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Spotlight: Writing the City

D-to-M art

Hugo House and Sound Transit present Writing the City, essays about communities, business, lives and dreams that are linked by light rail. Essays also available in two volumes at the Red Wall at the future Capitol Hill Station.

Edited by Charles Tonderai Mudede

Maged Zaher

Time for airport coffee
Schedule 1 SeaTac/Airport Station

1) The philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point at the network as the dominant paradigm in our era. Modes of dominance and resistance take the shape of a network. In computer science – at least – the grid is a form of a network. The airport in Seattle also is a major node in the networks our lives go through.

2) Someone is running fast to catch the bus. Meanwhile the unbalanced spectator walks out of the city and into his mind, where it keeps raining.

3) Coming in and out of Seattle, my sentences get shorter. The city has poets, engineers, investment bankers, and – of course – musicians. The city has its homeless. The ones who were sacrificed for all of us to continue on surviving and/or prospering, they also act as a reminder of a possible path of life. I think of the homeless as the reason why we all don’t deserve any form of love.

4) There should be a theory of airports, a theory that describes how airport elements interact with each other, including people.

5) Will you give your emotions a color? Yes, it is circular with few randomly placed corporate logos.

6) The airport has a massage chair, just by the escalator. During my first trip to the US I rode in four airplanes Cairo to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Zurich, Zurich to Chicago, and to catch the last one from Chicago to Cleveland I had to run as fast as I can. I am still proud that I made it and I wonder if I didn’t, would my life be any different now, this question intensified after I saw Run Lola Run, an urban movie par excellence.

7) I work with metadata; data that describe objects; in this case: images or music or video. The concept of metadata is urban.

8) Seattle airport was running an ad about how fun spending time, eating, shopping in the airport can be. They made it sound like a picnic destination. The idea is far fetched, yet I agree. The airport can be a place to learn to love oneself.

9) Airports being asexual entities is a testimony about the oppressive morality of productivity we live under.

10) In a networked world, there is a continuous need for status reports, we have to tell our bosses and our colleagues where we hang out, and whether we drink ourselves to death or just await a simple heart attack.

11) In airports we get to raise our hands while a glass door takes a half turn around us, and tell eagerly awaiting people the state of our innocence. We feel silly in this position, apparently a network node is where we can be accused of love.

About the writer:
Maged Zaher is the author of Thank You For the WIndow Office (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me (Tinfish Press, 2012), and Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer (Pressed Wafer, 2009). Maged is the recipient of the 2013 Genius Award in Literature from the Seattle weekly The Stranger.

Deepa Bhandaru

The Gateway
Schedule 2 
Columbia City Station

Ahmed tilted his face toward the sun, mild and comfortable like his adopted city. A city whose name he still had trouble pronouncing. At school they taught him to emphasize the “a,” and he would repeat the city’s name to himself, searching for the right fit. See-AAAAAHHH-tul. See-AY-tal. See-HAT-ull.

His gaze followed the cars hurtling down MLK. Nothing back home could have prepared him for the speeds here. Everything happened so fast. Even the sun, if you weren’t quick, would slip away behind the clouds.

Last night he was playing basketball at Boys and Girls. It was him and his cousin Mustafa and their friend Ali. There were some black kids too. And that Liberian girl who acted like a boy. This morning he got the call. The white lady’s voice was cheerful and clear. They wanted him to come in right away. The other kids were still asleep. Two to a room in their four-bedroom house, one block from the station. Sometimes the little ones slept in the same bed, just like back home.

Their phone had been cut off, and he had listed their neighbor’s number on his applications. When the call came, his neighbor, an Ethiopian lady who braided women’s hair in her living room, rushed over and handed him her cell. In his halting English he gave the answer he was trained to give. He tried to call his caseworker, but she didn’t pick up. He was on his own. He scoured the closet for a nice pair of pants and a shirt. The only shirt he could find was his father’s. It hung too loosely on his thin frame, but it would have to do.

He stepped out into the sun. A sunny day. Only ninety of them a year. His father’s taxicab was parked on the street, and he slapped his palm on the hood. Inshallah, he whispered. He made his way to the platform, tall and lanky, his cheeks smooth, his shoulders slightly hunched. He leaned over the rail, squinting. Across the street, he saw two Asian girls from school. Nothing back home could have prepared him for their long, straight hair, glistening in the sunlight.

He closed his eyes and opened them again. This was the only place where time seemed to stop, where the world seemed endless. This stop, a gateway to “the most diverse zip code in the country.” But what could this diversity mean to him? His neighborhood wasn’t a demographic museum, and he wasn’t an exhibit. He just wanted to get paid so he could buy some of those puffy sneakers the other guys wore. The ones that were high, that reached over the ankle. Maybe get some for his little brothers, too. You had to dress nice to get noticed here. And right now, no one noticed Ahmed. Not the Asian girls across the street, not the black guys on the basketball court, not the teachers at school who told him he was too slow.

That was about to change. He could hear his future approaching. The doors closed behind him, and he began to pick up speed. The pedestrians and cars and rows of houses that looked just like his couldn’t keep up. He was fast, faster than the city. For once, it was chasing him.

About the writer:
Deepa Bhandaru is an educator and writer in Seattle. She holds a PhD in political theory from the University of Washington and works with refugee youth in the South End.

Lisa Sturdivant

Around the Corner
Dunlap, Brighton, Holly Park, 
New Holly, Othello

At the turn of the twentieth century this area had its first urban rail line, from downtown along Rainier Avenue. The privately owned, perennially mismanaged line eventually extended all the way to Renton and opened the Rainier Valley for settlement. In the late 30s the line was torn out and sold to Japan for scrap, but a neighborhood would arrive anyhow. Much of what you see now was built in war, it flourished in war and the period thereafter in the great American experiment of growth and prosperity. The new world was right around the corner. Workers, mostly poor, white, and from elsewhere, moved their families into little bungalows lining Empire Boulevard. They worked at the war factories, then at Boeing.

They complained in the 50s when Holly Park became public housing, and not just public but integrated public housing. This new experiment, with population quotas set: no more than 20% blacks, no more than 25% on welfare—did not please the locals. The next few decades saw civil rights, white flight, the Boeing bust and the slow evolution of an “unsafe” neighborhood while immigrants began their own American experiment.

Empire became MLK, looking a lot like the MLK in most American cities, maybe a bit run down, but functioning. While Seattle was busy becoming Seattle, this neighborhood has simply existed. A mash of Buddhist temples, halal delis, and tons and tons of gardens, where immigrants become homeowners, Africans become black, and old Asian ladies still stop shop by shop down the block that’s far too long to be “walkable” but nonetheless draws crowds. You could even say it’s flourished.

These feel like ghost stories, and Seattle is still right around the corner. In the 90s a new integration experiment begun with the recreation of New Holly. Mixed income, New Urbanism, townhouses, quaint but empty porches lining quiet residential streets. New rail and new experiments afoot. Expecting thousands of residents, 6-story mixed-use buildings were planned and plotted, promising a short commute to downtown and a new urban aesthetic: transit-oriented development. One project was even built before the economic downturn changed that tune. The Safeway was remodeled, but the parking lot is still crazy and you can buy better produce at little Vietnamese markets.

I always wonder what tourists coming from the airport think when they pass this place. I’m sure even bright new Seattleites are slightly confused on their way home from winter vacations.

Is this Seattle? Where are we? Wait, is this Renton?
Yes, yes. Don’t worry. Seattle’s just around the corner.

About the writer:
Lisa Sturdivant is a consultant in Seattle. She likes to think and write about cities and conducted Masters’ thesis research on social housing design in Brazil.

Ahamefule J. Oluo

Cheers of Beacon Hill

I am not from Beacon Hill. I don’t want to say exactly where I grew up, and I don’t mean to imply that the places I grew up aren’t full of amazing individuals (I mean, they’re where I came from, after all). But growing up, I didn’t know of one business that was owned by an individual human being. I couldn’t walk anywhere, because every street was a highway. Buildings were cheap, packed with people who had no other options. Those people filtered in and out of the “neighborhood” – there was no loyalty, because there was really nothing to be loyal to, and the families who lived around us had no stability anyway (assuming they even wanted to stay). I do not have to name this place precisely because it is no place.

Every place has its problems. But I just remember thinking, when I was still a little kid, that even if we stayed exactly as poor as we were, it’d be so much better to live in a place where someone cared about the food that they cooked me, where someone seemed to care that I existed, where I could feel connected to the geography around me.

There were people of all races in my neighborhood, but nobody owned anything. None of it felt like ours. How is that supposed to be your home? It’s hard to feel like you could be anything when you’re surrounded by nothing.

So when I grew up, I moved to South Seattle as soon as I could. I never feel like I just exist here – I always feel like I’m living. And my feeling, when I think about moving away, can best be described as panic.

Not everyone has a choice about where they live. I know what it’s like to feel trapped somewhere, and I’m sure that there are people who live on Beacon Hill – who live in any neighborhood – who feel that way right now. Of course there are. But to me, at least, the difference is that there’s the feeling of an engine here. There’s the feeling of power and momentum. Movement is life; stasis is death. And on Beacon Hill, you can feel the people around you working to make it a place where you’re not stuck.

A number of businesses on Beacon Hill make the premise of Cheers seem not so far-fetched – if Cheers was set in, say, a hip-hop coffee shop and the cast included musicians and artists and a Filipino drag queen (which would be a WAY better show, by the way). There’s more to being a “regular” someplace than just commerce or convenience – to be a regular is to say: “I choose to be here, again and again. Out of all the places, I choose this one.”

Out of all the places, I choose this one. I’m anchored but not stuck.

About the writer:
Ahamefule J. Oluo is a Texas-born, Seattle-raised musician, composer, writer, and stand-up comic. In his musical career, Oluo has collaborated with artists ranging from Brooklyn-based hip-hop trio Das Racist to orchestral indie-pop darlings Hey Marseilles and currently plays in Seattle jazz-punk quartet Industrial Revelation. As a writer and stand-up comic, Oluo was a semi-finalist in NBC´s Stand-up for Diversity Comedy competition and works in close creative partnerships with comic Hari Kondabolu and writer Lindy West.

Marc Lampson

A Story at 213 South Main Street

At Two One Three South Main Street, the Cannery Workers Union Hall, two young men died from gunshot wounds, and one lived long enough to name the shooters; three convictions quickly followed. But it was not that simple.

The two men shot that afternoon of June 1, 1981, were Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo. In the 1970’s they had been college friends, anti-Vietnam War protestors, and activists in the Filipino community. In the early 1980’s, they were elected as Cannery Worker union officers to reform how workers were dispatched to the canneries in Alaska.

They also spoke out internationally as members of the Union of Democratic Filipinos, the KDP, a group organizing opposition to Ferdinand Marcos, the vicious, avaricious President of the Philippines. Marcos had become the Philippine President in 1965, setting out to plunder the country of its wealth and to silence anyone in his way.

The one man who lived long enough after the shootings to crawl outside onto the sidewalk was Silme Domingo. A fireman from the fire station a block west, and a waitress from Swanee’s Bar across the street to the north ran to help him. Silme was able to tell her and the authorities who had done the shooting.

The three men the cops first arrested for the Union Hall murders were Jimmy Ramil and Ben Guloy, and a few months later, Tony Dictado, the head of the Tulisan gang. The story was that these three were intent on rigging the Union’s dispatch system to favor the pro-Marcos gang. But it was not that simple.

On June 4, 1981, a memorial march for the two men ended at the Union Hall. Among others, Tony Baruso spoke; he was President of the Cannery Workers. He said that he thought he too might get shot and that he too demanded justice for Domingo and Viernes.

A month later, the murder weapon was found in a garbage can in West Seattle’s Lincoln Park. The gun’s owner: Tony Baruso. But he said it had been stolen from his car and the police had to release him. After all, Baruso was a frequent and well-received visitor to the Presidential Palace in Manila. The regime formally honored him six months after the slayings for his “Outstanding Service to the Overseas Filipino Community.”

But two plus one plus three adds up to six. In a federal civil trial in 1989, six jurors found Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda liable in the deaths of Gene and Silme. The jury awarded the families of the slain men $15 million dollars to be paid by the Marcos family. The lawsuit had alleged that a childhood friend of Marcos, Leonilo Malabed, had paid Tony Baruso $15,000 to kill Viernes and Domingo for their organizing against Marcos. Baruso kept $10,000 and paid $5,000 to Dictado, Ramil, and Guloy. Malabed was a San Francisco physician and the publisher of a pro-Marcos newspaper in Sacramento. Baruso, Dictado, and Marcos, were all from the same rural Northern Philippine province. A year after the federal verdict, a jury in state court convicted Tony Baruso of the aggravated murders of Domingo and Viernes. Baruso served 18 years and died in prison at 80 years old.

Today the Union Hall is deserted. Multiple streaks of bright yellow and red and blue graffiti and odd portraits pass fitfully across its black façade. In the winter when sheets of rain come in from the bay, the building lists from side to side, a blackened hull about to capsize. Even in the summer sun, it seems to stand stunned on the street like an orphan not knowing where to turn.

About the writer:
Marc Lampson is an educator, lawyer, drummer, and writer. He has published poems, book reviews, scholarly articles, and two non-fiction books. He directs the Unemployment Law Project in Seattle and teaches online courses for the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University.

Adrine Arakelian

Simpson Park

Standing on green turf grass, just off an uneven asphalt path, facing the Puget Sound, back to the city, I look out to the view from the waterfront: the rippled water surface, the barges, the sailboats, the rip-rapped land’s edge. This piece of parkland, squeezed between the waterfront and the train tracks, provides a stage for a view out and beyond, a backdrop for visitors to ocean-gaze, a passive path of movement for residents’ daily jogs. However, the park itself does not offer much else. The six-story office park-like buildings adjacent to the railroad tracks are not hidden by the scattering of trees nor the discreet mounding of rubble that underlies the lawn’s slight undulations. Little about Myrtle Edwards Park draws your attention to it. Perhaps that was the intent, a benign design formula found dotting the waterfronts of major coastal cities. Nothing speaks to this site, here, in this city. This park as developed is the lowest common denominator of public space, reducing everything that came before to rubble shaped under a green facade.

The Seattle-based artist Buster Simpson, called this the “clean and green” method of park development in 1974, when he proposed an alternate way of interacting with the land. What he envisioned for this narrow swath of land adjacent to the industrial corridor is a development of place that embraces the site, the city, the history, and our evolving patterns of land use in the places where we settle, develop, deconstruct, and renew. Parks are often categorized as ‘open space’ in city planning documents. Buster Simpson held the idea of an open space - unfixed in time and place, inclusive of castaways from all categories.

At the time of his proposal, that piece of land had been used as a dumping space for deconstructed and removed buildings, scraped away as part of the Interstate 5 construction project. The building scraps remained on site for over 20 years, creating their own habitat of weeds, grasses, and small trees growing over the discarded mounds, providing refuge for marginalized city dwellers and spaces of exploration for all. As the city considered building a park and greenway connecting downtown to waterfront park spaces, Simpson advocated redesigning with the refuse, improvising with the remnants, creating a deconstructed city symphony. What he offered was a consideration of a site as documentation and reflection of the history and processes of construction and renewal. He asked that the park “reflect the cultural/artistic capacity of our city”.

His proposal, while outlandish in 1974, would find more supporters today. He considered the creation of a park as a learning experience in itself, proposing that youth groups learn about construction and architecture while working alongside craftsmen, creating a participatory and engaged experience of land development. He offered a process of construction as counterpoint to common development practices, working with materials on-site rather than imposing a design idea created in an office from afar. He saw the potential of habitat creation in reusing elements of the concrete rubble for shoreline reconstruction and platforms to access tidepools. What he proposed would still be considered innovative in park creation today, but more in line with our burgeoning ‘maker’ culture.

At the time, Simpson was reacting to the presence and intrigue of a type of edge space that our youthful selves would wander about for hours, creating forts out of driftwood and remnant building debris, indulging in imagined worlds. A park can be a greater experience than the one constantly hit note of green lawn and unobstructed view, at the edge and outward facing, another escape from the city, from ourselves, and the mundane environments we crowd within. Even though our collective institutions rail against it, as individuals we enjoy surprise, the slow reveal of a site, different perspectives on the same land. Buster Simpson understood better than the park planners of the time, the necessity to celebrate the processes of construction, demolition, and renewal in our midst. The iterative process of city building is the greatest, yet most underappreciated, force in the construction of our environments.

About the writer:
Adrine Arakelian is an urban designer and planner, currently researching the application of process-based practices in design and planning. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she learned to explore the city as a pedestrian, despite what the song and all those mistaken people say.

Note: This essay quotes from Buster Simpson’s park proposal as reprinted in the Frye Art Museum Buster Simpson retrospective exhibition catalogue.

Cary Moon

The Future of the Waterfront

I settle myself in the corner, at the long table in this tiny little bar just down the slope from Pike Place Market. Frankie should be here soon. I can’t wait to see the look on her face when she sees the view. They don’t have anything like THIS in Austin.

Sitting here at the edge of Elliott Bay, with Pike Place Market behind me and the whole wide West in front of me, is so clarifying. That little Jim Carroll poem floats into my mind:

I sleep on a tall roof
Scream my songs into lazy floods of stars
And the sounds return, pure and easy
Ah, this city is on my side

Living downtown is such an exciting jumble of everything. In the core are office towers, chain stores, big hotels, and swanky shops. There is Pike Place Market, the place people rightly say is the soul of Seattle. There is the mash-up of cool restaurants, tech geeks, old buildings and sports bars in Pioneer Square. And then there is this place, the new waterfront. Thousands of regular folks out, wandering and hanging out and watching the world go by. More bikes than I’ve ever seen in one place in Seattle. The quiet-- still amazing to someone who grew up shouting over the noise of the viaduct. It is such a refuge, the exact opposite of how it used to be.

How did all this come to be? Looking around, you get the sense that each of the decisions that resulted in this place was no accident. The way the new beach, new intertidal habitat, and the beautiful gardens bring the salty sea air into the foreground. The way the Port cranes, the ferries, the container ships, and the mountains are somehow more present. The way the Market now spills down the hillside to the Aquarium; how exactly did they do that? The way each street now brings you all the way to the water, reknitting the shore with the city.

What blows me away is that it’s so friendly and low-key. However this all happened, it was clearly not some developer scheme to attract tourist dollars and jetsetters who collect condos like jewelry. Downtown is a real neighborhood now. There is always stuff to do, for free! For neighbors like me and kids and real people on their lunch breaks. This time, it feels like Robin Hood won.

After we have a drink here, Frankie and I are going to rent bikes down by the ferry terminal and do the loop a couple times. From the Pioneer Square beach, fragrant with tidepools, past the historic piers (hello shrunken heads!). Past the Union Street gardens and the Aquarium, past the swimming pool on a barge (she’s going to flip when she sees that). Past the Overlook steps and Market, past the marina, through the Olympic Sculpture Park and Myrtle Edwards Park. And then back again. Maybe with a quick break for a ping-pong game. And then dinner in that old warehouse at Columbia Street. Or maybe a picnic from the Market, if there is music happening.

After all that, she’ll know what my beloved city is about, why this place means so much to me.

About the writer:
Cary Moon is an urbanist and activist in Seattle. She believes in revolutionaries, agitators, and the nexus of big ideas with small d democracy. She is a former systems engineer with a masters degree in landscape architecture and urban design.

Negarra A. Kudumu

J. Leroy Roby III


Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to register a discrimination complaint. Just today, I entered a train at Rainier Beach Station and was accosted by ticket enforcement officers who attempted to bar my entrance on a train that had just arrived. They were unsuccessful because I am too quick and nimble. I immediately slipped underneath the leg of one of the officers and by the time he realized it, the doors had closed.

Once inside the train, I sat down to read my Economist magazine and drink my thermos of tea. At the Othello stop, a young child of about 7 years old boarded the train with her mother and sister. The three of them simultaneously began to coo and ooh and ah at me as if I was some kind of domesticated beast. I overheard the mother say, “Look Suzie, isn’t his grey fur so pretty?” Fur? I looked on my shoulders to see if maybe I’d picked up some dog hair. As I found nothing, I continued to read the Economist (Greece was in trouble again, the Germans wanted their money back). Then the seven year old started to rub my back and my neck. I immediately and abruptly lurched to the right, so as to avoid her inappropriate advances and bumped my head against the window, spilled all of my tea on the floor, which ruined my magazine.

The final straw occurred at the International District Station. I leapt out of my seat while the 7-year-old child was talking to her mother and exited the train. While waiting on the platform for the 550 bus, looked to my right and then to my left and saw more enforcement officers approaching me. One had a canvass bag and an animal carrier in his hand and the other shouted, “There it is!” You should inform your personnel that ‘it’ is not the appropriate way to address an elder, gentleman of my stature. Suddenly I felt myself scooped up by my under arms. I immediately retaliated and began to box and scratch the officer’s eyes with my hands. I kicked him with my foot in his chest and in his chin. The impact was so great that he dropped me and I ran above ground and disappeared into the crowd.

I finally reached Pine Street between 5th and 6th avenues and took a seat outside the Starbucks across the street from the Nordstrom and began to write this letter on my iPad mini. I have been wholly horrified by my treatment. I expect full compensation for this extreme inconvenience as well as your prompt attention.

J. Leroy Roby III


Dear Mr. Roby,

I generally do not respond to customer complaints but given the singular nature of this situation, I have made an exception. We know you are a cat; a very intelligent and skilled cat, but a cat none-the-less. The light rail and bus are for humans only. If you are seen on King County Metro again, you will be removed and taken to a shelter.

General Manager, King County Metro Transit

About the writer:
Negarra A. Kudumu is a Chicago born and Seattle based writer, researcher and consultant in the areas of arts, culture and social impact. She has a BA in Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies from Dartmouth College and a MA in International Relations & Diplomatic from Leiden University in the Netherlands. Most recently she has worked as the Artist-in-Residence at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute and currently runs Adult Programs at Frye Art Museum.