Erasing place

Change, development, and the feeling of loss

by Wendi Dunlap


This week I drove through Seattle’s University District to visit the legendary Scarecrow Video store for a movie screening. On the way, I stopped at a traffic signal on 11th Avenue Northeast. Two blocks away from one of my old apartments. Four blocks away from another. And two blocks away from the house where I spent a month couch surfing in 1985 because I had nowhere else to live. (I do not fondly remember that month.)

I know that neighborhood intimately. I walked University Way (The Ave) almost daily for a few years in the 80s—eating a single slice of pizza for lunch at Pagliacci ($1 including tax!), selling records to Cellophane Square to earn rent, playing Pole Position II or Paperboy at Space Port, and chatting with friends at Discount Records. I could probably get you to any of those places while blindfolded.

But I can’t, except for Pagliacci, the only one that remains. Through the 90s and 2000s, most of the businesses that had been “The Ave” to me slowly disappeared, replaced by new ones. Books replaced the jewelry store (this, to me, a major upgrade). Rite Aid replaced Pay ‘N’ Save. Computers replaced vintage clothing. And this was fine. Not every change was for the better, but the University District was still the U District, mostly the same shape and sound and feel that it ever was, with a new batch of students every September.

So none of this prepared me for the moment of vertigo I felt at the corner of 11th and 47th this week. A moment when I looked around and realized I recognized nothing. Had I not driven there myself, I would not have had a clue where I was.

The row of houses further north has been gone for some time, taking at least one friend’s old home with it. But the rest of the street that used to include low-rise car dealers, an old church, and a parking lot is now lined with tall buildings — a tunnel of cars through a forest of apartments and businesses. Change is constant around here, but this big change seemed to have happened almost overnight.

(Photo by Jordan Dawe via Flickr/Creative Commons)

I can’t be too surprised. The population of Seattle has gone up by at least 200,000 residents since the 80s. Probably more. Crazy. This city—always seemingly in the second tier, small town with high rises — is now bigger than Boston, bigger than Denver, bigger than Washington DC. It’ll probably pass Detroit soon. Those 200,000 new residents are the equivalent, roughly, of the entire population of Montgomery, Alabama. Or Tacoma, Washington. All shoved into a city that, face it, is probably way less dense than it ought to be. People want to live here, and they have to go somewhere.

I support an increase in density, and support reducing a few of the zoning restrictions that came into effect during the 20th century. (The ones requiring huge yards for every house, for example. Or ones that limit the ability to have tiny mother-in-law apartments.) Those particular restrictions make the city less livable in the long run, causing sprawl and forcing us into our cars whether we like it or not. When people complain about new density “ruining the neighborhood,” I roll my eyes a bit.

And yet. This week I looked at that row of giants along a street where once there had been bungalows, and the disorientation I felt gave me some insight into the NIMBY complaints. It felt, somehow, like my past had been erased. That part of me had been erased. The house I visited to adopt a tiny polydactyl calico kitten (I named her “Fang”)— erased. Like it was never there. The sign that flashed the temperature “6F-6F-6F” as I walked by on one of the coldest, snowiest mornings I’ve known in Seattle—erased. The sounds of the guitar a friend played in the big old house—erased.

Does any of this matter? Well, in a very real sense, it does not. There is no reason anyone anywhere should care about my memories. I still have them, besides. They aren’t gone. The kitten, the cold snowy morning, the music—those things are never going to be more than those ghostly memories in my brain. And I’ll have those memories as long as my brain allows.

Every day new memories are forming in the same city. Those buildings that make me feel so lost are someone else’s cherished places. The birthplaces of the memories they’ll carry around as long as they can, until a generation after I am gone. And then another generation, and another, all living in what has become their city, though their city is different from mine.

Knowing this does not eliminate the quiet ache of knowing that the places, people, colors and sounds of your memory are being erased to make room for others, and in the meantime the places that were a part of you become more and more invisible, and you, with them, fading away.

(Photo by Jordan Dawe via Flickr/Creative Commons)

In my neighborhood right now, neighbors are currently fighting about whether to add a mountain bike path to a greenspace. The fighting has gotten ugly, and the emotions involved seem — to some—inexplicable. But they, too, feel that disorientation from change. The change may be good. Certainly, the new apartment buildings in the U District are better than parking lots. But, if nothing else, change by definition means things will be different. What you counted on to be there as part of the music (foreground or background) of your daily life will be gone, and it’s never coming back.

We should respect that people feel strongly about that loss. Most of us are going to feel it at some point, more and more as we age. And it is painful, that twinge you feel the day you get online and find that your favorite nightclub was torn down or the house you once lived in is made unrecognizable. When people fight change, they’re often just trying to avoid that pain, the feeling that the city is no longer theirs.

But the world changes around us and we have to make peace with the understanding that it will not always be ours to manage. This is something that no one really wants to believe. Still, not every change that erases part of your past is a bad one; many changes will make things better for the people who follow you here and remain after you’re gone. Good changes should be supported.

Are the new buildings on 11th a good change? Probably. The changes in density needed to happen, there as elsewhere in Seattle. New homes, businesses — they are absolutely better than the parking lots that some of them replaced. Sometimes we forget about good change like this, and think that keeping things exactly the same as our sepia-toned nostalgia is best for everyone. It’s a natural impulse, if not always the right choice.

This is not to say that everything should change and that all change is good. Of course not. There are still changes that need to be fought, but only while remembering that what we all want—new neighbors and old locals both—is a livable, human-scale city, and achieving that will sometimes require change.

I will get over my feeling of displacement with time, while still mourning the Seattle that once was and never can be again. The scenery has changed, but the city is still my city, still the place where most of my life has taken place. These changes won’t really erase my memories, or me. At least, not yet.