Seattle librarian Susanna Ryan’s first book, “Seattle Walk Report: An Illustrated Walking Tour Through 23 Seattle Neighborhoods,” was a breakout success from the day it was published. Under the pseudonym Seattle Walk Report, Ryan had attracted an adoring audience on Instagram by regularly publishing funny, charming cartoons documenting discoveries made on her walks around the city, from a beaver sighting at Golden Gardens to a toy train abandoned on a sidewalk in Ballard to “a tiny secret door in the Bellevue Botanical Garden.” By the time local press Sasquatch Books published a collection of Seattle Walk Report cartoons, in August 2019, fans were clamoring for the book.
Ryan’s first public event for Seattle Walk Report packed the large reading space at Seattle Public Library’s Central branch. Before the reading even began, Elliott Bay Book Company had sold out of the book; Sasquatch employees had to dash across town to retrieve hundreds more copies to meet the demand. Buoyed by word-of-mouth and the support of admiring booksellers and librarians, the book has been a bestseller at many of Seattle’s independent bookstores ever since.
Ryan has enjoyed the kind of acclaim that most Seattle authors can only dream of, but that success also carries with it a little bit of a curse: What could she possibly do for a follow-up? Most humor books exhaust the joke quickly, and it’s easy to imagine a sophomore effort which tries and fails to capture the debut’s effortless charm.
As she worked on a new collection over the last year, Ryan felt that pressure acutely. She admits over the phone that during the making of the first Seattle Walk Report book, “I didn’t have any self-doubt at all, but this time around, I’m like a little self-doubt petri dish.”
Thankfully, Ryan discovered a burst of inspiration at just the right time, in the form of a coal chute tucked away on the side of the old Seattle Artificial Limb Company at 14th Avenue and East Pike Street. Around the dawn of the 20th century, coal chutes were a ubiquitous part of Seattle’s fuel delivery infrastructure, but now this small iron door served for Ryan as a gateway to a time almost lost to memory — one which she had walked right past, not noticing, an uncountable number of times. A few weeks later, the building’s interior and exterior were remodeled, and to Ryan’s dismay the chute was gone forever, replaced with a window. But as she continued her regimen of long city walks, Ryan started to notice other coal chutes that had previously been invisible to her.
“When I fell in love with that coal chute, and when I started reflecting on all the photos I had taken on my phone of fire hydrants and utility poles and all these different things, I put together a list of things that might be worth exploring,” Ryan says. “And then I also had a separate list of all the different parks and public spaces that I had discovered on my walks that I didn’t know about previously.”
“There was a heap of hidden history right under my nose,” Ryan writes in the introduction to her new book, “Secret Seattle: An Illustrated Guide to the City’s Offbeat and Overlooked History.” Those coal chutes, sidewalk stamps and utility covers were “just waiting to be documented.”
“Secret Seattle” shares a few elements with “Seattle Walk Report”: Ryan’s warm sense of humor, her ability to coax sublime insights from seemingly mundane objects, and her eagerness to inspire enthusiasm for walking in her readers. But “Secret Seattle” more fully incorporates her librarian’s love of research, exploring the history of the city through easy-to-miss details that are camouflaged in the background of our lives.
If all this historical research sounds too much like homework, you should rest easy: Ryan is a capable and entertaining tour guide who knows how to win over an audience. Every page or two in “Secret Seattle,” she comes up with a fun new idea. She explains the history of transportation-inspired restaurants like the boat-shaped Pho Bac on South Jackson Street, she hosts a beauty pageant for the city’s most attractive utility covers with categories like “Most Dramatic” and “Most Evocative of the Spirit of Water,” and she digs up letters to the editor published in The Seattle Times complaining about the arrival of new structures like the Space Needle and the Central Library (the latter of which is characterized by one disgusted Times reader as “an architectural version of a Shania Twain album” in 2004.)
Ryan also explains the strong business ties between a three-block stretch of Belltown and the glamorous 1920s Hollywood studio system, finds secret gardens sprinkled across the city, and explains how the multibulbed cluster lights of downtown and Pioneer Square were part of an early 1900s attempt to put Seattle on the map as the best-lit city in the United States.
Ryan’s deceptively simple cartooning style is perfect for spotlighting the pedestrian bridges, overlooked cemeteries and Victorian homes that she spots on her walks. Rendered in black and white, Ryan only captures the essential lines of the art deco fixtures that give our streets their character. The city is boiled down to its most important elements, and the presentation here feels like the lightning-strike moment when you recognize something new on your walk home from work.
Ryan says she signed the contract to produce “Secret Seattle” on March 15, 2020, and the book was written and illustrated in the depths of the pandemic. “I felt so disconnected from everything, and specifically disconnected from the city that I feel like I know so well,” she says.
That lockdown-era alienation does come across in some of Ryan’s art — particularly full-page illustrations of empty Seattle parks, or drawings of a tiny Ryan walking along Alki Beach with no other humans in sight. She admits that it was odd to write a book so specifically about Seattle at a time when she “didn’t know what the world was going to look like when the book actually came out.”
Almost a year and a half later, Seattle is still here, and Ryan is preparing to release her happily still-relevant second book into the world. In fact, the book might provide some guidance for Seattleites who are emotionally preparing to reenter the city. “Secret Seattle” is an invitation for the reader to become an amateur Seattle historian on their own. Ever the librarian, Ryan offers a list of resources in the back of the book for readers to research the stories behind discoveries they make on their own walks.
In that way, “Secret Seattle” represents a fresh surge of inspiration into the surprisingly large body of Seattle historical literature. While Seattle’s self-image has been shaped by a few bawdy and slightly snarky historical accounts like Bill Speidel’s “Sons of the Profits” and Murray Morgan’s “Skid Road,” Ryan is encouraging a more inclusive, detail-oriented school of Seattle historical thought. By focusing less on the big, bolded names of prominent men in Seattle history books and focusing more on the civic infrastructure and pedestrian delights of street-level Seattle, Ryan is rewriting Seattle’s history from the ground up — and she’s inviting everyone to take to the streets and do the same.
Ryan also hopes that her book is a refutation to the idea that Seattle is locked into a cycle of destroying its own past. Every generation of Seattleites thinks that the beautiful and interesting city of their youth has been wiped off the Earth, only to be replaced by soulless new buildings.
“When people say everything in Seattle is new, I don’t understand that,” Ryan responds. “It’s like, ‘Oooh, but hidden right under this bush there’s a superhot coal chute that we really should be talking about,'” she says.
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