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Hidden Seattle Inspires Research

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2018Perspectives Newsletter

Some Seattle stories are the stuff of local lore: Chief Sealth negotiating with white settlers.  The removal of downtown’s Denny Hill. The rise of Starbucks and Amazon. Other stories are less well known. These are the focus of the 2018 Summer Institute in the Arts & Humanities (SIAH), a program created by the UW Undergraduate Research Program and the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

Seattle skyline at night

Introduced in 2002, SIAH brings together faculty and undergraduates for nine weeks to develop research projects around an annual theme. This year, 20 students from the arts, humanities, and social sciences addressed the theme of “Seattle’s Upside Down: Unearthing Seattle’s Deeper Histories.” They researched everything from the history of sex trafficking in Seattle to restrictive housing covenants that shaped where people could live. Each student received a $5,000 Mary Gates Research Scholarship.

“Seattle is presented to incoming tech people or tourists as a progressive city with a colorful history, very green and close to the mountains, but there is so much more to that story underneath the surface,” says Scott Magelssen, associate professor of drama and a member of the SIAH teaching team.  “The students’ challenge was to tease out stories that are sometimes pushed aside or benignly neglected to make way for the mainstream story.”

The students’ challenge was to tease out stories that are sometimes pushed aside or benignly neglected to make way for the mainstream story.

The first half of the course focused on readings, class discussion, guest speakers, and field excursions. The class toured the Duwamish River by boat with James Rasmussen, former chairman of the Duwamish Tribe, who shared how the river had become toxic and what’s being done to remediate the toxicity. They toured Pioneer Square to learn about the original Gay Seattle before the LGBTQ community moved to Capitol Hill, and took the popular Underground Seattle Tour. In all, they had nearly a dozen field experiences.

“We wanted to do a deep dive, to partner with people in the community to have them tell the underrepresented stories of Seattle,” says Magelssen, speaking for a teaching team that included Jason Groves, assistant professor of Germanics; Lauren Berliner, assistant professor of media & communication and cultural studies at UW Bothell; and Shelby Lunderman, PhD student in drama. “We wanted to equip the students with a firehose of stories but also the modes people are using to tell those stories, from walking tours to podcasts to interactive maps.”

Jason Groves with students during a class session.

Professor Jason Groves (in blue) discusses the upcoming symposium presentations with Professor Lauren Berliner (far right) and students during a class session. Professor Scott Magelssen is visible in the background.  Media credit: Nicole Pasia

Brian Dang, a double major in English and drama, was particularly moved by a tour of the International District. “I had gone to the International District many, many times before, but the stories that I was learning about the area, especially around Japanese Internment, were completely new to me,” says Dang, the grandson of immigrants. “I had never bothered to dig deeper about the things that were such a big part of my experience.”

Students began their own research halfway through the quarter. Most had a topic and mode of presentation in mind when they started the program, but that often changed after the SIAH readings and field trips.  Some decided their proposed topic had already been overworked, or discovered another story they felt more compelled to explore. Others became intrigued with a different mode of presenting their research.

A student panel at the SIAH research symposium.

A student panel at the SIAH research symposium.

For Nikeesha Gooding, a Comparative History of Ideas major, the very first field trip — Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour — provided inspiration. Intrigued by the exchanges that happen when we buy something from gift shops like those at the end of such tours, she created an immersive installation with typical gift shop picture postcards, adding text on the back highlighting culturally significant stories related to the picture on the front.  The back of a postcard featuring the Pioneer Square totem pole, for example, explains that the pole is a replica created by Tlingit artists after the original burned down. The original pole belonged to the Tlingit Tribe’s Raven Clan; it was stolen from a village on Tongass Island in 1899 by members of Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce who claimed the village was deserted.

“The back of these cards serve as the main vessels of my research,” says Gooding. “When people read an important story surrounding the image on the front, they can more actively question the things they're told and grapple with the experiences of a region — in this case, what it means for that totem pole to be standing in Pioneer Square today. I ultimately envision these postcards being shared at places frequented by tourists or other visitors.”

Informative postcard created by Nikeesha Gooding

The front and back of a postcard that Nikeesha Gooding augmented with relevant, rarely publicized information.

Dang is gathering oral histories of Asian immigrants, to be shared on a public website. His own grandmother served as inspiration for the project. “One of the biggest topics we touched on in class is an acknowledgment that your own position as a researcher is paramount,” says Dang. “I decided to lean into that, and make sure that my own personal narrative was the spine and root of my project. This was my chance to connect to my grandmother on an even deeper level while also participating in civic, personal, social, and humanities research that has very real, contemporary ramifications.”

American Ethnic Studies major Shelley Hardwick researched the history of Seattle’s Central District and proposed a public “altar” installation — a place where current Black residents of the neighborhood can offer their stories, memories, or artifacts to honor their community. Hardwick explains that the Central District, built by and for the Black community, has seen its Black population drop from 79 percent in 1968 to an estimated 14 percent in 2019.  “That’s not a displacement, that’s an eviction,” says Hardwick. “There’s a lot of pain around the changes. I want to offer a way for the community to heal.”

SIAH wrapped up in August with a day-long symposium at which the students presented their research. The gathering was an opportunity for the students to share what they’ve learned, answer questions, and thank the program’s sponsors and teaching team. The faculty wanted to thank the students as well.

“I’ve learned so much from their advocacy, their fierceness, their sense of justice, and their vigilance in not just giving voice to the city’s deeper histories, but being mindful of the cultural authority and motivation behind those who have the microphone,” Magelssen says of the SIAH students. “They realize that our choice of what to ‘see’ and how to see it has real effects on our world and on real people, and can be a positive force for change.”