Introducing The Puget Sound And The Fury

Well it’s finally happening. I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a blog to help stay in communication with my friends and family back in Minnesota and diaspora’d all over the place. I’ve put it on to do lists and mentally started composing paragraphs in my head. But now, 5 months later, I’m actually typing and doing it.

This view of the Puget Sound is from Carkeek Park in north Seattle.

This view of the Puget Sound is from Carkeek Park in north Seattle.

I’m calling it “The Puget Sound And The Fury” because, in case you missed it, I moved to Seattle in November. I don’t know that it’s going to be a particularly furious blog due to my milquetoast Minnesotan roots, but I can work up a righteous, carefully fact-referenced indignation when I need to. Plus, a Shakespeare allusion is good ju-ju for a writing endeavor and it makes my English major seem worth the time and expense. The fuller quote: “[Life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is more dour and nihilistic than the blog will be, but Seattle’s history certainly has seen its share of idiots, hacks and nihilistic robber barons.

I live with Britta in the lovely neighborhood of Fremont in a brand spanking new building. She landed a great job working at Seattle law firm in conflict management. I’m paying the bills and filling that time in the middle of the day where it seems like work should go with dogwalking. Longer term, I’m hoping to start going to UW-Seattle for Urban Planning once I establish residency for tuition purposes (fall 2016).

Okay, now that essentials are covered let’s start having some fun. As a geography nerd and aspiring urban planner I’m going to likely to grapple with topics like transit, bicycling, streetscapes, architecture, placemaking, eco-friendliness, greenwashing, the coming climate change apocalypse, gentrification and the boy who cried gentrification, urban poverty, land use policy, and maybe some sports and pop culture to lighten this shit up. That’s a lot of stuff so I’m thinking I’ll try to pick an area of focus or two per post and kind of just bounce around as I’m inspired. This inaugural post will be dedicated to my initial impressions of Seattle as a first time resident and some history I’ve picked up.

Let’s set the stage. I’d visited Seattle a handful of times before I moved here, but, living here, I realized how hard it was to build a mental map of this craggy, ravine-y, drumlin hilled city for a guy who grew up on the wide glacier-flattened expanses on Minnesota. I got disoriented a lot for the first weeks but slowly and sometimes painstakingly (getting horribly lost) I built a mental map. (The thing about Seattle they don’t tell you is the city’s outline on a map totally looks like a mouth-breathing Moai statue from Easter Island. The mouth is formed by the harbor downtown while the eye is Ballard and the nose is Magnolia with Discovery Park the tip of the nose.)

seattle outline map640px-Moai_Rano_raraku

Less abstractly, Seattle is situated on an isthmus between the Puget Sound and the 22-mile long Lake Washington. In the middle near downtown, Seattle’s isthmus is narrow—maybe three miles from sound to lake. It widens out to maybe eight miles in other parts but probably averages about five. Seattle is long, perhaps stretching as much as 20 miles from north to south. Whatever the dimensions, apparently Seattle has 84 square miles of land and about 660,000 residents for a density of about 8,000 per square mile. Eerily enough for me, Minneapolis (400,000) and Saint Paul (295,000) equal about the same when added together, and the Twin Cities metro (about 3.5 million) and Seattle metro (about 3.7 million) are neck and neck. The similarities between Seattle and the Twin Cities pop out at me more than the differences, but more on that in later posts.


This is the view from our building’s rooftop patio!

We live in Fremont four blocks up the hill from the Fremont Cut, a canal cut from a former creek connecting Lake Union to Shilshole Bay and the Puget Sound. Thus we overlook Lake Union with the handsome Seattle skyline in the background. For skyline porn fans keeping score at home, Seattle tallest building, the 76-story Columbia Tower is 933 feet tall, making it 141 feet taller than Minneapolis’ tallest offering, the IDS center. (But hey we can squabble over skyscrapers until Kingdom come. And by Kingdom I allude to Kingdom Tower, the kilometer tall (3,281 feet!) skyscraper the Saudis are building in Jeddah.) Anyway, it’s a good view from our roof. What we don’t have is a view of the 605-foot-tall Space Needle due to the 465-foot-tall Queen Anne Hill being squarely in the middle of us.

Seattle is a city, like so many cities, that claims to be built on seven hills, a la ancient Rome. Saint Paul, Minnesota also makes this claim. Claiming seven municipal hulls is kind of a blasé thing to do. The real Seattle character comes in though in the less bragged about fact that Seattle utterly destroyed one of its seven proverbial hills over a century ago to make the city a little more conveniently flat. That lost seventh hill was Denny Hill and it is now known as Denny Triangle or Denny Regrade. It’s fitting that the neighborhood is triangularly shaped because I get the feeling Denny is widely considered the crotch of Seattle, fit for little else than driving through on the way to somewhere else—a veritable car-sewer smorgasbord of on- and off-ramps for I-5 and Highway 99. Some people live there too.

Not far to the northeast of Denny Triangle, Lake Union also has a sort of crotch like feel to it, too. You’d think it’d be a focal point for such a maritime, outdoor loving city. But really it feels like a giant yacht marina featuring a seaplane airport (it’s actually the world’s busiest seaplane airport) surrounded by car sewers and little fleshed out parkland. The rumored Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop Bike Trail is just a strip of paint running smack dab through the middle of a weird mile-long parking lot adjacent to a weird mile-long strip mall. In other words, score one Minneapolis with Lake Calhoun. (By the way, Cheshiahud was a Duwamish chief whose ancestor’s corpses may or may not lie beneath that very trail.) Farther north, Green Lake has a much more Lake Calhoun vibe with great paths surrounding, solid park space abounding, and throngs of joggers, rollerbladers, bicyclists, strollers and powerwalkers.

From our Fremont home, trendy Ballard is to the west, and, to our east by one block is cozy Wallingford, which gives ways to the U District to its east. Each of these neighborhoods’ southern border is the waterway from Puget Sound to Lake Washington. This complicates north-south travel significantly because all of it must cross one of two highway bridges or four draw bridges spanning the canals. The bridges go up a lot. The Fremont Avenue Bridge is the most frequently raised drawbridge in the world, apparently.

The bridge situation helps explain how Seattle’s traffic has jumped to sometime like the fifth worst in the country despite the metro’s relatively small population (ranked 15th largest in the nation). For suburbanites and Seattleites working in the suburbs, complaining about traffic seems to be their number one hobby. Every local newscast begins with an ominous traffic forecast sometimes with a warning not to leave your driveway. This atmosphere of traffic paranoia makes it almost comic when something dramatic goes wrong. About a month ago a semi-truck full of salmon overturned on the Highway 99’s George Washington Memorial Bridge turning the bridge deck into the world’s largest fish fry and snarling traffic for hours. Just today a semi-truck full of 14 million bees overturned on I-5 (no really) and sadly Winnie the Pooh wasn’t on hand to clean up the situation. It’s like the congestion is out to get you!


Bees! (Photo credit to Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Traffic really isn’t too bad normally outside of rush hour but some places remain a little tricky to get to because of geography. I’m looking at you Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill is the supertrendy neighborhood northeast of downtown and across Lake Union from us. It’s only a couple of miles as the crow flies but twice that by land due to Lake Union. No busses go directly to Capitol Hill from our area so one must connect. Biking there is also torturous due to the elevation change and heavy car traffic. And I already mentioned that the Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop Bike Trail is pathetic. So, even though Capitol Hill is the most happening neighborhood, we try to avoid going there when possible.

I’m not going to ignore Capitol Hill is this blog though because this former counter culture mecca is going through an identity crisis that is pretty fascinating. Upwardly mobile bros are moving in on the neighborhood and jeopardizing the gay friendly reputation. Rents are going through the roof even as many buildings go up. Meanwhile, many people are crying gentrification and calling for a slowing or halting of development in the area, despite the incredible demand for housing in Capitol Hill. In spite of the temptation to just shut it down growth-wise in Capitol Hill to attempt to shut out the bros, I’d argue stopping growth be short-sighted and ineffective. But more on that in later posts. For now you get the picture; I’ve rambled long enough and I’ll adjourn until my next post.