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UW Geographers Pen Book About Seattle

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Seattle can be many things at once: liberal yet conservative, cosmopolitan but close to wilderness, postindustrial while still strong in manufacturing.

In a new book, Seattle Geographies (University of Washington Press), UW geographers explain how the Emerald city acquired its contradictions and distinctive stereotypes.

The University of Washington Press  published Seattle Geographies in April.

The University of Washington Press 
published Seattle Geographies
in April.

The book’s editors, Michael Brown, professor of geography, and Richard Morrill, emeritus professor of geography, wanted to produce a book describing Seattle to Seattleites. The book also commemorates the 75th anniversary of the UW Department of Geography and the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers, which was held April 12-16, 2011 in Seattle.

“We want to introduce Seattle and its region in terms of both human and physical geographies,” the UW geographers wrote in the book’s introduction. The book emphasizes human geography.

“In my view, history deals with time and geography deals with space,“ says Morrill, who has lived in Seattle since 1955, when he joined the UW geography department as a graduate student. Geography is about “humans’ use of territory and competition for its uses,” he says.

The book focuses on Seattle, that—by the book’s definition—includes King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties. But as the capital of the Pacific Northwest, which comprises Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, and western Montana, Seattle has strong economic, demographic, and political ties across the region, as described in a chapter on rural geographies.

Morrill and Brown pooled money from the University of Washington’s Office of the Provost, UW’s College of Arts and Sciences, and the UW geography department along with donations from UW geography faculty to pay for the book. The authors will not receive royalties.

Fifty-five UW geographers—nearly all of the 17 UW geography faculty members and 40 graduate and undergraduate students—contributed to the book’s seven chapters.

Sections on coffee, grunge music, and Microsoft explain how present-day Seattle stereotypes took root, while other sections on climate (ahem, rain), salmon, mountains, and proximity to the early 1900s Alaska gold rush show how natural resources shaped Seattle.

People, too, had their influence on the city. The chapter on Seattle’s economy, for instance, describes how physical geography and innovation fostered businesses. The chapter recalls how eight well-known Seattle entrepreneurs, such as Frederick Weyerhaeuser, William Boeing, and John W. Nordstrom, got their start. And, further-flung from Seattle, Walla Walla is featured as an isolated town transformed by social forces into a wine-lover’s destination. 

A chapter on social geography—for which the UW geography faculty is most well-known—describes Seattle’s demographics, immigrant populations and how the city is shedding its history of being “a very white American city.” Housing issues, including homelessness and tent cities, are described, as well as how Seattle fared in the housing market boom and bust.

Seattle residents today may say that the city’s center for gay and lesbian life is Capitol Hill, and a section of the book by Brown describes how that came to be. In another view of Seattle’s social influences, the geographers use Belltown, Pike Place Market, and Columbia City as examples of gentrification. (For more on Capitol Hill as a gay space and Columbia City gentrification, listen to an interview with Morrill and Brown.)

Seattle’s influence is global too, aided by the city’s deep harbor that lets it serve as an export and import gateway between Asia and the rest of the U.S.

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Seattle in 1999, the meeting revealed another set of Seattle’s global linkages, said Brown, who moved to Seattle in 1997. The meeting drew protesters from Seattle and around the world speaking out against the WTO’s undemocratic nature.

In the book, Matthew Sparke, a UW geography professor, describes how the WTO protests helped reshape Seattle’s role as a global city. The protests bolstered the city’s “global health philanthropy and other private-sector treatments for the mismatch between global markets and global justice,” wrote Sparke, who contributed several photos of the protests in Seattle Geographies.

Morrill and Brown first thought of creating Seattle Geographies during one of their weekly meetings at the Roanoke Tavern on Capitol Hill. “We absolutely wanted to show people in Seattle what geographers do,” Brown says. “We aren’t walled off in the ivory tower.”