In the course of Seattle’s attempt to come to grips with the reality that it is a growing metropolitan area with some of the worst traffic in the United States, an artist community has become an unfortunate victim. The issue of the safety of the Alaskan Way Viaduct has been in question for multiple years, particularly after the 1989 earthquake that shook the Bay Area. Though the quake only lasted for around 15 seconds, it was enough to cause the Cypress Highway in Oakland to collapse. What was startling about this was that the
Cypress and Viaduct have many similarities, they are both tall cement structures with two decks (upper and lower) set into wet silt or mud. During the 1989 earthquake the upper deck of the Cypress fell onto the lower deck crushing 42 people. Those images have not been forgotten and thus here we are today, the ripples of the SanFrancisco earthquake shaking a community of artists out of their workspace.
The cliche, “you can’t stop progress” is so true that it will probably outlast most other cliches and just shore’s up the need to eliminate the Viaduct. Engineers and scientists from the University of Washington seismic laboratory have said for a while now that the structure will not sustain another major earthquake after the massive one in February of 2001. Merely yards away from the Viaduct, the sea wall that keeps large portions of Seattle from washing into the Puget Sound is literally rotting away, requiring a massive hole to be dug in order to protect against ever-so-slightly rising sea water. Then there is the traffic. The viaduct actually does a pretty good job with that, but the volume of cars far exceeds that of the Cypress Highway, meaning that if there is a disaster, potentially hundreds of people could be killed. That’s because, from the cracked top to the sinking bottom, it is structurally unsound, much like 619 Western, the large cement building housing an artist community that stands merely feet from the structure.
The building itself rises and lowers on its soft foundation 3 inches with the tide every day. Built in 1901, it has survived many earthquakes including the 1968 and 2001 earthquakes along with the multiple tremors Seattle experiences periodically. There is a gargantuan crack down the middle of the building, a battle scar showing its age and fortitude. Though it has been a warehouse and factory through the decades, it was only in old age that it has found its soul. About 30 years ago artists moved in and have welcomed thousands of people to climb the creaky wooden stairs to the little studios seemingly hidden throughout the floors. Go there on any given day or night and there is the smell of paint and wine, the sound of various types of music echoing with interspersed with laughter, and the ever present thick air of of the age of the building. It is a community. A place to meet other artists, to network, to be inspired, and, like the blue collar past of the building, a place to work. The building has all the makings of a community, but not-only that, a culture.
The artist culture is what differentiates places that have many artists, which can be any city in the world, to a place that promotes creativity, communication, and protection from crushing market forces. The artists at 619 Western understand this and worked very hard to save the building. They were successful, convincing the people in charge to repair it and make the spaces available to artists again. But while the building is repaired, the Viaduct will be torn down creating unobstructed views of the Puget Sound right above the ferry terminal making 619 Western one of the most desired and potentially most expensive places to live on the west coast. The artist have been told they are welcome to return. They won’t.
The end of a building full of artists is a sad thing, yes, but it is essential to the safety and efficiency of society. The artists are dispersed for now, but artists gather, that’s what they do. They have not lost the ear or the support of a sympathetic community. As buildings age, opportunities for artists to splatter paint on the walls and use the space to its logical conclusion will always arise, both within the city and on its outskirts. It is the ebb and flow of progress. Art understands this because art and those who create it aren’t stuck in the past. They are creators and thus with the demise of 619 Western, they go on to create new things in new places and lead the march of creative progress.
Written by Jeremy Cairns