Journeys Around Seattle, #50: Pioneer Square

December 23, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Last Sunday, on a bright gray winter morning, I walked from my apartment in Capitol Hill down to Pioneer Square, which is the oldest part of downtown and occupies a region of several square blocks to the south of the "modern" downtown. It's an area of old brick and stone buildings, many dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It has lots of quirky little retail shops, including independent bookstores (The Globe), Seattle's best toy store (Magic Mouse Toys), a really cool rock and gem store (Agate Designs), and a lot more. It's also known for some of Seattle's best lunch restaurants-- several places, including Salumi and Tat's Deli, are famous not just for their food but for having long lines for hours every weekday as office workers from all over downtown migrate there for lunch.

Pioneer Square does have its share of problems. Most of its area is on land that was once a tidal flat, but the ground has been built up as a result of large earthwork projects through the city's history. This is fairly standard stuff, although with the recent clusterfuck of a project to build a road tunnel under downtown Seattle, the whole area has sunk 1-2 inches as groundwater has been pumped away, causing minor damage to some of the buildings. In the days before I did this walk, I joked only half-kiddingly that I was coming to document the area before it all collapsed into a giant pit.

The neighborhood has had other difficulties, too. The area has probably Seattle's largest concentration of homeless people; you can see people sleeping in alcoves, on park benches, and old streetcar platforms at all hours of the day. There are quite a few missions in the area providing services, but in Occidental Park, my first destination of the day, most of the benches were taken up by folks who clearly had nowhere else to stay. I didn't feel unsafe, or threatened by the people there, but it is a visible reminder of the social issues that the city-- and our society in general-- still need to address. I considered whether to document the people in my photographs, but ultimately, out of respect for their privacy, I decided not to, and went on with taking pictures of the area.

With the trees bare, the tall skyscrapers of downtown were visible from the park, which made for some nice views. There's a firefighters' memorial located at the park, as well as two totem poles by local native tribes. At the nearby information booth, I picked up a brochure with a walking tour of the area, and decided to follow the tour, starting at a nearby national park which was actually more of a museum dedicated to the Klondike Gold Rush. During the gold rush, Seattle became a central staging point for prospectors heading north to seek the fortune, which helped put the city on the national map. One of the more interesting exhibits I found was an old camera of the sort which might have been carried by a prospector or photographer of the time.

From there, I followed the walking tour and walked a loop around the neighborhood, taking me past lots of local shops to the small triangular plaza called "Pioneer Square" from which the neighborhood gets its name. From there, I continued the loop, eventually getting toward the area where Pioneer Square starts to meet with the International District, to the south and southwest. From there I could look back toward downtown and see the entrance to a railway tunnel that takes Amtrak trains and freight traffic under downtown, which I hadn't even known existed until that point. The historic King Street station is also nearby, which is still an active station for frequent Amtrak and commuter trains.

Back at Occidental Park, I detoured from the map slightly to find a little nearby area called Waterfall Garden Park, with a 22-foot waterfall, located on the site of the original headquarters of UPS. It was a nice little oasis amidst the brick and concrete neighborhood, and possibly my favorite site of the day. I sat and rested for a bit, feeling fairly weary from a morning of walking. After giving my legs a rest, I decided to call the photo expedition part of the day finished and headed off to some of those local shops to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.



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