Brave New City
< Note: This post originally appeared in The Stranger >
I’m asleep and dreaming in my bedroom in Columbia City. I’m in a bank. I’m waiting to make a mortgage payment. I have only a few minutes to make this payment before the bank charges a late fee. But the line is so slow. Three people are ahead of me, and all of the tellers are stuck with clients who have mountains of banking issues. The clock keeps ticking. My heart is beating hard. Moments from now, the bank will charge me $50. I’m about to scream. Suddenly, the main doors open automatically and the robot R2-D2 glides into the bank, stops beside me, looks at me with its single blue eye, and begins speaking to me in a language composed of electronic beeps/tweets—a high beep, a low tweet, a long beep, a strained tweet, a burpy beep, a whistley tweet.
What in the world does R2-D2 want from me? Who here can make sense of its bizarre beeping/tweeting? Where is C-3PO when you need him? He understands this droidian language; indeed, he can translate it into the Queen’s English. But there’s no C-3PO around, and R2-D2 is becoming agitated. Its metal head is twirling. It’s wheeling and whirring backward and forward. Its beeping and tweeting is getting faster and faster, louder and louder. I wake up. The time: 4:30 a.m. The season: summer. The sun: soon to rise. The sounds: the loud beeping/tweeting/chirping of the early birds of Columbia City.
The singing comes from the dawn-blue trees and always begins with one bird at around 4:00 a.m. By 4:30 a.m., that number rises to 20 or so birds. By 5:00 a.m., crows are contributing their horrible cawing to the growing cacophony. At 5:30 a.m., the bells of the light rail train on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South chime. At 6:00 a.m. comes the drone of planes flying over Beacon Hill. At around 6:30 a.m., the sound of traffic on Rainier Avenue begins to increase and blend with the birdsong. At 7:00 a.m., the sun is fully in the sky and the birdsong is less concentrated and more spread out—spatially and temporally. By 8:00 a.m., this part of the world sounds just about normal. But if it happens to be a Sunday morning, you’ll hear the songs from Luz Del Mundo (Light of the World) Church on Rainier Avenue. The church is small and packed with Mexicans—mothers, fathers, children, babies. Their Spanish spirituals rise up to my street like a bright cloud on a dark hillside. These people are close to God, but a long way from home.
All sorts of languages can be heard around here at all times of the day. Vietnamese flows fluently out of the house that’s next to mine. Next to that house, there’s the relentless language of a marriage on the rocks. The husband, a white male, is stuck with a wife, a white female, who, judging by the terrific intensity of his fury, has killed and eaten all of their children. Seriously, he is that loud and mad. One would be shocked to learn that a normal matter like infidelity triggered his explosions of yelling and cursing. Indeed, the house across the street opens all of its windows and blasts opera music at the house with the shouting man. The drama of an opera singer confronts the drama of a crazy husband. Occasionally, a pimped-out SUV separates the two dramas with crunk beats that boom so hard that the car’s metal rattles.
The languages in this part of Seattle range from human to inhuman. I heard one of the inhuman languages while on the number 7 bus. It happened at 10:00 a.m., shortly after I boarded the bus at the stop across the street from the Columbia Funeral Home. The bus, as usual, was late and slow. The bus, as usual, was packed with every race you could imagine. At the next stop, which is just down the road from Luz Del Mundo and just up the road from the Darigold milk plant, there was a disruption. A person, a drunkish middle-aged black American man at the back of the bus, began yelling at the driver in the front of the bus to open the back doors. The driver, a black American woman, was trying to open the doors, but they were jammed for some reason. The doors would begin to open, jam, and abruptly close. The rider would yell for the driver to do her job and open the damn doors. The driver would try to do her job, but the doors would not do as they were supposed to.
Two young white women were sitting right next to this commotion. They were clearly nervous about the rider’s escalating anger. They knew this was just the tip of an iceberg. The angry rider looked like his life had been hard. Maybe a few years of it were spent in prison. Maybe he was late for an appointment with a parole officer. Maybe a gang wanted his head. Maybe he was the last hired and the first fired. Maybe it was one of dem days. It’s possible the bill collectors were calling his home. Or his car had been repossessed, which is why he was on the bus in the first place. You see two terrified and defenseless white Americans and an angry black American, and your mind can’t help but fly back to the beginning: the dark days of the plantation, the Jim Crow laws, the 40 acres and a mule that never materialized, the low-tech lynching, the lack of fathers, reparations, opportunities—there’s a lot going on here. Don’t push him; he might be very close to the edge.
The white girls really wanted the doors to open and release this dangerous pressure from the bus. The driver tried again and failed again. Finally, a big and bald black man wearing dungarees walked to the doors, examined them, spotted the problem—a stuck soda pop can—and removed it. The doors then cleanly opened, the commotion was released out into the streets, order was restored. As the hero of the moment returned to his seat, the young white women thanked him with big smiles, bright eyes, and kind words. In their minds, they owed their lives to his calm and rational intervention. The big and bald black man stopped, looked at the young white women, and… began barking. It sounded exactly like a dog’s bark. Nothing about it was human. This man spoke dog. If you hadn’t seen it was a man, you would’ve thought it was a dog. The white girls were not frightened or upset but simply dumbfounded. Where in the world were they? How could this be happening to them? The black man stopped his barking, returned to his seat, and was silent for the rest of the journey down Rainier Avenue.
Not far from where this barking erupted, Andover and Rainier, I recently came across a dead rat next to the sidewalk. What amazed me about the dead rat was its location—right next to the huge Darigold milk plant. Made of the stuff of Speedy Gonzales, the rat was clearly thinking big. Instead of invading ordinary homes across the street, it was going to the source, the plant with its vats of cow’s milk. If the rat had made it inside—I think the attempt was made at night (I came across the rat around 9:00 a.m.)—it would have spent the evening drinking and swimming in heaven.
Two other impressive things about this little death. One, it happened right next to a mural that celebrates the diversity of Columbia City. The mural has everybody in it: a mariachi band, a jazz trumpeter, a deranged Arab, a white man holding a raccoon, a blond woman holding flowers, a melancholy East Indian woman, a Filipino woman who is laughing wickedly, a dragon, and, above this confusion of races, Chief Seattle trying his best to embrace it all with open arms. When the white man came to the land of his ancestors, the chief had no idea he was bringing with him the whole fucking world.
Two: As I approached the rat, walking just ahead of me were Somalian immigrants—a mother, three boys, and two girls. The mother (brown scarf on the head, black dress flowing over the body) was walking slowly. There was no rush, no worries, “hakuna matata.” Neither she nor the kids noticed the dead rat; or maybe they did and, my god, what did it matter—they’ve seen war, rape, murder, mass madness, famine, every kind of human deprivation. This is just a dead rat. This is another day in paradise.
What fascinated me about the Somalian family’s slow walk beside the tall wall of the plant—and this has nothing to do with the rat—is the central role that milk plays in the rural culture of their war-torn country. Milk, and particularly camel’s milk, is a matter of life and death. It and its by-products (butter, yogurt) are at times all that keep you from slipping into darkness. Indeed, the traditional Somalian greeting “Ma nabad baa?” (“Is there peace?”) is returned in this lovely way: “Nabad iyo caano” (“Peace and milk”).
Across from the Darigold milk plant are rows of homes and huge trees. One of the homes is abandoned, another should be abandoned, and another is ultramodern. One is receding into the woods, one is barely alive, another is rushing into the future. Columbia City not only has a mix of races, languages, cultures, and smells (particularly at dinnertime), but also architecture and spaces. Little here is uniform. One thing stands next to something that is completely different from it.
Take the Columbia City light rail station, for instance. The place has almost no coherence. First, there’s a towering forest just west of it—giant trees looming over small homes. There’s no calm here, no oneness with nature. Instead, there’s incredible tension between the humans and the trees, each of which could fall and crush to pieces a number of these brave houses and the church, Temple of Christ. The forest covers a huge area. It rises up to near the top of Beacon Hill and stretches all the way down to Mount Baker Station, claiming along the way a number of abandoned homes and losing ground here and there to development. It is thick and alive with birds and rats. I once saw a whole tribe of rats rushing up and down one of its trees. I noticed the rats because I noticed a cat in someone’s backyard staring intently at the jungle. I looked and saw what it saw—gray lives in the green leaves.
Then there is the art at Columbia City’s light rail station: the huge hoe (you know?), the row of black/yellow electric poles topped with blue cones whose tips curve like a dragon’s tooth or a witch’s fingernail. There are also metal baskets that glow in different colors at dusk, three flutes lustfully twisted in some sort musical ménage à trois, and huge flyswatters (at least that’s what they appear to represent) that rest on beds of bushes. All of this is quite mad and only possible because this part of Seattle is a social, cultural, global laboratory. It is a place where new identities, ideas, and modes are being tested, where things have yet to be settled and, indeed, may never be settled. This is the open city. It’s also a city with much less political resistance to new and strange things. It is no surprise that South Seattle has light rail before any other part of Seattle. Much of North Seattle wants nothing to do with new things. North Seattle is a stable and uniform place. It clings to the past. Its future wants to be exactly like its past. It is not a laboratory.
Not so long ago, after dreaming and hearing the birds and descending planes, I woke up, showered, dressed, caught the 48—the “fortylate”—and almost arrived late at the studio for KUOW. I was here in North Seattle to talk about gentrification in South Seattle. The other guests that morning were former mayor Norm Rice, Richard Morrill, and Eric de Place. Even after all of this time, we are still trying to make sense of gentrification, an urban process that has its birthplace in Haussmann’s Paris. At that time, the middle of the 19th century, the process was about uprooting poor Europeans from their traditional neighborhoods. In 21st-century America, it is about uprooting poor black people. In Seattle, the process has pushed them deeper and deeper south.
The process is also about middle-class white people who have not seen their real income increase since the 1970s and have only homeownership as a way to make any real gains. To go into these poor and long-neglected neighborhoods, to take the risk, to improve the streets and economy, this is practically the only chance they have of making real money. The north is stable, and therefore the home prices are stable. In a neighborhood like Columbia City, anything can happen. Leaps can be made. To make the big bucks, you have to go where no one else will go.
Gentrification, of course, homogenizes streets and businesses. This has indeed happened in some parts of Columbia City, but not in others. So far, instead of homogenizing the whole neighborhood, gentrification has added new layers, new elements to the preexisting mix. Columbia City was a white neighborhood until fairly recently, the early 1970s. The Boeing recession resulted in white flight. Black Americans replaced the white Americans. In the 1990s, immigrants began flowing into the area. By 2000, 41 percent of the people living here were foreign-born. In the early 2000s, white Americans began their return. (The geographer Gary Simonson writes a short but informative analysis of 21st-century Columbia City called “Gentrification and the ‘Stayers’ of Columbia City” in the new book Seattle Geographies.)
Now there is a hyper-mixture of races, colors, statuses, attitudes, sizes, dreams, lovers. No one group is above the rest. Each is inside and interlocked with others. This year, the Census Bureau called Columbia City “the most diverse zip code in the country.” In 2008, it calculated that by 2042, the entire country will be like this—minority majority. You either live in this city now or will live in such a city in the future.
On my street, there are the plain homes of immigrants (they do the best they can), the Wallingford-like homes of white Americans (they are doing all that they can), and the disheveled homes of “the stayers” (they are not doing much at all). Not far from here, there are also homes that are very modern. In fact, Pb Elemental, a young architectural firm, instigated this modernist revival in South Seattle from its former headquarters on 23rd Avenue South and Rainier Avenue. There is nothing like it in any neighborhood in the north—a flourishing of homes that revive and reformulate the concept of the living machine. These homes disrupt the “language of the bungalow,” to use architect Joshua Prince-Ramus’s words. The citizens of Queen Anne, a very white and comparatively wealthy lot, were deeply displeased with Pb Elemental’s Sterling Residence, which was completed in 2007 and received an Honor Award from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). It ruptured Queen Anne’s monotonous bungalow language. It shook things up. And people do not pay lots of money to be shaken up. (At the time of this writing, one three-bedroom house on Queen Anne is going for 1.6 million bones.) In South Seattle, houses that look like Sterling Residence are everywhere, and they are designed and developed by a variety of firms with almost no resistance or loud complaint.
True, these homes are modernist in appearance but not modernist in their motives—meaning these homes are not living machines for the masses like the mid-century public housing of Pruitt-Igoe
or the Robert Taylor Homes. These new homes in South Seattle (and Sterling Residence, for that matter) are not for the hoi polloi (the elegant, two-bedroom home at 4020 14th Ave South on Beacon Hill was going for $500,000 in 2009—it eventually sold for an almost-reasonable $365,000); modernism now comes with a big price tag.
But even the public buildings in South Seattle reflect this openness, this freedom of expression. All you need to do is compare, say, Schacht Aslani Architects’ 2006 expansion of the Douglass- Truth Library on Yesler Way and 23rd Avenue with Miller Hayashi Architects’ 2007 expansion of the Broadview Library on Greenwood Avenue North. Everything that Schacht Aslani’s building is—its muscular modernism, its alien beauty (copper skin, green-tinted windows)—is everything that Miller Hayashi’s is not (restrained use of materials, restrained articulation, restrained colors). Even for Miller Hayashi, a firm not known for boldness, this building in North Seattle is unusually bland. The cultural climate and the politics in Greenwood would make the kind of experiments we see in the south impossible. (Admittedly, there is a downside to this freedom; visit the Beacon Hill Library and you will see what I mean—the bad laboratory fever that infected the designers of the Columbia City Station also affected the designers of that library.)
Another example of architectural freedom is one of the two new buildings at Cleveland High School, which was designed by Mahlum Architects and won one of the AIA’s 2008 Honor Awards for Washington Architecture. If you look at Mahlum’s portfolio, you will see that Cleveland stands out as one of the (if not the) firm’s boldest works. Drive up Swift Avenue and swerve onto 15th Avenue South, and you will be amazed by the smooth bulk and futurism of this new building. It really is out of this world—huge, out of place, determined to express the authority of education.
And so South Seattle is at once way ahead of what is generally known as Seattle (white, bungalows, orderly) and way behind it (in terms of incomes, safety, political power).
Another dream. This one is hypnopompic and happened two weeks ago. My mind is rising from the depths of sleep and soon to breach the surface of self-awareness. Suddenly, a sentence reaches me from the waking world above.
What has someone just said?
Is it in English?
Or is it the Mexican preacher saving Spanish-speaking souls with a voice that booms across the valley?
My mind catches and holds on to the sentence, which is like a beam of light contained in a translucent tube. I crack it open. And what flows out are not human words but bird sounds. Those birds are singing again.