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A HUNDRED CITIES IN ONE
September 2nd, 2011 by Clark Humphrey

(Cross posted with the Capitol Hill Times.)

My book Walking Seattle, which I told you about here some months back, is finally out.

The big coming out party is Sunday, Sept. 24, 5 p.m., at the Elliott Bay Book Co. This event will include a 30-minute mini walk around the Pike-Pike neighborhood.

When I came up with the idea of a mini-walk, the store’s staff initially asked what the theme of my mini walk would be. Would it be about the gay scene, or the hipster bar scene, or the music scene, or classic apartment buildings, or houses of worship, or old buildings put to new uses?

The answer: Yes. It will be about all of the above. And more.

The reason: Part of what makes Capitol Hill so special (and such a great place to take a walk) is all the different subcultures that coexist here.

A tourist from the Northeast this summer told me he was initially confused to find so many different groups (racial, religious, and otherwise self-identified) in just about every neighborhood in this town.

Back where he came from, people who grew up in one district of a city (or even on one street) stayed there, out of loyalty and identity. But in Seattle you’ve got gays and artists and African immigrant families and Catholics and professors and cops and working stiffs and doctors all living all over the place. People and families go wherever they get the best real-estate deal at the time, no matter where it is.

On the Hill, this juxtaposition is only more magnified.

In terms of religion alone, Pike/Pine and its immediate surroundings feature Seattle’s premier Jewish congregation, its oldest traditionally African American congregation, the region’s top Catholic university, a “welcoming” (that means they like gays) Baptist church, Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, and a new age spiritual center. Former classic Methodist and Christian Science buildings are now repurposed to offices and condos respectively. And yet, in the eyes of many, the Hill is today better known for what happens on Saturday night than on Sunday morning.

A lot of Igor Keller’s Greater Seattle CD is a quaint look back at when this city’s neighborhoods could be easily typed, as they famously were on KING-TV’s old Almost Live!

Perhaps you might find a few more franchised vitamin sellers in Fremont, or a few more halal butchers near MLK and Othello.

But for the sheer variety of different groups and subgroups and sub-subgroups, there’s no place like this place anywhere near this place.

Though a lot of the time, these different “tribes” don’t live in harmony as much as in they silently tolerate one another’s presence.

To explain this, let’s look at another book.

British novelist China Mieville’s book The City and the City is a tale of two fictional eastern European city-states, “Bezsel” and “Ul Qoma.” These cities don’t merely border one another; they exist on the same real estate. The residents of each legally separate “city” are taught from birth to only interact with, or even recognize the existence of, the fellow citizens of their own “city.” If they, or ignorant tourists, try to cross over (even if it just means crossing a street), an efficient secret police force shows up and carts them away.

It’s easy to see that scenario as a metaphor for modern urban life in a lot of places, including the Hill. It’s not the oft talked about (and exaggerated) “Seattle freeze.” It’s people who consider themselves part of a “community” of shared interests more than a community of actual physical location.

The young immigrant learning a trade at Seattle Central Community College may feel little or no rapport with the aging rocker hanging out at a Pike/Pine bar. The high-tech commuter having a late dinner at a fashionable bistro may never talk to the single mom trying to hold on to her unit in an old apartment building.

Heck, even the gay men and the lesbians often live worlds apart.

It’s great to have all these different communities within the geographical community of the Hill.

But it would be greater to bring more of them together once in a while, to help form a tighter sense of us all belonging and working toward common goals.


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