Not so long ago Seattle was a minor league city, in fact and in temperament. It was reasonably prosperous, conservative, resistant to change and content with its middle-sized lot as a provincial capital. Some thought it was culturally disadvantaged—Sir Thomas Beecham once called Seattle an aesthetic dustbin—but it was sublimely favored in its natural setting, a rain-washed, fir-scented congregation of hills spilling into Puget Sound on the west and Lake Washington along the east. Rivers, mountains, forests, lakes and islands too numerous to name lay so close they might as well have been city playgrounds. And if it rained a lot, so much the better. Rain kept strangers away and made the tulips and the rhododendrons blaze in the spring.
This is an article from the July 19, 1982 issue
But in the years after World War II, there was the prospect of rapid growth in and around Seattle, and a few people began to be concerned for the future of the city, for its economy and for its treasured outdoor way of life. Why, as early as the mid-1950s, lovely Lake Washington had become too polluted for people to swim in.
Beginning in the late 1950s, a series of ambitious civic and metropolitan area projects were undertaken, each grander in scope than the last and each highly successful, which eventually altered the course of Seattle's history and made it a model for the rest of the country. The first was the cleaning up of Lake Washington, which began in 1958. Then came the 1962 World's Fair, an event that drew unusual attention to Seattle and altered permanently its own view of its civic destiny. And finally, in 1968, a $334 million bond issue called Forward Thrust was passed, which made possible, among 614 other civic improvements, the construction of a covered stadium just south of the main business district. Once there was a stadium, the Kingdome, there were professional teams to fill it—the Seahawks of the NFL, the Sounders of the NASL, the SuperSonics of the NBA and soon the Mariners of the American League.
Everything the city fathers did seemed to work. Metro, a municipal governing body, was created to deal with the joint problems of city and suburbs. Its cleanup made Lake Washington one of the largest unpolluted bodies of water in an American city, and it became a model for urban planners nationwide. The World's Fair not only made money, but when it was over, Seattle also had a new cultural center. And as for the Kingdome, perhaps the most controversial of all the Forward Thrust projects, the target of dire predictions of suffocating debt, choking traffic and even collapsing sidewalks, it has been a resounding success since it opened on March 27, 1976. It's a squatty utilitarian structure that an Oregon newspaper wag once described as "a toadstool with a short stem," but it cost only $67 million to build, compared to the Louisiana Superdome, which opened in 1975 and cost $163 million.
In its first six years of operation, 18.6 million people have visited the Kingdome, more than three-quarters of them for professional sports events. Although the Seahawks have only had two winning seasons in their six years, they invariably sell out. The Sonics, who won the NBA title in 1979 and are a perennial contender, have set one league attendance mark after another. Following a season of record crowds for an expansion team (1977), the Mariners have struggled, both at the gate and afield. But this year, with a winning record, not to mention Gaylord Perry to attract the curious, the empty seats are beginning to fill (see box, page 64). Only the Sounders seem to be floundering, suffering simultaneously from mediocre play and owners beset with cash-flow problems, after eight seasons of mostly good teams and solid attendance.
Because the Kingdome has had substantial operating surpluses every year, the property tax levied on King County residents to help pay the mortgage was lifted in 1981, instead of after 17 to 20 years as had been projected. The entire debt service is now covered by a 2% hotel-motel tax, another indication of the effect the dome has had on tourism in the area.
Not that Seattle's road to the big time has always been smooth. A large economic hiccup shook the city around 1970, and of course now it is in the throes of the nationwide recession. Then as now, Boeing, the area's largest employer, was hardest hit. Then it had to cut its payroll of 101,000 by almost two-thirds. Unemployment in the Seattle area reached 12.7%, more than two times the national average. So many people were leaving the area, the story goes, that not a single U-Haul trailer was left for rent.
Now Boeing is cutting its payroll again, having pared its work force by 5,000 in 1981, and the timber industry, another important element of Seattle's economy, is suffering from the slump in housing starts, with the result that unemployment had risen to 10.7% at last reading, 1.6% above the national average.
Also, adjustments have had to be made in Seattle's master concept when the electorate has dug in its heels on such costly or emotional issues as rapid transit and the redevelopment of the city's beloved old Pike Place Market on a bluff above the downtown waterfront. But in the end the concessions made by the planners to the ad hoc "smallness" lobbies have worked for the good of all. They have defused political polarization, thereby preserving Seattle's traditional conciliatory way of getting things done, and they have created a rare breed of contemporary city dweller, the committed urbanite who knows he can make his voice heard.
Through two decades of significant change and against a backdrop of the deterioration of American cities generally, Seattle has emerged as a paragon and an inspiration, testimony to what urban living could be if cities were, like Seattle, moderately populated, surrounded by water, hemmed in by mountains, favored by a mild climate and watched over by a citizenry that knows how lucky it is. From a nice town rarely seen by outsiders except those passing through on their way to Alaska or Japan, Seattle has become the best place in America for the urban outdoorsman, the sort who wants to have his cake and eat it too; who wants city living with its man-made delights and everything else as well.
A working Seattleite can (and he does, she does) run, bike, row, paddle, windsurf, hike, fish, sail, bird-watch, and play tennis, golf, soccer, softball, basketball, even Pickle-Ball, all within the city limits and using public facilities.
And that's just on weekdays. On weekends he really moves. He fishes for salmon on the Skagit. He goes white-water canoeing on the Snohomish. He cross-country skis at Sun Mountain. He backpacks and rock-climbs in the Cascades. He stalks mushrooms in the Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula. He cruises the San Juan Islands under power or he races on Puget Sound under sail. The choices are stunning.
And for relaxation he gardens. In Seattle's cool, damp climate growing things grow better and easier than almost anywhere, and the compulsion to putter about in the yard is strong. Donald J. Elmer, a former general manager of Alpental, the best of the ski areas at nearby Snoqualmie Pass, said recently, "As soon as the first tulip came up, we'd be dead."
Seattle is especially appealing to the young, the educated and the energetic. It almost qualifies as a fad among recent college graduates. In these rootless times, when people choose a place to live as dispassionately as they might select a cantaloupe at the grocer's, Seattle ranks highest in livability. Livability, roughly translated, suggests a city big enough to have good restaurants and small enough for one to be able to get a table in them. But most important, it means ready access to the great outdoors.
Jim Zorn is the Seahawks' quarterback, but otherwise he's typical of the new Seattleites, in that every waking, nonworking hour of his life is filled with outdoor recreation. Zorn skis, water-skis, hunts pheasant and duck, fishes for salmon and steelhead, sails, runs road races and works out with a bike-racing club.
"I'd lived in Southern California all my life," he says. "If you wanted to get out you either had to drive 60 to 100 miles to go up into the mountains or down to the beach. In Southern California what we did was skateboard, throw frisbees, surf, go to miniature golf courses. Here we have lakes and trees and mountains and hiking trails, all nearby. Even if I were to be cut or traded or got a new job, I would hope it would bring me back here. This is where I'd like to end up."
Zorn and his teammate Wide Receiver Steve Largent climbed Mt. Rainier together a couple of years ago. Largent, who was raised in Oklahoma, now lives like a country squire on five wooded acres in Woodinville, Wash., a horsey area northeast of Seattle.
"Seattle is just a great town," says Largent. "It's got all the advantages of a big city and yet has the type of pride that exists in a small town. People are really proud of Seattle and do a lot of things to keep it looking nice."
Kathleen Nichols represents a different sort of latter-day settler. She's the kind of achiever who in another decade probably would have been drawn to a major commercial and cultural center such as New York. She is 31, a history major from George Washington University, who moved to Seattle after working for four years in Washington, D.C. as an editor for the American Psychological Association and then as a coordinator of seminars and conferences for the Small College Consortium. She chose Seattle because she "wanted to do more outdoor stuff." She lives on a houseboat in Lake Union, a floating city within a city, and she works as advertising and promotions director for REI, a retail sporting-goods cooperative.
"I wanted to live someplace pretty and I wanted something smaller than D.C., but I wanted a city," she says. "So I looked at Seattle, Portland, Santa Fe and Denver. At Seattle I had three gorgeous days and I thought, 'This is it.' On a beautiful day there's no place like Seattle. Of course when I moved out here I found it wasn't always like that. But even when it's like this," she said, gesturing to acknowledge a dripping, silver-gray day in May, "it's so much greener than most places."
Seattle's climate has long been a provocative subject, for natives as well as outlanders. "Wet is beautiful," proclaims Lesser Seattle, an organization formed in a bar by newsmen some years ago, ostensibly to discourage development.
For many years it wasn't necessary to discourage tourism. Seattle's reputation for having one of the lousiest climates in North America took care of that. But when a brown fog of pollution had settled down on so many of the formerly attractive cities of the West—when the inhabitants of places like Los Angeles had learned to live with air that smelled like bus exhaust—Seattle's damp freshness and the winds that kept it that way looked less like a blight than a blessing.
Infielder Bruce Bochte has been with the Mariners since he was drafted in the free-agent reentry round in 1977. He arrived in Seattle a Southern Californian with a three-year contract, but at the end of his second season he agreed to a two-year extension with a no-trade clause at far less money than he knew he was worth, just so he could be sure of staying in the Seattle area.
"The whole Northwest offers a quality of life superior to other areas in the country," says Bochte, who also lives in Woodinville, where he has succumbed to the regional passion for gardening. "The weather can be a deterrent unless you set yourself psychologically. When I came up here from sunny California, I told myself it was going to rain every day of the year. That way you really enjoy the good days you have."
In fact, several American cities have a higher annual rainfall than Seattle's 39.19-inch average. New York's, for instance, is 40.19. In an average year there is precipitation on 158 days in Seattle and 169 in Buffalo. The difference is that Seattle's rain is spread out more. Even though a string of warm dry days is common in summer, more typical is a stretch of cool gray days during which the sun may not break through the clouds at all. The winters are mild, as are the summers. The mean temperature in January is 38; in July it is 65. That gray sameness has sometimes been blamed for Seattle's unusually high incidences of suicide and alcoholism.
However, even a gray day in Seattle can have its memorable aspects. Anyone lucky enough to find himself on the west side of First, Capitol or Queen Anne hills, or seated in a cafe in the Pike Place Market looking out over Elliott Bay toward the Olympics late on a winter afternoon when the sun suddenly drops below the cloud cover for a few moments on its way to the horizon, isn't likely to forget the experience. For those few minutes the water and the mountains and the clean city on its hills are transfigured in a blaze of purple and gold and shimmering silver.
In surprising fact, Seattle is several degrees north of Bangor, Maine, on approximately the same latitude as St. John's, Newfoundland. Therefore its winter days are short, but on summer evenings the light lingers, making it possible for the new Seattleites to squeeze even more into their days.
It has been suggested that in order to be able to live in Seattle, people are taking jobs for which they are overqualified, thereby creating a void in their lives which they then fill with intense recreation. Perhaps. The theory is debatable. The fact that isn't debatable is that people who come to visit frequently stay. Forty-one of last season's 52 Seahawks, for instance, made Seattle their permanent home. Bochte reports that at the close of the 1979 season, a dozen of the 25 Mariners elected to stay on. "You don't see that happening often," he says. Even Darrell Johnson, the Mariner manager who was fired in August 1980, has bought a co-op apartment.
When you ask the new Seattleites, and the old ones, too, why they like the place so much, they invariably speak first of the recreational opportunities. They say, for instance, that in 45 minutes they can be skiing at Snoqualmie Pass, which means they can ski after work or school from December to April—at prices that are extremely sporting. At Alpental, for instance, a season pass can be had for $210 and a midweek lift ticket for $11.
Snoqualmie Pass is Seattle's gateway to the Cascades, the north-south mountain barrier between the wet western coast of Washington and the dry fruit- and wheat-growing valleys of the eastern half of the state. They are very young, as mountains go, and therefore steep, jagged and dangerous looking. Thirteen peaks are more than 10,000 feet; the highest is 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier, a volcanic cone that rises eerily above the clouds on Seattle's southern horizon (on a clear day), as symbolic of the Pacific Northwest as Fujiyama is of Japan.
Seattleites tend to measure air pollution, which is growing but not yet out of hand, on the basis of how many days a year they can see Rainier. The greatest pollution occurs downtown on warm days. But the smog would be much worse than it is if the city and surrounding King County didn't maintain an extraordinary bus system, a service that exists in part because of the refusal of the voters to approve an expensive rapid-transit system in 1968. Today one can travel anywhere in Seattle comfortably and cheaply by bus. A downtown office worker can get to work from any part of the city in about a half hour, and once downtown, in the Ride Free Area, as it's called, there is no charge at all. Special buses have bike racks on their fronts for transporting cyclists to trail heads in the country. It all works so well that between 1973 and '79, Metro bus ridership rose 80%.
In the same period, however, the city's population was falling, from 530,831 in 1970 to 493,846 in 1980, while the population of the near suburbs was growing. The city's housing pool, which is two-thirds single-family homes, is now likely to be occupied by young, single, childless people, a trend that demographers call "Manhattanization." Seattle's most recent demographic survey showed that the population was down in each age group except 20-to-34-year-olds. Everyone deplores the trend, but economics seem to make it inevitable for the time being, at least until the 20-to-34s decide to trade in blissful singleness for blessed parenthood. In preparation for that day, a local recreational-equipment dealer offers a free clinic on "backpacking with children."
However, unlike some cities that have been crippled physically and economically by the flight of the middle class, Seattle has made the transition fairly smoothly. Its public school system, of which it was once so proud, has suffered, and several schools have closed for lack of students, but in some ways the city has actually benefited. Because of a shortage of housing, old houses that might otherwise have been left to decay are being rehabilitated and old neighborhoods are being infused with new blood and new energy.
Fred Brack, a newspaperman who moved to Seattle nine years ago, thinks the Kingdome was the turning point. "There was a great deal of controversy about whether even to have the damn thing," he says, "where to locate it, what Seattle was going to become, whether it was going to become a larger city and provide these amenities, or whether the people who were terrified of change were going to prevail. At the same time there was controversy about the city's parks, whether to spend money on them, whether to develop new parks. All those arguments finally went in favor of recreation—the parks and the Kingdome. Since then it's been relatively quiet because the city has overwhelmingly decided that this is the character of the city."
Whitey Humphrey is a native of Seattle who has lived through a great deal of change and has mixed feelings about the outcome. Humphrey, 54, is a line-crew foreman for Seattle City Light, the power company. He has lived almost all his life within a radius of four blocks in Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle's north end that is characterized ethnically by Norwegians, in the workplace by blue collars and architecturally by block after block of small, tidy pre-World War II houses with boats and campers parked in their driveways.
Once upon a time Humphrey had his own small boat and patronized small lakefront and riverside resorts, fishing camps where he could rent a cottage. But those resorts were forced out as growth radiated from Seattle, so now Humphrey stays in motels.
Although he regrets the passing of the way of life he used to know, Humphrey has adjusted. "Face it," he says, "we have probably the most beautiful country in the world, and you don't even have to get out of your car to see it."
Along with almost everybody else in town, Humphrey and his wife, Pat, are Seahawk fans. The appeal of the Seahawks crosses all lines, and a ticket to a home game is a rare trophy. Along with 59,498 others, the Humphreys are season-ticket holders and have become friendly with the people in the seats around them. It's almost like the old days. Humphrey can get just about as exercised about Tampa Bay, Seattle's expansion rival, as he once did about the San Francisco Seals, the old rival of the Triple-A Seattle Rainiers, who played in Sicks' Stadium. "They ain't beat us yet and they ain't ever gonna beat us," he growls. "And we didn't have to give our coach a house and set up a sweetheart real-estate deal to get him to come here."
Where Whitey Humphrey can take the changes around him more or less in stride, Steve Raymond is so upset by what he sees, he dreams of leaving for Alaska or New Zealand. Raymond is environmental editor of The Seattle Times and a serious fisherman.
"I'm a small-town person at heart," he says. "Seattle's getting too big for my taste. The state has more than four million people in it now. When you spend a lot of time outdoors, you notice those kinds of changes pretty rapidly. Now it looks as though the electronics industry is getting ready to move in here in a big way. That will mean 3,000 more jobs up around Everett [a city to the north], plus all the families that will come with them. That's going to have quite an impact on what is now pretty much a rural area. I know some steelhead fishermen who are worried about the fishing up there."
Raymond, his wife, Joan, and their two children live at Alki Point in West Seattle, the spot at which the city's first settlers landed, having come by sea from the Nisqually Valley at the head of Puget Sound in 1851. One settler in a wistful moment named it New York, but others were more facetious, calling it instead New York-Alki, which in Chinook, the area's pidgin language of trade, meant New York By and By.
Raymond's house fronts on the Sound looking west toward the cloud-cloaked mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. He too remembers how things used to be. "It sort of hurts to go to the places where I spent time as a boy," he says. "Pristine lakes and ponds are now surrounded by postage-stamp-size lots and cabins and water skiers and speedboats. It's not the same, somehow. But I guess, compared to the rest of the country, we really are spoiled. There are probably not many places where you can go fishing in your front yard with a chance of catching a salmon, which I can do."
Probably not. Especially not places where one can also then shower, shave, drive 15 minutes and listen to a symphony, see a play or watch a major league baseball, football, basketball or soccer game, eat a meal in one of perhaps two dozen very good restaurants—and not even have to get dressed up. It isn't in the least odd to see a man wearing a down jacket and hiking boots at one of the city's better restaurants.
Even Seattle's clubs are less stuffy than those in most medium-sized cities. The Seattle Tennis Club, which was founded in 1890, one year after Washington became a state, is one of the few private tennis clubs in town. It has 19 courts set amid elegant landscaping that slopes to the edge of Lake Washington, but it's as busy on weekends as a city park on Labor Day. The club has roughly 3,000 members, a third of whom actually live in the neighborhood.
The Seattle Yacht Club, by rights in a waterfront city like Seattle, should be a Very Significant Place, along the lines of the New York Yacht Club or the St. Francis in San Francisco. Instead, it's a homey-looking white frame building on Portage Bay between lakes Washington and Union. It has a many-gabled roof, striped awnings over the windows and a bulletin board in the lobby oh which a notice might say, "Coming Thursday, June 11, rope yarn on the lawn.... Menu: assortments of salads, chilled fresh fruits, barbecued salmon, stir-fried vegetables, fried rice, chefs special dessert, beverages, complimentary pitchers of beer, $10.95 per person."
Not only does the Seattle Yacht Club advocate beer by the pitcher, but it also extends its sporting embrace to include unlimited hydroplane racing. Seattle's long-standing affection for that noisy brand of high-tech boating seems odd to an outsider, given the pastoral quality and pace of the city's life generally, but the feeling runs deep, dating back to the triumphs of a Seattle boat, Slo-Mo-Shun, in the Gold Cup races of the 1950s. The sports pages of the Times and the Post-Intelligencer regularly devote space to the "roostertail season" in Seattle and elsewhere.
Bob Allen is a Seattle Yacht Club member who embodies the contradiction. He's an aeronautical engineer who restores elderly wooden-hulled cabin cruisers for the love of wood and nice old things, but who is also intensely interested in the design and racing of gas-turbine-powered offshore racing boats. His U-95, a turbine-powered unlimited, was raced during the 1974 season and stirred considerable interest, but because it never attracted a corporate sponsor, it was finally sold. Now Allen dreams of hydros.
Another of his pursuits is mycology. He is as likely to rhapsodize about a golden pholiota as a fiber-glass racing hull. "You're walking in the woods over on the peninsula after a rain, and instead of complaining about your mother-in-law, you're looking for mushrooms," he says. "You can find, growing by themselves, completely free and available, all the good and all the bad and all the spectacular mushrooms that you'd ever want. Ever had a fried chicken mushroom? Tastes like fried chicken. I swear."
Allen came to Seattle to stay in 1961. Boats entered his life only after his arrival. Graham Anderson, a Seattle native, owned his first sailboat, a flattie, when he was 13. Whistle Wing V is his tenth. It's a 53-foot Peterson sloop, loaded to its scuppers with the latest and best in ocean-racing equipment. Besides being one of Seattle's preeminent sailors and the president of a large insurance brokerage firm, Anderson is also a past president of the U.S. Ski Association, a volunteer job that obliged him to travel more than he liked. "Seattle is a great place to come home to," he says. "I don't know where I'd rather live. People are friendly, and the pace is a little slower than San Francisco and a lot slower than New York. Here it's what you make it.
"It used to be that you pretty well knew everybody. And that was true for sailing and skiing and everything. I'm not saying that's better or worse. It's just different. Seattle's an interesting town now with an interesting mix of people. There's relatively little demagoguery among politicians, and there are a fair number of people who are willing to delve into things."
The best vehicle for making one's presence felt in Seattle is volunteering. Politics and the arts are the old favorites in this respect, but now environmentalism is at center stage. Seattle has more paid staff working on environmental matters than any city except San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Local environmental leaders like Brock Evans, vice-president for national issues of the National Audubon Society, and Mike McCloskey, executive director of the Sierra Club, have moved from regional to national prominence in the movement. In the last four years, two winners of the Sol Feinstone Environmental Award, given by the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry to honor volunteer environmentalists, have been from Seattle.
It's a good thing, too. Because there is a lot of environment left to save in and around Seattle. In 278-acre Seward Park, for instance, there is a one-mile-long, quarter-mile-wide tract of virgin forest, a stand of firs and maples that are today as they were when the first settlers espied them in the 1850s, but bigger. Discovery Park, on 537 acres of Magnolia Bluff overlooking the Sound, is a deliberately maintained wilderness within the city where muscle power is the only legal means of locomotion. The Montlake Fill, a marshy area on the edge of Lake Washington near the University of Washington boathouse, is a bird watcher's candy store. For $2.25 an hour one can rent a canoe at the boathouse, and while paddling through the bulrushes see golden-eyes, gadwalls and grebes, greater scaups, ruddy ducks and buffleheads, not to mention herons, cormorants and kingfishers. The willows on the edge of the water have the impressions of beaver teeth on them, and the tracks of weasels and otters are discernible in the mud.
In the spring, over the hum of motor-boats, the distant buzz of small seaplanes and the lap of the water against the cement walls of the ship canal on which generations of Washington crews have left their marks—READY TO ROW AGAINST ANY FOE, TOP OAR IN '84—One can hear the clean piercing whistle and trill of a redwing blackbird.
Parks often tell the tale of a city's priorities. If they are run-down, little used, inaccessible or fearsome, they are clearly not high on the list. In Seattle the parks are the city's pride and joy and always have been. The Olmsted brothers of Brookline, Mass., the most prestigious landscape architects of their day, were commissioned to design the system in 1903. The Olmsted scheme for Seattle was to create a series of medium-sized neighborhood parks, connected to each other by a series of broad, landscaped boulevards. The Olmsted design was grand and, in its entirety, beyond the financial means of the young city. But the Olmsted approach was adopted and enough of its elements were realized to set the standard that prevails today. Ravenna Boulevard connects Green Lake, Ravenna and Cowen parks, and Lake Washington Boulevard runs for 3½ leafy miles alongside the lake, a park in itself.
Walter R. Hundley, a Yale Divinity School product who grew up playing in Philadelphia's 8,900-acre Fairmount Park ("It was a four-mile walk to get there, but when you're a kid that ain't nothing"), is the superintendent of Seattle's 5,120 acres of parks.
"I think we have one of the best systems in the country," says Hundley. "I can say that because I didn't build it. It's been building for 75 years. The citizens of Seattle have consistently, every 10 to 20 years, passed a bond issue to improve their park system. Rarely did they lose an issue, and that kind of support is still here. We didn't do like some other cities and have a huge Griffith Park [Los Angeles] or a huge Fairmount Park and everything else just junk. Each little park in our system is a kind of jewel. And each is sort of crafted to blend into its environment wherever it happens to be."
Hundley's system is pressed financially because of the recession and shrinking city budgets. The scarcity of playing fields is a problem that keeps his staff juggling schedules and improvising constantly. But maintenance is Hundley's first priority.
"I really want the system to look good," he says. "When people see a park and it's looking nice, they appreciate that, and it makes them feel good about themselves and their city. When the parks are bedraggled, people think of their city as bedraggled and, by extension, themselves."
Seattle has a well-deserved reputation for ingenuity, for improvising solutions to problems that in other cities would be deemed insoluble. Gas Works Park on Lake Union is a good example of its swivel-hipped approach to obstacles.
Union is a center-city kind of lake, two miles long, a half-mile wide, heavily trafficked and ringed with commercial activity and colonies of houseboats. It's surrounded by hills on three sides, and at its south end the skyscrapers of downtown are close enough for office workers to canoe on their lunch hour. At the north end of the lake, for 50 years or so, stood a petroleum-cracking plant, a maze of rusting pipes and towers once used to extract gas from coal and oil for cooking, heating and lighting fuel for the city. In the early 1950s, when Washington began to import cheap natural gas from Canada, the old cracking plant became obsolete and was closed down. In 1962, the city began to acquire the property, planning to clear the site, level the ground and landscape it as a waterfront park. But unanticipated problems arose. For one thing, the soil turned out to be impregnated with sulfurs and petrohydrocarbons, the residue of the cracking process, to depths of as much as 15 feet, so there was little hope of growing anything. Second, it was determined that merely to raze the massive old structures would use up much of the budget for the project.
Then Rich Haag, a local landscape architect, proposed to remove about 80% of the structures but to leave the rest as a sort of industrial sculpture, and further, to scrape up a goodly amount of the oil-soaked ground into a large mound from the top of which kites could be flown and boats could be watched.
Haag's plan, partly inspired by economics and partly just plain inspired, caused a brouhaha that lasted for years. Many people hated his idea. But finally the city council decided to adopt it and Gas Works Park was born. Parts of the remaining structures were painted in bright colors, and children were invited to climb at will around their lower reaches. Picnic tables and grills were installed adjacent to the "sculpture," and a translucent fiber-glass shed roof was erected over all to keep out the rain and let in light. Soon trails began to appear on the sides of the mound, like cow paths. In nice weather kites were being flown from the top by fanciers of all ages, and boat watching, a time-honored Seattle pastime, was never better. Gas Works was a success. "Now it's one of our most popular parks," says Lou Anne Kirby, a parks employee. "Some people still think it's ugly, some people love it and some people come and don't really care which it is."
The best thing about Gas Works is that it's there, a visible, ingenious solution to the common urban problem of too much to do and too little money to do it with. The same could be said of Seattle itself. For all its problems, it's still an overwhelmingly pleasant city. It may be threatened but it isn't endangered, and it lives because it adapts. Its leaders and citizens have developed the habit of planning for change and thereby controlling it. They have done such an admirable job that a Seattleite, standing atop his rain-washed hill, breathing his fir-scented air, looking out over the Sound toward the Olympics, would be justified if he were to lift his umbrella in salute, to his city and to his own good fortune.