Steinbeck's Old Seattle

Tuesday, 19 October 2010 11:39 AM Written by 

SEATTLE -- The Waterfront

What a spectacular city.

 What a crazy sprawling lively healthy downtown.

What a funky Waterfront.DSC_2029_2

People unaccustomed to sharing their public spaces with packs of homeless and raggedy men, some of them clearly crazy and some definitely terrifying to a parochial suburbanite, might feel uncomfortable walking in Seattle's Waterfront district after dark.

The high-strung career street denizens squatting on benches and patrolling the sidewalks, though harmless, elicit apprehension and annoyance, not sympathy.DSC_2023

But, hey, I saw no bodies of tourists in the streets last night  -- just a local TV newsperson doing her standup.  

As the sun's pink light slowly faded and the moon rose, and as the vendors of fish, veggies and god-knows-what else shut down their stands, stalls and cramped speciality stores for the day, thousands of people with jobs and more than one shirt to their name milled along the Waterfront's maze of restaurants, bars and shops.DSC_2019

John Steinbeck visited the Waterfront on his "Charley" trip 50 years ago when he took his wife Elaine on a tour of the old part of downtown Seattle he knew as a skirt-chasing, boozing young man.

Elaine had flown out to Seattle to meet Steinbeck, so she could travel down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco/Monterey with him and Charley.

Here's how a real writer described the waterfront of Seattle before the city's booster sector gave it its capital "W":

 "Next day I walked in the old part of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed -- a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago."

Steinbeck was shocked by the sprawl and "carcinomatous growth" that had occurred in Seattle since he had last seen it. He barely recognized the city, whose population had leaped from 368,000 in 1940 to 580,000 in 1960 -- about 30,000 less than today.

He wasn't an old fogey who was automatically against change -- an attitude that he said "is the currency of the rich and stupid."

What he didn't like was the destruction of hilltops and forests that were done in the name of progress.

Steinbeck would really be amazed/appalled at how much more Seattle -- birthplace of Hendrix and grunge and home to Boeing and Microsoft -- has grown and changed since 1960. Its metro area population has exploded from about 1 million to 3.4 million.

If I were a real photographer, I could have taken this aerial photo of the Waterfront provided by Google:


 If you have a weak stomach, don't read how one of the web sites devoted to helping tourists enjoy the Waterfront describes its virtues:

 "Circling seagulls charm the chattering crowd. Aromas pepper the briny air—freshly baked waffle cones and steaming baskets of fish & chips entice you. You sidestep to make room for a passing jogger and smile as a young couple poses for a photo. Signs call out: "Fresh Oysters! Souvenirs! Buy your tickets here!"

"Perhaps you came to browse the eclectic souvenir and curio shops and taste the fresh Pacific Northwest seafood. Perhaps you came to catch a ride to the beautiful islands of Puget Sound. Or maybe you just came to relax on a pier and enjoy the romantic Waterfront views…."


That's a mighty embarrassing chamber-of-commerce depiction of the Waterfront's untidy/funky/edgy character, as Steinbeck would no doubt agree.

There's a simple reason the Waterfront is such a wonderful and wildly popular marketplace.

It's the same reason the Strip District in Pittsburgh is a wonderful and wildly popular marketplace -- the Waterfront has been allowed to exist and evolve organically and spontaneously for 100 years.

Miraculously, it's been left alone by the city planners/urban experts/zoning nazis who would have destroyed it 40 years ago with a sterile, orderly redevelopment plan that today would be attractive not to millions of visitors but only to the homeless.


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