In “Walking Washington’s History: Ten Cities,” Judy Bentley creates walks in 10 of our state’s cities that highlight their rich history. Bentley discusses her book Thursday, Aug. 25, at the King County Library System’s Renton Branch.
Coming soon to a city near you: clusters of visitors gazing intently at a handheld object as a way to engage with their surroundings. No, they’re not playing Pokémon Go; I’m hoping instead that the object of their interest is the commendable new book by Judy Bentley, “Walking Washington’s History: Ten Cities” (University of Washington Press, 295 pp., $19.95).
This is an immensely appealing approach to writing history. Cities contain a density of people and buildings; upon exploration, they also offer a concentration of historical riches. As Bentley notes, “To know a city’s history, we must walk its sidewalks, trails, and streets; feel the land underfoot; and see the built environment.”
The book highlights the state’s major cities, three east of the mountains and seven in Western Washington along the I-5 corridor — Yakima, Walla Walla and Spokane, and Vancouver, Bellevue, Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma, Everett and Bellingham.
The author of “Walking Washington’s History: Ten Cities” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, at the Renton branch of the King County Library System, 100 Mill Ave. S., Renton; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
As the title implies, it provides walking guides to selected urban neighborhoods. Each chapter starts with a brief historical essay followed by an annotated tour, two to seven miles in length, along with a map and practical information about amenities, transportation, directions and parking. The author also includes “sidebar” vignettes of notable people, buildings, events, and a good number of photographs.
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While not a comprehensive history, this tale of 10 cities is a unique and tangible presentation of Washington’s formative years. Bentley uses slivers of time and small city sections to broach larger topics such as the upheaval of native people and cultures, immigration and settlement, economic growth, labor unrest, and an examination of how cities develop and grow. Particularly intriguing is to see how and why one city flourished at a certain point in time in comparison to other cities.
Organized chronologically, “Walking” begins in the early 1800s with Vancouver, Washington’s first city, where U.S. and British explorers coexisted with fur traders, Indians and missionaries on the banks of the Columbia River. The descriptions of Walla Walla in its early stages are especially memorable: a frontier town that became the largest city in the territory in the 1860s and 1870s. In its early days, Walla Walla was as rowdy and lawless a town as any in the Wild West. The chapter on Seattle shows that the city grew slowly, with little indication of what a powerhouse it was to become in the 20th century.
While not the focus of this book, the stories of nonwhite residents are touched upon in nearly every chapter and, taken together, show the ruinous impacts on native tribes in particular, decimated by war, disease and subjugation. Asians, Latinos and African Americans all made significant contributions to the growth of the state.
The reader may be tempted to skim and skip around but a closer reading will yield great rewards. Among the gems you won’t want to miss:
• A statue of Christopher Columbus in Walla Walla honors Italian immigrants who introduced sweet onions to the local populace;
• Tacoma has its own Spanish Steps, built in 1916;
• The first graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle was a woman, Clara McCarty, in 1876;
• For the first half of the 20th century, Bellingham was known as the “center of the fish cannery universe.”
Bentley demonstrates that history is not abstruse and remote from our current experience; it is ever present — and just around the next corner.