That vast public space feels like our own private place
If you're going to walk up on Wes Sims and his buddies during one of their afternoon card games on the docks along Lake Washington in South Seattle, you'd better be ready to talk a little good-natured smack. "You're with The Seattle Times?" Sims says, turning his face up in the late-day sun to see who's infringing on his game. "Oh, no, I'm not talking to The Seattle Times."
He puts his head down, like some publicity-wary celebrity, and pretends to ignore his journalist visitors. The other players don't say a word, but it's clear they know what he's up to.
Then his head pops up again and he squints in mock skepticism. "The Seattle Times, huh?"
"What's your name?" Sims asks finally, but the question sounds more like a command.
"Tyrone!" he shouts with equally fake incredulity.
"What kind of a reporter's named Ty-rone?" He draws out the word in such a way that, for a second, the name does sound kind of ridiculous. "I don't believe you. Show me some ID."
Everybody laughs. I've walked into a humbling social trap and feel like jumping in the lake to cool my flushed cheeks. But that's just the moment — the point in an initiation ritual at which your tormentors become your best pals — when the card players form welcoming smiles and make a space for me on their tiny piece of Lake Washington waterfront.
"They call me 'The Godfather,' " Sims says, reintroducing himself, more nicely this time.
Though it may seem exclusive, remote or just too big to feel friendly — somehow not of Seattle the way workaday Lake Union and bustling Green Lake are — Lake Washington and its gently curving shore represent an essential part of the city's personality.
It's an oddly communal space, one that feels private but plays host to such a striking array of personalities that no one group, not even the hordes who take over the lake during Seafair, could justly lay claim to it.
Here at Stan Sayres Park, where Sims and his friends have set up a card table on the pier to play Tonk ("It originated out of the South, out of the cotton fields and all that," friend Gene Patterson says), teens from the Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Center drift nearby, and the whole, golden-hued scene feels right. Central Casting couldn't have dreamed up a more idyllic social composition.
Along this part of the Lake Washington shoreline, with its parks, marinas and shore-sweeping willow trees, it's not so unusual to spot two Muslim girls, shrouded in traditional Islamic dress, hanging out just down the road from the historic center of Seattle's Sephardic Jewish community. Or clusters of hip-hop lovers maxing out their trunk-loaded subwoofers in parking lots within earshot of piers where quieter souls practice yoga and fish.
The lake asks no questions.
If this is the kind of town where breaking the ice is a constant social challenge, then Lake Washington is the cozy back room where co-existence comes with the territory. This is where Seattle lets its guard down.
Some 22 miles long, a distance that traverses every inch of Seattle's eastern border, and more than three miles wide in some spots, there's breathing room for everyone.
"We come down here every day," says 27-year-old Bree Green during a round of Tonk with fellow players Sims, 58, and Dion Adams, 36.
"Some of us have been coming down here since before there was water in the lake," Adams jokes, gently ribbing the old-timers in the group.
At the water's edge, where waves lap gently against the docks, it's easy to forget that the lake plunges to a depth of more than 200 feet and rests on a bed of glacial silt that goes on for another 200 feet, like a fluffy layer of baker's flour that's settled at the bottom of a jar of tap water.
But the lake's significance runs even deeper for many who spend time there.
The city's rolling landscape comes to a dead end here, and that dreamy vastness takes over. It pulls people in, and in a strange way, together.
The lakefront, Patterson says, "is just a place you come to connect with people. On a good day, a bunch of us stay out here until 9 o'clock at night."
"It's kind of a sacred place," the 63-year-old explained. "You come here to think, get help with a problem if you have one. We kind of hold each other up — and sometimes straighten each other out. We're a family without the blood ties — just all through the heart and love for one another."
TABLEAUX SUCH AS the card game play out all along Lake Washington, snapshots of a city that is simultaneously urban and wild, sprawling and intimate. Here, all sense of perspective gets distorted. The lake, in fact, is far from isolated, resting as it does at the very center of a metropolis that runs from Kenmore in the north to Renton in the south, with Seattle, Kirkland, Bellevue and seven other towns along its 55-plus-mile circumference. A whole community, Mercer Island, lies within it.
Close to the University of Washington, beavers construct dams and kayakers gracefully ply reed-lined waterways in wetlands that would be serene were it not for the domineering presence, and constant whir, of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge's concrete pillars and soaring decks.
The bridge itself is a testament to the lake's wildness — its brute power. The longest span of its kind on earth, it stretches 7,578 feet on pontoons that have to be tethered to the lake floor with dozens of 90-ton anchors, just to keep the hulking mass from drifting and coming apart.
The experience of visiting the lake can be just as disconcerting from shore.
At some points along Lake Washington Boulevard, its switchbacks cutting through forest near East Madison Street before meandering south along the lakeshore, Mount Rainier looms so large over the water that it appears you could stroll to it.
Look directly east, toward Bill Gates' seemingly secluded lakefront mansion in Medina: You actually could swim up and wave hello if you dared.
The trick is finding a way to make the place feel intimate, yours alone, even as everyone else attempts to do likewise, sometimes right next to you.
Just around the bend from where Sims and his card buddies hang out, someone is playing the bluegrass classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the film "Bonnie and Clyde" on a banjo.
David Main sits on top of a picnic table, banjo propped on his lap, plucking out one of the four songs he'd learned how to play on his new instrument. He looks up and grins, untroubled by the world or his audience of one.
Main, 26, lives on Capitol Hill but often rides his bike to this stretch of the lake to relax, and, in this case, practice in the open air.
"This little strip down here is great," he says. "I just spotted a blue heron in the shallows, and some birds of prey."
"It's just a good place to be," he adds. "I try not to take it for granted."
People like Main feel a certain ownership of the lake, a right granted by no one in particular to tailor it to their wishes.
This feeling isn't accidental. It has been encouraged.
Early on, as Seattle's more close-in neighborhoods expanded, city planners and developers marketed the lake area's urban-wilderness atmosphere. Downtown residents could hop on a streetcar and head east toward the lake on Yesler Way, clanking down the face of a bluff on tracks so rickety that the bumpy ride was part of the fun.
Larry Kreisman of the preservation organization Historic Seattle says the city's landscape designers took the wow-inducing lake and Cascade mountain views — the ruggedness of the urban landscape — into account a century ago when designing Lake Washington Boulevard.
Today, he notes, the lush vegetation has reduced some of those awesome vistas to "peek-a-boo views," but that only adds to the thrill of feeling removed from the big city while still in it.
In the Denny-Blaine neighborhood, multimillion-dollar homes now line the lakeshore, hidden behind tall hedges and iron gates, further more removed from urban life. They are monuments to a bygone era when the city's first wave of newly rich business tycoons, craving more square footage for their fancies, poured their money into architect-designed houses reminiscent of Spanish villas, Italianate palaces and English manors — dream homes plopped in the city's backyard.
Many city streets, like East Union and East Olive, terminate at the water's edge next to these mansions. The result is that all along the lakefront, public rights-of-way, reachable by narrow roads and footpaths, serve as pocket parks, giving everyday folk a sliver of the waterfront lifestyle that homeowners on either side of the parks pay fortunes to enjoy.
It's so cheekily democratic.
Off-beat little subcultures have sprung up in some of these parks. One is a popular spot for nude sunbathing, and on especially warm days, it's not uncommon to find several people, if not flesh-baring crowds, doing just that.
One weekday afternoon, bridal consultant Jim Dee was out sunbathing in the buff while working on a crossword puzzle and listening to music on his MP3 player. A member of the local naturist group Sun Lovers Under Cloudy Skies, he expressed no reservations about using the park as a base for this particular pastime.
"I only work two days a week, so the days that are nice, I'm out here," he said. "If the police come, they come."
Indeed, Dee turned up the next day, as did several other nude sunbathers, including Al Farlow, who rode down the hill from Leschi on his old-fashioned yellow bicycle.
With his hippy-ish long hair and mustache, Farlow looked like a visitor from another time. He was reading a trashy novel called "The Little Caesars," which he described as "a juvenile-delinquent book from the '50s."
"This is my exercise routine — riding here, lying around for a few hours and riding back up the hill," Farlow said.
The park can't be seen from the street, but Farlow said boaters often get an eyeful and occasionally give some back.
"One guy brought his boat really close and called his wife on deck to see us," Farlow recalled. "Another time, a boat came by and there was this woman on it and she flashed us!"
WHILE THE POCKET parks feel hidden, even secret, larger gathering spots like Madison Park buzz with the kind of energy one might expect in a city with nearly 600,000 people. But even here, there's a sense that you've left one world and entered another, more perfect one.
"Madison Park has the feeling that it's kind of the end of the road — nobody's passing through," said Colin O'Connor, who lives two blocks away from the lakefront and jogs through the area. "I come down here even in the winter. You can't swim, but it's nice just to walk along the waterfront."
As Julie Elas kicked back in a lawn chair and waxed sentimental at the park one afternoon, her white poodle, Henry, puttered around next to his makeshift pen, a blue laundry basket padded with towels.
Elas, who commutes to Madison on nice days from her home in the South Lake Union neighborhood, pointed to the gently sloping south end of the park. Most of the families with small children congregate there. Then she traced the "invisible line" separating that section from the mixed area of clusters of straight teens and 20-somethings and gay guys in Speedos. She leaned back in her lawn chair, satisfied with at least the appearance of harmony among these disparate factions.
She loves that nobody plays loud music at the park, that the only sound is of Seattle in laid-back mode.
"I'm here," she said, "to enjoy the music of the summer: You hear children. You hear boats. You hear the tinkling of dogs playing. You hear the waves. It's just people enjoying themselves."
In that sense, Lake Washington is not so different from the other coveted public waterfronts that dot Seattle, from Elliott Bay to Lake Union to Green Lake. Except that something is special about it, says Museum of History & Industry historian Lorraine McConaghy. She says Lake Washington is "our Central Park."
Yes, we love the lake. But it had to grow on us. The affection evolved, she explained, just as the lake's shape and depth changed when engineers completed the Montlake Cut in 1916, allowing 9 feet of watery expanse to empty into Lake Union.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Lake Washington's shoreline was largely a working waterfront, where mills, shipyards, modest houseboats and commuter ferry terminals competed for space with wooded retreats and entertainment pavilions, McConaghy noted.
Development took its toll. By the late 1950s, more than a dozen cities were pumping some 20 million gallons of partly treated sewage into Lake Washington every day, choking it with harmful blue-green algae and making it so murky you couldn't see more than a couple of feet into the water. Swimming in the lake was the last thing anybody wanted to do back then.
(It took a public outcry, a decade-long water-quality-awareness campaign and a $140 million waste-diversion program — one of the biggest water-cleanup projects in the country — to turn things around. By 1968, the last waste plant on the lake had closed, and discharge was down to zero.)
Another turn-off was the difficulty of moving between the lake's Seattle and Eastside shores. Until 1940, with the opening of the original floating bridge connecting Seattle to Mercer Island along what is today Interstate 90, you could either boat across the lake or trek through the woods around it.
"The lake experience was at first not a recreational one but just getting across the darn thing," McConaghy said. "It was just an enormous impediment."
The floating bridges along Highway 520 and Interstate 90 can now be seen as enormous impediments in their own right, concrete slabs on an otherwise pristine surface. But for the more than 200,000 commuters who use those bridges each day, it's the one way they come into close contact with the lake and its allure.
We've tamed Lake Washington, domesticated it in our own peculiar way, for our varied and sometimes conflicting needs. We've transformed it into something that all of us can love. And this force is reciprocal, McConaghy suggests. "Just think about it," she said. "When you have a headache, all you have to do is go out and sit by the lake and look across that expanse. There's something about that big expanse of water that just soothes you." In a boat, knocking around in a light chop, "you don't even feel like you're in the city," she said.
To prove her point, McConaghy and her husband, Rob, invited me out on their vintage 35-foot Chris-Craft, which sports a sleek mahogany deck and 1950s-style chrome detailing.
As the boat eased out of Portage Bay and under the Montlake Bridge on a particularly glorious Saturday afternoon, it got caught up in what can only be described as a traffic jam as dozens of motorboats streamed toward Lake Washington, their foaming white wakes streaking the surface. As we passed, women in bikinis and shirtless guys in Bermuda shorts waved and raised their beers in an aquatic gesture of bonhomie. Every boat was its own little party craft.
"We have a friend who says any boat is better than no boat on a day like this, and the best boat of all is a friend's boat," McConaghy said with a chuckle.
On shore from Madison Park down past the Interstate 90 floating bridge, families, couples and groups of friends picnicked in every available open space tucked among the waterfront homes, the scenes rolling by like stock footage from a more innocent era. What's evident on land becomes even clearer on a boat: Lake Washington's shores burst with life on days like this, and it's hard to tell where the public spaces end and the private ones begin. Seattle looks more integrated, its people more intertwined, from the water.
McConaghy said the farther she and Rob venture into the lake, the softer the urban environment appears. And she's right. The skyscrapers of Seattle are pipsqueaks compared to gleaming, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier to the south, which looks painted-on against the deep blue water.
Along the way, McConaghy pointed to sites of historical note, like the spot on Marsh Island, near the wetlands that border Highway 520, where a Hooverville once stood.
The contrast between then and now is dramatic. If anyone is living a hard life on Lake Washington these days, it doesn't show much.
The lake, in its own peculiar way, has tamed the city.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.