On July 23, 2011, I recited these design stories at the Boston Globe for my friends at Ink, stories inspired by the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and the impact his legacy has had on my life in particular, and three American cities – Seattle, DC, and Baltimore – in general. Each story takes place in a natural urban setting influenced or designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. This is the first essay in a collection of eight.
Then, the pergola came down. I strolled past it on my way to Cow Chip Cookies (the best damn chocolate cookies on the planet, so help me god). What a sorry site that was, seeing the tangle of metal and glass right there on the corner of First and Yesler, for all the tourists to see. Like a beautiful nude, stuck in an impossible yoga pose she couldn’t get out of. A shame that idiot in the semi plowed into it, but a relief that Seattle’s civic leaders had the sense to restore the thing. A historical treasure, that pergola. One of the few landmarks in the city that makes it feel a little European. Because most West Coast cities don’t, you know. Feel that European. They’re all too shiny and glossy and Corbusier new.
I wanted a Cow Chip Cookie so badly, but I was meeting a friend for lunch. Well, okay. Not everything in Seattle is a modernist’s wet dream. Take Elliott Bay Books, my lunch destination, right in the heart of Pioneer Square. Sure, walking into Elliott Bay Books is like stepping back in time. But it was more than a worn out cliché. Walking into Elliott Bay Books is like walking into a coffeehouse, a library, and your grandmother’s smiling, congenial parlor where jovial laughter still sparkles in the air, all at once.
Elliott Bay Books is probably the coolest thing that ever happened to Pioneer Square, but it’s gone now. Packed up all its books and creaky, friendly hardwood floors and hiked a couple of miles uphill, east to Capitol Hill. I guess the books got tired of hanging out with the wandering druggies who make Pioneer Square their home. But that’s okay. Pioneer Square has a million things going for it. Like the jazz notes and their musicians that float in and out of the soup kitchen, right near the embarrassed pergola. Like the Smith Tower, watching lovingly over the loquacious, staggering alcholics on their way to the Mission. Impeccable views of the snowy Olympics across the Puget Sound. When the sun is shining, anyway.
I used to catch the #2 or the #15 from this corner. Wait, no, maybe it was the #3 or the #4, but anyway, I’d catch the bus back to my little blue house on Queen Anne.
I’d sit on the stiff plastic seat looking out the window, smelling the salty breath of Elliott Bay as it inhaled and exhaled down under the Alaskan Way viaduct. Reflecting the sky, which most of the time put it in a dark, cranky mood. But when it was sunny out – oh, the glory.