Le Park de Cal Anderson

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In conversation with the good folks who run The Urbanist, I’ve sometimes shared my worry that my articles, aren’t quite homogenous with some of the more data-oriented (and excellent!) work that gets posted here. Nonsense, they reply, pointing out that my stories contribute in another sense—they remind us that at the end of the day all our valuable discussion about housing, planning, transit, and numbers is really about people. It’s about the shared human experience of living in dense urban areas. To that end, I’d like to share an incident that didn’t happen on a bus, but could only have happened in an area with the diverse intersectionality a strong sense of urban community brings:

There were people with dogs and people with children. The city ran around in circles, laughing in sunlight. It lay back on the grass with a book, or snoozed on the astroturf. We together, the world with a day off, or at least a few hours.

I think you know the 1884 painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat. I’m reminded of it every time I go to Cal Anderson Park, not simply because both involve parks. It’s a depiction of the community at large coming out together, strangers and friends in pleasant company. The neighborhood’s all here. It’s inevitable I’ll run into someone I know when strolling about the grounds.

As well, the longer one scrutinizes that painting, the more oddities one notices (is that a monkey on a leash? More here); so too is it true of being in Capitol Hill’s busiest park. With time, the generations are slowly becoming less tolerant of bigotry, and the haven the Hill has always been continues to offer space for the marginalized—as well as just the plain old quirky—among us. The acrobats in my periphery, doing things I don’t have names for; castoff kids in a scruffy circle, wearing more paraphernalia than clothing, giving each other the love and acceptance they perhaps aren’t finding at home.

I’m with my friend, seated by the pool. It’s a dirty green today, the sort of beauty you have to work with. Her natural blonde hair flutters in the warm breeze. We speak quietly. Another friend walks by, stroller in hand, and introduces her family. All is well.

And then there are noises. Behind my friend, past her blonde wisps, beyond the pool; here is a man screaming into his phone. Big and tall, profane, shouting with his whole body. He happens to be African-American. He is bald with John Lennon sunglasses, with an ex-athlete’s build, dressed down in something like an Adidas tracksuit and jacket. Mid-forties. He roared.

And now here is another man, thirty-something skinny, trim and open black denim jacket, coiffed mustache, bearded, approaching. He happened to be white. He went up to the angry man, softly, easily. Hesitantly. I could see by their body language they were strangers.

The skinny fellow offered his extended arms in a hug.

He nodded a little. The big man took a moment to understand. His roaring trailed off, and he became still. They drew together, understanding. They swayed a little, like lovers, and backslapped a little, like brothers, holding each other in the present moment, quietly, in recognition of the deeper truths. I looked on in astonishment. What bravery! What intrepid nerve on the part of the man to offer that, and what courage for the other to receive it. Their silent peace was louder than all the noise.

It may have been the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a decade.

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Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.