One summer day, early in the 21st-century, I’m southbound on Bellevue’s NE 104th, approaching the NE 8th intersection, for generations the city’s main one. It takes me two traffic lights to get through, and as I wait I study the towers just to my left (“Bellevue Place”) and a range of other buildings ahead and to my right. Steel gleams in the diffused light through the usual cloud cover. I’ve ridden through here all my life, and driven it for over three decades, but I recognize nothing, only the slight downward slope as I pass through Kemperville down to Main Street. My Montana license plates mark me as a foreigner; this is my place yet I’m lost, a stranger in a strange land, no familiar sight cues greeting my eyes.
“I’m from Bellevue.” When I answered someone’s question during my college years or soon after, I spoke apologetically, hesitating just a bit. A cozy smugness abutted a gray guilt by association. My family did not belong to any upper class, nor did most of my folks’ neighbors and friends in the first decade or more after the mid-20th century. By adolescence I knew Bellevue enjoyed some regional cachet, the sources of which I didn’t entirely grasp: bragging rights based on a monied reputation, however stereotyped. When I departed for college east of the mountains, as Puget Sounders sometimes scornfully say, I was prepared to look down my nose. It took me at least a year to figure out my nose was out of joint. By the late 1960s Bellevue shone as chief star in the inflated metropolitan ego known as “Greater Seattle.” It preened as a model suburb, separated from the city by Lake Washington, close enough to catch art films and shows, concerts and ethnic restaurants but removed, largely, from most races and ethnicities, from forced school bussing or urban “trash.”
Bellevue had already enjoyed a rep as an affluent burb spreading itself eastward from Lake Washington’s Meydenbauer Bay toward Lake Sammamish, wealth, as usual, clustering along sinuous shorelines. Affluence had arrived in particular enclaves — Hunts Point, long middle finger of the Three Points, and Medina — more than a century ago. Bellevue had been a small town during the 20th-century’s first half, but the Mercer Island (Lacey Murrow) Floating Bridge (1940) accelerated and changed forever the “Eastside.” My folks, north Seattle natives, joined the exodus in 1949, beginning their family and a rural life at the same time — I imagine they fancied their new place rustic. Did they sense it wouldn’t last? City kids, they wanted to take a gamble on a quieter, more wooded alternative on Clyde Hill, just northwest of old Bellevue. Because of the bridge (and later the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge), Dad, who worked as a Seattle Public Schools administrator, joined the post-WWII generation as a commuter from a suburb. Yet this suburb pricked, at times, his patience: he despised aspects of Bellevue to his dying day.
I imagine he disliked Bellevue’s gleeful, unquestioned transformation into a city. When he and Mom began married life, he certainly favored Bellevue as a place to settle because he’d known it since his youth. The Leschi-Medina ferry (1913-1950) facilitated the growth of a summer home colony along Meydenbauer Bay. Soon after he turned ten (1931), his father — my paternal grandfather, after whom I’m named — built a summer cottage, four-square and white-washed, assisted by his father-in-law, an astrologist who kept his derby hat on. It sat back from the shore, the requisite lawn fronting it. I still see and smell the two-story cottage, grass, and sharp fresh water. At age three I fell off the dock and almost drowned. In the 1950s, the decade before the massive cleanup known as Metro, Lake Washington was sinking towards its sewage-laden nadir. Dad grew up summers on this Bay. Not long ago I came across a picture of him standing on the dock, cigarette in one hand, a pair of antique water skis at his feet. In the background, plenty of Douglas fir trees crowd what became downtown Bellevue. At least a couple of summers during the late Depression years, he worked as a bagboy in a Main Street grocery store.
That string of bungalows — about half a dozen families, mostly neighbors and friends from North Seattle — and Bay formed the key contrast for Dad: a tranquil place removed from the city but close by. By the late 1940s, rural Bellevue lured him as he and Mom began a new life in a neighborhood with goats and chickens. When they bought a small house on a lot atop Clyde Hill, sprinkled with a dozen second-growth Douglas firs, they had no idea how quickly this small town would blow away, forgotten amidst new housing developments and neighborhood shopping centers and new money. He knew as little about the near-future as I suspect he knew about Bellevue’s very recent Japanese past. I have often wondered, when he handled produce at that Main Street grocery, how much he understood about the Issei and Nisei truck farmers who had cleared fields and planted and made Bellevue famous as a productive garden. Didn’t many sell their strawberries to the grocer?
I knew nothing about Bellevue as “Jap town” during the interwar period until few years ago. My two brothers and I grew up in a white suburb: as best I recall, in my Bellevue High School graduating class of 535 (1970), I counted just a handful of Japanese or Chinese-Americans, and not a single African-American. It wasn’t that Bellevue featured only wealthy people. But if Seattle represented all kinds of Americans, Bellevue represented, for the most part, the old story of white migration if not exclusivity. We grew up within a suburban bubble that, for some, represented the post-WWII ideal, no matter its racism or divorce from any real world conditions outside. Safe and unworldly, Bellevue embodied the white flight plot, its amnesia about its recent Japanese past both representative and unsurprising.
Within the “Lake Washington Garden Tracts" in my home place, Clyde Hill, I read “This property shall not be resold, leased, rented or occupied except to or by persons of the Aryan race.”
The University of Washington’s online “Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,” first posted in 2005, details the story of the essentially all-white town of my youth, and as I study it, a mixture of excitement, dread, and shame washes over me. I wonder whether my parents knew the details after moving to the East Side just before mid-century? The Project’s “Racial Restrictive Covenants” database “uncovered 416 deeds and covenants containing racial restrictions in greater Seattle” including at least six covering Bellevue. Within the “Lake Washington Garden Tracts" in my home place, Clyde Hill, I read “This property shall not be resold, leased, rented or occupied except to or by persons of the Aryan race.”
In Catherine Silva’s “Race Restrictive Covenants: Enforcing Neighborhood Segregation in Seattle” (2009), she states, “land developers and real estate companies wrote most of the region’s racial restrictive covenants.” By the 1950s, “realtors encouraged racial segregation in order to maintain property values and sell housing.” This database points out that, though the (federal) Housing Rights Act (1968) finally “outlawed discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity in the sale or rental of housing,” rendering these covenants illegal, many remain on the books even now, tucked away in fine print.
The Project also includes a daunting series of “King County Segregation Maps 1950-2010” generated from census data. In these color-coded sequences, I read Bellevue’s story of racial exclusion. In 1950, less than 5% of west Bellevue’s population was non-white, with 5%-10% of east Bellevue non-white. Those percentages don’t really change until near the century’s end. Up through the present in west Bellevue’s oldest, wealthiest neighborhoods (including Clyde Hill), Asian Americans comprise a small percentage of the population; Native, Latin, and African Americans represent less than 1%. No wonder my high school class proved almost entirely white.
Until recently I had no idea about the extent of Bellevue as a white enclave until the past generation; as a kid I wasn’t overtly aware of its homogeneity. I did know that Dad worked in a school district suffused with racial tensions and came home to a place whose calm he valued yet whose divorce from contemporary socio-economic realities irritated him. A lot.
If you google “Bellevue WA histories” the first site that pops up, visitbellevuewashington.com, includes, under 1950s, a 4 ½-minute video, “Bellevue Washington: Over the Bridge to Gracious Living.” The sequence, which covers my childhood and adolescence, is backed by a couple of nightclub tunes — a smoothed out, heavy-strings-and-congas sound commonplace two generations ago. Though the video features buildings more than people, I find only white people in any slide. Unsurprisingly, the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project does not appear as a link in these histories.
A decade ago investigative journalist David A. Neiwert published Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community, an outgrowth of a series of 1990s Journal American articles, which spins out the tragic story of Issei and Nesei in Bellevue before and after the infamous 1942 Relocation order. In his Prologue he announces his chronicle of loss:
In those days, Bellevue’s chief identity — built around a fabled annual Strawberry Festival [1925ff.] — was inextricably woven with the people who grew and sold the fruit. The Japanese American community gave Bellevue its personality, not to mention economic vibrancy; indeed, it was largely their labor clearing the land that had made Bellevue livable in the first place. And when they were driven out—in a fit of hysteria borne of deep rooted prejudice and conspiracy theory hobgoblins — the city lost much of its distinctive original character.
I remember feeling stunned when I first read Strawberry Days, a dark history of my hometown I had never heard. I tried to determine if truck farms abutted my Clyde Hill street and neighborhood. All this occurred during my parents’ childhood and adolescence. And in this dark history one of the main villains proved to be Miller Freeman: virulent racist, zealous developer, and patriarch of Bellevue’s First Family. Miller Freeman appears frequently in Neiwert’s history.
I grew up hearing the name Kemper Freeman, Sr., son of Miller and builder of Bellevue Square (1946), “symbol of the transformation of Bellevue from a sleepy farming town to a modern suburb,” as Neiwert asserts. The old man brokered the real estate deal, based on land mostly owned by Japanese Americans who’d lost it while being interned at the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho. Miller Freeman lobbied hard for the first floating bridge just as he’d done everything he could, before and after 1942, to push Bellevue’s Japanese out. He helped enact a local version of the larger white American, Manifest Destiny narrative: shove aside those already present, of darker skins, and pretend himself a lead pioneer in the genesis of a white community arising in a void— though, in this case, a landscape already cleared and tilled. No Yellow Peril here.
I thought about Bellevue’s mostly forgotten interwar past when I strolled, with students, around the Minidoka site a couple of springs ago, imagining internees coaxing produce and flowers out of the alkaline desert soil in this land of little rain. But Strawberry Days returns a major chapter of Bellevue’s post-pioneer history to the record. It’s an ugly story in which minor but steady racist journalism and prejudice erupted into full-blown hysteria after Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese segment of the community were rounded up — concentrated at Seattle’s King Street Station then transported to Camp Harmony (!), the temporarily renamed Puyallup (Washington State) Fairgrounds — and hauled off to arid southern Idaho. The story of the local Japanese Americans, coupled with the story of the Freemans, places Bellevue in the white American master narrative, dreary in its repetition, of conquest and consolidation and corporate triumph.
Turns out I grew up in a white suburb that, less than a decade before my parents’ move, had been something other and darker. When my brothers and I were little, Northeast 24th Street, Clyde Hill’s major east-west arterial, along which we lived on top, remained bumpy and steep, sometimes challenging drivers shifting those heavy old post-War sedans. People kept farm animals and everyone knew everyone. Columnist Ann Seeger, a friend of my folks, called it “Nanny-Goat Hill” in local articles. The year I arrived into the world, Clyde Hill Elementary School opened, on the south side of N.E. 24th between 96th and 98th streets. Behind it, second-growth firs stretched most of the way to the Catholic Church on 14th, but these trees were cut soon for Chinook Junior High School, Bellevue Christian School, and housing lots. The year after my birth (1952), Bellevue incorporated, its population at 5,940. To protect itself against annexation, among other reasons. Clyde Hill incorporated the same year (1953). Nearby lakeshore villages followed suit: Medina (including Evergreen Point, 1955), Hunts Point (1955), and Yarrow Point (1959).
To this day Clyde Hill remains a residential bastion, one whose zoning controls keep all but a couple of commercial properties — one gas station, Tully’s Coffee House — out. Clyde Hill, like larger Bellevue that spreads south and east, has undergone more than one cosmetic surgery in two or three generations. The year Bellevue and Clyde Hill incorporated, my mother co-founded a nurses auxiliary, the Fabiola, to begin fundraising for an Eastside hospital. My brothers and I were born in Seattle, as there was nothing on the Eastside in the ‘50s. The nurses’ efforts bore fruit seven years later when Overlake Hospital first opened its doors. By the last century’s end Lorraine Weltzien served, officially and unofficially, as the Overlake Medical Center’s chief historian and oldest fundraiser. In the early 21st century this hospital complex had also transformed itself and expanded several times. As a sophisticated med center spreading north-south along I-405, it serves as an apt symbol of the glittering city it grew up alongside.
Two years after my birth, my folks bought a lot one block west, still atop Clyde Hill (on N. E. 24th) and built a tract home for less than $20,000. My folks stayed put until their respective deaths. Across the street, a mink farm had flourished until the early 1940s when shifting economics drove the owners out.
The property remained undeveloped until the mid-1960s, and it proved a haven for my brothers and I, though possibly an eyesore for adults. We climbed the old apple trees fronting the street, poked around the old house foundation looking for treasures, crawled in and out of chicken wire pens, threaded through thickets of careening Himalayan blackberry and Scotch broom, both vigorous invasive species. We established camps and I drew a detailed map of the varied terrain, our own Middle Earth. The idyll ended by 1965 when developers punched the north-south NE 95th street several blocks, lining it with “model suburban homes,” the upscale look of fast-forward Bellevue. Before the houses were finished, I ambled along the new asphalt with my 30x telescope and positioned the small tripod against the street’s lip. My folks got to know just a couple of these new neighbors.
Clyde Hill’s atmosphere had slipped a few steps towards greater anonymity. That slippage has continued, as far as our old neighborhood goes, through the present. When someone moves in nearby, no one would be caught dead bringing over a fresh pie as Mom did two generations ago. Probably few bake their own pies or roll their own crusts, as many women as well as men work long hours at executive jobs and lack time or interest. Maybe neighbors act like neighbors in other ways, though, that I don’t recognize. Or maybe a quick visit on the curb suffices. The size of homes precludes easy access back and forth.
Bellevue epitomizes a fatal set of American presumptions: that quantity defines quality, growth — usually cast as economic growth — is always good, and more growth is better than less. These assumptions have caused more damage than any others I know.
That new string of suburban homes across the street signified, in miniature, Bellevue’s explosive growth in the 1960s. I grew to six feet and weighed over 210 pounds before losing thirty-five pounds and leaving for college (1970). By that time, the population stood at 60,000, a tenfold increase in the seventeen years since incorporation.. Bellevue’s body grew far more than mine, in both height and girth. How could it avoid changing beyond recognition in such a frenzy of housing developments and annexations? Could it hold onto any traces of its mid-century intimacy, or did it even want to? How can a place that grows ten times in less than a generation not lose its way? Certainly it threw off its small-town clothes, sometimes rustic or patched, in a hurry and eagerly donned ever-fancier apparel ostensibly commensurate with its burgeoning urban identity. Houses and cars grew in size and ostentation, with no change through the present. Bellevue epitomizes a fatal set of American presumptions: that quantity defines quality, growth — usually cast as economic growth — is always good, and more growth is better than less. These assumptions have caused more damage than any others I know.
Bellevue strutted as chief ornament in the Greater Seattle movement, ignoring the criticism of, for example, longtime Seattle Times columnist Emmett Watson, founder of the splinter, “Lesser Seattle” movement (who famously announced, on a live broadcast, its motto, KTBO, or “keep the bastards out”). When I read his Times columns or his Digressions of a Native Son, I found myself agreeing with this sour chronicler’s criticisms. I’m unsure if I would have enjoyed an evening of scotch with him, however.
I grew up mostly oblivious amidst this fast-forward metamorphosis that bothered my folks, my father more than my mother. Mom liked Bellevue Square, which opened three years before their arrival and, no doubt, counted as one attraction in their move across Lake Washington. The Square’s commercial growth anticipated the city’s, as the number of stores more than trebled in its first four years.
This occurred precisely during the years of Lakewood, California’s extraordinary growth, as recorded in D. J. Waldie’s remarkable memoir, Holy Land (1996). Lakewood, just north of Long Beach, CA, has proven an extreme case of a post-War, seemingly instant, intensely platted suburb, this one crowned by developer Ben Weingart’s 264-acre shopping center. Just as Frederick & Nelson served as first lynchpin in Bellevue Square, the May Co. department store,“a 357,000-square-foot, three-story rectangular box of white concrete” fronted by four giant “M’s,” anchored Lakewood’s center. Lakewood incorporated one year after Bellevue, and that year (1954) it featured over 10,000 parking spaces. As Waldie states, “because of the size of the parking lots, it was the largest shopping center in the world.” The Freemans had studied new trends and certainly knew about Lakewood, let alone the Northgate center in North Seattle, which opened four years after Bellevue Square.
But Bellevue and its commercial heart would expand and endure several makeovers far beyond the claims of a Lakewood. According to Waldie, Lakewood has stayed true to its modest middle-class, cookie-cutter design and intent, and after sixty years it resembles a time bubble, faded and cracked in places but intact. It remains its original size, less than ten square miles. When Bellevue incorporated it was less than five square miles; now it stretches to over thirty, and its population has more than doubled since 1970 (as of 2014, 134,400 residents) — a far slower rate of increase than the white-hot 1953-70 period. It ate a lot of ground and drew thousands of new residents — the usual American growth paradigm, no questions asked. They’re typically avoided or postponed because they quickly grow tough and painful. For example, what is a city’s optimal size? or is that always a moving, larger target? What zoning decisions should be made once that target has been exceeded? How can a community or city retain socioeconomic diversity, given the inevitable real estate responses to restrictions in various guises?
As with anyone growing up in Bellevue in the 1950s and 1960s, I hold many fond memories of Bellevue Square, including the Bel-Vue Theatre, the Crabapple Restaurant, and the large Pacific madrona tree girded by a round rockery wall in front. These formed a community gathering-place, and indeed, the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair began (1947) inside, then, in front of the Crabapple, as several websites attest. We frequented Newberry’s and Petram’s Five-and-Dime, and Mom grocery shopped at the A&P.
The Square was open-air, its value consisting in the easy, quick transit from interiors outside and back again. One of my favorite places was the “Pavilion” just east of the old Frederick and Nelson’s, the first suburban store opened by Chicago’s Marshall & Field and the first showy store in the Square. Frederick & Nelson proved an augury of things to come. One walked its perfumed aisles, its racks of dress and fancy casual clothes, conversing with well-dressed staff, mostly female. If lunch or tea weren’t possible in its restaurant, at least one could depart with a cylindrical colored and sealed box of its hallmark Frango mints. We ate too many mints. The Pavilion featured a set of covered terraces, attractively landscaped, bordered with low rock walls, and represented a larger, suburban version of an old town park gazebo. The space was used for many kinds of functions including, for some years, the annual Friends of the Library used book sale. My older brother and I toted book boxes, more than one August, helping set up the sale, which meant we pored through the offerings before the public.
But a city that explodes as did Bellevue by the 1960s would likely regard many properties, at least commercial properties, as transient. And by the 1980s the outdoors-indoors Bellevue Square was demolished, via a four-phase expansion, and an enclosed mall rose in its place. Are no buildings or facets of a city of, say, 10,000 or 20,000 residents worth keeping? Historical amnesia explains, despite such organizations at the Eastside Heritage Center, the present-tense seduction of new housing subdivisions and endless commercial properties construction, and the eternal lure of the near-future. Bellevue, like many another suburb, grew like kudzu, without heed or hesitation. The city’s heart, that outdoor square, turned into a mall that they, in a fit of delusion, still label Bellevue Square. Now it’s “a multi-level, enclosed superregional center more than one million square feet in size.” That superheated adjective and telltale number play the old subversive game that quantity defines quality.
I hate indoor malls. I have always hated them, oversized, concentrated feedlots where people exist mostly as potential or actual consumers, strolling and grazing and trying not to bump into others. Malls all smell the same and evidence similar architecture and faux (or actual) planting groups in front of similar benches at similar intersection points. Mall noise — a shifting blend of anonymous voices with specific store Muzak — crowds my ears. On the benches sit seniors or others, happy to rest or people watch or grouse with another oldster. Maybe a small or not small fountain presumably reminds passersby of an actual rapid or waterfall. Maybe a play area with the same kind of brightly painted, soft cubes or boats or slides for the kiddies to climb on, their young, always well-dressed mothers sitting adjacent, most using their “portable handheld electronic devices.”
I re-married and started a new family life after moving to our Montana town in 1991. Now I lived one long drive east from Bellevue and in the next twenty-four years, I drove back and forth, impeded by no traffic, only winter mountain pass dangers. When my father helped me scout my new town that year, he fell in love, remarking that it reminded him of Bellevue thirty years earlier. In fact Dillon, MT’s population, which creeps upward very slowly, ranks far below Bellevue’s at the time of the latter’s incorporation. In his final years, Dad nostalgically turned back to the decade when his sons and his town were young, and he and Mom busied themselves in their still-new work and family life.
My rural circumstances provide the lens through which I assess Bellevue in the past quarter century. In my double, insider-outsider perspective, the ground of the former shifts unrecognizably and I lose my credentials. No city in Montana matches Bellevue’s high-arc growth curve. Indeed, Bellevue is larger than Montana’s largest city, Billings. When I drive over Snoqualmie Pass and hurtle beyond North Bend, I feel like a Martian with my Montana plates. After I negotiate the slowdown onto clogged I-405 north and crest the hill by Woodridge, a skyscraper city I don’t recognize fills the view. It’s not attractive — no “belle” view.
My crabby dissent marks my peculiarity. Clearly most people love one-stop shopping, but I hate shopping. Malls have become, for walking seniors or teenyboppers, crucial social centers. But these centers feel faux, as do the air and the inside facades. I never find good book or cheese or music stores in malls. It’s all about chains, or McStores. Just as malls funnel people, malls pose giant reflecting mirrors that force them to confront what they lack and ostensibly need. And how well they fit in, or not. Bellevue Square, at least, prides itself on being relentlessly upscale, and broadcasts a new city that obliterated the old a generation ago. Malls funnel tastes, too. In Bellevue Square that means we’re all supposed to wear similar gold jewelry or Gucci bags or designer clothes. No one I see wears the “Big Macs” my father favored from JC Penney — hopelessly plebeian. It costs a lot to succumb to the homogenizing pressures of a Bellevue mall. In this consumer’s progress, we get permanently sidetracked at vanity fair. Such self-contained pseudo-villages eclipse who you are behind how you look and what — and where — you spend.
After the mid-1970s I became a regular, frequent visitor back home, rather than a resident. As years passed, and my life took me to other time zones, I felt increasingly confused in Bellevue, lost between being a native and being an alien. There’s the rub. As the space stretched between these contrary sensibilities I felt pulled apart as though I no longer belonged here, dumped from my natal nest when I tried to fly briefly back. Familiar sightlines and facades kept — keep — disappearing in the hustle below construction cranes. As my parents aged traffic lines inevitably lengthened, and the face of downtown turned increasingly unfamiliar, marked by generic, architecturally undistinguished high rises. A Short History of Bellevue candidly marks the shift: “If the era from World War II through the 1970s was all about ‘gracious living,’ the 1980s to the present has been about Bellevue as a major center of business.” If “gracious living” means a place governed by an aura of privilege and increasingly visible affluence, I guess that included us, though wealth didn’t overtake our street until the past generation or so. Our Clyde Hill home, a tract house remodeled by my folks in the 1980s, didn’t fit the new McMansion neighborhood. The Short History’s statement leaves unclear and unexamined the balance or trade-off or overlap between “gracious living” and “major center of business.”
Nowadays the average home value in Clyde Hill, a leafy village where no one wants to leave, is just under $1,500,000.
Certainly everyone knows Bellevue shed its bedroom community identity a generation or more ago. Now the Arts and Crafts Fair spreads to three days and draws over 300,000: more than ten times its original audience, and annual sales exceed $1,000,000. Bigger is better, right? For the past score of years, I have referred to my hometown as an upper-class ghetto, though it’s not that kind of ghetto everywhere. This kind of ghetto is girded by glass walls and conspicuous affluence –- income levels that preclude most of the population. Residing in such a precinct means you’re happily near or in the oft-cited top 1%. I say, “I’m from Bellevue” sardonically. Nowadays the average home value in Clyde Hill, a leafy village where no one wants to leave, is just under $1,500,000. In the final decade of her long life, my mother played the role, however reluctantly, of historical artifact — one face of a long-gone Bellevue.
When I’d return to my folks’ home for a visit, I’d jog through the Three Points or Medina or Overlake Drive and past the mall’s western parking lots. Six miles/hour proves a good pace to compare and contrast, sniff out the latest changes. I breathed in that wet, rich, sea-level air and stalked the ghost of a chubby teenager now long lost in the dizzy landscape of fancy. I love the Douglas firs, the giant rhododendrons and azaleas and flowering cherry trees. Spring comes early and extravagantly, and the abundant rainfall waters a lush, gorgeous place. The old neighborhoods nail the Northwest landscape aesthetic. But with my old running sweats and old memories, I puff past as a visitor who no longer fits and couldn’t afford to anyway.
Nearly thirty years ago, Washington Post columnist Joel Garreau defined Bellevue as an “Edge City,” a post-suburb phenomenon that specifies the major business center identity. David Neiwert cites Garreau in his introduction as Neiwert fingers Bellevue at the 20th-century’s end. Garreau argues, in Neiwert’s words, that Bellevue became a work center more than a residential one: “it is perceived locally as a destination for a range of daily activities, from work to shopping to entertainment; it contains more than 5 million square feet of office space and 600,000 square feet of retail space; and it was essentially a mixed residential and rural area 30 years before.” I wonder how much those numbers have grown. I wonder if a city’s quality is ever measured by indicators other than office and retail space. Surely the “range of daily activities” idea has shrunk drastically, given this unholy trinity (work, shopping, entertainment): an appallingly reductive measure of daily or weekly life. The most threadbare component of the trinity, “entertainment,” tells us much more about what is not implied than what is implied by that term in a contemporary urban space characterized by fancy shops, bars, and restaurants.
The Bellevue Square website, which chronicles the Kemper Development Company under “Seven Decades of Visionary Thinking,” makes for breathless reading. By now that company owns a good chunk of commercial Bellevue, as any map reveals. Before Garreau published Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (1992), the Company had completed “Bellevue Place,“ which spreads from the northeast corner of N. E. 8th and 104th, now renamed Bellevue Way. This “Place,” which “add[ed] much-needed office, hotel, shopping, and restaurant space to the downtown district,” “was the first true mixed-use project in the Northwest, offering convenience and cutting-edge amenities.” I’m relieved to hear “it continues to be a hub for Eastside commerce and the arts” though I’ve seen little evidence of arts in this high-rise complex. In fact the glib linkage of commerce with arts give me a lot of pause. This proper noun, a corporate label thrust upon everyone else, marks a species of urban placelessness, an anonymity that could be Anyville — with sufficient funds.
But that’s not all in early 21st-century downtown. “Lincoln Square,” a big chunk of ground just east, across Bellevue Way from Bellevue Square (and south of Bellevue Place), includes a “16-screen luxury cinema” and “148 privately owned luxury residences.” Ol’ Abe gets borrowed and applied so extensively and indiscriminately that its cachet has diffused beyond recognition. What’s most ironic about the “Seven Decades of Visionary Thinking” concerns its title, “The Bellevue Collection,” as though these three agglomerations of buildings dedicated to high-end selling and buying, a metastasizing commerce, constitute a permanent sculpture collection in a giant, outdoors gallery. Bellevue’s first family has been associated with the Arts and Crafts Fair since its 1947 beginnings, and it’s true that Kemper Freeman, Sr. commissioned the downtown’s first piece of public art, Dudley Carter’s 12’-foot “Forest Deity.” It’s also true they commissioned Carter’s granddaughter, Anna Hanson, to carve “Full Circle” from an Atlantic cedar planted decades earlier by Kemper Freeman, Sr., to replace the old Square’s Pacific madrona, dead and removed in 1961. Maybe Bellevue Collection took its name because the Bellevue Art Museum abuts Lincoln Square. As though the proximity of art sanctifies commerce — an ancient story. But the art is just a gloss.
I love public art, an adornment popping up in unexpected nooks or along canyon streets. But “the Bellevue Collection” violates metaphor. Where apologists enthuse about “soaring office towers,” many construe downtown as an irregularly spaced patch of flat-sided toadstools, most of them visually uninteresting. These skyscrapers do not set off extensive gasps of aesthetic delight. Indeed, the unofficial moniker for downtown, Kemperville, denotes an extensive, sterile zone bereft of cultural institutions or history, the modest Art Museum or a Meydenbauer Center notwithstanding. Kemperville, a high-rise Hooverville with monotonous towers replacing frayed shacks, represents a failure of vision, the presence of billion-dollar office towers being an apt symbol of Corporate USA. What percentage of the 1960s population could afford anything here? What kind of place is it when the primary question about your presence becomes, can I afford it or will I buy anyway?
A belle vue? I don’t think so.
For many years I would set my face as I walked unwillingly through Bellevue Square with wife or kids or my aging mother. The place always jumps — no shortage of high-density activity here. But when surveying the whole downtown, where does one turn for culture or at least a park? Turns out the shopper or office employee can seek relief just south of the Square, in the 20 or 21-acre Bellevue Downtown Park (DTP), built on the site of the old Bellevue Junior High School and the school district’s administrative building, among others. DTP was designed and constructed in the mid-1980s and underwent two initial phases of construction and a master plan update (1997). The City’s website features the preferred aesthetic narrative, gushing about the “one-half-mile promenade, bordered by a double row of shade trees, and a stepped canal, [that] brings one to the 240’ wide waterfall that cascades into a reflecting pool.”
The brag invites one to picnic on the “ten-acre lawn,” from which one can contemplate either Bellevue’s skyline or Mt. Rainier. The built environment filling the foreground doesn’t exactly match the fat snowcone of the lower forty-eight states’ most remarkable volcano. In warm weather, many small groupings dot the grass. When I’ve rambled here, I find little shade from those shade trees; it’s mostly open, defined by the severe geometry of this arced path, an near-circle capped by a wide reflecting pool below a flat ripple few would deem a waterfall. The symmetric promenade defines a formal, sophisticated design as though this place tries to match Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens. When I promenade, I keep peering around, expecting the scene to freeze any moment into a Seurat painting. Only the costumes have changed. But this ain’t La Grande Jatte. Nor does it resemble some of Seattle’s most iconic parks, like Volunteer Park, where more trees and more informality at least provide what I’d call a Northwest park aesthetic. This place is uppity, like the money north and east of it.
DTP, like the Overlake Medical Center, belongs with Kemperville. Along the way, some of what Bellevue was or could be got lost, and it appears few look back with any regret. The addiction of the ever-new and more expensive trumps any goal embracing historical continuity. At least, in the past quarter century, Bellevue has shed its predominantly white skin. It looks and functions as an international city, amply represented by Asian Americans from several nations, African Americans, and even folks from South America or the Middle East. Of course Microsoft and other giants in the information economy have driven, in many ways, Bellevue’s multiracial and multi-ethnic diversity, let alone its wealth. Elementary classrooms in the affluent Bellevue School District reflect a range of countries of origin unimaginable in my time. Yet not every recent arrival from India or Pakistan or South Sudan works at Microsoft and earns six figures; I notice some behind the 7-11 counters. Where do they afford to live? Mom used to remind me of endless blocks of apartment buildings radiating out from Crossroads Mall, closer to Lake Sammamish.
So the faces of Bellevue vary considerably more in complexion and ethnicity, and to that extent it resembles a melting pot much more than it did with its Issei and Nisei populations most of a century ago. Certainly its thick traffic reveals a city. And except for the austere DTP, the primary business of Bellevue is business. It frantically traded up forever showier clothes during the period when the national income gap between the top 1% and the bottom 50% yawned exponentially wider—wider than it has been in generations. Many of those wealthiest citizens who live in old neighborhoods patronize a precinct like the “Bellevue Collection”; others congregate there because they want to be near or buy or dress like them. Bellevue has come to resemble a crass American ideal, an ostentatious mart where sizable incomes drive sizable selling and buying. We’re a long ways from a pavilion, and it’s hard to find good music or art (except at the industrial-scale summer fair).
But Bellevue boasts some traffic congestion—the inevitable price of population density. Regional light rail should have reached the city decades ago. It is too slow to arrive in part because of the steady opposition of the Freemans, who want, even in the super-connected 21st century, to keep the “Bellevue Collection” isolated from outside influences, above all the big bad city across Lake Washington.
Of course I can be dismissed as an aging crank, sore in my exile. I used to joke than if my wife and I combined and doubled our annual income, we still couldn’t afford to live anywhere in Bellevue. It is a serious though common plot to lose the outer sign of one’s past, yet a native owns one indisputable authority. My mother died in the spring of 2014 and we sold the family property on Clyde Hill in the summer of 2015. So my root has been severed and my unsettled disconnection with my hometown is complete. It had frayed increasingly in the past three decades; the severance comes as no surprise. Just as Kemperville has occluded Bellevue, the frantic bond of growth and wealth has occluded my youth. I’m from Bellevue, a crown jewel in Pugetopolis, but I have not been from Bellevue in a long time.
Weltzien, a longtime English professor at the University of Montana Western, has published dozens of articles and nine books including three books of poetry. Weltzien still skis in winter and scrambles peaks in summer.