West Seattle’s Spokane St. Viaduct Project & its Power Relations

In Seattle, a transportation project called the Spokane Street Viaduct was recently completed. After more than three and a half years and multiple delays, the construction ended in July of 2015. The project consisted of a widening of the roadway to accommodate more traffic, a new eastbound lane addition, and a reconstruction of the lower bridge that included a new sidewalk and multi-use trail. Previously, the viaduct suffered from congestion, frequent accidents, and unsafe road conditions.  However, one of the most unique aspects of the project was the art that was added to the pillars of the bridge. According to the plan, the artwork will enrich the area, using concrete pillars in an innovative way that will enhance and brighten the space (“South Spokane Street Project”).

The art project created “zones” with each pillar representing a different area of the city and its rich cultural history. The artists aimed to represent the diverse identities and history of citizens of the area. This unconventional use of space is part of Seattle’s “one percent for art” ordinance, adopted in 1973. The law mandated that one percent of the city’s budget be set aside for public art distributed throughout Seattle in order to create a unique space. According to Seattle’s section devoted to Public Art on their website, the program is also valued for its ability to reach a diverse range of artists, allowing them to make their voice heard through the creation of artwork around the city. The artist is selected by a panel of “professional visual artists along with community and city representatives” who evaluate the artist based on a variety of criteria, including whether or not their particular style or ideas is representative of the public’s identities (“Public Art”).

However, in the case of the Spokane Street Viaduct, the artists, Franka Diehnelt and Claudia Reisenberger, were two white women from Santa Monica, California. In terms of representing the identity and cultures of Seattle, it is interesting that the artists paid to do the project were not residents of the area. Additionally, as we have discussed in class, incorporating artwork and murals completed by members of the community is a valuable way to represent the faces of everyone, rather than paying more noted artists to do so. Because the local government and other city officials are heavily involved in the process of choosing an artist, one can argue that there is a degree of disconnect from these officials and the members of the community. In comments on the updates the city posted on their blog about the art, multiple residents expressed frustration that the artists hired to create these pieces were not local. Additionally, as an area that has become one of the most prevalent examples of gentrification in the country, Seattle’s population has shifted from, as Henry W. McGee, Jr, a Seattle University Professor of Law and Central District resident explains “a predominately working class African American community into an area of high income white, Asian American and African American professionals” (“Gentrification, Integration or Displacement?: The Seattle Story”). Since the artists hired to do the project were two white women, one has to wonder whether or not they will accurately represent Seattle’s population and history, in particular the African-American portion.

Although Central Seattle has become less and less populated by African-Americans, it remains one of the more racially and ethnically diverse areas in Washington. As was demonstrated in the documentary about community involvement in the revitalization of a neighborhood, making sure each racial group, class, and geographic area is represented in decisions like the artwork under the viaduct is vital to discourage conflicts and ensure every member of the community is on board with the plans. According to the plan, the project created “eight different zones, each featuring its own color scheme and iconic imagery. Every zone will focus on a narrative related to neighborhood history or contemporary uses” (West Seattle Blog). As Henry McGee Jr. explains, the racial, ethnic, and class-based identity in Seattle has changed drastically though out the last decade, marginalizing the voices of minorities (“Gentrification, Integration or Displacement?: The Seattle Story”). Although it is not clear how well these groups were represented in the decision to hire these artists, there remains a valid question about the distribution of power in project like this in Seattle.

McGee Jr., Henry. “Gentrification, Integration or Displacement?: The Seattle Story .” BlackPast.org. N.p., n.d. <http://www.blackpast.org/perspectives/gentrification-integration-or-displacement-seattle-story>.

“Spokane St. Viaduct Project.” West Seattle Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <http://westseattleblog.com/category/spokane-st-viaduct-project/>.

“Public Art.” Seattle.gov. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <http://www.seattle.gov/arts/public-art>.

“Art under the bridge: What’ll be beneath the Spokane St. Viaduct.” West Seattle Blog. N.p., Feb. 2012. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <http://westseattleblog.com/2012/02/art-under-the-bridge-whatll-be-beneath-the-spokane-st-viaduct/>.

“South Spokane Street Project.” Seattle Department of Transportation. seattle.gov, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/spokanestreet.htm>.

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