Daniel Emberley, June 2006
Michael was sent by the IRS to Seattle for a two week management training. He went solo for the first week, and his Mom and I tagged along for the second. After Mom flew back to Houston we headed to British Columbia to see Victoria and Vancouver. Most fun, four cities in two weeks. The seafood and wines are terrific, the green of the rainforest in the cities amazing, people friendly, and money pouring in to infrastructure and other urbane improvements. Details follow. Feel free to accept this as a “Howdy!” and to skip the rest.
I’m going to skip Michael’s experience in Seattle without me; please contact him directly if you would like all the drama of twenty IRS managers in a federal training room. Sounds like a network reality show. They did give out free Tootsie-Pops <smile>.
Friday, June 16
God, I hate Dulles. It took four hours to get from Seaton Street to my gate at the B Concourse. At least I’d gotten on the Metro bus at L’Enfant Plaza; by the time it arrived for its second stop at Rosslyn, people had figured out that the Orange Line was down, and were panicking to get on the “last bus out of town”. United took me uneventfully west, with a great view over the emptiness of the High Plains that reinforced why it is so far down my list of places to visit. Peg, now I understand why you had to get yourself out of Great Falls, Montana. Michael met me at SeaTac with a rental car and whisked me off to the Ace Hotel in Belltown, west of downtown Seattle. I crashed while he drove back to pick up his Mom, coming in from Houston.
Saturday, June 17
Ace Hotel shows up in the book “Hip Hotels”. Is it a renovated single-room-occupancy hotel? We’re not sure, but it is pretty cool, and convenient. Everything’s white, with a copy of Gideon’s Bible and the Kama Sutra in every room. Belltown is funky, between Elliott Bay, downtown, and the Space Needle. Lots of great restaurants, clubs, and cool shopping. Michael was wise to have booked here over the government-recommended tourist box farther out of town. We had breakfast with Mom in the white-and-exposed-wood-but-still-looks-a-bit-like-a-laundromat common room and the three of us hopped into the car.
Michael had been skeptical when I told him I wanted to spend a day in Tacoma. But, since he’d been able to check out a lot of what he wanted in Seattle, he humored me and we all drove down I-5 to the other city on the Sound. Tacoma had been the Northern Pacific Railroad’s original choice for a West Coast terminus, and stayed a very industrial town. It has not been financially successful since the ‘70’s, and is attempting, without too much luck so far, to emulate Baltimore. Just as Baltimore bills itself as a laidback, less expensive, culturally rich alternative to D.C., Tacoma has been investing in museums, a light rail, and branch campus of the University of Washington in an effort to lure Seattle residents south.
We started in the old downtown. There are some great Victorian commercial buildings, some renovated and some waiting. It was too early for the stores/pubs to be open, but we caught the view over the rail yards and bay from Fireman’s Park, then drove over to the warehouse district by UW and parked.
All the cities of the Northwest have to deal with the geologic reality that they’re on a steep slope down to the Pacific. Unlike the East Coast, where the coastal plain allows big cities on relatively flat river deltas, these cities descend sharply to their harbors. There’s usually fill land by the water that has been used for rail yards and some downtown, but the streets quickly climb hills up the slopes. Once you hike/escalator/elevator/streetcar a few blocks uphill, you get amazing views of the Olympics, Cascades, Mount Rainier, and/or the Canadian Rockies.
All that’s a long way of saying we almost got hit by a truck while we marveled at the Olympic Mountains before us. We walked downhill through campus to the Washington State History Museum. There is a Beaux Arts former railroad terminal where the rise meets the rail yards; it’s been turned into a courthouse. Palladian dome, matched arched pavilions, giant windows like you see at the Musee D’Orsay or at Grand Central Station, here full of Dale Chihuly glass. Lovely. When Moore/Anderson designed the History Museum, they used red brick to emulate Tacoma, and framing arches at the same scale as the courthouse. The museum reminded us of Cincinnati’s; it told the region’s history brilliantly, with lots of interactive exhibits, rebuilt houses and factories, and places to dress in period costume. This was the first place we got a good sense of the geological history of Washington State, importance of labor unions, relevant Native American tribes, and the lumber and railroad industries.
We took the Light Rail along Pacific Avenue and Commerce Streets back to the historic downtown where we’d started and had lunch in one of the pubs. We watched the Italians beat the U.S. in World Cup soccer over decent calamari and burgers, and walked back to look over the Union Station courthouse and on to the Glass Bridge.
The Museum of Glass is by Vancouver architect-star Arthur Erickson. A giant cone covers a hot glass shop, surrounded by galleries and, outside, levels of plaza and fountain that incorporate large-scale glass sculpture. To get people over the railroad right-of-way to the museum, Erickson designed a glass bridge that Dale Chihuly has filled with pieces in the ceiling and on both walls. On the bridge Mom talked with a group of Canadian Cantonese photographers. The galleries had shows of Czech glass from the 1920’s through 1970’s, and a woman who had cast Greek-sculpture-inspired glass garments. Baltimore bead artist Joyce Scott was collaborating with the crew in the Hot Shop; they created large blown vessels incorporating images Scott painted with ground-glass-pigment. While we decompressed in the coffee shop, a rap/breakdance performance filled the great hall. All together, pretty sensational.
The Tacoma Art Museum is back across the glass bridge on the same street. The best thing about it is the building, recently completed to designs by Antoine Predock. Amazing space, with more Chihuly work temporarily installed in the courtyard and stray bits around the building. No permanent collection worth talking about, but good-if-not-exceptional traveling shows of Roy Lichtenstein’s Native American-inspired work out of New York, French drawings from Baltimore, and ceramic sculpture by Akio Takamori.
That was enough high culture for any day, much less Mom’s and my first in the Northwest. We hiked back through campus to the car and drove up I-5 to the major mall complex south of Seattle, home of The Great Wall Mall. This is similar to the “New Chinatown” malls that exist in Houston, which made Mom very comfortable: supermarkets, video stores, Japanese games, Chinese imports, bubble tea shops, several varieties of Asian restaurant. The supermarket was a good chance to check out Pacific NW seafood up close and personal, now we know what a Puget Sound oyster, sea urchin, geoduck, and Dungeness crab look like without a port-wine reduction. We had dinner in a Taiwanese place; good and inexpensive.
Heading back north, we accidentally ended up on the east side of Lake Washington. Gave us a chance to case Bellingham (boring tech suburbs) and Mercer Island (boring tech millionaires). We took the highway right into Seattle Chinatown proper, a good chunk of which has been taken over by the Japanese grocery/department store Uwajimaya. The Uwajimaya complex includes housing upstairs, two food courts, a gift store, and fresh and imported Asian groceries.
We dropped Mom back at the Ace Hotel, and made sure she was settled in okay. We took our bags downtown to the W Hotel. Michael had always wanted to stay at a W. We’re not sure we like it. It’s all done very well, at a high price point, and everything you need requires a tip to match the level of luxury. Plus, the room looked empty. We talked to the nice woman at the Whatever/Whenever (aka, concierge) desk, and she had us outfitted with a comfy chaise lounge, portable fan, and spare bar of soap. Great to get the service, but the whole “this is your home if you lived in Dwell magazine” fantasy, hip music, and subdued light levels in the corridors got a little creepy.
We took a walk around downtown so Michael could introduce me to the places he’d discovered along Pike Place and Post Alley. At the W’s lounge we ordered a nifty little charcuterie and artisan cheese platter in the lounge with Washington State wines. Okay, maybe the W’s comfort is worth it, after all.
Sunday, June 18
This was our first real day in Seattle. The seafood is drop dead amazing. Order anything. Get it with a Washington State or Oregon wine, red or white, all we were served were terrific. The people are friendly and polite; they stop at crosswalks and go out of their way to help. The site is a steep slope up from Elliott Bay, which makes each avenue a platform from which to view the Olympic Mountains to the west, or Mount Rainier in the Cascades to the east. The weather was clear, cool, and rain-free the entire time. There is so much money being poured into infrastructure and development that they’re really building a new society, informed by everything urban designers have learned about cities and every whim the Baby Boom thinks it wants.
Baby Boom? That leads us to some of the negatives. What a vacuous bunch of dim wits. My God, pleasant, but there’s, like, nothing in their heads. Even in an art museum, you cannot expect to have an intelligent conversation about what’s in front of you, or even find out the name of the architect who designed the addition two years ago. People lack basic intellectual knowledge. There isn’t an architectural guide to the city, and when asked, booksellers seem surprised to think the city merits one. It reminded me a little of Denver, or of the Los Angeles I first saw in 1980, before they became a real city. Kids who came to town to become the next Kurt Cobain are no longer kids, but still dress badly, are arrogant, and smell. Not good, as they’re now serving you coffee. There is a large population of bums all over the city. Apparently it’s not cool to arrest people who are “hanging out”, even if they would be taken to the detox, rehab, or shelter they need. Maybe the poor become invisible in the rain?
The new money means that a lot is closed for replacement, expansion, or re-creation, including the Monorail, the Art Museum, the bus tunnel (becoming a light rail system), the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, and the observatory at Smith Tower. In my favorite bit of planning idiocy, the Waterfront Trolley, the only transit to run the length of downtown, is closed because the Art Museum took over the terminus for a sculpture park. No one remembered that there needs to be a place for trolleys to get parked at night, or to turn around at the end of the line. Now there’s no trolley, and no sculpture park, either.
It appears to be a city that is succeeding because right now money is falling on it (thank you, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon). Just as it did when their timber was needed, or they serviced the Alaska Gold Rush, or when Boeing realized the cheap lumber made a good place to build planes. I can’t see Seattle as an urban success, it’s just currently lucky.
However, lucky cities are awfully fun to be in, especially with the right drink from the deck of a ferry overlooking the beautiful view.
Michael took me to Pike Place Market for breakfast at the House of Crumpets; then we picked up Mom. We took her through the Market and down to the waterfront via the Pike Hill Climb, a set of stairs descending the cliff from the level of First Avenue (about three stories). Michael wanted to take one of the ferries the city is famous for so we got on board the one to Bainbridge Island. One reason Seattle is relatively highway free and with a compact downtown is because so many people live on islands and peninsulas around the Bay, connected to downtown via a couple of ferry terminals. The ride was less than half an hour, and takes you to Winslow, a town that thinks it is 1962 Cape Cod, right down to a drug store that could have been in JFK Hyannis. We had brunch in a restaurant in the quaint downtown; then Michael started getting antsy. By the time he’d checked a ferry schedule, you couldn’t slow him down as he raced us to get back to the city and civilization. The ride is lovely, and we can understand why people would live out there, even if we wouldn’t.
From the ferry terminal there’s an overpass that carries you up several heights to the Second Avenue level, from which there were two steep but doable climbs to Fourth Avenue and the new Rem Koolhaas Seattle Public Library. We checked out the Library lobby, crossed the street to the W, showed Mom our room (quote: “Why don’t they turn on the lights?”), and got our car from the valet. We only had the car until the end of the day, so we figured we’d use it to get to neighborhoods east of downtown that didn’t look easily accessible by transit. Turns out I was wrong about transit access (more later), but the landscape was incredible: up First Hill to the peak of the peninsula, then steep descents to Lake Washington. Good thing we had decent brakes; some of the slopes were steeper than San Francisco’s. First stop was the Dilettante Chocolate Company warehouse store. Dilettante started on Broadway, in the gay district on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, and had been wisely and well recommended by our friend Peg. We circled the block a couple times, then asked for directions. Turns out the area around it got so hoity-toity that management turned the outlet into a full-priced café/store. Still worth sampling, is delicious. Steeply downhill to the east is the Madrona neighborhood of bungalows and Edwardian homes, then Leschi Park on the lower slopes (too steep to build on even for Seattle) and beach. Great walk along the beach, with plenty of families out enjoying the water and sun.
We returned the car, near the pink neon elephant car wash (parse that!), got some Ben and Jerry’s in a pub under the Monorail, and walked over to Seattle Center. This had been the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. The Fair gave Seattle the Space Needle and the Monorail. Also an ugly Science Center by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who used the same dorky concrete Gothic arches in his design of New York’s World Trade Center. After the Fair, the city kept many of the pavilions, which serve as theaters, sports arenas, and an amusement park. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen built his tribute to Jimmie Hendricks, the Experience Music Project, at the base of the Needle; Frank Gehry’s design is cool to walk around, and looks stunning. The music and adjacent science fiction museums were pricey; we postponed visits until after Mom had returned to Houston.
We continued walking south and east through the Denny Triangle and Belltown. Mr. Denny owned major acres west of downtown; he thought that regrading the land to remove the hill would make his land the high rent district. Instead the removal of dirt took thirty years, and the area became industrial and boarding houses. Not so great at the time, but prime real estate now, as the former industrial sites become chic hotels, condos, and clubs. We had dinner outside at Del Rey on First Avenue, a club not far from Mom’s hotel that had amazingly great happy hour tapas: crab cakes, asparagus, truffled macaroni and cheese. We definitely recommend dinner at Del Rey if you can make it.
Saw Mom home and walked east via the downtown shopping district. Westlake Center is a dynamic area of shopping malls and department stores, including a Macy’s and the anchor Nordstrom’s. Also an outlet of See’s chocolate, out of California, so we knew we would have good provisions on the rest of the trip. The area is busy and alive like I have not seen any other downtown shopping in the U.S. outside of Chicago and New York. We took Fifth Avenue east to Freeway Park, a park the city built covering the gash of Interstate 5 with green, concrete, and waterfalls that muffle the sound of speeding cars. The most dramatic space lets you see the cars whipping by a window pane away from you and the fountain. Pretty cool. The park ends a block from the W, and we were out for the night.
Monday, June 19
Next door to the W is the Fairmont Olympic, the grande dame of Seattle hotels, with a lovely lobby. It’s also a link in the escalator system that makes the downtown hills easier to negotiate. Through the Olympic is Rainier Square, an ugly Minoru Yamasaki skyscraper with an underground shopping complex that wants to be as successful as Montreal’s, but isn’t even as good as Toronto’s. It does, though, have a nifty café that serves decent breakfast burritos. Also Nanaimo bars, a layered confection of graham cracker, cream, and chocolate that may be the Northwest’s greatest gift to American desserts. Picked up Mom, and together we did a detailed investigation of Pike Place Market.
The Market is deservedly the most important tourist attraction in Seattle. How they managed to save and expand on this, when every other city in the States destroyed their public markets, is a miracle. None of the buildings is structurally notable; market sheds and houses descending down the slope from First Avenue to Alaskan Way Viaduct. Together they house gourmet markets, local farm vendors, art galleries, crafts markets, antique shops, restaurants, and tourist traps. In two hours we’d wandered through most of it, and happily met up with Michael at the chowder takeout on Post Alley. Mom found a farmer selling smoked nuts; she returned to him maybe four times before she was done buying quality gifts for Houston at prices that fit her pocketbook.
After lunch Mom and I descended to the waterfront and Seattle Aquarium. This is on a series of piers, and is so large that even with one whole pier being rebuilt was still worth the price of admission. The best bit is the domed room where you are surrounded on all sides and above by swimming sea life.
We caught the waterfront bus-in-lieu-of-trolley up to Pioneer Square, site of the original settlement of Seattle. There is nothing from that era to see, at it all burned down and got replaced in the 1890’s. The replacement brick-and-masonry commercial and skyscrapers house galleries, restaurants, bars, and offices. We consoled ourselves on the closed Klondike Gold Rush Museum with lavender shortbread at a café next door, checked out a hot glass studio, and the lobby of the Smith Tower. The tallest building west of Chicago for decades, Smith Tower is a beautifully restored terra cotta masterpiece. Normally the uniformed elevator attendants take one to the observation deck and a Chinese-themed 1910 meeting room but, in the series of Seattle closures that had become so repetitious that Mom made it into a game, we were told the deck was closed until end of the week. Honestly. We shopped at Elliot Bay Book Company, probably the best bookstore in Seattle, and one of the best in the country.
The 17 bus took us back to Belltown, where we relaxed at Mom’s hotel until Michael got out of work and met us there. We had reservations at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. Suitably George Jetsons retro, with surprisingly good food to go with the slick view: grilled seafood with risotto, prime rib, and an Oregon pinot noir. You get free access to the Observation Deck with dinner, so we joined the common folk for the non-revolving view and walked Mom back via Seattle Center and Belltown.
A leisurely walk back through downtown let us ponder:
- the collection of terrific Deco skyscrapers,
- amazing views of the mountains from the streets, and
- whether an economy of timber barons, Boeing, and software magnates has doomed Seattle to never develop an enlightened citizenry.
Too deep for us, we went to bed.
Tuesday, June 20
Lowell’s is a diner in Pike Place; serves great corned beef hash with a view of Elliot Bay that appeared in the film “Sleepless in Seattle”. Never saw it. Mom and I did laundry at the Ace and caught the waterfront bus to the International District, aka Chinatown. “International District” actually is more appropriate, as the white fathers of Seattle first stuck the Chinese on the worst swamps/inclines in the city, then tried to kick them out when the economy turned and their labor was not needed. They passed the Exclusion Acts to stop Chinese immigration, only to need cheap labor again in the 1910’s. They decided Japanese were not Asians, so tons of Japanese replaced the Chinese, only to be rounded up during WWII as possible enemies and sent to desert prison camps. Post-war, Philippinos replaced the Japanese, to yield later to Vietnamese. So, there really is a layering of Asian cultures here, to the shame of the power structure. The Chinese have re-asserted themselves most strongly, with the Wing Luke Asian Museum, a terrific little park, and the restaurants and shops you expect from a Chinatown, but all the cultures are represented.
Michael met us for lunch at the Uwajimaya food court, where I got a Hawaiian plate lunch second in quality only to L&L on Fulton Street in New York.
We left Michael and walked through the recently restored Union Station, which will be a major node on the new light rail system, then caught the #10 bus through Capitol Hill to Volunteer Park. Seattle hired the Olmsted firm early in its life to design a system of parks and parkways, many of which actually got built. Volunteer Park is one of the gems. We walked through the conservatory, up the water tower, around the reservoir and into the Asian branch of the Seattle Art Museum (built in the 1920’s as the main museum building, renovated to hold the Asian collection when the Robert Venturi building was erected downtown). Mom usually puts up with me in an art museum, but there was a show of Buddhist culture that she really got into, probably because so much was in Cantonese and she could understand what it was all about. The Shirin Neshat video art, on the other hand, left her completely cold <smile>.
The bus stop for downtown is adjacent to Lake View Cemetery, where Bruce Lee is buried. Once I helped Mom understand that yes, I meant that Bruce Lee (my Sicilian karate hand gestures must be something to behold), we waved to his grave and had a great talk about family history on the bus back. We shopped First Avenue back to Belltown. Peter Miller is one of the best architectural bookstores I’ve ever been in. Darbury Stendero is an artist who custom dies, prints, and quilts luxurious velvets and silks; I talked with her gallery staff about her methods (once they got over their surprise that I actually knew what I was talking about). Think I’m gonna steal a border technique she uses on her quilts. Michael caught up with us at the Ace, and we went to Belltown Bistro for dinner: mussels, mahi mahi tacos; even the sliders were great.
Wednesday, June 21
I don’t think the hills were getting any less steep, so I must have been getting better at negotiating them. Started at the Clipper ferry terminal to pick up our tickets for Victoria and Vancouver; then met Mom. Helped her check out of the hotel, into a car service, and went with her to SeaTac. She tried to shoo me away after we got her boarding pass, but I stayed close until I lost sight of her in security. The 194 bus back to Seattle is amazing: half an hour to downtown, $1.25, free transfer to any other bus.
Got off at the new Library, and gave it the complete tour. Koolhaas has basically designed a giant glass shell, with rooms/stacks/spaces inserted independently within. Not sure I agree with the concept, but the resulting views are fantastic. There’s a great piece of public art above the reference desk; a video mural that dynamically maps all the non-fiction books in circulation visually, so you can see visually what Seattle is reading. Best part for me is the open stacks. On six floors, a continuous ramp houses the circulating collection. You can start at the top at 999 (Library Science) and work your way down to 000 (Religion and Philosophy, if I’m remembering Dewey Decimal correctly). Every subject ever written about in a single thread. Spaces off to the side hold special collections and services. Quite cool.
I’d picked up a flyer at Peter Miller of six great works of Seattle architecture, and proceeded to track them down. First up through Freeway Park and into First Hill. This neighborhood had been an early home of the city’s elite, but is now mainly hospitals. The Catholic Cathedral of St. James crowns the hill with dual Spanish Mission towers and Art Deco stained glass. Having climbed the incline, the rest of this walk was pretty level. The Frye Art Museum nearby has a dull collection of late 19th Century European oil paintings, but in a nifty Deco building with 1997 addition by Olson Sundberg. The curators have recently hung the art salon-style, which is overwhelming and fun. Great shows by contemporary artists Amy Helfand and Robert Yoder, both featuring, curiously, rugs. Up through the campus of Seattle University, for Steven Holl and Olson Sundberg’s Chapel of St. Ignatius. I’m not a big fan of the “concrete is sculptural” school, but this building could win me over. The building was poured around the foundation like a puzzle, then jacked into place so each plane slotted into the next. Inside, color comes from glass and from panels whose paint you only see indirectly, as it is reflected off concrete shells by the sunlight. Don’t know if this works on a standard grey Seattle day, but in the summer sun it is brilliant.
I walked up Twelfth Avenue North between the Central District (African American) and Capitol Hill (gays and yuppies). Lots of renovations, apartments, and big houses from the 1910’s and 1920’s. The four-square seems to be the generic Seattle house, decked out with more styles than I’d ever seen. A long but pleasant walk took me to the Episcopalian Cathedral of St. Mark. The Seattle Episcopate had delusions of grandeur when they planned this at the turn of the last century, but only built a masonry box. In WWII it served as a hospital, the roof failed, the organ died. In 1997 the now-familiar Olson Sundberg renovated it back into a cathedral. This is an astounding intervention: modern glass and steel screens and massive wooden roof trusses play off of the original weathered concrete to make a truly spiritual place. Plus, they bought a new organ.
Broadway East is the main shopping drag through Capitol Hill. Gay neighborhood shopping (bookstores, supermarkets, sex shop), including the original Dilletante’s Chocolate store, where I broke for chocolate cake and stocked up on truffles. The sidewalk on Broadway is famous for its inlaid bronze dance steps, most fun. I could so live here; the neighborhood won me over to Seattle in a way that downtown had not.
Walked back via First Hill’s steps and Freeway Park, met Michael at the W, and we went to local institution Ivar’s for fried clams, a chilled WA Riesling, and the Bay view. Next door is the Old Curiousity Shop, a complete waste/tourist trap; skip it.
Thursday, June 22
I walked through Pacific Place Mall, downtown’s version of Mazza Galleria/Pentagon City. If you’ve seen one Brookstone/Guccis/Victoria’s Secret, you’ve seen them all. Took the bus up Madison to the Washington Park Arboretum, another branch of the Olmsted park system, run by the University of Washington as a tree museum. The Azalea Way mall, a grassy path through the specimen trees, is one of the Olmsteds’ greatest designs. Very cool red-barked birch. Got lost as the Arboretum dissipates into wetlands under the freeway, but found my way onto the stone bridge that carries you across to the Montlake neighborhood (yuppie mothers with kids in Aprica strollers).
My goal was the Museum of History and Industry, which I had read about and planned to blow off. Am glad I didn’t. It houses and shows well a vast collection of Seattle memorabilia, and puts the city’s history in perspective. Includes installs of a cannery and harbor where kids can try out the roles of laborers and management. Really horrible oil paintings of city founders. What had changed my mind was a traveling show they were hosting of French fashion dolls from 1945. Right after WWII, the Parisian design world needed to kick itself back into gear, but had no access to materials or markets. They collaborated with artists and architects to create a show of hundreds of 24” dolls outfitted in new fashions, in surrealist dioramas as big as stage sets. The show toured Europe and the U.S., put Schiaparelli, Givenchy, and Dior back in business, then was forgotten in a New Jersey warehouse. Discovered just a few years ago, the dolls and clothes were restored in Paris and is back on tour. Very fun.
Took the bus across the ship channel and up to the retail district at 45th and University. The University of Washington is the big school in town, with a commercial area that reminded me of Berkeley. The campus rolls along hills on the site of the 1909 World’s Fair, the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. Not much is left of the Fair, but the University buildings are a nifty mix of Gothic with Deco gargoyles and okay Modern. Most of it is so lush with trees that it seems overgrown. Per Olmsted recommendation, the vista to Mt. Rainier was left open for a great view. Two of my favorite artists have work here, a sculpture by Lorado Taft and a fountain by Laurence Halprin.
The Burke Museum on campus does a great job explaining the evolution of Washington State’s geography. A basement show does a less decent job of presenting the anthropology collection. We were going to see it done better in Victoria, and I quickly tired of the focus on “First Peoples” and Asians. Where are the Italians who built Seattle? The Greeks? The Portuguese? Northern Europeans got decent coverage, with a tip of the hat to Jews, but you’d think Mediterranean cultures never touched the Northwest.
In contrast, the Henry Art Gallery, UW’s art museum, is stellar. Great modern additions to an older classical structure, with a suspended room built to house a Turrell sky space. The big show was of Maya Lin’s geographic work: altered atlases, the Columbia River in silver, an entire landscape made of upended 2X4’s. Fabulous.
The Burke Gilman Trail runs through the southern edge of campus. I think this runs for tens of miles around Lake Washington, but I went the other direction, west, for a hike along the north shore of Lake Union. Originally, Seattle was an isthmus, with Elliott Bay to the west, Lake Washington to the east, and the much small Lake Union in between. In the 1800’s the U.S. paid to run a ship channel and locks through to connect Lake Washington with the Bay and Puget Sound. This was once heavily industrial, but is now mainly used by pleasure craft. The walk is great. At the northern tip of Lake Union is a former factory that crushed coal to create gas for lighting. The structures were so massive and toxic that removal would have been prohibitive. Instead, the city turned the plant into Gas Works Park, where grass, picnic areas, and an ice cream stand flow through the cleaned up industrial equipment.
The trail continues west to a former suburb called Fremont, the self-proclaimed funkiest part of Seattle. Lots of public art, including a Nike missile, open air movie theater, statue of Lenin, and concrete troll under a bridge overpass. Fun, but too long a walk, I should have grabbed the bus. Did I? Heck no, I kept pushing on, trying to reach Ballard. I finally gave up at 8th Street and caught a bus back to Seattle Center via Queen Anne Hill.
Michael and I rendezvoused at the Space Needle, and saw the museums at Experience Music Project. This is supposed to be a big deal, but was a disappointment. The Frank Gehry building, flowing around the Monorail track, is the best thing about it. The Science Fiction Museum was lame, but the Music Museum was worse. It’s supposed to be a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, but we walked out of it not knowing any more of his songs than we did when we entered. What did he write besides “Purple Haze”? Anyone? A special exhibition of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s art collection, “Double Take: from Monet to Lichtenstein”, attempted to pair Impressionist and contemporary art, but didn’t make clear why that was a worthwhile thing to do. At $30 a head, the “Experience” was the worst use of our tourist dollars of the whole trip.
As a consolation prize, dinner was fantastic. Marjorie’s, in Belltown, funky quilted ceiling, macaroni with bacon, a Chef’s Tasting Menu with flank steak, haddock, Crenshaw melon sorbet. Our friend the painter Scott Brooks was in a show at the Roq La Rue Gallery on 2nd Avenue. Scott says this is one of the best galleries showing the type of art he creates. We were impressed to see his work amongst peers from around the world; it gave a perspective that we don’t get to see in D.C.
Friday, June 23
Caught a bus up to Ballard. This neighborhood is just north of the ship channel locks. Formerly a Scandinavian/longshoremen’s area, it’s now yuppies and others who want to think they’re funky and blue collar. Lovely store of baking supplies, and the bricks-and-mortar store of mail order joke shop Archie McPhee. Another neighborhood worth living in, if I found myself exiled to Seattle.
Caught the bus all the way back to King Street Station in Pioneer Square, meeting Michael for lunch at Salumi. This is an Italian deli run by Mario Batali’s father. They make their own pepperoni, cappicola, and other dried Italian sausages. They only open for lunch, and only when they feel like it. Michael had seen the line stretching down the block earlier in the week, and made a note to return. We got in reasonably early, ordered sandwiches and fresh mint-and-pea soup, and were able to get a table in the back. It’s worth the wait. Go.
Michael hadn’t had a chance to explore a lot of this area that I’d seen with Mom, so I introduced him to Union Station and the International District. We saw the show at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, which tells well the stories of Chinese, Japanese, and Philippino immigrants. The install of a WWII Japanese internment camp was brilliant. We hiked up the steep incline of Kobe Terrace Park; then crossed the freeway to the Library. Over to Westlake where we ducked into See’s and the anchor Nordstrom’s to pick up a pair of sneakers, since I’d walked the soles off of my Rockports, then by bus to Broadway and Capitol Hill. Dinner at the DeLuxe Grill in the Loveless Building; could have been Annie’s Paramount in Dupont Circle.
Saturday, June 24
People swear by the ferry ride to the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle. We had a hard time getting our heads around the idea: you ferry up, see nature for half an hour, ferry back. Eh. Instead, we decided to travel the same ferry route but actually go somewhere, continuing on to Victoria. The Strait of Juan de Fuca was quiet enough that Michael did not get sea sick, and the run as lovely as promised, with the mid-distance Cascades and Mount Rainier framing views of the islands. We zipped through Canadian Customs and set off to explore the two cities of Canada that we had missed on our 2003 tour, Victoria and Vancouver.
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, but that is not enough of an economic base, so it has become a day trip destination for tourists from Seattle. Lots of ugly Americans got off the ferry with us, and lingered as we passed the core of the harbor and tourist shops on Government Street.
We lost them as we ducked into Eaton Centre shopping mall to get Canadian currency at an ATM, and headed north on Douglas to Chinatown. Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada, and now one of the smallest. Some great history there, though, including the school the Chinese community built for itself when British Columbia refused education to Chinese children. Fan Tan Alley is the narrowest street in Canada, home to several junk/gift/import stores and galleries worth checking out. Dim sum for lunch was mediocre, but we noted the neighborhood for a return visit.
Back south on Douglas the main day tripper crowds had dispersed, and we savored Rogers chocolate and homemade gelato. Munro Books is one of the best bookstores in Canada, with terrific selection of local travel books. It’s in a grand former bank building; the owner’s wife, Carol Sabiston, is an amazing textile artist whose weaving we’d seen in Ottawa. Series of her banners hang from the ceiling and balcony; the store is worth a stop for her art alone. Around the corner in Bastion Square, where the city was founded, was a fair with good local craftsmen in front of the Maritime Museum.
We had cash, lunch, guidebooks, and a feel for the ground. Official sightseeing started at the Houses of Parliament of British Columbia. The tour was brilliantly given by official escorts assisted by actors playing Parliament’s architect Francis Rattenbury, robber baron Lord Douglas, and Queen Victoria. All the Gothic you expect from a parliamentary capitol, with some nifty leaded glass tributes to Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II.
Next door to Parliament is the Royal British Columbia Museum. It’s a massive institution with good displays of geology, global warming, anthropology and history. The collection of Pacific Coast native art is excellent, for people who like that sort of thing. We preferred the historic recreations of a 1900’s town, cannery, lumber mill, and ship. Michael decided he could camp out in the forest diorama, but I’m not sure if that would earn him a merit badge <smile>.
The trio of great buildings at Victoria’s landing is the Parliament, the Museum, and the Fairmont Empress. We were staying at the Empress, so went over and checked in. Dowdy, but lovely, and worth the minimally extra cost for the location. The ferry where we landed was two blocks away, and the bus terminal to take us to Vancouver at the back door. Tea at the Empress is as much a Canadian institution as tea at the Imperial is in Hong Kong, with similar high-British pretensions. We’d booked for the “Western Tea”, which mixed local salmon, berries, and cheeses in with the biscuits and finger sandwiches. Delightful.
We took a post-tea stroll along the harbor through Bastion Square and over the bridge to the small train station, which services Vancouver Island and terminates at Victoria. Was odd to see a terminal train station looking like the commuter sheds I remember from suburban Boston, but that’s life on an island. Passed Chinatown to the funky shopping on Blanchard Street, with movie theaters, the Catholic Cathedral, and an unfinished Anglican Cathedral. Ended up at the Royal Museum, where, due to the latitude, we were able to walk around Thunderbird Park’s collection of historic buildings and totem poles in the 9PM twilight.
Sunday, June 25
Had a very American breakfast at Smitty’s, near the bus terminal, and got on a Grey Line bus to Butchart Gardens. The Gardens are in a former quarry a few miles up island from Victoria proper. We’d looked at taking the local bus service up, but in the end Grey Line was only a dollar more, faster, and direct. Butchart is fantastic; one of the world’s great landscaping experiences, and the top tourist attraction in Victoria. We were blown away by the roses, fountains, Japanese and Italian gardens, and the siting of plants in the old quarry basin. Vibrant color, with more and bigger fuschias than we had ever seen. Had lunch there, and in the bus back were treated to views of Mount Baker across the Strait in Washington. After a siesta at the hotel and tea at Murchie’s on Government Street, we checked out the antique shops on Fort Street. This was a disappointment; mainly fusty porcelain stuff that we don’t collect. Headed east to Craigdarroch Castle, an oversized home built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir in 1890. It’s Queen Anne in style with delusions of castle. Great Arts and Crafts glass; and wooden interiors shipped from Chicago. Panels tell surprisingly honestly the story of the interesting family that lived here: children became major Canadian industrialists and, one the lesbian lover of Tallulah Bankhead.
The hike up had worn us out, so we caught a double decker city bus back downtown to shop Chinatown once more. We had dinner in the Bengal Room of the Empress, whose curry buffet paired with Okanagan Valley wines did credit to the former Raj. Watched “Pirates of the Caribbean” on TV, and took a final walk to see the Parliament lit up at night.
Monday, June 26
We knew somehow we had to get across the water to Vancouver on the mainland, but figured we’d have an annoying day of transfers to and from buses and ferries. To our surprise, the bus behind the Empress read “Vancouver”. The coach drives up the coast to a major ferry landing, drives onto the ferry, and drives off again across the Strait and up to Vancouver. Once it’s on board we were able to get off and explore the ferry during the crossing. This is the most beautiful ferry trip we’ve ever had, do it.
The bus let us off at the Fairmont Vancouver, and we schlepped our bags up Robson Street. We should have used the cab voucher that Clipper gave us, but who knew that the blocks in the West End are so long? We were booked at the Listel, a 1980’s hotel with pretentious of being an art gallery. Decent modern art and sculpture lie around the hallways. Not a great facility, but maybe the Empress had spoiled us. We dropped our bags and headed back downtown to get a feel for the city.
Robson is the major commercial drag, a little Connecticut Avenue NW, a little Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a LOT of Japanese tourists and stores/restaurants that cater to them. If Seattle’s riding an excess of Microsoft money, Vancouver’s boat is floated by investors from Hong Kong and Tokyo. Christ Church Cathedral is small, but with great beams and glass. It’s overpowered by the nondescript shopping and office tower of Cathedral Place next door. The shopping arcade has a good contemporary glass sculpture, and a Belgian chocolate store that was going out of business and dumping stock at 50% off. Talk about making your Canadian dollar go further! Checked out the dumb rectangular pendulum at the HSBC Building; it’s like a swinging platinum shoe box. Pacific Place Mall is anchored by our luxury department store friend from Montreal, Holt Renfrew. Canada Place on the waterfront is a holdover from Expo ’86; it looks like sails about to take off into Burrard Inlet. It’s now the convention center and a hotel; the nice guard tipped us off to go up to the hotel’s cocktail lounge for the public viewing deck.
Vancouver is a series of peninsulas running west into the Strait. The primary one faces Burrard Inlet to the north and False Creek to the south. It’s hilly, as you’d expect from a Pacific peninsula, but not mountainous the way Seattle and Hong Kong are. Instead, the Rocky Mountains themselves finally merge into Coast ranges just north of the city, giving amazing mountain views and a sense of being at the end of the world. A little like Los Angeles or San Francisco, in the sense of being the end of national settlement, but it feels more remote. Architecturally, you’ve got Edwardian-suburban housing, some intermediate 1950’s homes, and tons of repetitious towers built since the 1980’s replacing them both.
We walked east to the former train station that was renovated to serve as terminal for the SkyTrain and the SeaBus. SkyTrain travels through downtown as subway for five stations; then goes southeast as an El for miles into the nether suburbs. SeaBus is a very large passenger ferry leaving every ten minutes to North Vancouver and bus connections there. East and south of the station is Gastown, the oldest part of Vancouver. It’s over-renovated: furniture and design stores, bars, and a statue of “Gassy Jack” Deighton, the tavern owner who named the neighborhood. The steam clock was built in 1977 to a Victorian industrial design: every 15 minutes it lets off a blast of the steam that drives it, and on the hour it plays the Westminster Chimes. We joined the tourist hordes for the steam show, fun.
Southeast is Chinatown. Michael had been to Vancouver in 1991, and had regretted not getting to see the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. This was the first “scholars’ garden” built outside of China. Half is a free city park; it serves as a foil to the section you pay for, which uses the park views as focal points for formal garden rooms. Michael took the tour; I walked myself through more quickly and then meditated from a bench. It’s at least as beautiful as the similar and newer garden on Staten Island.
We started figuring out the bus system, catching one that runs regularly west on Robson back to the hotel. After a siesta we took the bus back downtown and got off at the public library. This was designed by Moshe Safdie in the form of the Roman Colosseum. I thought it would be hokey, but it actually works well, with a street of commercial shops at the beginning of a spiral luring you into the library proper. The former 1970’s library, rather ugly, has been turned into an HMV. The original Carnegie Beaux Arts library is long demolished.
Southeast of downtown is Yaletown, a four by ten block stretch of former industrial buildings renovated into trendy loft housing and some great shopping. We had an excellent dinner at Milestone’s: calamari with andouille, grilled seafood salad, a burger, an Okanagan Valley Chardonnay, and a pomegranate Margherita. Mmmm. We walked up Granville, the major cross-axis to Robson, through the sex shops, clubs, and once-grand-now-maybe-strippers-but-maybe-the-Symphony movie theaters that make Vancouver an entertainment hot spot of Canada. No jokes about the competition being Saskatoon; Granville has a vibe a little like the old Times Square without the squalor. Who’d have thought it possible?
First day’s impressions of Vancouver were that it is as ugly as Toronto; the large-scale grid forced over the landscape does not get the best from the site. Alleys are very wide, wider than Seaton Street, which seems a waste. It’s not as a green as Seattle, but there are amazing views of the mountains north from every intersection. It looks like it’s gotten too much money too soon: there is tons of construction going on, with blocks of apartment towers that all start to look the same. It is a little like the residential sectors of Hong Kong, right down to the way stacks of bay windows frame channels that, in British Hong Kong, were used for plumbing, but following U.S. practice the plumbing has demurely withdrawn to the interiors. The shopping on Robson is as nice as the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, and cleaner than New York’s. Just one block away you find quiet residential streets; a possible positive result of the large blocks. There are nice details all over the city; for instance, you often find bronze leaf impressions in the sidewalk, and elaborate metal grids protecting the tree boxes.
Tuesday, June 27
Did we tell you the World Cup was going on? Over in Germany, a bunch of soccer players kept our breakfast from arriving, as everyone in the diner was glued to the Brazil-Ghana game. We walked north to the seawall on Burrard, heading east through the waterfront park into downtown. Very new, very clean, some great sculpture and fountains between towers.
The Marine Building is an amazing Art Deco skyscraper just where downtown meets the water. Great nautical-themed decorations outside and in the grand lobby, lined with retail like a mini-Chrysler Building.
Back on Robson, Arthur Erickson has turned the former courthouse into the Vancouver Art Museum, with the courts moved to a hideous glass building below, through, and above a park running south for three blocks. The Museum got the best part of that deal; the retrofit preserved terrific spaces like the domed center hall and created flexible, standard galleries. They had major shows on Arthur Erickson’s work (he designed the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania; wish I loved it, but I don’t), contemporary pre-fab housing, and Native art of the Queen Charlotte Islands. If I ever see another Northwest totem pole or mask it will be too soon, but at least now I know how to read the pieces. Emily Carr was a local painter who made impressive canvases of British Columbia’s forests and settlements in the 1930’s; some pair her with Georgia O’Keefe as a painter of her country’s Western tradition. Carr is the big star of the permanent collection, but they only had a few of her pieces up, unfortunately.
We took the bus to Granville Island. The Canadian Pacific had used this as a port/doc/warehouse area; in the 1980’s the province and city turned it into a public market, art galleries, crafts workshops, museums, a design school, and theaters. We got lunch at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts; they run a café and full service restaurant. The food was great, fast, and easy; with friendly commentary from the students working the counter. We walked the food markets, saw new art at the Emily Carr School of Design, shopped toy stores in the Kids Market, and watched water traffic over drinks at the edge of False Creek. If one can only go to one place in Vancouver, go here.
A private company runs ferries around False Creek; these are almost as small as the traghettos running quick cross-canal traffic in Venice, and as much fun. Just jump on board, no tickets, they’ll take your money and run you to the next stop. We rode across to the Aquatic Center, transferred to another ferry, and rode back across to Vanier Park. Worth it. The heights at Vanier Park overlooking downtown give a great view, bordering the Maritime Museum and working boat yards.
The Vancouver Museum is housed in an Expo ’86 building that looks like a conical tribal hut as built by the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Giant odd crab sculpture outside, and plenty of Expo-remainder art inside. The exhibits have been recently re-curated, telling brilliantly the social history of Vancouver in the 20th Century. For example, there’s an unvarnished look at how Canada treated their Japanese during WWII, complete with internment camp walk through. Most fun examination of Vancouver’s hippy hey day, with tie dye outfits for kids to try on and a beaded-curtained, black lit crash pad.
We walked down to Fourth Avenue through the Park and explored the bungalows of Kitsilano Beach. This neighborhood is a little Dupont, a little Haight-Asbury, and a lot of funky shopping strung out along Fourth. Our friend Chris had sent us to one of Canada’s best Flag Shops here; there was also a store called Bed that makes its own custom dyed linens. Worth the air fare to Vancouver for Bed alone; we picked up a queen set for the bedroom. We got dinner at Hell’s Kitchen, a pizza place in Kitsilano, lovely with the local wines. Caught the bus back to the Listel, mastering the transfer to the #5 Robson line for the first time.
Wednesday, June 28
If we’ve figured out the currency, the food ways, and the bus system, it must be time to go home <smile>. We packed, left our bags at the desk, walked to the Seabus terminal, and bought a day pass for the transit system, which covers most buses and ferries. The next ferry took us north to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver. Lonsdale is a not-bad suburban terminal with restaurants, shops, etc.; not unlike the Metro/bus/downtown area in Bethesda.
The #236 bus runs through old elite neighborhoods in the hills north of the city, running to the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain. A lot of folks take the bus to Grouse for hiking; we got off at Capilano. A lumber magnate had bought the land as a preserve for his son. It was separated from easy access to Vancouver by a steep ravine. The magnate hired a local Indian (First Person?) to spin the first suspension bridge, making the land accessible as a park. One hundred years and four replacements later, the bridge is now spun steel, still private, but run as a tourist attraction. There’s a village of restaurants and shops at the entrance, then the bridge across the ravine. Dramatic, swinging, covered with Japanese tourists and fat Americans who don’t know how to stagger their walks to reduce the sway. The closest I intend to get to an amusement park ride, and as fun. The park on the other side is one of the few old growth forests left this close to a major city. A signed walk leads through the woods, past ponds, up onto a walkway twenty feet up around Douglas Firs. Great fun.
After lunch in the Capilano tourist village we got the bus and ferry back downtown, and connected in the ferry terminal to the SkyTrain. SkyTrain is a suburban commuter system; it doesn’t go anywhere we wanted to go. But, I wanted to ride it. We got on at the beginning, Waterfront terminal, and rode to Edmonds, about five miles out but still not the end. After the first few stops, the route is almost entirely suburban and boring. They’ve had mass transit for twenty years, and still not built more intensely around the stations. That’s a fatal error. Another is that the system is so long, and everyone’s riding almost to the end, that once a train fills up it’s impossible to get on. It must be a nightmare during rush hours. An excellent lesson on how not to do transit. Vancouver is planning a more extensive system, but all lines will terminate at the same stations downtown, so they’re only going to add to the existing problem. Interesting issues.
We rode back to Burrard and got onto the #19 bus to Stanley Park. This is Vancouver’s signature park, sort of its Central Park or Golden Gate Park. Except that it’s on a peninsula way west of downtown, so you have to make an effort to get there. It’s worth the drive or bus, but does not get local ‘hood use, because there is no local ‘hood. The #19 takes you to a stop where there’s a free trolley that loops around the Park. Would have been lovely to walk, but the Park is massive and our time limited, so the trolley gave us a great overview. The route is spectacular, up and down mountains and beaches dropping into the Strait. The view across Lion’s Gate Bridge across the Inlet to North Vancouver is amazing.
Caught the bus back to the hotel, got our bags, jumped into a cab and were off to Pacific Central Station. This was once, and could again be, a grand railroad station, but as is serves as a useful reminder of what happens when society abandons a transport service. Amtrak has recently restored the Cascade, a train that runs along the coast between Vancouver and Eugene, Oregon. Unfortunately, it only runs once a day, departing Vancouver at 6PM. Fortunately, the train is fairly luxurious compared to what we see on the Northeast Corridor, and the time, month, and latitude meant that we got to watch the sun set over the Pacific. Went through U.S. Customs, dragged our bags on board the train, and looped old rail corridors out of Vancouver for the next hour. Once you get out of the city the run is fairly straightforward, due south, because anything that veers too much off would run into the Coast ranges. The route is one of the most spectacular I have ever seen; better than Amtrak’s runs along Long Island Sound or Lake Erie. If you can do this once in your life, you’ll be glad. There are mountains, forests, and ocean; people play volleyball on the beach less than two yards from the track. Can’t believe it hasn’t been fenced off. The sun set right before we entered Seattle, so we rode over the Ballard Locks and saw Queen Anne Hill in the twilight. The line runs right through Belltown, passing our old Ace Hotel before entering a tunnel to King Street Station.
Caught a cab, and checked into a hotel near SeaTac.
Thursday, June 29
We had a couple hours to kill, so took a walk around the residential areas near SeaTac. A waste, reminded us of Wellford Street in Houston, where Michael grew up. Now we know where blue-collar Seattle lives, at least. SeaTac Airport proper has a beautiful new concourse; a giant glass atrium offers views of downtown, and the Olympics. Take the beauty of Cesar Pelli’s National Airport in D.C. and multiply it by four. Shopped at the Dilettante outlet, had a final seafood meal in the atrium, and got to our gate for an uneventful trip back to Dulles.
Overall perceptions: The topography of the Northwest is killer; makes each city worth seeing, and worth living in. Water is everywhere, and easy to live next to. We had the benefit of sunny weather, but if you like cool and wet, the Northwest is your place. Loved the long summer days, with sunrise before 6AM and set near 10PM. The people are friendly and welcoming, and the downtowns compact and walkable. The cost of living is high, but you probably don’t need a car with the excellent transit.
We liked the opportunity of renovatable buildings in Tacoma, and the sense of living on the edge of a place that could be coming back. Of course, it might not be.
Seattle is amazing in its use of and willful ignorance of its steep hills. There is a provincial sense of being on the edge of the American empire which is not unpleasant.
Victoria is too isolated on its island, and there’s a lot of ugly suburban world outside the tourist downtown. Except for the topography, it’s not too different from most small U.S. state capitals, trying to make tourism fill in the gaps in the government-based economy.
Vancouver is livable, walkable, with an amazing diversity of people from Canada, Europe, and Asia. The housing is boring. We were surprised to find the food dull; not unlike that of Toronto, but with better seafood. Of the great Canadian cities, we prefer Francophone Montreal and Quebec City. Maybe people are saying the same banalities on the streets of Montreal, but they say them in French <smile>.
None of the cities is using its current wealth as wisely as it thinks it is. Will be interesting to see how they deal when the software/Asian money stops flowing and they revert to being simply the last cities on the edge of continent.