Daily Archives: August 9, 2013



Supposedly an eagle, but I didn’t see it…

Over the past few years, I’ve slowly developed a method for getting to know a city. This method has been honed in Dresden, Reykjavik, Cologne, Hilo, Amsterdam, Munich – and now Seattle.

I’ve grown to realize that I have unusual interests in cities. I dislike tourist areas (just as every New Yorker hates Times Square). I like museums, but only for a couple hours a day, max. I don’t like bars or nightclubs. Cathedrals are nice, but how long can you spend looking at them? Mostly in cities, I like ruins, city parks, and seeing typical neighborhoods. Sadly, there are no ruins in the US outside of Detroit.

My method is to locate some landmark (museum, cathedral), and then wander in the direction of that landmark. I always walk, unless it’s many miles and public transit is available. There of course a variety of ways to explore a city – bus, streetcar, subway, car, train, duckmobile, boat, bike – but walking is what most agrees with me.

Usually I get lost – unless I have a street-by-street map. I remember getting incredibly lost in the middle of the night in Dresden, trying to find some landmark to recognize where I was. It was a bit stressful, but I think it’s useful to get lost sometimes. It’s good to be able to figure out where you are. No matter how lost you get, you can eventually find yourself. It just takes time. Lately I’ve started carrying a compass with me in cities. That’s not something you see much, orienteering in cities, but it’s a good deal more precise than dealing with the sun.

Don’t even think about it.

I arrived early in the day in Seattle. I had no interest in seeing Pike’s Market, the Seattle equivalent of Times Square (I’ve been there too many times already), but was considering seeing the Science Fiction museum, near the Space Needle. I parked nearby and quickly decided the area was too touristy. Instead, I headed over to the shore to see the Olympic Sculpture park… a park filled with sculpture.

A typewriter eraser rolling down a hill towards the highway, by one of my favorites – Claes Oldenburg

This park has the same refreshing post-industrial feel as the Highline in NY, but was much less crowded. I don’t have any idea how to judge modern sculpture, but I get the sense that most modern art doesn’t have a “meaning,” but rather is designed to evoke an emotion or create an experience. By this metric, there were many successful sculptures: a twisted metal ‘eagle,’ a submerged house where you could walk on the roof, a crowd of enormous rusted metal curves, swimming along the ground like a school of fish, a little wooden boat next to a wall of waves.

These things were enormous. I don’t know what they were supposed to be, but it was a cool piece

After this I walked along a bike path, through a train yard, and into the Queen Mary neighborhood, where I proceeded to get thoroughly lost. Seattle, like all major cities, has a lot of neighborhoods. But it’s a much more fragmented city than most – bisected by a major highway (I-5, always filled with traffic), with lots of lakes and bays and rivers. It’s a hilly city, too, and there’s very few high-rise buildings. It makes things diffuse.

Couple that with the fact that few of the neighborhoods I saw were mixed-use, and you end up with a city whose residential areas feel like dense suburbs rather than city streets. Queen Anne was mostly this suburban feel, tidy cottages each with their own little garden and yard. It was fun to walk through once, as a tourist, but I don’t think Seattle is a walkable city. Bikeable, maybe, but a car almost feels like a necessity. I think most residents feel the same, because the traffic is pretty bad.

This railyard is just south Queen Anne, in the middle of the city

After getting lost, I grabbed dinner at a biscuit restaurant with a childhood friend. We both had pizzas (I had pizza with Yukon Gold potatoes on it. Verdict: tasty, but the potato slices were a mess to eat). Then I headed over to a college friend’s place to finally shower (Thanks, Pia). She and her partner had a few people staying over so we all chatted for a while.

View from the water tower in Volunteer Park

The next day I decided to check out two parks: Volunteer Park and Washington Park. Both of these are east of Lake Union – they’re not far from one another. Volunteer Park is pretty small, and is famous for having been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (who also designed Central Park). It’s a nice square park, measuring a few blocks on each side, and it contains the Seattle Asian Arts Museum, which was having a ‘free day’… so I figured I might as well check it out!

This thing is painted from the inside!

There were some cool exhibits, but what stood out the most for me were snuff bottles. There was a whole wall of them, and reading the display, it turned out the some of the bottles were painted on the inside, like a ship in a bottle. There was a variety of Indian, Chinese and Japanese art here.

A typical Seattle street

Then I headed northeast towards Washington Park. Much of the park is an arboretum, with a huge variety of trees: carefully tended rhododendron gardens, woodland forests, Australian landscapes and more. I headed north, and eventually passed underneath a highway, emerging in a wetlands area.

Seattle wetlands with the UW stadium

This section of the park was a amazing: wetlands, with lots of little nooks and some floating pathways – it was trippy walking on cement blocks which sat on bouys that shifted with each step. I’ve spent a lot of time on wooden docks that moved, but cement has always been solid under my feet. This part of the park was near scenic Union Bay, and right across the water was the University of Washington stadium. I’d really recommend checking this out.

Entrance to the Japanese garden

As I headed south, I began to see a lot of blackberries, so I grazed and ambled along until I reached the highlight of the park – a Japanese garden. Admission was $6, but for me, it was well worth it. The garden was compact but elegantly organized. Planning a Japanese garden requires deep creative thought. I remember my grandfather describing how he’d laid out his own backyard according to some of the Japanese principles. For instance, if you have a straightaway, put something interesting at the end to draw people forward. I’ve read a few books about designing these gardens, and I wouldn’t mind trying it myself.

It would be easy to look at this view all day

This garden had a koi lake, a tea house, beautiful bridges, a waterfall, and some incredibly well-tended trees, all in a compact space. The trees were all essentially human-sized bonsai trees, carefully trimmed and staked out with wire. They were meticulously maintained and aesthetically perfect.

In all, I walked about 25 miles in Seattle over two days. I like the city quite a bit – it’s literally a green city, people are friendly, and there’s a lot of cool things to do nearby, but it doesn’t seem practical to live in. I know that 600 thousand Seattlites may disagree, but if I’m going to live in a city, I don’t want to rely on a car, and the sprawl of the city means a car is critical.

After Seattle, I’d spend a week relaxing on the Olympic peninsula before continuing my journey south towards California.