20/20 hindsight: Yesterday’s visions for Seattle gain new relevance today.
THROUGH ALL THE DECADES I’ve lived in Seattle, I’ve puzzled over not just what this city is, but what it would have been but for a distant war, a few thousand votes, a sudden reversal in a financier’s fortunes or some other twist of fate.
The grand schemes that bubble up as cities evolve are like gene-altering mutations in the evolution of species. Most are dead-ends, ill-conceived or untimely notions that perish before they can take root. But still the city (or cities) that they would have created beckons alluringly in an ether of speculation and possibility — a negative Seattle whose outline delineates the actual Seattle we live in.
When I set out to write this story, I thought Unbuilt Seattle was an eccentric personal fascination, but I soon learned my idea was not so original. It turns out writers have long wondered about cities that might have been. Italo Calvino spun an entire book of “Invisible Cities” that the traveler Marco Polo describes to the incredulous emperor Kublai Khan. Closer to home, a University of Washington architecture student named Steven Cecil wrote his 1981 thesis on Seattle’s unbuilt projects, even before the Commons and monorail initiatives failed. In 2006, The Stranger’s Matthew Stadler reprised many that Cecil had unearthed.
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Local journalists, especially at The Seattle Times, periodically look back at one or another big idea that fell by the wayside — most often the 1911 Bogue Plan, which included, among other things, a comprehensive urban rail and subway system. Virgil Bogue, some declare, was a prophetic genius who foresaw gridlock and offered a solution 117 years ago. If only our forefathers had had the wisdom to heed his advice!
But as history blogger Rob Ketcherside notes, Bogue hardly could have imagined today’s traffic back when streetcars and wagons ruled the streets. Still, the enduring appeal of his vision shows how old ideas can gain new relevance in different eras.
It seems especially timely today to look back at paths not taken, when the city is changing fast enough to induce whiplash in anyone who’s been here long enough to unpack the moving boxes. “New York Someday” was once a fanciful moniker for the beachhead at Alki Point; today it seems prophetic. To understand where we are and how we got here, consider where we could have gone.