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What would Seattle look like without John Charles Olmsted? The famous park designer, who formed the Brookline, Massachusetts landscape architectural firm Olmsted Brothers with his brother Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was hugely productive. Over the founders' lives (the firm ran continuously from their founding, past their deaths, and almost into the 21st century: 1858-2000), they designed hundreds of parks and college campuses, all around our nation. Their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, was the co-designer of New York's Central Park, and is considered the father of architectural landscape design, so, you know, nothing big to live up to.
Locally, Olmsted designed the University of Washington campus (as the grounds for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition), not to mention Woodland, Volunteer, Cal Anderson, Seward, and Green Lake Parks, just to name a few.
He also designed Lake Washington Boulevard. Eight meandering, gorgeous miles that wind from where Montlake Boulevard and 520 meet, south through the Arboretum, and then ending up hugging the shoreline of the lake, with diversions to curve through parks, until it ends at Orcas street, at the entrance of Seward Park.
Did you know that the boulevard is considered a park? At least, it's managed by the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. The city shuts down stretches of it a few times each Summer for family bike rides, which are awfully fun. Kurt Cobain lived briefly, and died suddenly, on the street.
Olmsted arrived in Seattle in 1903, called on by the city leaders of the day who were inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, spending most of May of that year visiting sites throughout the Seattle area, learning the land that Seattle owned, and learning of the privately owned amusement parks that Seattle came to buy.
Olmsted imagined a string of parks, connected by boulevards, making emerald ribbons throughout the Emerald City. He even complained of the rain, writing home to his wife nearly daily. Olmsted's plans for the city were submitted in July of that year. The city council adopted it in November.
Lake Washington Boulevard was actually a number of segmented boulevards, but were renamed as one in 1920. If you're feeling uninspired at any time, a walk through one of the parks that it bisects or skirts, or a ride along its lengths by bike or even by those strange conveyances, the automobile, might break some ideas loose in your head. I was so inspired on a recent drive, on the way to our Reading Through It Book Club at the Seward Park Third Place Books. The light on the water. The people out for strolls. The windy slow traffic.
Of course, perhaps not everything is always perfect along that beautiful stretch. Who knows what horrors lurk along along its length? Maybe we can uncover a few of them today.
Olmsted — He was tired of the company — they seemed to never want to leave him to his thoughts. Some 3,000 miles from his home and family in Massachusetts, not even a walk along this beach was lifting his spirits, thanks to the yammering cohort. Perhaps it was the naked ambition of these Seattle people, so eager to seem sophisticated and worldly. Perhaps it was the damnable weather, always gray and drizzly. He stepped away from his group, saying he'd be back shortly, and climbed up a bluff, into the dense undergrowth. He was hoping to see a vista, a place for a clearing and a bench for a nice panorama of the water, but the foliage was thick enough to block any view from this angle. Then, even before he heard anything, a rank animal musk came across his nose. A branch cracked, as if stepped on by a heavy foot. Taking a rasping breath, he slowly turned.
The walker — Every night that bastard walked his dog. He'd leave his million dollar house with the view of the water and Mercer Island, and walk down to Seward Park. He'd leave the path, and break into the woods, tying the whimpering dog to a fallen tree, before walking on a bit longer. Then, at a little clearing, alone, he would unwrap the little bundle — his most dreaded secret — and prepare the ritual that brought him so much relief.
The child — the problem was that Daddy didn't see. Not really. He'd pick the child up, put them into the seat on the front of the bicycle, and they'd go for a ride along the water. It was so much fun, until they got to the tree. The child would try to remember to close their eyes, but they never could. They always looked up. They always saw. And Daddy never listened when they tried to warn him.
The teenager — He was just minding his own business. Hanging out on the beach, smoking a cigarette. Trying to not get caught smoking that cigarette. The lady looked, like, totally normal. Kind of boring. Middle aged, maybe. Wearing a business skirt and short heels. She had pearls around her neck. She just walked right past, stepping on his backpack, not even noticing. Kept walking. Went right down to the water, and she didn't even stop. Just kept going in, up to her knees, her waist, her neck, and then, swear to god, she went under. I mean, what the hell was he supposed to do?
The grandmother — This was back in the 60s, but she remembers that boy down at Ranier Beach like it was yesterday. He just wouldn't let up, trying to impress his friends and show off, bugging her. So she got on her little bike and rode up the shore. Four miles, if she remembered correctly. Four miles until they chickened out and turned back, getting into the white part of the shore. Four miles to the beaches where it was all white people and only white people. Everybody knew that was a bad idea, but she did it anyway. What was the worst thing that could happen? People are people, and all she wanted was to sit on the beach and read her book in peace. Surely, they'd just let her do that, right?