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Look at the little plaque in that picture. It's just a little corner that edges one of the tiles on the 4th Avenue open space in front of Safeco Plaza (the building also known as "the Box the Space Needle Came In"). It's a demarcation, of course, of when you are leaving officially public land and crossing some imaginary, but well-documented, veil onto private land. But did you know that this plaza, and many others like it, are actually official public spaces?
They are Seattle's POPS, or Privately Owned Public Spaces. There are many of them — some, modest and available from the ground floor; others, more grand and on private floors in buildings that you can access any time the building is open. The thing is, unless you knew you were welcome, you might think twice about just hanging out in front of a big building. But welcome you are.
The city has made this PDF list available — maybe someone should visit each one and then document the visits. The guide could be clearer, though. One of the greatest POPS in the city is in the Fourth & Madison Building. Enter the building through the grand revolving doors on 4th. Walk to the left, down the lobby, and find the back elevators. Take them to the seventh floor, where you will find a park in the sky: a lovely public space with a lawn, and tables, with views and a chance to get away from the bustle of the city while still being in it.
Of the many, many, many political tensions in our world, one that is more subtle (e.g., there's nobody on cable news screaming about it right now) is this idea that the world belongs to the owners, as opposed to the idea that the world belongs to the commons. You see this in desires to sell off our public lands, but you also see it in your very city, where the needs and desires of property owners often bump up against the needs and desires of the citizens. Some feel that the property owners should have the upper hand here, but when you choose to buy property in a city, you are entering a contract with the commons of that city. Yes, you have rights assigned to you by law and by ownership, but you also undertake responsibility to the city you've pledged your money and taxes to. You enter a contract, and the benefit is that you get to live where many others desire to live as well.
This tension played out, through pieces of art, twice at Safeco Plaza.
One: Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae, by Henry Moore, was purchased and installed by Seafirst National Bank, who owned the building, in 1971. After Bank of America bought the building in 1982, they sold the sculpture (and the building) to investors in Japan. After a public outcry, Bank of America purchased back the sculpture and donated it to the Seattle Art Museum, who still officially own it.
Two: A massive — eighteen by thirty-six foot — painting by Sam Francis used to hang in the marble lobby of the Seafirst building (aside: walk through the building. Take the escalators down to 3rd Avenue. It's a marvelously considered space: austere, beautiful. Designed by NBBJ with a corporate mid-century Asian inspiration) on the large elevator bank wall that stands behind the guard station. The painting was an abstract, facing 4th Avenue. Rumor has it, when Rem Koolhaas visited the site of the Central Library, he looked across into the atrium of the building and saw the crossing patterns on the large canvas. It was his inspiration, if you believe the story, for the diamond cross-hatching that dominates the library's facade. That painting was moved when Bank of America decided to open a museum of its art in South Carolina. There, apparently, it still sits, out of context, inspiring no architecture.
Hmmm. Maybe we've only learned that Bank of America are jerks who don't care about keeping art in Seattle. Let's make up some different stories, shall we?
There were the cops, lined up, impact plastic covering their faces, armor covering their bodies, standing a line along where the private land started. There were the protesters, walking by, looking at the cops. Wondering why some of them were holding batons. Then there was the troublemaker. Black jeans, black sweatshirt, black balaclava. Then there was a brick flying, and the lines moved towards each other.
Why had she decided to walk down the stairs? She thought it would give her some exercise, didn't think how much 29 floors down would make her knees feel wobbly. She made it out to the street, out to the edge of the public square, before they gave way. Before she skinned her knee going down. Before she looked up to see a hand held out to help her up.
Because she died inside, the ghost rules said she could not cross the boundary set forth by the seers who drew the building lay lines. She sometimes haunted those on the elevator, and more than one janitor or night security guard quit before they were employed for a single week. But those minor amusements were erased when the little dog died in traffic in front of the building. Its ghost looked at her now, across that line that divided them, the line that neither could cross. It whimpered as she tried to reach it, determined to find a way.
The drunk men were arguing. "That's it!" one yelled. "Here's the line," he pointed to the metal that demarcated the plaza. "This is it! You cross this line, and it's coming to blows." The other man edged right up, toes against the mark. "This line?" he said. "You mean, if I cross this line?" He picked up his foot, and threatened to move it forward.
The detective pulled his collar up against the wind and rain. 4th Avenue was deserted, except the occasional taxi driving by, splashing water. He flicked his cigarette into the gutter, and waited for that big bad businessman to exit the building. Soon as he crossed the line onto city property, the cuffs were coming out. Inside, commotion. He saw the mark. He raised his hand to his partner on the other side of the building. Time to bust some criminals.