Monday, October 06, 2008

The Alaskan Way Viaduct

Before you skip past a post about a road you have never heard of, I urge you to read on for a larger discussion of cities in the early 21st century.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is one of the most hated freeways in the United States. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post arguing that we needed to save this road. This is how I closed that post:

One great thing about the Viaduct is that it is a reminder of Seattle's industrial past. We need to remember that cities used to be places of work. Seattle played a vital role in building America. Literally, as it was a lumber town. The industrial past is increasingly hard to find in modern Seattle. The old Rainer brewery that was originially taken over by Tully's Coffee has now been sold to a developer to create live/work spaces for artists. Little if any lumber is milled in Seattle today. The warehouse district in south Seattle is seen as a blight, despite its absolutely necessary function in creating and moving products around the nation. Today, the best reminder of this past in Seattle might be wood carvings of salmon in upscale shopping malls. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is both a democratic structure (all you need is a car to get those views) and a reminder of Seattle's past. For me, the fate of the Viaduct comes down to this question--does egalitarianism and unsanitized history have a role to play in 21st century urban America?

I feel the same today. Recently, the Congress of New Urbanism named the Alaskan Way Viaduct the worst freeway in America. I was talking to my friend Jeff Sanders, an assistant professor of history at Washington State University and the author of a forthcoming book and nature and Seattle in the 1960s and 70s, about this. Here was his response:

First of all I am uncomfortable with the Congress of New Urbanism, even if I agree with many of their highest aspirations--to make a more beautiful, walkable, healthy, and just urban environment. According to their ideas then, the viaduct should never have been built in the first place. And if I had been around in the 50s when it was being built I think, with my current attitudes, I would have opposed its construction. I have a lot of trouble now with the idea of demolishing or removing mid-century evidence of bad design or good. The New Urbanists want the viaduct gone so they can build pretty condos on the waterfront and big lame open spaces--instead of strange and creepy cramped ones. I've grown to love--in a perverse way--the viaduct. It feels dangerous, and I like that. There's never quite enough room on it for all the cars. But you get the best view of the city and the Sound from it. You pass right through downtown and peak into windows as you pass through. And under the viaduct is a whole other skanky McQ world that I remember from my childhood (I went to the Ace Novelty Shop just under the viaduct to purchase fake vomit when I was a kid). I like the shadow it casts and the danger that it suggests. I saw Bill Frisell at the OK Hotel in the early 90s--right under the viaduct. I love the loud crazy sound of cars clack clacking above. The viaduct creates a kind of environment and suggests a creepy history. I would hate for it to be eliminated. If they wanted to make a highline kind of thing with it I'd be happier, but not much. And I realize it's really, really unsafe. But the New Urbanists want to build a tunnel to accommodate its traffic for billions. I say leave or shore it up. Ultimately I think a city needs some ugly. And this tells me that time is critical here. Time for structures to grow on you and for you to create sets of associations with them, no matter how ugly.

Jeff is getting at core questions of cities in the 21st century. Is there any room for ugly? What about democracy and viewlines? It is clear that developers want the thing gone so they can further develop the waterfront. Should developers have almost total control to reshape urban landscapes so they can make money? What rights do poor people have to enjoy the city in the same ways the rich can?

The road sucks in a lot of ways. A big earthquake would remind us all of the Bay Bridge in 1989. It is pretty unattractive. It reminds us of a time when the United States made an awful lot of mistakes in its cities, leading to the urban crisis of the 1960s-1980s. We all want to save historic structures. Shouldn't we save some of our poor decisions too, especially when they define a city as much as the Viaduct? Despite its many problems, the road is a democratic structure and a monument to the role of the car in reshaping Seattle. For that alone, it should be saved.