They let the city walk where only cars could go. It rained then, but later the sun came, as brilliant as the concrete was grey.
Seattle has been counting down the days until today, when one of its two major north-south arteries will be cut. The Seattle Viaduct, both a vaunted advance of municipal pride and can-do post-war industry and a crumbling, obsolete and dangerous eyesore, will come down. Earthquake-damaged ten years ago, it was full of cracks and sea age long before that earthquake had me under my desk, unafraid and only thinking, wow, I’m in an earthquake. Squabbling and deliberations and plebiscites and the endless pointless goal of peace-now consensus have dragged out the inevitable in the eponymous Seattle Way, but it is finally happening. A tunnel will be built under the waterfront Boston Big Dig style and the two-tier Viaduct from another age will come down. Everyone is sad and glad, if nothing else because something is finally happening.
The viaduct always resonates with dim childhood memories: visiting my grandparents in Easton, Pennsylvania and its tangled weave of elevated and not-so-elevated freeways and little side roads where everyone drives like they’re on the expressways, all grey and crumbling with hairpin turns and signs burned out by rust; wandering suburban New Jersey on visits to uncles and aunts, taking turn after identical turn so I might as well have been a kidnap victim; every big and little bridge and conduit to New York. The whole East Coast of my childhood–both seen in person and brought to you by the Children’s Television Workshop–was held up by grimy, pitted concrete and iron painted olive green, very different from the powdery, snow grey Texas concrete, sun-seared as dry as the surface of the Moon. The viaduct always reminds me of those summer trips to Easton and New Jersey, old movies with big Seventies cars, Nelson Algren short stories. It’s as real as myths turned solid ever get.
The state transportation department advertised a “tweet off” (or some such bullshit) where the public could walk the viaduct in a few hours before destruction commenced in earnest. How often do you get to wander around a freeway not long for the world? I thought that Saturday I had planned to straighten up my new place. I find a place to park in Pioneer Square, put half an hour on the solar eco meter and hotfoot it down to where I guess the action is. I don’t know where I’m going, but can hear a choir of big diesel engines, then see people walking past carrying big stone hunks. I pass the cop in the picture above, idly directing traffic and not hassling all the jaywalkers pushing strollers. A giant stone field, blocked off with signs warning how rapidly you will be towed after visiting hours are over, opens up to a narrow urban vista of instant tents, swirling people, orange cones and the mantis arms of cranes hammering the viaduct’s spine.
The whole city has turned out: little kids, cool teens, a big loud woman wearing a hat with a plush salmon, rail-thin young men with thick glasses and old Polaroid Land cameras, tween girls still in their soccer jerseys and their mothers distracted on their phones, fat guys in flipflops, street folk or those that could pass for them in their hunch against the cold, and a woman dressed in a poncho wearing a Magic Marker sign about the earth weeping for the cars, the ink running in the rain.
Highway employees are positioned evenly along the walk. They have little easels with waterproof maps and printouts of PowerPoint slides explaining where the new tunnel will be bored, how traffic will enter the part of the viaduct left standing from this new temporary ramp, the long and torturous history of civic involvement of finally getting to this point. One worker spent the entire time taking pictures of couples holding her pile of laminated handouts framed against the port’s cranes. “I should charge for this,” she says. “One, two, three!”
The atmosphere is festive. Even the woman with the salmon hat cracks jokes and laughs like a rooster. The only unhappy person I can find is the woman with the Magic Marker sign weeping for the cars.
The mass of people is not quite a mob, more like the determined press to get on a late flight. Most people meander with no particular attention while a few take up posts by the yellow tape and gaze out up the northbound viaduct, not eerie with vacancy, or down south toward the hammering crane, or out west to the Sound with the ferries coming in. Looking down you see the port, the orange cranes all still, the ground thick with shipping containers in neat rows.
The rain helps. Were it not raining we would be lost.
The roadway is rutted down to the aggregate, the stones tilled by some mile-high glacier a hundred thousand years ago now all wearing to smooth planes from snow tires. You can see how shiny they are polished by the rubber, how readily the rain pools.
Back in the late 1940s, did anyone imagine a city full of towers far higher than the Smith Tower, the original modest attempt? It’s hardly higher than the viaduct’s top deck. At the time, twenty years before the World’s Fair that brought the Space Needle, this roadway was a triumph. It proved we were moving ahead, riding high, ready to loose our industrial might to sate our animal needs pent up from war. Freedom was at hand, just a short drive away. Could they have imagined their proud accomplishment a near-ruin? They could never have imagined it a mistake that led to premature deaths from air pollution, lead poisoning, climate change.
I wonder what the kids think, since I didn’t ask. Seattle youth aren’t the type to be infatuated with getting a driver’s licence. I overhear this group having a picnic, Seattle style in the rain. One of the girls does say they’re occupying the viaduct, and they all laugh. Everyone else walks by and is unafraid. No one official moves to shoo them away.
Those with no political consciousness scamper for the cameras. I overhear many explanations about expansion joints. They do seem like a safe dare–standing on the edge and looking through the gap you can see the lower deck, and through its joint the street below. Kids can’t find enough gravel to drop through.
The light poles are very East Coast and post-war, not round but I think octagons in shape, the classic municipal green rusting through. I wonder if they are original, never having been replaced or upgraded. You can see old-style numbers painted on, halfway up. Something about these poles fixes them in the past. They echo with something in now.
Where the yellow tape blocks off the people pile up, carefully and with respectful social distance. Everyone has a camera or phone aiming through the temporary fence at the growing destruction. Two guys with identical dark hair, dark coats and librarian glasses corral a young child while one fusses with a Polaroid camera. It’s the classic kind with the black case: the flash folds up and the picture comes out the front. “You can still get film for that?” The guy shrugs. “It’s very expensive. Just for special occasions.”
High school girls jump on the jersey barrier and take pictures of themselves. I jump up and aim the phone through a chink in the fence, to get this:
By midweek where we are standing will no longer exist. Those light poles, anachronisms to now, will have been removed and made irrevocably past.
Cities are organic things, growing and shrinking. Change is difficult as everything has to work while the guts are removed and replaced: the heart cannot be stopped. I think the culture is becoming comfortable with the idea that nothing is every really finished, that we learn not from mistakes but from experience, that the future we were sure of never quite arrives. Everyone grouses and complains but eventually something happens, never ideal, sometimes not even reasonable or even contradictory. We move ahead to wherever that is.
I am only troubled we are quick to forget successes. Our media and consciousness pushes calamity and has no interest in the usually typical smooth functioning of things: work done on time, goals met, tasks completed. The viaduct was a success that gradually became a living relic, which is different from a failure. It is not it’s fault it grew old.
I am not happy or sad to say goodbye to the viaduct. There was a time I would have been wistful or even crippled with nostalgia about something like this, if it was the right kind of thing. Back fifteen or so years ago now my friend Matt and I took a box of papers to a local recycling dumpster and went through them, one by one, throwing them away. I had saved every school assignment from the sixth grade onward and my girlfriend thought this was unhealthy, so I got rid of them. It was good to do it, out there in the fall sunshine, marveling at those mundane days of copying problems out of the book and worry about grades. How parochial and small our worries, but it was the whole world then.
I let go of that. Now I am letting go of other things. They tend to stick to my hands and I keep finding them clinging there, but deep breaths and assurance of the future lets them throw them away again. I have a new house to get to and unpack.
A couple crosses the street with me back to my car. All of us carry hunks of viaduct and talk about making up for not getting a piece of the Kingdome. We all laugh. When I get back to the car, the meter has run out, but there is no ticket.