river, highway, and market (3.4)

Columbia City Farmers Market
Columbia City Farmers Market with 25k sqft grocery store under construction in the background. Photo by author.

There is a half acre lot for sale next to the light rail station in my Seattle neighborhood, Columbia City. The lot is subdivided into 8 parcels. The current owner evidently devised a plan to build townhomes here, but ran into a big problem. Much of the lot is classified wetland making it nearly impossible to build even one single family house without an assuredly arduous variance request.

This wetland is on S Edmunds, just west of the Columbia City light rail station. Walk east along S Edmunds toward Rainier Avenue South and you’ll come across Columbia Park. A meandering path through the park will lead you past a large construction site and a Carnegie-funded branch of the Seattle Public Library before dumping you on to the shores of a busy intersection: S Alaska and Rainier Ave S.

Walking down the path, I get the feeling of a form. This path isn’t winding for the sake of winding. Rather, it feels as though I’m floating down a stream and if I ignore this busy intersection I’ll continue floating down towards something. I’m “riding the tiger” and the flow of chi is perfect here and very slow beyond through Genesee Park. It is easy to imagine a river once flowing down this park, through the low-lying fields that is Genesee Park, and into Lake Washington.

Wetmore Slough in 1920, three years after the completion of Lake Washington Ship Canal. Source: Seattle Municipal Archives
Wetmore Slough (now Genesee Park) in 1920, three years after the completion of Lake Washington Ship Canal. Source: Seattle Municipal Archives

With the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in the 1917, so went the dreams of turning Columbia City into a port. The Ship Canal dropped the water level of Lake Washington, draining that swampland, then called Wetmore Slough (now Genesee Park), and therewith pulling the town away from the lake.

Back in the wetland off of S Edmunds, you’ll find a¬†pond under the thick growth secured by a fallen fence and a motion detector afixed¬†to a tree. Stand here a while and you may begin to feel from the pond the pent-up aspirations of a creek. Here once was a river¬†that flowed through the neighborhood¬†and was the¬†natal stream of silver salmon. The Salish people named it the¬†‚Äúchoked-up mouth‚ÄĚ (Sqa‚Äôtsld), a reference to the¬†dead trees that used to lay in the path of the creek. Today its¬†path is snagged by two major arterials, a light rail, and the net of residential streets and commercial buildings.

Now, like the¬†lost Saraswati River, Sqa’tsld’s mythical presence may still be experienced in street use and social practice. On a Wednesday afternoon during the Summer, a bustling farmers¬†market occupies a portion of S Edmunds at Columbia Park. A man-sized salmon slowly homes up the path amid a¬†melee of delighted children while adult patrons purchase their pickings of local, organic produce from the vendors along the street. Like a guardian to this weekly¬†performance, a 25 000 sqft cooperative-owned grocery store in a¬†200 unit apartment building rises above the trees by the park. Consensus opinion in the community is that the supermarket will not supplant the street¬†market, because of a¬†complimentary social mission. There’s something to that idea that opens up possibility for the choked-up river.

Columbia City Farmers Market
Columbia City Farmers Market with 25k sqft grocery store under construction in the background. Photo by author.

Many¬†market-based¬†economic theories¬†usually start¬†with some story of an ancient market in a village where people came together to exchange goods. First came the market and then much, much later, the supermarket. Lewis Mumford, however, argues that the supermarket predates the market. The market doesn’t show up in the¬†history of the city with a distinct space until after it appears within the city temple. Within temples,¬†“every form of goods, agricultural and industrial, would be brought for direct taxation before redistribution.”

I look at the supermarket under construction now in reverse. Like the reverse¬†reading of the physical environment back up to the source of the creek, I see the supermarket as¬†establishing a vector for the city by Sqa’tsld. This reverse reading sparks a curiosity. What is the¬†meaning of this space where the creek is now choked-up? What is the meaning of this time where the market and a supermarket occur in synchronicity? With this in mind, what¬†kinds of social uses can we imagine for the wetland by the light rail station.

I return back to the half acre lot of wetland. Deep within the city, yet so far outside it. I imagine a¬†Fujimori teahouse. A portal view across the wetland pond over the valley. I imagine it as¬†a public space, a social code is used to activate it. A friend gifts another tea. Or perhaps a different¬†set of four neighbors are invited to conduct a tea ceremony, to share in the space, communing¬†over¬†the spring¬†of¬†Sqa’tsld¬†the past and the potential that continues to flow and shape life downstream. A place to return to for ritual renewal and not just to hop on the light rail.

fujimori terunobu guest house
A Fujimori guest house. Okay, not a tea house, but the form and setting suite the location up S Edmunds as a tea house. Source: Dwell Magazine.

This would be¬†the inversion of the temple function that spawned¬†the supermarket. Distribution within the temple-based supermarket occurs¬†by barter, by festival, and by gift. Along Sqa’tsld the market is the festival, the supermarket is for¬†barter, and the tea house is for the¬†gift.