learning from the ‘High Line’ next door

An abandoned cable car bridge in Seattle (pictured here in multiple views) could carry the same message of reinvention as New York City’s celebrated High Line, the notable elevated railway-turned-park.

In “The Necessity for Ruins” (1980), landscape essayist J.B. Jackson explained that such leftover edifices often inspire us “to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty”.  I’ve often written of Jackson’s advocacy for the use of ruins—not for what we now call “urban exploration” of abandoned places—but to reclaim what worked before.

With Jackson in mind, I often look for walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented places, reminiscent of times gone by. Such places are already inherent in the evolving city around us—remnants of earlier land uses and infrastructure eerily similar to what pundits call for today. These leftovers merge with changing lifestyles, and illustrate firsthand Jackson’s championing of accessible, nostalgic vestiges of an urban past.

In Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood (as illustrated by these photos), the city of 2012 overlays the city of 1930.  As the use of automobiles increased, infrastructure, such as the former cable car bridge, went out of service. In 1940, the cable car line was abandoned and replaced by a bus line.

These images of Frink Park (a portion of the 1903 Olmsted park plan), are consistent with today’s urbanist ideals, and show the juxtaposition of the bridge, bicyclist and pedestrian.  On the old track-bed, a piece of the park now continues, and becomes a trail through the hillside woods above.

How would Jackson interpret the cable car remains? Have they been lost to time, or are they an example of the inspirational reminder which Jackson describes? 

I choose the Jackson view.

Nearby, today’s light rail is assuming the former role of the cable car.  The Sound Transit tracks proceed northward, as the buildout of the region’s light rail system continues. In the next decade, light rail will turn east as well, and cross Lake Washington, not far south of the cable car’s former terminus—a dock for a long discontinued trans-lake ferry.

As Jackson noted, “Ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins”.  So too, they give incentive for finding your own “High Line”, often just next door.

Initial image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives. Remainder of images composed by the author. Click on each image for detail.

A similar version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic Cities.

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