alley activation plans / “Oz-like archipelago of Westside pleasure domes”

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This particular post is about something being done in the United States though it ties in to my discussion of the flâneur in European urban spaces. I continuously mention the “fetishization” of European experiences by not just Americans but even Europeans themselves – meaning you can easily find people in England who dream of Paris, people in Spain who fantasize about Berlin, etc etc. Choose your combo. That’s not to say there isn’t a fascination with particular cities in the States – New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc but that’s not my focus here.

I learned of the Alley Activation Plans for Pioneer Square here in Seattle through the City of the Future class. Essentially these are design and development plans to revamp some of the “unused” alleys throughout the Pioneer Square area (and other regions) of Seattle to make them more pedestrian and community friendly. You can read more about those plans here in the Seattle Times article about alley renovations, here on Seattle.gov Department of Transportation information, The Urbanist website’s recent coverage of several alley projects, at The Alliance for Pioneer Square website, and quick web search will turn up a great deal more coverage and information about these plans.

The plans speak to cleaning up the alleys in functional ways – better stormwater drainage, for example. But if you read through the plans, you’ll see mentions of Europe here and there or if you have ever traveled to Europe you’ll simply recognize some of the designs such as string tivoli lighting, cafe seating, etc. Cities here in the US are trying to create more European-style public spaces on sidewalks, in alleys. Several of these articles and design plans mention pedestrians and the ability to stroll – without realizing it, they’re conjuring the idea of the flâneur and the ability to “wander”. Though these plans are trying to guide that wandering by laying out the paths for you and hoping that you’ll be guided right into one of the cafes, restaurants, or shops lining these paths. It’s quite commercialized and with the intent of having you invest in these plans by spending money along your way which, if we go back to the origin of the flâneur, was also born out of a commercial space not entirely different from these alley activation plans. (The Arcades, great indoor hallways lined with shops which gave the walker refuge from the dirty, congested streets where one could be run down by a horse and carriage.) Though the flâneur himself was a watcher, and not a buyer.

“In 2011, the City of Seattle designated Nord Alley as a Festival Street, allowing ISI to close the alley to cars on select days. ISI teamed up with the local business improvement association, the Alliance for Pioneer Square, and the increasingly popular alley events drew people to the struggling neighborhood. In tandem with a monthly art walk, alley events became a destination unto themselves. Since that first rainy party, people have attended showings of the World Cup, the Tour de France, dance performances, cat adoptions and poetry slams. The events helped create a buzz about Pioneer Square during difficult economic times.  New retail shops, housing and offices now are moving into the neighborhood.

The alleys are entering a new phase as businesses take advantage of them as great places.  In 2011, Back Alley Bike Repair started serving bike commuters from a 700 square foot space that fronts the Nord Alley. Casco Antiguo built a deck out onto an alley for dinners. And other shops and businesses are reconfiguring themselves to utilize the alley.

What’s the next phase?  Now that people are using the alleys, they want them to be more accessible.  With support from the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, ISI sponsored a community-driven alley design process and hired engineers and architects to create a design that speaks to the area’s history, make alleys accessible to everyone, and creates an easy-to-maintain surface. A lighting plan gives property owners aesthetically pleasing options with two alleys lit with cantenary lights. Nord Alley and Pioneer Passage are currently under construction to add new stormwater infrastructure and surfaces. ”  (read more here).

The problem that I see is that, while it all sounds lovely, the write-ups of these plans often used the word “for everyone”. These spaces are not for everyone. They are being designed to push certain populations out. They are gentrifying. These spaces are for the privileged consumer, the “white” wannabe-flâneur, the people who love the idea of “strolling” and “wandering aimlessly” in what they feel is a clean, safe space. This though brings me to another quote from Mike Davis’s “Fortress L.A” in City of Quartz:

“This reformist vision of public space – as the emollient of class struggle, if not the bedrock of the American polis – is not as obsolete as Keynesian nostrums of full employment. In regard to the ‘mixing’ of classes, contemporary urban America is more like Victorian England than Walt Whitman’s or La Guardia’s New York. In Los Angeles, once-upon-a-time a demi-paradise of free beaches, luxurious parks, and ‘cruising strips’, genuinely democratic space is all but extinct. The Oz-like archipelago of Westside pleasure domes – a continuum of tony malls, arts centers and gourmet strips – is reciprocally dependent upon the social imprisonment of the third-world service proletariat who live in increasingly repressive ghettoes and barrios. In a city of several million yearning immigrants, public amenities are radically shrinking, parks are becoming derelict and beaches more segregated, libraries and playgrounds are closing, youth congregations of ordinary kinds are banned, and the streets are becoming more desolate and dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, as in other American cities, municipal policy has taken its lead from the security offensive and the middle-class demand for increased spatial and social insulation. De facto disinvestment in traditional public space and recreation has supported the shift of fiscal resources to corporate-defined redevelopment priorities. A pliant city government – in this case ironically professing to represent a bi-racial coalition of liberal whites and Blacks – has collaborated in the massive privatization of public space and the subsidization of new, racist enclaves (benignly described as ‘urban villages’)…”


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