Seattle’s vintage streetcar line deserves to live
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Category — Memories

The Turnaround in the 70s

In the 70s Seattle went from being a city that feared and distrusted City Hall to an uneasy ability to work with the City.

At the beginning of the 70s, Seattleites were realizing their town was scripted to follow other American cities down a path of being bulldozed into rubble by ‘urban renewal’ schemes and ending as a core of skyscrapers surrounded by parking lots, fed by freeways, and immediately ringed by industries (but none so prosperous as to compete with Boeing for workers) which could pollute without interference from pesky neighboring citizens. Zoning instituted in the 50s, combined with City Hall and the businessmen of the time, had put a straight-jacket on Seattle.

In the early 70s a struggle started, to reclaim City Hall, by reformers appalled by the open and ongoing racism and sexism of City Light and the police and fire departments, and the release of the list kept by the police ‘red squad’ which included many prominent and well-to-do Seattleites. The battle lines were clearly drawn and in a few years a reform mayor and city council were able to begin drawing up a revised land-use code for the city.

During this time, however, the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square continued to decline. A citizens initiative was needed to claim funding and force the renovation of the Market, and Pioneer Square gained protection as a historical district.

Seattle parks had been declining too, with the city in 1970 proposing to give Washington Park to the U of W, which would have been allowed to rename the park “U of W Arboretum” and put up fences to keep the public out. This proposal was shot down in the 70s and a new park added to the city on Lake Union, the Gasworks Park. Streetends on Lake Union and Portage Bay were reclaimed by neighborhoods to become small parks and Seattleites became reacquainted with their water.

George Benson was elected to the City Council in 1974 and began lobbying for a historic streetcar. In a fortunate coincidence, Mayor Wes Uhlman and Councilmember Bruce Chapman had been considering a streetcar on First Avenue to connect the Pike Place Market with Pioneer Square, and, when this appeared impractical, swung their support to a waterfront streetcar. For the details of this process I can do no better than to direct you to the link on our sidebar for George Benson’s story of the streetcar.

Thus, in little over a decade, City Hall had changed from an institution determined to wreck and discard historic Seattle to an institution determined to nurture and save our historic assets. In the case of the streetcar the City, the businesses, the streetcar volunteers, and the citizens eager to vote those public officials into office all played a part.

May 15, 2009   8 Comments

The Bad Guys Wore Black Hats

When I asked myself how to bring the Waterfront Streetcar back, I wondered if it could be recreated in the same way it was created. And thereby hangs a tale…

In the early 70s Seattleites found themselves with a city that had been body-slammed so hard by corrupt gangs in City Hall that the most valuable remains were the wreckage. From the shipping canal south to the southern city limits housing stock had decayed, and in many cases was ‘redlined’ by racially biased lenders. Meanwhile, the U of W had obtained an ‘urban renewal’ grant which was used to bulldoze a prosperous neighborhood the U wanted for their ‘West Campus’ expansion- an act a federal judge later called the greatest crime he had ever seen.

Around the shores of Lake Union and Portage Bay citizens found that city streetends were being used by businesses which had no permits and paid no rent, while city waterways were leased on ‘sweetheart’ deals for a tiny fraction of the true value to other businesses. Sewers dumped directly into Lake Union while on the north shore the gasworks and an adjacent oil tank farm provided a constant source of toxic leakage with annual oil spills. The city building department illegally issued building permits for Roanoke Reef while at the same time, in conjunction with the fire department, they harassed the houseboaters, trying to force them off the lake.

The Pike Place Market had decayed so badly that it was unsafe to enter the lower levels, and even on an upper level the owner of the Liberty Malt Shop, admittedly a rotund individual, simply fell through the rotted floor one day.

The freeway builders, after ripping a gash in Seattle with I-5, had been fought to a standstill and their plans defeated, temporarily at least, for building a freeway south along through the Arboretum and building another from the Mercer Street exit to the Seattle Center. Still, buildings were continuously torn down and the land converted to parking lots by Joe Diamond.

In Pioneer Square, largely vacant buildings, prostitutes posed in storefronts, gambling could be done in bars, and even gay people could have their bars- as long as they paid bribes to the police. This was where my father pointed out to me that when you see the largest cops on the force walking their beat in pairs, you know you’re in a bad neighborhood.

And these were the prosperous parts of town! The overt racism of Seattle in those time, as exemplified by the refusal of the fire department or city light to hire minorities or women, was reflected in the desolation of the Central District and south through the Rainier Valley and out Martin Luther King Way. Many of the buildings had been erected in the early part of the 20th century, and never upgraded or even, apparently, repaired, since. When upgrades had occurred, they often consisted of covering the better homes with asbestos siding and installing shag carpets.

In Magnolia, Broadmore, and north of the ship canal, life went on much as usual. The end of the fishing industry lay in the future, and ‘sunset laws’ (see Dave Niewert) had kept minorities out- no redlining here!

The core of the city, though, was on a failing life-support system, with only one positive sign for the future- in the desolated neighborhoods, rents were cheap, and anyone who could get hold of a little money could buy a home. Slowly, this began to create a different kind of Seattleite- people who liked their neighbors, regardless of skin color or sexual orientation, and liked Seattle, because it had beautiful buildings and beautiful scenery. Seattle was, in short, the Jane Jacobs ideal of a city with affordable buildings in which diversity could thrive.

But how could this decayed city, ruled by a corrupt and racially biased City Hall, be made liveable? That is the subject for a future post, the changing times of the 70s in Seattle.

May 13, 2009   No Comments