs from the lower left corner to the upper right. Sixty-fifth is the street running top to bottom at right. Image owned by Microsoft.

What is it that makes us do this, I sometimes wonder as I pick my way among puddles that reflect only the concrete underribs of the freeway. What is the philosophy, the rhetoric, the narrative being promoted in the creation of infrastructure whose inherent lifeless characteristics are so hard for us to disguise, (even when we try but particularly when we don’t)?

I don’t think the planners of the freeways thought long about how their swaths of concrete would affect the neighborhoods they sliced through or about how their presence would affect walkers. They gave us sidewalks over and under, which fulfilled their responsibility to humans who might be so backward as to eschew the life automotive. And they thought not at all, I’ll wager, about the spaces that were rendered useless to both pedestrians and motorists, like the dead zone I walk through on my way home (a triangle once occupied by more than twenty houses). There is no satisfying thought you can have about such a place, because its uselessness betrays the rational process that created it. But freeways are envisioned, designed, and built by great numbers of people, no single one of whom will ever need to answer the question, “what about this space here, what was the thinking regarding this space?” There was no thinking. The thinking was, no one will ever see that space except for fleeting glimpses from inside their cars.

Once I drove through under here in a thick fog lit up by yellowy streetlamps, and the corner of my eye picked up some strange movement between the passing pillars. I turned and saw the monster-like silhouettes of several men in armor, helmeted in helmets that made their heads look large like lions’ heads and holding shields, bashing at each other with great weapons. My mind boggled for a moment until I realized they were members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The sight seemed unearthly and weird and out of place, but now that I think back on it, the phrase “out of place” doesn’t seem to apply to the placeless space beneath the highway.

If you imagine the pillars are shade trees you can almost envision the boulevard of old.

I just finished reading The Fires, a recent book by Joe Flood about how relying on the relatively new art of systems analysis and imposing a statistically derived rational order on management of city services enabled the Fire Department of New York to justify closing the most vital fire stations in the Bronx and other poor neighborhoods in the 1970s while those same neighborhoods burned to the ground. I had heard of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier and Robert MacNamara before, but this book made the link between the top-down urban planning approach favored and implemented by such luminaries and the kind of neighborhood evisceration that emerged as a consequence of large infrastructure projects that were ostensibly (and even arguably) for the good of the community. It appears that the mid-century was gripped by a kind of infatuation with the argument-winning power of statistics and a blind obedience to efficiency.

The book helped me piece something together about freeways I hadn’t realized before. We all know that the freeways were put up to help more people get more quickly get from Here to There. But we may not think about what that implies, namely that there is something desirable about There that you don’t have Here. And what is it that Here lacks?

One answer is “everything”. The vision of the rationalists who invented and championed top-down urban planning was a vision of ideal order, where manufacturing was put here, retail was put there, residential housing was put over here, and hotels and casinos and other luxuries and entertainments were put over there. The large master plans left out the element of neighborhoods that made them neighborhoods, which is a kind of historical variety or “layeredness” — old buildings and spaces reused for new things, often small businesses that serve a neighborhood’s needs — the tangible evidence of a community’s habit of internal “environmental reclamation”. As these kinds of places were bulldozed and not accounted for in the new mid-century utopias, people were forced to use their automobiles to go get a quart of milk or a newspaper, or to visit the dentist or buy a lamp. The urban developers naturally viewed arterial roads and freeways as the vital links between all the categorized zones they had laid out. The fact that neighborhoods had not naturally arisen this way but in shifting, overlapping and repeating usage layers within walkable boundaries was not taken into account. People (all the people that mattered) would have cars, and they would want to use them. At this point, space became more of a numerically understood resource than the organic stuff our neighborhoods used to grow up in.

The old neighborhood, Ravenna at an angle and 65th at the right edge. All the houses in this 1936 view except those along the top edge went away when the freeway came through in 1961. Compare with aerial above.

The other answer is “what Here lacks doesn’t matter”, because getting There has become an end in itself. Here is devalued in the restless culture we have woven around us. Whatever Here is, it is not as good as getting in your car and driving to some distant There. I have often felt and indulged this very impulse. It fits snugly with the idea that people like Moses had about big infrastructure in the first place. The same way that boating enthusiasts need a body of water to sail or paddle in, car owners — “motorists” they were called, suggesting a kind of “hobbyist” — needed freeways to drive on. Cars were a luxury and even an entertainment, a sign of one’s arrival to the middle class life of leisure, and freeways were the tree-lined parks to enjoy them in. You took your car out driving not because you had to, but because you could. Why stay Here when you have the means to go There?

That’s what the freeway barreling through your neighborhood means, as an idea. That’s the philosophy embodied by that large piece of expensive infrastructure. That’s the meaning of that dark wasteland under the highway. Its presence says, “you sleep in those neighborhoods, but you no longer live in them. You now live everywhere else. You live on the road.”

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6 Responses to “Wasteland”


  1. 1 colinholloway November 6, 2011 at 20:06

    Fascinating read Matt. I share your views. It sickens me how much was lost to build these freeways. We’re no better off today when they have to demolish an entire vibrant city block to build a light rail station (see Capitol Hill). That’s a big dead space until the project is complete.

    • 2 Matt November 6, 2011 at 22:26

      Hi Colin,
      What interests me about the light rail station on Capitol Hill — and the one in my neighborhood — is what dead space will remain, and what it will be disguised as, when the stations are finished and operating as designed. Thanks for stopping by, and for tipping me off to the Kirkland house. I might just drive by there and stick my nose in the driveway.

  2. 3 Rachael November 7, 2011 at 18:27

    Wonderful and insightful, Matt! A book that influenced my thinking long ago is The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. He makes similar observations to yours about Here and There, and writes about how the nature of our places has shifted in deference to the almighty auto. Info and reviews (sorry for the long URL):

    http://www.amazon.com/Geography-Nowhere-Americas-Man-Made-Landscape/dp/0671888250/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320715100&sr=1-1

    I wouldn’t worry too much about light rail stations; they have a way of drawing more humanity to themselves–often human-scaled businesses. I was in Vancouver, B.C. a few weeks ago, and was astonished by the throngs of people disgorging from a SkyTrain station at 4 pm on a Saturday. The neighborhood (Commercial Drive) was thriving. The block of Capitol Hill where the station is now under construction hasn’t thriven in a long time!

    • 4 Matt November 7, 2011 at 20:39

      “Thriven”, nice. Thanks for the comment and URL Rachael, Mr. Kunstler seems like one of the people from whom I might have gotten some of my vocabulary regarding “placeness”. I’ve read our local Alan Durning and that guy with the unpronouceable Slavic name that starts with R, hold on a sec — Witold Rybczynski (“City Life”). I wonder if I have somewhere read an essay by your Kunstler or perused his book. The title sounds familiar, though I know I have not read it. I’ll put it on my list for when I want to depress myself afresh about the way our cities have shaped up around us. Jane Jacobs is on there, too.

      • 5 Rachael November 8, 2011 at 07:40

        Ah, yes, Alan Durning is priceless. I had the privilege of interacting with him in the late 90’s on environmental issues. I wonder what he’s been up to lately? Thank you for the tips on Rybczynski (“Rib-chin-ski”?) and Jacobs, which I’ll add to my reading list!

        • 6 Matt November 8, 2011 at 08:12

          Durning founded the SightLine Institute (http://www.sightline.org/), a kind of sustainability think tank and advocacy outfit.. I haven’t met him but I did some writing for their website and ads. The organization used to have a different name, something scolding and droll, but I forget what it was.


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