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Richland houses by the river. Photo by Dominic Black.

Richland houses by the river. Photo by Dominic Black.


Past And Present Illustrates Washington's Divisions

Dominic Black

The town of Richland, Washington, highlights the complexity of the divisions in Washington state. It's a place that is weighted with symbols, history and contradictions that offer some intriguing perspectives on the state as a whole.


For KUOW 94.9 Seattle, I'm Dominic Black with the third in a four–part series exploring the real and imagined divisions between Eastern and Western Washington.

And I'm in the city of Richland because this is a town where the tensions between the east and the west play out around one particular issue: the nuclear industry. It's an issue that radiates, if you'll pardon the pun, a mass of symbols that illustrate just how simple the notion of Washington's east–west divide is in theory, and how complex it is in practice.

So, let's go back in time for a second before we unpack this a bit more. And I promise I'll try and keep my atomic–bomb–type metaphors to an absolute minimum.

In 1942, Richland and its sister cities Pasco and Kennewick are tiny towns in the eastern desert. The Manhattan Project needs a place to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb, and the nearby area of Hanford is chosen because of three things: plenty of electricity, thanks to hydropower dams; plenty of water, thanks to the Columbia River; and plenty of space. There is a relatively small number of people who have to be moved off the land: white folks and Native Americans, the Wanapum tribe. All told, the tribe lost about 1,000 square miles of land.

Once the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is established, workers pour in from all over the country. The population in the area — it mushrooms from around 1,500 to about 45,000 at its peak it 1944. Incredible expansion. The African–American workers mostly live in Pasco while the whites settle in Kennewick, and around 13,000 in the official worker's village of Richland.

So, right from the start, divisions are integral to how the area is arranged, and nowhere is it more systematic than in Richland itself. When we're thinking about the divisions in Washington state, we're thinking about divisions that, to some extent, have evolved over time.

But in Richland, they're sewn into the fabric of the place. It's the quintessential government town: they own the property, they own the businesses, they own everything. And they design the neighborhoods where workers live — choreographed clusters of houses whose size and style is represented by a letter of the alphabet.

Dave Bledsoe: "Right up here on the next corner of Davidson and Wardrup, on the left corner closest to us, is a G house. That tan looking house, that's where I lived.

Dave Bledsoe's a Seattle–born attorney who grew up in Richland. If you're a physics Ph.D. working on the bomb, you'd get one kind of house, he says. If you're a pipe fitter or boilermaker, you'd get another. We stopped outside two single family homes surrounded by lush, preternaturally green lawns.

Bledsoe: "One's a two–bedroom home, one's a one–bedroom home, one's an H house, one's a J house or whatever. I'm not sure I still get the designations right."

Dominic Black: "Lost the ability to know what you're looking at?"

Bledsoe: "But we used to classify folks a bit, we used to say they live in a J house over on X street. And that didn't necessarily carry a huge thing with it, but it was certainly a way to designate where somebody lived."

As we drove around town, Dave pointed out George Washington Way, the main street that bisects the old part of town; a main street that itself acted as a kind of dividing line in the early days, between what were thought of as the more fancy neighborhoods and what were thought of as the less fancy.

Then, we drove up past Richland High School — or, as everybody in town who I talked to called it, Richland High School, Home of the Bombers. Now, if where you live and what kind of house you live in symbolized one kind of division within Richland, the high school represents a division between Richland and everywhere else.

Lee Ann Powell is a graduate of Richland High. She grew up in town, she went university there and then she left for grad school in Pullman where she is doing a Ph.D. She is exploring, amongst other things, how Richland has grown since the beginning of the nuclear age.

The motivation to examine this part of the town's history came from a kind of light–bulb moment. There's Lee Ann, thinking lofty thoughts about the research she wants to do, fellow students to her right and left, none of them from Richland and none of them knowing that she is.

Powell: "I was in a class with a professor who was really into sports, and he loved talking about regional sports mascots, and he happened to hold up a Richland Bomber logo for the class, and so many people in the class were just horrified by the fact that this high school team would use the mushroom cloud as their mascot."

Yes, the mushroom cloud is the mascot. I must admit — and maybe this is just because I am an outsider — I was also surprised. Plutonium produced at Hanford was used for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Powell: "I realized that when I see the high school mascot, it means something completely different to me than it meant to these folks. I was envisioning band practice and football games and all of these fabulous memories."

While classmates, she says, were seeing burn victims, radiation sickness; you get the idea.

Powell: "And I thought to myself, people from Richland are different."

Dominic Black: "So, why are people different?"

Powell: "Well, in Richland you are raised to believe in the pride of what happened at Hanford during the war, and why nuclear and all things nuclear are a good thing."

So what Lee Ann calls the Richland version of the story is all about civic pride, the war effort and scientific achievement. And purely as concepts, these all fit very snugly into your average Seattleite's ideological fanny pack. Try and squeeze things nuclear in there as well though, and suddenly your average Seattleite's squirming like an itchy dog.

And that's not the only issue that makes a Seattlite uneasy. There's gun rights, for example. Salmon restoration. What to do about the dams. Industrial agriculture. In fact, these are all the same concerns that preoccupy eastsiders too, but for exactly the opposite reasons.

When I was in Richland, I was talking to Regina Speer about these contrasting but strangely similar anxieties. She's the chair of the Benton County Democrats, and she pointed out to me that these things can even divide people within the same party along the east–west axis.

Speer: "I've challenged a few of the Western Washington Democrats. The dams can't just be destroyed. They provide energy. If we destroy them, there will be problems with our irrigation over here. We can't eat just salmon. We have to have water for food. I'm more than willing to take up the fight when it's necessary, and I'm not backing away from the fact I was born and raised here."

Of course, that kind of feels like a family argument — if you're an outsider, you have to tread very carefully. And that caution holds true when you're talking about the Cascade Curtain itself. Because those three words create an instant snapshot of the state in our heads, framed with assumptions and symbols. Symbols, like the mushroom cloud mascot at Richland High School, that mean different things to different people.

All of which makes paring apart the strands of what's really going on in Washington state, well, not quite as difficult as splitting the atom. But nearly.

For KUOW, I'm Dominic Black.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW