South Lake Union: Caught in the Middle

Reading through reports about South Lake Union in the local press over the past five years, you would be forgiven for thinking that this single, 320-acre area is at the center of every urban development controversy in the city.  From public/private partnerships to increasing density, from the role of corporations in the creation and maintenance of public space to the displacement of low income households, from public transit and perennial infrastructure problems to building-height restrictions, the area has become a kind of urban laboratory upon which the most pressing and immediate debates about the future of Seattle’s urban space are unfolded. 


As we researched how South Lake Union developed from the late 19th century through the early 21st century, we found that the area represented a microcosm of Seattle’s larger development, perhaps the perfect stage upon which to play out fundamental battles over urban space.  The area is centrally located, yet a step removed from the central business core; intimately related to the water yet disconnected from shore; always on the cusp of great industrial development yet consistently a step behind; the perennial subject of planners’ massive visionary projects yet somehow always stymied by lack of political will (until recently).  It is, as the title of this page suggests, an area caught in the middle. 


As you explore the pages in the exhibit, you will discover how this important area has changed in the past 150 years.  The pages are structured roughly chronologically in an attempt to weave a narrative that explains how the neighborhood has changed socially, politically, economically, and ecologically over time.  Although themes should emerge organically from your interaction with the primary sources that form the basis of the exhibit, as you read consider how the human interaction with the ecology of the area has resulted in a certain disconnection from the shore, how the economic development of the area has consistently experienced interruptions, how the political debates surrounding the area and its infrastructure projects have been marked by a largely pernicious  hesitation, and how the social relationships of the area are marked by persistent controversy.  While the items on display may not fully explain why South Lake Union is developing the way it is, they should provide an entry point into further analyses of the unique and liminal character of this neighborhood. 


Megan Brown, Erica Bush, Ben Morgan, Marisa Clark