USA Reflections West Coast: Seattle
Words by Nicholas Rogers
Photos by Liam Shoots
Tossed salad and scrambled eggs… My love for America began as a wildly pretentious kid, watching Frasier and wanting to grow up to have a life like his – the flash apartment, the witty repartee, the suede couch that’s an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier. And with the life came the city – Seattle, land, in Frasier world, of infinite restaurants, endless cultural treasures and a ceaseless mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Of wine clubs and galleries and dive bars and steak houses where the staff cut off your tie yelling, “TIMBER!”
Of course, even then I knew that Frasier wasn’t actually filmed in Seattle, that the view from his flat didn’t really exist and that his Seattle was an interpretation of the real place. But, still – I had to visit.
Liam and I travelled the east coast a few years running; New York, Boston, Maine, down to Florida. Our mutual love for America and our desire to explore the vastness of that most diverse of countries is one of the enduring features of our relationship. Almost without discussion we knew our next trip was to the West Coast. That meant starting in Seattle.
They call Seattle – as I knew, from Frasier – the Emerald City. There’s no better illustration of why than on the descent into SeaTac. I gazed, transfixed, as out to the west the Puget Sound and its islands unfolded in shimmering green, illuminated by the orange of a setting sun. The peaks of the Olympic National Park stood massive, monumental in the distance. A painted ship stood motionless on the painted ocean. It was quite the welcome.
That evening we did what you do in Seattle – the Space Needle. A classic piece of Mid-Century Modern architecture, complete with retro-futuristic monorail and street cars. I don’t know what the locals think of it – affection, I would imagine – but I love the place. And what a view. It was dark by the time we made the elevator journey to the top. We watched the lights of the Bainbridge Island ferry move across the black surface of the Sound, took in glowing Downtown and the aeroplanes queued over the airport, the bizarre, HG Wells-esque shapes at the foot of the Space Needle in Chihuly Glass Gardens. You haven’t really been a tourist in a city unless you’ve gone up something.
After a fantastic dinner and great cocktails at the Toulouse Petite Kitchen at the foot of the Counterbalance – “Apartment 1901 Elliott Bay Towers, off the Counterbalance” – we climbed up that long, steep street to Kerry Park in the plush Queen Anne district. The view from Kerry Park, zoomed in, is the view from Frasier’s apartment. We stood a while and looked at Emerald City shining in the night.
Architecture and urbanism are consistent themes of our America trips. The United States has a city culture that an amateur urbanist like me can only envy and Seattle’s urban landscape is full of interest. The city has gained a reputation for strong urban design. An example is the Gasworks Park on the north shore of Lake Union. Built on land reclaimed from – as the name suggests – an old gasworks, it is an excellent example of urban recycling. We watched seaplanes take off and land on the lake’s far shore and could not help but notice the bewildering number of cranes dotting the cityscape. Those cranes evidence the building boom Seattle is experiencing; throughout the city, everywhere you go, there is construction. New towers are flying up everywhere. Amazon, for example, has engulfed entire blocks of Downtown in its drive to build a 10,000,000-square foot campus for 50,000 workers.
Such vast expansion gives city leaders numerous headaches, not least of which is the question – what happens to the public realm? In common with other growing American cities, Seattle has incentivised developers to include privately-owned public spaces in their developments. This was the theme of a walking tour we took organised by the Seattle Architecture Foundation. Called ‘Hidden Spaces / Public Places’, it was a fascinating trip round some of the city’s most interesting nooks and crannies. We went up to roof gardens, down tunnels and basements, into lobbies, up stairs and escalators, across skyways – urban explorers in a glass and steel jungle.
We stayed in Ballard – a fine community north of the city proper – with our friend, musician and filmmaker Clyde Petersen. Clyde showed us another side of the city, different from the slick elegance of skyscraper lobbies. A decidedly un-Frasier side; a gay bar with a glory hole, wallpapered in pages of old porn rags; bar tabs in Changes; an artist’s studio hidden at the end of a winding maze of steps and corridors. We got drunk on gin and ate a Dick’s burger – Round One in the West Coast Battle of the Burgers – on the side of the road, laughing and joking on our way back to Clyde’s house. Ballard is a charming place full of microbreweries, cool restaurants and furniture stores. I bought a Reagan ’84 t-shirt in a thrift store. The hipster proprietor leant over the counter and whispered, ‘I love this shirt!’ Busted.
Four days wasn’t enough. Seattle is a wonderful city, full of interest and buzzing with frenetic activity. Everywhere there’s a new restaurant, a new building, something happening. I could have stayed for weeks. But, after a two hour wait at Union Station we boarded Amtrak’s massive Coast Starlight bound south for San Francisco. Frasier had left the building.