You might think the news that the state’s about to clear some ugly, defunct freeway ramps from a nature preserve would be greeted with cheers. But these are no ordinary freeway ramps.
These are Seattle’s ramps to nowhere.
Wednesday, state and federal officials will gather next to Highway 520 in the Washington Park Arboretum for a celebration, to mark that the state finally will start dismantling those odd, never-used ramps that end abruptly in space, leading nowhere.
But in unofficial Seattle, there’s more sadness than joy. In fact there has been a drive to try to save the ramps — pushed by some of the same activists who fought them being built more than 50 years ago.
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“I still can’t quite believe they’re coming down,” says Anna Rudd, 74, who was in her 20s when she helped make sure the ramps would never lead anywhere.
Rudd was part of a legendary citizen uprising in the 1960s and early ’70s against a north-south freeway to parallel I-5. It would have run through the Arboretum, mostly destroying it, and then south along what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The four-lane R.H. Thomson Expressway would have split neighborhoods all along the east edge of Seattle — Madison Valley, the Central Area, Mount Baker. Some of the interchanges, such as at Madison and again at Jackson, appear in old drawings as huge clover leafs that rival what Factoria looks like today.
Though the state had already started building the freeway, it ran into the first wave of Seattle’s neighborhood activism, of Not-In-My-Backyard and the environmental movement. It united UW professors like Maynard Arsove, who asked “war on cars”-style questions about why we were designing our lives solely around automobiles, with the Black Panthers, who said the freeway would crush the black parts of town. After a 10-year battle the expressway was killed off in a 71 percent vote of the city.
Left behind were those symbols of hubris. Or maybe the ramps show that you can beat City Hall. Either way it was on those ramps that the ethic of progress at all costs gave way to the everyone-gets-a-say process that so defines Seattle politics today.
I didn’t know one bit of this history the night I first stepped onto one of the deserted ramps. I had been ending my work shift at a restaurant, on a warm night in the 1980s, when a fellow waiter came up and asked: “Hey, wanna go jump off the ramp to nowhere?” I was 20 and new in town. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
With the others jumping first and then shouting insults at me from below, I eventually stepped off and fell thrashing in my underwear through the dark, into the black-water marsh. I later learned it was only a 30-foot drop. But also that the lagoon is so shallow some jumpers squish their feet into the bottom.
That ranks as one of the stupider things I’ve done. It turns out it’s a Seattle rite of passage.
When Rudd went to community groups to drum up support for saving the ramps, she was amazed how almost everyone had a ramp-jumping story.
“There’s a whole secret society in Seattle,” Rudd said. “Generations of kids would ride their bikes down there and jump off, then not tell their parents about it until they became adults. Countless UW students jumped. The whole Garfield football team used to jump.”
Also popular was sunbathing, stargazing and frat-hazing rituals. The homeless used the ramps for shelter, lovers to canoe beneath.
Iain Robertson, a landscape architecture professor at the UW, cited the book, “The Necessity of Ruins,” in arguing the ramps should be saved.
“Cities need ruins,” he said. “You can see how these enriched Seattle, how the people claimed them. If we kept them it would remind us of past folly — how we almost destroyed large parts of the city.”
But the ramps are coming down. The new 520 is wider, and the Arboretum folks want their preserve back. The activists who blocked the expressway now quixotically hope to save pieces of the ramps for a monument.
“These aren’t just ramps,” Rudd said. “They’re literally a concrete example of how citizens can gather together and choose their own destiny.”
We don’t do ruins well in America, though. We start over. That’s the other part of the ramps that was so remarkable — for 51 years, nobody got rid of them. They were an embarrassing mistake. Yet over time they became a real place, wriggling into the life of the city until they turned into the most unlikely objects of Seattle pride.
Long live the ramps to nowhere. As much as anywhere, they became part of Seattle’s somewhere.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org