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Seattle march to Stop the Ditch, the construction of Interstate 5, and in support of a downtown lid, June 5, 1961. Photo courtesy of

Seattle march to Stop the Ditch, the construction of Interstate 5, and in support of a downtown lid, June 5, 1961. Photo courtesy of MOHAI.


The Viaduct: The Viaduct And Beyond

Dominic Black

I'm looking at a map of the city from the Seattle Times of 1946, and it's headlined "City Highway Plans." Now this is 1946, and in this map the viaduct's pretty modest looking, just a thin black line along the waterfront. What really catches your eye is the much thicker black line in the center of the map, in the shape of what I can only describe, I'm afraid, as a dancing cat.

So imagine this cat — it's standing up on its back paws and they're pointing south, along Airport Way and 4th Avenue. And there's a slinky "S" shaped body, and the two front are paws pointing north — the right one linking to 99, and the left one stretching way up past the University District. So that slinky body and left paw is what eventually becomes I–5. The tail, by the way, links up handily enough with I–90.

And there's no head.

This headless dancing cat's just a plan in 1946, but it's pretty close to what's eventually built. I–5 gets the go ahead from the state of Washington in 1953, the same year the viaduct opens. And it's seen as a natural second phase of traffic management for the city. And like the viaduct, it's well–timed.


Eisenhower: "A modern highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy and our national security."

Klingle: "In 1956, Congress passed and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National System of Defense and Highways Act."

Matthew Klingle's author of "Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle."

Klingle: "And this set loose federal money to help build interstate highways, particularly the big multistate and interstate highways like I–5 and I–90. And it's critical to remember the name of this act. It's the Interstate and Defense Highways Act. Eisenhower and Congress saw that highways were not only ways to move people around but they could could play a valuable role in civil defense during the Cold War period."

In the end, 90 percent of the money for I–5 comes from the federal government. But where the viaduct caused hardly a whisper of protest as it went up, the new interstate is different. Something's changed.

Klingle: "I–5 is put forward as an opportunity to connect Washington state, and you begin to have construction on I–5 begin in 1960 and 1961, with protests among citizens living in First Hill and other neighborhoods carrying signs saying Stop The Ditch. It's really the beginning of the anti–highway movement in Seattle. But it doesn't really begin to build traction until the late 1960s when, as I–5 nears completion, you have the adoption of the city's Comprehensive Plan that was first passed by voters in 1960 but is beginning to be put in action by the late 1960s."

The Comprehensive Plan suggested even more new highways for the city. The R.H. Thomson Expressway, which was supposed to run parallel to I–5, but further east — from Ravenna in the north, through the UW, the Arboretum, Montlake and Leschi, and connecting to I–90 and the floating bridge. Then there was the Bay Freeway, connecting I–5 to the viaduct through Mercer and Denny.

But if the viaduct was built by a slightly weird consensus of almost everybody who was anybody in Seattle, by the 1960s that seems like the old way of doing things. And that's not all that's different. The science that everyone was so giddy about — you know, that brought the cars and fridges and the Boeing Spacearium at the World's Fair in 1962 — it's also the science of "Silent Spring," of pollution, nuclear testing, pesticides. Anxiety.

So in Seattle like elsewhere, highway plans aren't just highway plans anymore — they're coded ways of dealing with social issues: economic inequality and racial conflict. In the post–war years the viaduct helped take the new white middle class out to the suburbs, and concentrate African–American and immigrant communities closer to the city's heart. And these are the communities which are most energized by new highway plans.

Public Speaker 1: "City Councilmembers, my name is Carl McRae, representing Seattle Urban League. "

Klingle: "Probably the most dramatic example of this opposition to freeways was the creation of the I–90 interchange, which was going to be located on the edges and in the middle of the Central District, Seattle's historically African–American neighborhood."

Public Speaker 1: "So, I'm here to make a policy statement on behalf of Seattle Urban League to oppose any further development of freeways and highways in the Seattle area. And to put Mr. Banks' words in a different context, Power to the People."

Public Speaker 2: "City Council, you want to build a white highway through the black community to get to your big fine homes in your big neighborhoods that's sheltered and lawned and everything — through a black community, which we will not have. That's all."

Speakers at a public meeting held on January 27, 1970, when 900 people turned up to the Rainier Room at the Seattle Center.

Klingle: "What's curious out of these highway battles is which projects were defeated and which weren't defeated. The R.H. Thomson Expressway, the Bay Freeway — both were defeated. Those were projects that were effectively killed. What was not killed was the I–90/I–5 interchange, which went ahead and displaced many residents from the Central District while at the same time creating the connections necessary in the minds of state, city and federal officials to connect the two major interstate highway systems in Puget Sound."

There's a phrase that crops up a lot when you talk about development during this period, and it's urban blight. There was this intoxicating idea that highways could kill two birds with one stone: Solve transportation problems at the same time as providing an impetus to clear "unsightly areas of the city."

But one person's blighted neighborhood is another person's home.

It might be putting things too simply to say that in Seattle this plays out as: Rich white neighborhoods are preserved, poor black neighborhoods are freeway. It's not like highway engineers were deliberately planning slum clearances. And yet, it has been argued that in Seattle you do have this idea being acted out; that it's easier to live with sacrificing some areas of the city than others.

So where does the viaduct fit into all this?

When you consider the human cost of I–5 — 40,000 people moved out of their homes — as architectural historian Michael Sullivan points out, suddenly the viaduct seems like a pretty well thought through, sensible idea.

Sullivan: "If you think about the brutalist structure out there as a sort of sacrificial placeholder for the city, it really is beneficial. I mean, the city benefits from the fact that for half a century, a soft path through the urban fabric served its purpose, and it kept that corrosive effect of a major thoroughfare from chomping its way through good buildings and through good residential neighborhoods."

It could have been much much worse. Those highways like the R. H. Thomson Expressway could have been built. The Pike Place Market could have been turned into a parking lot. Everything is conditional, like the ramps that are hinted at on the viaduct's design. One of them above my head here, black against the sky like a wing that's been clipped. And the ramps to nowhere by 520, alongside the Museum of History and Industry, where I talked to historian Lorraine McConaghy.

McConaghy: "I think the ghostly highways and the ramps that go to them are fascinating. But they're kind of metaphorical aren't they? They represent an urban vision that no longer was usable in its community. They represent ideas on paper and maybe in the newspapers, and maybe in public meetings, and maybe in the meeting rooms of people who smoke cigars and eat steaks and drink martinis. But they didn't make it onto the grid of the real world. They're left behind."

Unlike the ramps to nowhere, the viaduct happened, for better or worse. After nearly 60 years, as Lorraine McConaghy said to me, it's in Seattle's DNA. And it's also, as historian Mimi Sheridan said to me during the making of this series, in the end, just a double–decked highway moving traffic from north to south along Seattle's waterfront. That's all.

I'm Dominic Black for KUOW.

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