Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We Are The Visionaries

If you don’t live in Seattle, or if you’re new to the area, you’re probably not going to get how exciting this is, but our new light-rail line is awesome! Make no mistake, for a city its size, our mass transit “system” continues to be woefully inadequate, but after three days of yo-yoing between Tukwilla and downtown on our new train, I believe I’ve seen the future and it is all of us.

A few summers ago, my family rented an apartment in Manhattan. When my wife Jennifer left for work each morning, our daughter Josephine and I would hop on the subway and spend our days exploring. We saw great art, theater, and street performance. We ate in incredible restaurants. We visited some of the world’s top museums. We even experienced a Will Smith movie being shot in our block. But at the end of the day, the thing we remember the most about that month is the freedom, convenience and community of the subway.

It was depressing to return to Seattle and the headaches of driving, parking, congestion, maintenance, and fueling up. We virtually deified those Big Apple visionaries who decided to suck it up 100 years ago and start digging tunnels and laying tracks. As far as I’m concerned, without the subway, New York would be just another big city.

Why oh why couldn’t someone have done the same thing in Seattle?

It’s a small start, and we’ve been disappointed before, but I’m starting to believe that we are the Seattle visionaries who have sucked it up. There are decades of construction and legal hassles ahead, but I’ve seen a glimpse of a mass transit future these past 3 days and it has me giddy.

On Sunday, I waited in line for more that half an hour with hundreds of my neighbors at my Othello Station for a first ride. And all of us were there: recent immigrants and old-school Seattleites shoulder-to-shoulder and face-to-face; neighbors of every skin tone and ethnic heritage; neighbors of means and poverty; neighbors at the end of their lives and those just starting out.

The car was crowded so I tucked myself behind an elderly woman in her wheel chair to make room for a young African American mother with her preschool-aged son. Of course, being me, I was watching that little guy’s face as the train pulled smoothly from the station. His eyes went round. I made eye contact with the mother, then spoke to the boy, “Isn’t this cool?” He beamed. I said, “We live in the best neighborhood in Seattle!” His mother laughed, answering, “We do!”

I’m not ignorant of the environmental and economic benefits of a good mass transit system, but for me those things pale beside this. Those of us who live in the Southend have lived through the headaches of construction together and now we’re reaping the benefits of being brought together. Few American cities are as racially and economically divided as ours, but I saw a major crack in the wall these past 3 days. Infrastructure like trains, sidewalks, and stadiums help create community in ways that no amount of social engineering can.

Yesterday, I took my first “practical” trip on the train. I hopped on at Othello, rode it to Westlake, then caught the monorail to Seattle Center where I picked up Josephine after her first rehearsal for The Taming of the Shrew. (No, it was not lost on me that Shakespeare anchored the trip on each end.) We then returned home via the reverse route, admiring the magnificent underground stations (especially the “space ship” station under Beacon Hill), and reminiscing about our month in Manhattan.

Sitting next to Josephine, I envisioned her coming of age in a city tied together by a spider web of tracks. And I realized that we aren’t building this for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren. We are sucking it up in the anticipation of a better environmental and economic future, and as we do it we’re planting the seeds for a less divided community.

At one point an elderly man wearing a cowboy hat boarded, sat behind us, and started talking without invitation. It didn’t faze him that we weren’t encouraging. He started with a monologue about which seats had the most legroom, then segued into a description of how he worried they might have mislaid the track ties near the Tukwilla Station. When I leaned over to Josephine to comment on a feature of the Pioneer Square Station, he launched into a description of what buildings were directly above us. He pulled out a newspaper, glanced at it, then dropped it distractedly on his lap. My heart melted when he said to no one in particular, “I’ve been waiting 60 years for this.” At the next stop, he produced a camera, saying, “Well, I’m getting off here. This the only station I haven’t taken pictures of.”

Indeed there are decades of construction to go, but when I look into the future I see myself as an old man wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a camera. I’ll be riding the last link in a regional light-rail system, while chattering to no one in particular about the 60 years I’ve waited for this.

We are the visionaries. All aboard!

1 comment:

Eternal Lizdom said...

Count me as officially jealous. Here in Indianapolis, we barely have a public bus system. It hardly even touches the major suburbs. Sad.

Chicago is another great train city- as is Wash DC and San Fran!!