This My City

The Alaskan Way Viaduct
Photo: King 5 News

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

from “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg

It seems like a thousand years ago now that I assigned high school students to write their own versions of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” A portrait in personification, Sandburg describes his home city like a family member, someone you love in spite of knowing their flaws better than anyone. Someone you’ll protect at all costs, even as with open eyes you see what could be better.

Places are like that, I used to teach my students. Places that you know are more complicated than places that you don’t. And home, wherever it is, that’s the most complicated place of all. They’d nod, uncertain, and then write affectionately critical odes to Paris, Bishkek, Mogadishu and Rainier Valley.

It’s these poems I’m remembering today as I inch toward downtown Seattle, mired in traffic south of the city. Since we’re living in West Seattle for such a short time, I know that many years from now, I’ll have to fight off the impression that I spent these six months mostly singing “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” with Luci while waiting on the series of crowded bridges and onramps that lead from this little peninsula to literally anywhere else.

As we approach the city, signs are everywhere reminding me that change is afoot. Three billboards herald the long-awaited tunnel opening soon, a portal that will theoretically allow me to bypass downtown entirely, “from Stadium to Space Needle,” saving me what is today the quickest part of the drive, but mercifully retaining all the merging and waiting I’ve already done this morning. More ominous are the digital signs that warn that state route 99, the highway I’m driving on now, will be closing on Friday night at 10 PM. Closing forever, I add in parenthesis.

Having passed the stadiums, for the last time above ground, we climb up onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a raised highway that traverses the front of the city, between the tall buildings and the narrow waterfront. Having grown up in Seattle, I’ve heard people complain about “the Viaduct” my whole life. It’s ugly, made of cracked concrete which now sports moss and weeds, with two to four narrow lanes that seem to change shape and number more often than they should. It also slices the waterfront off from the rest of downtown, requiring dozens of staircases, of varying levels of dodginess, for a hungry programmer to get from his office to some salmon and chips on the pier. Most relevant, perhaps, is that it is old and somewhat fragile, one of those “crumbling pieces of infrastructure” that our president likes to mention on the rare occasion that he ventures an uncontroversial opinion. For years we’ve had the impression that we’re driving on borrowed time on this one, that a good earthquake will take the whole thing down unless something is done about it. Hence the tunnel.

But, while undoubtedly unattractive from the outside, the view from the road is undeniably splendid. Driving on the Viaduct has been a rite of passage for teenagers in this city, the moment you emerge from the shorter Battery Street tunnel and suddenly there you are, driving in midair, with the shimmering Sound to your right and the ever-growing glitter of skyscrapers to your left. Sometimes Mount Rainier looms large in the distance, but more often it’s the city itself that is the view here. All spread out, in grey and blue and green, glass and concrete, resting between layers of mountains and water. This is my city, the nervous teenager thinks. Don’t drive off this road, she also thinks.

Coming back to Seattle after so many years away, I confess I expected to feel more like a stranger here than I do. After all, I left the city when Amazon still hadn’t turned a profit, when it was just as normal to run to a Barnes and Noble to buy a book as order one online. Not that long ago, six college girls could rent a big house in Ballard for less than a two-bedroom apartment fetches now in a less fashionable place. This place has changed, and I’ve changed. I expected to feel foreign.

But home is complicated, as Carl Sandburg and my students would remind me. You can hate the way that Ubers drive like no one else matters, but still be proud that you learned to parallel park like a boss when you were seventeen. You can be horrified at cost of houses—so much so that you zoom Zillow farther and farther out, looking for a price tag you could afford—but still sigh with delight at the leafless trees, pewter skies and uneven, rooty sidewalks. You can hate driving on the road that might fall down at any moment, and still be sad it’s gone, sad for the missing views as much as the inconvenience it’s bound to cause. Home can absorb more frustration and more love than anywhere else, because it’s what you know best.

In the short time we’re on the Viaduct I try to explain to my eldest daughter that this is the last time we’ll drive on this road, that she should look out at Puget Sound because it’s beautiful and we won’t look this way again. But she’s only three, and to her it’s just a road. Maybe she’ll love this city like I do someday, but she doesn’t now. Her heart, understandably, belongs to a village several thousand miles from here.

As for me, I smile at the way the clouds shatter just above the Olympic Mountains across the water, letting a bit of sun in through the rain. I remember my first time on this road, a nervous kid in a minivan, and I’ll remember my last. A view I love from a sketchy road in this, my city.

Seattle from West Seattle

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Karen Gielgens says:

    Beautiful, I love your word pictures.

  2. Gigi Wallace says:

    This was a very poetic, picturesque and compelling description of our complex city. I kept thinking how your painting of our city was emblematic to the painting of complex people and their journeys.

  3. Oh my! Your prose just astounds me! I do hope you’ll publish your work someday. A bittersweet look at your city.

    We drove thru “my” small city, Corpus Christi, last night, where I learned to drive. Granted it was dark, but hardly anything looked familiar! It HAS been 50 years! Roads cut through to Ocean Drive that didn’t before, new roads had been added, the whole waterfront area had been completely restructured, and pull-out points to look at the bay had quadrupled! As teenaged couples, we called these the places “to watch the submarine races at night”! I’ll leave the rest to your imagination! 😉 Anyway, having just made that drive last night, I could strongly identify with your blog!

    Blessings on the 4 of you!

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