I drove through Arboretum most every day. It was my afternoon treat when picking up Trouble & Trouble at Valley School in Madison Valley on the edge of Central District. Being embraced by the greenery on the winding Lake Washington Boulevard on my way down there, then one more time on my way back. I loved it, I just loved it. And knowing there might have been a freeway instead of the Japanese Garden, made the drive even more precious.
First time I saw them was 1993 when we stayed in Juanita, Kirkland, east of Lake Washington for three months. Passing the lake on the 520 bridge they are on your right side driving from Seattle. The Seattle ramps to nowhere. It was our friend Harold, Trouble & Trouble’s American grandpa telling us the story.
In the 1960s there were far advanced plans for a north-south freeway, the four-lane R.H. Thomson Expressway to parallel I-5. It would have run through the Arboretum, mostly destroying it, and then south along what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Way. But the legendary citizen uprising in the late 60s and early 70s ruined those plans and that’s why Arboretum is still one of Seattle’s green lungs!
Although, there is the ramps.
The freeway project was so far gone some parts of it was already built. Like parts of the ramps leading from the 520 bridge over the water and into the Arboretum in the Montlake neighborhood. But right in the middle of those ramps, the R.H. Thomson Expressway was killed off in a 71 percent vote of the city after a 10-year battle. And since then the cut off ramps over the water nature preserve has been a ruin telling the story of the power of citizen uprising.
Until now. Because this week the work taking down those ramps started. So is everyone happy now? Of course not!
In unofficial Seattle, there’s more sadness than joy. In fact there has been a drive to try to save the ramps — pushed by some of the same activists who fought them being built more than 50 years ago!
- “I still can’t quite believe they’re coming down,” says Anna Rudd, 74, who was in her 20s when she helped make sure the ramps would never lead anywhere.
When Rudd went to community groups to drum up support for saving the ramps, she was amazed how almost everyone had a ramp-jumping story. There’s a whole secret society in Seattle Anna Rudd found out. Generations of kids would ride their bikes down to the ramps to jump off, then not tell their parents about it until they became adults. Countless UW students jumped. The whole Garfield football team used to jump. It turns out it’s a Seattle rite of passage. Also popular was sunbathing, stargazing and frat-hazing rituals. The homeless used the ramps for shelter, lovers to canoe beneath.
But the ramps are coming down. The new 520 bridge over Lake Washington is wider, now in process and progress, and the Arboretum folks want their preserve back. The activists who blocked the expressway now quixotically hope to save pieces of the ramps for a monument.
- These aren’t just ramps, Anna Rudd said. “They’re literally a concrete example of how citizens can gather together and choose their own destiny. 51 years ago, they were an embarrassing mistake. Yet over time they became a real place, wriggling into the life of the city until they turned into the most unlikely objects of Seattle pride".
The cut off road on giant concrete pillars are symbols of hubris. Or maybe the ramps show that you can beat City Hall. Either way it was on those ramps that the ethic of progress at all costs gave way to the everyone-gets-a-say process that so defines Seattle politics today.
I am trying to think of a similar example in Umeå. As the Umeå politics is defined by the same everyone-gets-a-say process I’m sure there is one but from the top of my head I can’t come up with an example.
I am thinking though about the new public indoor pool that’s under construction in Downtown Umeå. I haven’t heard of one single person who wants it there. We need a new great public indoor pool, yes, but there are several other spots to place it than right in the middle of the city center. This was the only spot the Umeå politicians could agree on though. What had happened if the Umeå citizens would have had a vote on it? If we would vote now, in the middle of the construction? It’s an interesting thought.Trouble & Trouble and I used to watch the 520 bridge through the panorama window in our home on Boyer Avenue. I still love driving through Arboretum, and since my chiropractor and dear friend Randi has her office on Madison in the valley I have had many reasons to take that route and enjoy the winding greenery. Will I miss the ramps? Well I don’t have a personal connection to them other than they being a part of the Seattle history. And in that sense they are important. Even to me.