People's Geography of Seattle

Over the last decade, Seattle has been rapidly transformed by development at an immense rate and scale. At the core of the city, an entire neighborhood has been remade as an urban campus in a giant tech company’s own image—a process undertaken with remarkable speed, little public input, and tremendous ripple effects across local demographic, cultural, economic, and literal landscapes. This is but one instance of disruptions, displacements, and reconfigurations across a much wider array of urban and natural environments in the region, the likes of which—though now taking place in historically distinctive ways—have occurred on this land and been experienced by people here before. In this sense, changes and dynamics ongoing in Seattle today can be understood in relation to far longer sweeps of settler-colonial history and structural inequity, and far deeper histories of struggle and resilience. In these contexts, The People's Geography of Seattle (PGS) is a flexible umbrella project aiming to facilitate participatory collaborations at intersections among public history, popular inquiry, creative praxis, community activism, and place-based organizing in response to concerns such as those just outlined.

The PGS is less a static thing than a set of questions and overlapping ambitions shared among a loose group of contributors: Amid the struggles and transformations ongoing in the city and region, how might people based within the University of Washington—a public university and ostensibly a public resource committed to the pursuit of equity, justice, and access backed by robust knowledge and research—work with community-based collaborators to facilitate connections, identify emergent common interests and concerns, and build collective infrastructures to research and address structural violence, inequity, gentrification and displacement, environmental injustice, and other intertwined challenges currently facing Seattle and the region? The PGS seeks to facilitate a range of activities that could press this question and further these ends: creating space to bring existing initiatives into conversation and study with one another; creating opportunities for public conversation and exchange so that such initiatives and their concerns might more readily register within ongoing debates about place, urban development, and (in)justice in Seattle; undertaking participatory action research with communities according to their own priorities; curating archival, cartographic, geovisual, and other resources in relation to all of these activities; and more. What possibilities might you imagine?

To date PGS collaborators have organized several undertakings and events, which we view as preliminary groundwork toward the aims stated above:

  • Over the course of 2018-19 core PGS contributors worked with a group of talented students and faculty from the Interactive Media Design program at the University of Washington Bothell to create unARchived, a pilot for a place-based digital story telling platform including an augmented reality app and a website. We chose to focus on Pioneer Square—Seattle’s first neighborhood, literally layered with the sediments of foundational displacements and cultural-economic and political-ecological forces which continue to shape the city—to demonstrate the possibilities for this platform. We created a short film providing an overview of the idea and the vision for unARchived, also meant to invite potential community collaborators to imagine the kinds of place-based stories they might tell about their own spaces and struggles. We also presented a short conference paper outlining some of the ideas behind unARchived in the context of the broader PGS, for which we received feedback from a national audience of other critically engaged place-based scholars. Sadly for the PGS, the unARchived project lead—Abe Avnisan—has since moved out of state to pursue other opportunities. But the vision and the basic elements of the platform remain. We are currently pursuing new opportunities to continue the work started here with new collaborators.
  • In the spring of 2018 we hosted Dr. Laura Pulido—professor and head of Ethnic Studies, and professor of geography at the University of Oregon—to discuss two projects: The People’s Guides, a series of radical tour guides which Dr. Pulido helps to edit, and an emerging project called Sangre en la Tierra (Blood in the Soil), a historical atlas of foundational white supremacy in the United States. Both projects aim to transform people’s experience and understanding of place as a site of racial history and struggles for social justice, and both provoked us to imagine what iterations of these kinds of projects might look like if we undertook them in Seattle and the region. Indeed, many of these ideas informed the vision for unARchived outlined above. Further, the notion of “the people” within the PGS name took as its inspiration from these projects and the radical place-based traditions they evoke.
  • In the winter of 2018 we hosted a public conversation at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library. This event—attended by over 150 people—brought together artists, scholars and activists looking at a few dimensions of the changing geographies and histories of the Seattle region. Many of the featured projects combined a critical understanding of culture, politics, and ecology with forms of creative mapping, visual, and/or audio representation. The event highlighted projects engaging questions of change, narrative, rights, justice, health, equity, and more, both in the built environment and within communities. Co-moderated by Amir Sheikh (another central collaborator who has since moved out of state to pursue other opportunities) and Christian Anderson (Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Bothell), the panel included:
      • Cynthia Brothers, who started Vanishing Seattle in 2016 to document displaced and disappearing institutions, cultures, and communities of Seattle.
      • Hodan Hassan, a community organizer, writer and actor with a Political Science degree from the University of Washington, now working with the South Seattle based, people of color-led climate justice organization, Got Green.
      • Jill Freidberg, a documentary filmmaker, oral historian, radio producer, and youth media educator. Jill focused especially on The Shelf Life Community Story Project—an in-depth archive of interviews and oral histories from Seattle’s historically Black Central Neighborhood.
      • Cheuk-Ning, a 2016 Seeding Change Fellow with the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco's Chinatown, organizing with the CID Coalition and Pacific Rim Solidarity Network (Parisol) in Seattle’s Chinatown International District
      • The event also featured and began with a short excerpt from a film by Central Neighborhood based artist and film-maker Inye Wokoma, which set the tone for the conversation by evoking deep connections between Black identity, history, tradition, community, ownership, land, self-determination, family and collective thriving, all currently being disrupted by ongoing the gentrification and displacement of Black residents from the historically Black neighborhoods of Seattle.

An audio recording of the entire library event is available here (or upon request). A transcript is available here.

As of spring 2020, in the midst of COVID-19 and the deepened urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, we are taking in the rapidly changing landscape and trying to understand how best to move forward. The PGS vision seems as relevant and potentially useful as ever, even while people’s capacities are understandably taken up by the unstable realities of life and struggle in these troubled times. In circumstances like these, it seems a resource like a PGS could be vital in extending the efforts of people struggling on the front lines and in their neighborhoods and spaces to mitigate against the now palpable compound potentials for profound harm to vulnerable people. The PGS wants to be a resource for that, and we are working on it—if you have ideas about how your community or organization might benefit from or contribute to something along these lines, please get in touch.