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Art Reflects Seattle's Changing Waterfront

By Alison Jean Smith for doubleXposure

In the 1976 narcotics thriller Scorchy, the undercover protagonist chases her target through downtown Seattle, zig-zagging beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct and through alleyways and tunnels. While the gritty waterfront matches the film’s tone perfectly, it feels unrecognizable today.

Indeed, the waterfront has undergone a dizzying evolution, from gathering place for Native peoples to industrial hub, from neglected tourist district to giant question mark. The $756 million city and state-funded Waterfront Seattle Program, which began in 2010 and should be completed by 2025, aims to better connect the waterfront with downtown while adding green space, public art, and recreation. The demolition of the Viaduct, which was supposed to be Seattle’s crowning jewel (an original pamphlet produced by the city in 1959 pitched it as a bona fide attraction: “Picturesque and giant machinery adds an aura of fascination”) created renewed possibilities.

Alaskan Way Viaduct under construction, Seattle, circa 1952

In the ensuing decades, while architects and planners clashed over the waterfront’s future, a particular kind of culture still managed to flourish. Seattle’s first openly gay club, Shelly’s Leg, opened on the first floor of Pioneer Square’s Our Home Hotel in 1974. While massively popular, the club’s location proved perilous. In 1975, an oil tanker rammed into the Viaduct’s guardrail and caught on fire right above where patrons gathered. Miraculously, no one was injured, but Shelly’s Leg closed shortly after.

Equally alternative was the 619 Western Building, a former warehouse that became a haven for hundreds of artists starting in the 1980s. One tenant, the street artist Weirdo, created a giant collaborative mural across from Smith Tower that still captivates today. When the city decided in 2009 to replace the Viaduct with a tunnel, the artists were ordered to leave the building. Although plans to demolish 619 Western included an environmental review process, it wrapped up before the artists were informed. When the demolition was scuttled due to concerns about historic preservation, the artists nonetheless decided to scatter to SODO, Georgetown or further south.

The demolition of the Viaduct itself spurred a variety of artistic responses, including “53 Views of the Alaskan Way Viaduct,” an impressionistic series of paintings by Laura Hamje, and “One Last Ride,” an innovative and electrifying collaboration between filmmaker Anastasia Babenko and the dance company Whim W’Him (trailer image below).

Meanwhile, the city commissioned photographer Eirik Johnson to document the twilight of the Viaduct. Citing the French photographer Eugene Atget as an inspiration, Johnson used a large format camera. Before being developed, the images appear upside down, which allowed him to focus on their underlying geometry. They boast the crystalline detail of still-lifes, as downtown’s offices and apartment buildings peek out from beneath the awning of the Viaduct.

Explains Johnson, “I loved traveling on the southbound lanes when you’ve got the Viaduct’s top and bottom framing—almost like strips of film—the city as it flashed by. It’s the closest approximation in Seattle to a very metropolitan, urban experience of riding the L Train in Chicago or the subway.”

For the demolition itself, Johnson radically changed his approach. Using a handheld, black-and-white camera, he plays around with scale, to eerie effect. Reflects Johnson, “[It was] more frenetic, more operatic. I brought it all to the city as two chapters, essentially, to the Viaduct. One is an homage to the experience of the Viaduct, and then the other is the finale.”

From there, Johnson channeled his love of accordion-style books like Edward Ruscha’s seminal Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) to fashion Road to Nowhere. One side is printed with the color photos, the other with black-and-whites. For Johnson, the point isn’t nostalgia, but rather to capture the Viaduct’s meaning. “It was meant to say, Okay, the Viaduct is gone, but let’s not choose to forget it. It divided the city, but it also allowed a very unique experience of the city.”

The public artist Norie Sato, whose work has graced Seattle’s light rail stations, stadiums, and more, had just such a unique view. For thirty years, she was a denizen of the 619 Western Building. Vagrants often did drugs and peed by the dumpsters, she recalls. But there were lovely moments, too, like when she held a tea party in honor of the Royal Yacht Britannia docking nearby. The constant view of the water, even if obstructed, bonded her to Elliott Bay.

So it’s beyond fitting that in 2014, Sato was selected to make a permanent artwork for Union Street’s new staircase connecting Alaskan Way and Western Avenue, a component of the massive waterfront renovation. Her spark of inspiration was a nearby wall with a fern growing out of its cracks. Explains Sato, “That’s the amazing thing about nature, that it finds its way.” Sato’s sixty-foot-long abstracted fern will reach from Alaskan Way to the top of the elevator beside the staircase, forming an epic canopy for pedestrians. Its twelve-inch diameter stem and hundred-plus fronds (called pinnules) were built in Salt Lake City.

For Sato, it’s been an exacting process. The work’s second, equally intricate component is a Kansas City-made railing for the pedestrian bridge at the top of the stairs. Its two perforated layers, made of stainless steel and aluminum, evoke a fern and a wing, making surprising patterns when placed together. As this multi-year, time zone-hopping project comes to a close, Sato reflects on the thrill—and difficulty—of making public art. “I have to imagine that the pieces are going to make a whole that makes sense. [But] it’s exciting, because I get to build something that will be permanent.”

In a certain sense, Johnson’s work pays its wary respects to the waterfront’s past, while Sato’s points to a more idyllic future. Two artists, two stories to be told. The very buildings of the waterfront have sheltered a multitude of subcultures, like Theseus’s Ship adding its layers. Alternative culture has always flourished in its hidden spaces. Today, with so much open space newly unlocked, what sort of culture will ultimately emerge? 46 years out from the world of Scorchy, the Viaduct seems like a phantom, a mirage you can see only if you squint. It was immovable and inevitable until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Decades from now, today’s waterfront may be just as much of a relic.


Alison is a programming intern at Northwest Film Forum and a contributor at REDEFINE, an online magazine where she interviews both emerging and established filmmakers. She has also had her writing published in The Stranger. In her free time, you can find her reading memoirs, trawling the stacks at Scarecrow Video, and walking to local coffee shops.


DoubleXposure and TeenTix Join Forces to Bring Twice the Impact for the Arts

In the second season of doubleXposure, we're partnering with our friends at TeenTix to engage young journalists to help us tell the stories of arts and community in the four cultural hubs we're spotlighting.

Throughout the season, we’ll be publishing articles written by four TeenTix writers; each focusing on one of the spotlight neighborhoods: Seattle Center, Seattle Waterfront, South Park, and the Central District.

Seattle’s TeenTix, is an organization with the mission of “empowering young people to take an active role in shaping their arts community, as audience members, critics, influencers, advocates, patrons, and leaders.”

Learn about TeenTix here


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