Seattle, step by step

Paul Constant

April 18, 2017

It’s easy for newcomers to be deterred by the hills or the rain, but the truth is that Seattle is one of the most walkable cities in the country. Unlike, say, the ugly monotony of Florida cities or the imposing boulevards of California cities, Seattle feels pedestrian-sized. There’s enough happening on street level to reward a wanderer’s attention, and there are enough straight-shot trails available between neighborhoods to make long-distance travel relatively easy.

Walking isn’t just pleasurable — it’s often more efficient, too. Some days, it’s almost faster to walk from downtown to Fremont at rush hour than it is to catch a bus. And when you start heading outside Seattle, you’ll discover the existence of a web of paved trails — the Interurban to the north and south, the Mountains-to-Sound to the east — that can take you to the suburbs without encountering more than a handful of intersections with traffic.

In his new book Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City, David B. Williams encourages readers to slow down and look at the city through a pedestrian’s eyes. It’s a worthy cause. Once you start walking Seattle, you truly gain an understanding of its day-to-day life. You watch the buildings being built, and you notice the businesses that have quietly shuttered. You learn where neighborhoods begin and end. You discover the strange ways that parts of the city connect.

In 17 walks — none longer than seven miles, with most topping out below two miles — Williams leads readers on an ambling tour of the city’s lesser-known features. The tours start in the downtown core and then spiral out into the neighborhoods later on in the book. The walks are all field-tested and user-centric. Like any good guide, Williams provides everything an amateur flaneur (flanateur?) needs to know: where the public restrooms are, where the resting places are, what buses to take if you don’t want to do a round trip.

My favorite walks are the downtown variety, which provide glimpses into Seattle’s unsavory history, like the brothel that used to stand at First and Jackson. “The hotel’s manager was Madam Damnable,” Williams writes. He explains, “Also known as Mary Ann Conklin, she had arrived in Seattle in 1853 after her husband had abandoned her in Port Townsend, leaving her to survive by her own tenacity and determination. Her poetic name comes from her use of less than poetic language and, of course, her profession.” Any reader with a half-ounce of curiosity would want to read a whole book about Madam Damnable’s hotel, but Williams knows the tour guide’s secret: always keep ‘em wanting more, and always keep ‘em moving along.

Williams arranges his walks around some clever thematic frameworks. Maybe none of the walks is as romantic as the one that circumnavigates what used to be Denny Hill, before the Denny Regrade moved millions of pounds of dirt into Elliott Bay over a century ago. Walking in circle around the base of a hill that isn’t there may seem like a fool’s errand, but Williams grants it a kind of windmill-tilting nobility: you’re not just making pointless circles on a map, you’re honoring one of the city’s major geographic features, an impressive hill that once served as a blue-collar neighborhood smack in between the ritzier Capitol and Queen Anne Hills. Hundreds of families lived on Denny Hill and now Denny Hill doesn’t exist.

Williams also directs tours through the public clocks of downtown, and he provides a little sightseer’s guide to the menagerie of animal gargoyles on the sides of downtown buildings. You’ve maybe spent so long dodging texting pedestrians on sidewalks that you’ve failed to notice the terra-cotta horses and eagles glaring down at you from above. And it’s very likely that you’ve never before noticed the unfortunate Native American heads on the Cobb Building at 4th and University, complete with regionally inappropriate feather headdresses.

Sure, you could just read a book that tells Seattle’s history — Skid Road and Sons of the Profits are both very fine accounts — but Williams actually gets you out into the streets, where the history happened, and that makes everything seem closer and more relevant. When you’re walking around the International District, he reminds you that there were once 30 jazz clubs in just a few blocks’ radius. He tells you about Seattle’s forgotten landmarks like Profanity Hill and tells you where the oldest stone in the city can be found.

Some of the later walks in the book are more focused on natural wonders, which didn’t hold my interest as readily as the more urban three-quarters that came before. And while I am as big a book-lover as they come, I must admit to wondering if perhaps Seattle Walks might be more efficient and usable in app form — fumbling back and forth between maps and descriptions while navigating around busy sidewalks feels a little old-school touristy for my tastes.

But really, what’s wrong with feeling like a tourist in your own city every now and then? Seattle Walks is all about that feeling, of seeing familiar streets through new eyes. All it takes is a good guide, a slowing-down of your pace, and a willingness to stop and look up every once in a while.

Books in this review:
  • Seattle Walks
    by David B. Williams
    University of Washington Press
    March 15, 2017
    254 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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