Saturday, November 5, 2011


By Amy Baranski

A couple weeks ago, feeling inspired by the global unrest that's been fueled by economic disparity, I dove into Occupy Seattle. I wanted to see what this occupation business was all about. At the time, the Occupy Seattle participants were focused on Westlake Park. That means that a handful of activists, along with some homeless and street youth, set out to establish a camp along the lines of Occupy Wall Street. Or, at least they tried. I ventured downtown with my trusty blog partner, Melissa, for several days, and some evenings, and one almost-night, to observe and join the Occupy activities in Westlake Park.

Westlake park is my least favorite park in Seattle. It's weirdly angular and architecturally impotent. With no soft earth to feel under your feet, and a water feature that serves as a barrier to traffic rather than a central gathering point, Westlake is a failed plaza. It reads as an oversized sidewalk--the kind that begs for a "your mamma" joke.

The Seattle Parks web page pitches Westlake Park as "the perfect spot to take a break and admire the fountain, or watch shoppers as they visit the Westlake Mall and the surrounding retail stores." The architect of this limp open space that "lies in the heart of the downtown shopping district," is Robert Hanna. I know nothing of Robert Hanna except what's listed in his stoic New York Times obituary. The Seattle Parks site offers no history of the park's inception nor mention of Hanna. An Internet search reveals little in the top 20 links. Hanna was raised (but not born) in Seattle. He taught urban landscape architecture at U Penn. His middle name was Mitchell. He also designed Battery Park which sits at the southernmost tip of the Manhattan borough.

I enjoyed Battery Park as a tourist on my first trip to the city in the early Oughts. I even had lunch there with a friend before catching the Staten Island Ferry for my free drive-by viewing of the Statue of Liberty. I was on a budget. Battery Park is of course larger than Westlake, there are more trees, a view of the water, and more history and money behind it. The Battery Conservancy describes it as the front lawn of New York's downtown. Battery Park feels like a portal. Westlake--an unkempt kitchen corner.

I would never have a picnic at Westlake Park.

There is no romance there except for the sad attempts by a small grove of trees at the southern part of the park and some chintzy tables and chairs that are scattered about. The most iconic feature of the park is the Westlake Star Axis Waterfall. Observed out of context it's an intriguing structure, interactive even. From what I can find, the waterfall seems to be thoughtfully positioned to mark the spot where a creek that fed into Lake Union once started. Knowing this only dampens my spirits.

Westlake Park is also know locally as the protest park. At its northern end sits a stage that's hosted countless demonstrations. Occupy Seattle is one of them.

When the park swells with people, as it did on October 15, it's common to see a Zaccharaeus type figure sitting in one of the trees stretching to get a glimpse of the speaker. Except in this story, Zaccharaeus doesn't have any money, and isn't working for the Romans (the biblical one percenters).

Seattle's Parks Code prohibits camping in parks, as well as leaving personal items unattended. These two pieces of code tied the knot in the middle of Occupy Seattle's tug-of-war with the Mayor. The ever watchful eye of Seattle's Finest, working overtime, created a game of cat and mouse. A protester sets down a blanket and a police officer then confiscates it. On the night Melissa, Bob and I attempted to sleep at Westlake Park the protesters, in response to this tactic, chanted "picnic in the park is not a crime!" While being possibly one of my all-time favorite sentences, who were they kidding?

The protesters (including ourselves) were not there to picnic, to take in the sights and sounds of the park, to lay down on a comforting lawn, to watch children skip and play, to idle about eating finger food with legs outstretched. The protesters were there to resist these temptations of complacency. But how can you resist something that is intrinsically not afforded by the place you are in? Maybe Westlake Park is the crime.

1 comment:

MattR said...

Great post Amy.