Destination: Denny Regrade

One of the best theoretical questions out there is this:  “If you had a one-time-only use of a time machine, when and where would you go?”  Of course this query should invoke a seriously wide variety of responses, all of which, however, would fit into only 3 categories:

1)      “I want to go back and change something in my personal past,” like perhaps going to a certain college, or maybe hanging out with a deceased loved one a little more.

2)      “I want to go back and be a fly on a wall for some awesome event or era,” maybe the painting of the Sistine Chapel or to just live during the Roaring Twenties.

3)      “I want to go back and change history,”  like possibly making sure Hitler got accepted into art school or maybe infecting Lee Harvey Oswald with Ebola so he won’t be at work the day the Kennedy Motorcade passes by.

If you prescribe to the Butterfly Effect (which states that even the minutest changes to the past will resonate in ever more profound waves of historical change through the years) then you could maybe take care of all 3 in one trip.  Here’s mine (if I were to go this way):

“Since it’s been bothering me anyway, I’d go back to that time 11 years ago last June when I was at the Old Spaghetti Factory on Elliott Avenue in Seattle and I’d order the more exciting Mizithra Cheese and Browned Butter instead of the same old Sicilian Meatballs.”  Because who knows, after 11 years of the butterfly effect we might all have flying cars!

But that’s not my choice.  My choice does have to do with Seattle, however.  It even has to do with a place really close to where the Old Spaghetti Factory still sits.

I’d choose option #2, I’d go back to Seattle in the first decade of the 20th Century, when there was some really crazy stuff going down in my loveable old town!  This was not the Seattle of kale salads, pea patches and the 12th Man; it was a rough and tumble time when men and women literally moved the earth to shape the city the way they envisioned it.  Though I would find almost everything to be different I would likely find at least the rudimentary beginnings of the archetypal Seattleite that I know and love, stubborn but also a little flaky.

So I climb aboard my hypothetical time machine and dial in the date: 1905 and the destination: Denny Regrade.  “Presto!”  I find myself on a hill with a viewpoint I’d never enjoyed in real life, looking to my right at Queen Anne Hill and with Capitol Hill behind me, but at nearly the same height.  I look in front of me and towards the waterfront and see giant hydraulic sluicing machines bringing an endless parade of dirt towards Elliott Bay and dumping it right in.  No tall buildings and of course no Space Needle, which would be built a little to the front and below me in about 55 years.

The Microsoft Campus is still a forest and Queen Anne is missing its 3 radio towers.  Fremont does not yet consider itself weird and Ballard will not consider itself a part of Seattle for 2 more years (some Ballardians still don’t).

Standing there on one of the Seven Hills of Seattle (for the time being at least) I wonder, “Why the fuck are they doing this?!”  Does the hill block the view of downtown from the still landlocked (but for only one more year) Lake Union?  Well, yes but…… If they’re not planning to do this to all the hills, then why this one?  What did it do to piss off the city fathers?

It turns out the Regrade was done to promote business growth a little up north towards Lake Union.  The downtown area was too small.  They had successfully completed the 1st Avenue Regrade about 6 years before and, heady from their success, decided to slice up the entirety of Denny Hill and toss most of it into the bay (some of it went to build up the waterfront near where the stadiums are now).

Looking down at 1st Avenue, I “remembered” a day 100 years into the future, nearly out of breath as I walked 1st Avenue from Pike Place Market to Safeco Field for a Mariners game.  Faced with a long and gradual upslope climb, I was either out of shape or 1st Ave was a real mess before 1896.

“1905, 1905:” I let the numbers roll around in my mouth.  It’s only 16 years after the whole business district of Seattle burned to the ground in the Great Seattle Fire.  That was a doozy.  Taking advantage of the fact that the area where present day Pioneer Square was built was situated on a seeping tidal flat; when the whole thing burned down, they rebuilt it the right way, 22 feet higher.

The view from Denny Hill, looking south

The view from Denny Hill around 1880, looking south

For years this created the comical sight of people leaving work and having to climb a ladder to cross the street (where another ladder waited for them to climb back down).  This was because the rebuilding of the streets and sidewalks surpassed some stubborn Seattleites’ acceptance of the fact that their buildings had to be raised too.  It also created the not-so-comical sight of death certificates stating death by “fall from sidewalk.”  And that did happen several times.

Some business owners were too stubborn to raise their buildings and some would promise to do so only to miss deadline after deadline.  “Hmmm, those people seemed kind of flaky,” I muse as I look down to my left at the new sidewalks a mile away towards Yesler Way.

It’s also only 6 years after the end of the Klondike Gold Rush, an event that really put Seattle on the map.  Seattle was a way station for prospectors on their way north; the town was a small pause in their gold frenzy.  A guy named John Nordstrom was one of those prospectors.  I realize, “Hey, he just opened his clothing store 4 years ago; maybe if I stick around he will give me a job.”  For as a 21st century man I’m either wildly underqualified or vastly overqualified for the work available here, working at Nordstrom’s would probably be like working at Eddie Bauer’s (which will open 15 years hence), just with woolier North Face equivalents.

Instead, enjoying the inversion layer (what 1905ers probably call “that infernal drizzle”); I turn around and get back on my time machine (by the way it looks exactly like the one in the 1956 movie).  I hope for, but don’t count on, a sunbreak somewhere down the road.

Why am I here anyway?  I’m at the Denny Regrade because I love to see big piles of earth moved around.  It’s just that simple.  It’s a gigantic landscaping project and the sight of it in person does not disappoint.  Also, to see the determination of a big infrastructure project come to fruition is awe-inspiring.  In my day a big tunnel borer called Big Bertha was stalled for months (near where the Great Seattle fire happened) due to underground obstructions.

Finishing my musings, I figured it was about time to go.  I guess I just had to see it to believe it and though I didn’t do much more than stand there and look around, I got what I came for.  But I have an idea, let’s skip ahead 5 years, shall we?  I can’t wait to see what things look like in 1910!

“Presto!” or “Zoing!” (Fill in whatever time machine sound you want) I appear in the year 1910, where I have caught a sunbreak.  Seattle has just had its first World’s Fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.  It may have been a mouthful to say and I’m suddenly sorry that I missed it by only one little year.  I’ve already violated the terms of my hypothetical time travel wish by making a second trip but I promise to myself it will be my last one…..

The smell of earth is overpowering today. I look around and realize I’m looking up at the same stuff I was level with before; I’m about 100 feet lower now, and I was not even on the tallest part of Denny Hill in ’05.  And I have to say, shit has gotten weird.  There are several examples of what look like giant termite mounds with houses perched on top.  I already know that I’m seeing this because some (yes, stubborn) Seattleites refused to sell their property to the city for the Regrade, so the workmen just clawed their way around them.  The chance to see this is the reason I broke the rules and leapt forward to 1910 in the first place.

“Break out those ladders folks; it’s time for me to climb up to my front porch!”

It’s kind of cool actually, seeing it in person (and in color, don’t forget!) makes me respect the plucky determination of early city residents, though it surely must have been a pain in the ass to everyone around them.  The guy in the house in front and way above me is certainly the spiritual grandfather of Edith Macefield, who almost 100 years later would refuse to sell her house, even when everything around her had sold to a real estate developer.  I look up and wonder, “Wouldn’t it be cool if they really were  related?!”  Now her old house is surrounded by condos and an LA Fitness.  Like the Fremont Troll, it had become kind of a freaky landmark by my time.

Edith's House; they may yet raise it and turn it into a museum

Edith’s House; they may yet raise it and turn it into a museum

My years in Seattle comprised the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st Centuries, a time of a lot of change in ol’ CoffeeTown.  I met a lot of people that are really beloved to me to this day.  I was also stood up countless times by locals for things as mundane as a movie at Oak Tree Theater or as cool as Twilight Zone episodes performed live by Theater Schmeater.

I could never figure that one out, Ben or Delia or Joe or Ursula would invariably deliver a variation of this as explanation, “Yeah I never made it out of the house, sorry man.”  That was always it, nothing grandiose about it.  Whether standing patiently on the Burke-Gilman Trail or seated alone at Gordito’s Mexican, for some reason or other I never got mad; I never held it against them.  The people I befriended in Seattle were just so….nice.  Instead I always laughed it off and called them flakes.

My theoretical time machine trip has however, given me a chance to reevaluate this name-calling.  Now that I’ve shaken the dirt off my clothes and zipped back one last time to 2014 Atlanta, I decide that after all I’ve seen I should just give them a break.  The historical Seattleite, like the one of today, would just explain themselves like this: “Yeah I’m sorry I just never sold to the city, man,” or “Wow, I guess I never bothered to rebuild my business 22 feet higher, man.”  You just can’t hold it against them, they’re too nice!

It’s not flakiness; it’s just a different kind of stubbornness (I’m sticking to that part of my thesis).  Parts of the city may have risen and fallen, sculpted by calloused hands on differing whims.  The Seattleite just wants to go his own way, that’s all.  He or she is a little stubborn.  Also, I learned that he really loves his house, he doesn’t want it lowered or raised or moved; and sometimes (as I found many times) he doesn’t even wanna leave it.   And if that means sometimes you have to eat at Snappy Dragon by yourself then so be it.  All in all it’s really worth it; it’s truly a wonderful place filled with warm people.  And as I’ve gleaned so much from my visit to 1905 Seattle I now ask you, “If you had a one-time (or 2) use of a time machine when and where would you go?”

2 replies
  1. Alannah Murphy
    Alannah Murphy says:

    Great story about Seattle, one I had no idea about as I know nothing about Seattle, other that it rains a lot, and I think that’s just from the film When Harry Met Sally, and for all I know, it’s not true, since the always lie to you in the movies.

    That poor little house, surrounded by all that ugly concrete, think the saddest thing of all, is the tree, but happy to see the house is still there, and yes, hope it gets turned into a museum and it’s never torn down!

    Love the time machine question. Hmm. My answer, is always the same. I would go back to London in the time of Jack the Ripper, so that’s 1888. I’d like to see the city as it was, the horrific slums. Decadent Soho, and maybe catch a glimpse of Jack, though from far away so he doesn’t make me his victim!
    Trip number to, London again, but this time, a bit forward, 1982 and I’d go to the Old Vic, to see Bauhaus, my favourite band, who I never got to see.
    I’d not change anything about history though, because I think everything happens for a reason.


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