When it came to Seattle, John Steinbeck found some charm in the downtown market area, but otherwise painted a bleak portrait. To him, by the time he and Charley rolled through the Emerald City, the flower was off the bloom.
Seattle had boomed repeatedly before he arrived, thanks to lumber, gold, shipbuilding and Boeing; and, decades after he was gone, it would boom again, thanks to Microsoft, Amazon and a slew of other high tech and biotech companies that located there.
“I remembered Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage — a little city of space and trees and gardens … It is no longer so. The tops of hills are shaved off to make level warrens for the rabbits of the present. The highways eight lanes wide cut like glaciers through the uneasy land. This Seattle had no relation to the one I remembered. The traffic rushed with murderous intensity …
“Along what had been country lanes rich with berries, high wire fences and mile-long factories stretched and the yellow smoke of progress hung over all, fighting the sea winds’ efforts to drive them off … Everywhere frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth … I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”
That’s not the Seattle I saw.
To me, Seattle seems a city that has come to handle growth far better than most. It’s one of America’s most scenic,literate, educated, progressive, well off and environmentally conscious cities. It’s green in all three meanings of the word. And it’s highly dog-friendly.
Maybe it’s a case of the difference 50 years makes, or of how city leaders have taken control of the reigns of growth. Maybe, too, Steinbeck’s less than flattering description was partly a result of being a little down when he arrived — what with his dog having been sick, himself being travel weary. Likely, Steinbeck — who waited several days in Seattle for his wife, who was having difficulty getting a flight — was getting a little crabby.
He spent three or four days luxuriating in his hotel room near the airport, watching “I Love Lucy” and other TV shows — not the best way to get one’s fingers into the fabric of a city — as he waited for Elaine Steinbeck.
Once she arrived, they visited the downtown market before heading down the coast of Oregon together to California. Sections of the original manuscript recounting his time with his wife were later edited out of the book — the “we’s” changed to “I’s”.
“… 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.”
Seattle — now better known for grunge than dinge — would continue to have it’s ups and downs after he left. Two years after Steinbeck’s visit — the year “Travels with Charley” came out — Seattle was the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. In the late 60s and early 70s, its economy took a turn for the worse — to the point that one local Realtor put up a now legendary billboard requesting that the last resident to exit turn off the light.
Like all big cities, Seattle, during the suburbanization of America, faced seeing its core rot away — or, as Steinbeck described it:
“… When a city begins to grow and expand outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in, poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe buinesses take the place of once flowering establishments…”
It’s all subjective, though. Our impression of a new place is based on the tiny part of it we see, what transpires in that process, the mood we’re in while seeing it, and, often, who we see it with.
In my case, this time around I had two long-time residents serving as my hosts and tour guides. (More on them tomorrow.)
- Had I been on my own, I likely would have sought out and found the market, but I probably wouldn’t have found what’s called the first Starbucks.
- I probably wouldn’t have seen the view of the skyline from Kerry Park; the street performer that plays and juggles guitars, all while hula-hooping; or the hotel that bears the same name as my dog. (More on that Monday.)
I’d been to Seattle before, but only in a rush-in, pester-people, get-the-story, rush-out newspaper reporter kind of way.
That — a hit and run — is not the correct way to meet a city.
Here again, maybe we can learn something from dogs. For starters, take your time. Forget your schedule, and all those other uniquely human notions. Instead, let the city hold its hand out to you. Circle it a time or two, explore the periphery, then approach it slowly. Give it a sniff and, if you like what you smell, maybe a lick. After that, you can jump up on it, snuggle with it, play with it, fetch what it throws, savor the treats it offers, even choose to become loyal to it.
In other words, to paraphrase the author whose route we are following, and who some might suggest failed to follow his own advice when it came to Seattle: Don’t take the trip, let the trip take you.