Using Urban Observation to “Ghost-Bust” Cities

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Using Urban Observation to "Ghost-Bust" Cities

In Seattle, last week, I looked across the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Olive Way, into McGraw Square, and towards the Westin Hotel, noting a Seattle urbanism trifecta—the Lake Union Streetcar, the skillet food truck and one building of Amazon’s new headquarters complex under construction. What’s not to like about that view?

Well, one thing for sure. I saw a ghost, of a missing building from a boyhood memory—something that Amazon might have retrofitted, today, if it were still there for the taking.

Gone from this layered, contemporary scene was something significant to the history of Seattle, the Orpheum Theater, demolished in 1967, once the largest theater in the Pacific Northwest, and the temporary home of the Seattle Symphony. Begun as a vaudeville house, the design, by theater architect Marcus Priteca also featured street-level retail, and offices—a reminder that mixed-use development is nothing new. […]

[…] The tool of human memory, discerning eyes and understanding both the pragmatism of the present and the symbolic, collective meaning of a given place are often left behind in today’s discussions of urban solutions. Hence my past adamance, in Urbanism Without Effort and many articles, where I refer to the importance of the urban diary tool, “place-decoding” skills and “reading cities cover to cover”, in holistic fashion. I have urged urbanists to create urban diaries and to see their surroundings, to gain a real understanding of cities where we work and live.

Of course, in many respects, I’m channeling those involved in the urban realm for years, both as practitioners and academics. For example, former San Francisco Planning Director and academic Allan Jacobs is perhaps best known for setting this tone in the 1980’s, and Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre have recently summarized the value, history, and many examples of why “studies” of public life are essential to urban policy in How to Study Public Life. ….