Downtown Seattle, Waterfront & Alaskan Way Viaduct

If you’ve been a resident of Seattle for a few years, then you’re probably very familiar with how much the city has evolved between your earliest memory and most recent recollection.  The central business district of Seattle has expanded outwards and upwards, with dozens of new cranes surrounding the multiple construction sites and new buildings that did not exist a year ago or a decade ago.  You are probably very cognizant of the new tunnel that now goes underneath Seattle’s waterfront and downtown district, the latest feature of State Route 99 within Emerald City Limits. The tunnel has replaced the now antiquated, arguably unsightly and decrepit — and soon to be nonexistent (by September 2019) — bi-level Alaskan Way viaduct.

Farewell Viaduct Event (#BYEADUCT), Downtown Seattle (2019)

Admittedly, I’m often in support of preserving historical landmarks, buildings, and relics of the past, but I do opine that the viaduct is probably one artifact of Seattle that’s already enjoyed its heyday and should be demolished. The reason is primarily for safety (as a previously regular commuter on the ancient edifice). Secondarily, it’s for aesthetics as well, observing as a professional photographer who has enjoyed watching the city evolve over time. 

View of Alaskan Way Viaduct from Victor Steinbeck Park (2015)

Ultimately and ideally, after the tunnel opens to traffic in February 2019 – three years past its original completion date – Seattle’s beautiful waterfront will be more accentuated when the viaduct is torn down altogether.  My belief (or call it my very fanciful visage) is that the waterfront’s appearance will bear a resemblance to San Francisco’s gorgeous and ever-alluring Embarcadero along its world-renowned bay. When Seattle’s waterfront is completely renovated, it will likely become an even more popular attraction than it is currently, or has ever been, perhaps.

San Francisco’s Embarcadero is the border between the City and the Bay

By providing this prologue prefaced with prose and pictures, the story that I would like to share took place when construction was just about to break ground for the new tunnel, back in 2011. This was before several segments of the viaduct would be torn down to make room for the site that would become the southern portal of the tunnel, just a few blocks away from Seattle’s sports stadiums where the Seahawks, Mariners, and Sounders draw thousands of spectators and fans. (The location of these stadiums in conjunction with the traffic that flows between the incredibly narrow space sandwiched between two major highways and two city avenues, thus causing one of the city’s most mind-boggling bottlenecks, is another story for another time).

This story also recalls one of my few encounters with the Seattle Police Department as a professional photographer – more specifically, as a professional photographer of color.  As a black man exploring the streets of major cities around the world, I’m always extraordinarily cautious of how I conduct my photography, especially in American cities. I never let my guard down in case an undesired encounter or unexpected altercation should occur.  I’ve been mentally programmed since childhood to be vigilant and sharp of my surroundings, but to remain calm, cool, and collected, regardless of the situation. This conduct is essentially ingrained with all my daily activities outside of my home, whether Ananda (that’s the name I gave to my Sony Alpha A99 camera) is with me or not.

In April 2011, on Easter Sunday, all the elements of such a situation materialized, and I was ready.  Just a few months earlier, some security guards in Philadelphia had escorted me from a parking garage.  In that scenario, which I found humorous and silly, I was escorted from the premises not because I was taking photographs from the uppermost level, but because I wasn’t using the garage for its intended purpose.

My car was parked on the street, two blocks away.  As a result, I was not generating income for the parking garage, so I was asked to leave. Fortunately, by the time the security guards approached me, I had already obtained the pictures I wanted of Philly’s Center City, such as the above image of City Hall and Broad Street at night.

Anyway, back to Seattle…

I was driving northbound on a part of the viaduct that was later demolished.  This part of the highway had an exclusive shoulder lane for a few vehicles to park in case of an emergency.  In fact, there was a small sign posted on the guardrail of the lane that specifically stated that cars could be there for emergency reasons only.

However, what might have escaped most people (especially those who don’t have an interest in cityscapes) was that this spot on the shoulder lane offered a most marvelous view of the downtown Seattle skyline, and I adored this view with the entire core of my being. (I know I sound dramatic, but if you love our skyline, you know what I’m talking about and can sing the praises of this view with me).  The evening on that Easter Sunday was clear and the traffic was light.  The arches of CenturyLink Field (which was still “Qwest Field” in 2011), home of the Seattle Seahawks football team, was illuminated in green lights to the right of the viaduct.

I think it was only the second time (out of what would be several times) that I had stopped in that spot and spent a few minutes to set up my tripod and take some photographs as the cars and trucks zoomed by me.  I also liked the view because it was a rare and atypical one, which is what TIA strives to achieve with cityscape photography. It’s part of my photography business’ mission, in fact!

I proceeded to set up my equipment on the concrete of the shoulder lane.  I had my earphones on as I like to listen to music on my iPod while capturing my subject matter. As the cars and trucks sped by, anyone who saw me could see exactly what I was doing. I purposely made no secret of my actions.  In fact, with my photography business, I strive to make sure anyone who sees me can deduce exactly what I’m doing.  This behavior is deliberate to ensure that I never appear suspicious or clandestine.  

In retrospect, this conduct likely helped me when I saw the extremely bright red, white, and blue lights revolving when a police car parked in front of mine along the isolated shoulder of the viaduct. I was grateful that the sirens weren’t blaring as the sound probably would have shocked and infuriated me.

As the police car parked, I sighed deeply, frowning at the thought of what this encounter could mean. “There goes my photo opportunity,” I thought irritably.  Nevertheless, I continued to capture my long exposures of the Seattle skyline shortly after the sun had set.  The blue hour was in full effect, and downtown looked beautiful.  In light of this attractive ambiance, my frown partially faded.  If I was instructed to pack up there and then, at least I had one or two shots for my portfolio regardless.

The officer slowly came out of his car.  He was a slim, white guy of average height with brown hair, perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, clad in the navy blue Seattle Police Department uniform. 

As he walked towards me, my thoughts briefly went into a retrospective mode, in which sentences in my mind were preceded with, “What if I had…”, “If only I had…”, “If not for…”, “Why did I…” etc. I had not initially planned to go out that evening, but one of my closest friends (who lives in Toronto) encouraged me, via a conversation on Facebook, to get off my derriere and take advantage of the beautiful sunset I had mentioned to him. He had given me very good advice, which he often does unbeknownst to him.  (I don’t know how many times I have been able to obtain excellent photos because he encouraged me to get outside and do what I love to do.  I suppose I need more motivation than I realize at times, even in present day). A few minutes later, there I was at my location on the emergency-only shoulder lane of the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Space Needle, Seattle Skyline & Waterfront from the Viaduct (2010)

As the officer approached me, I turned around, expecting a nasty attitude and rude tone from him. I asked calmly, “Do you need me to vacate?”

At this point, I already had a preconceived vision of what was about to happen – a negative exchange between a white police officer and a black man who happened to be a photographer. What I had not expected was the officer’s facial expression to be friendly.  In fact, I was surprised to realize that his body language – specifically his gait – and facial expression communicated concern instead of animosity.  To be completely honest, his behavior temporarily confounded me for a few moments. What was going on?  What did he want?

To be objective and fair, I was situated in a location that was only permissible for emergency situations, and there was no emergency in my case. In addition, the viaduct was so doddery, one could literally feel the structure vibrating when large trucks and buses roared past, so it probably was not advisable to stay there long. (I wouldn’t advise it myself, which is part of the reason that I believe it is beneficial that the entire structure is completely demolished).

To my surprise, the officer’s response to my question was amiable and conciliatory. He said, “Oh no, I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

I told him I was a photographer and on a mission to capture some images before it was completely dark. I added that I only needed a few more minutes to complete my assignment. The officer regarded me, my equipment, then the skyline, and nodded. He said he understood.

Seneca Street Exit, Alaskan Way Viaduct (2019)

“It is a beautiful night and look at all those lights. Our city is beautiful. We’re so lucky to live in this part of the country. Well, as long as you’re alright, then no problem,” he said with a cheerful tone. The officer walked back to his car, and switched off those invasive siren lights as he drove northbound down the highway.  

Somewhat sheepishly, as I watched the police car disappear from view, it occurred to me to have some empathy for the officer.  As I tried to imagine myself in his shoes while extricating all the stereotypical scenarios and politics, it occurred to me that – perhaps – the officer found it unusual for someone to be parked on the emergency shoulder lane of the viaduct and was, in fact, concerned for my safety. He didn’t have to say it. My entire dialogue with him drove the message home.  Retrospectively, I thought, had I been in a real emergency at that time, I probably would have been glad or relieved that he had stopped.  If the officer had not been cordial, my assumptions would have been reinforced. It was a matter of perspective and circumstances – all of which were complicated, none of which were predictable.  I was a bit melancholic that the politics and history of the interaction between the police and people of color around the country had led to so many assumptions on my part, but it was a reality I had no choice but to accept. I wasn’t ignorant of the possibility that the same exchange could have transpired in a very different way that could have been detrimental for me.  Fortunately, for everyone involved, that was not the case this time.

After I had captured enough shots of the skyline, and the sky had lost its enchanting, charming blue hues, I packed my equipment, entered my car, and returned home.  For that Easter Sunday, I was alright.

Under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Downtown Seattle

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