Monday, April 27, 2009

Public Art FAIL

Years ago - it must have been in 1993 - the city decided they were going to revamp the sidewalks along 2nd Avenue. OK, fair enough, we thought at the time. It actually turned out to be something of a fiasco. The workers came in, obliterated the sidewalk down to the dirt and then mysteriously disappeared for several weeks. Seattle being Seattle, it rained heavily for those weeks and there was a great deal of mud in Belltown. Just as life got more and more impossible, the city guys showed up again and eventually finished the job. Apparently, the sidewalk revamp was extensive enough to warrant a 1% public art expenditure. (I don't know whether this rule is prevalent anywhere else in the country, but it's basically a directive to spend 1% of the cost of any given project on public art.) What we got for that 1% still haunts us to this day.

The person who designed this total fail is a fellow named Kurt Kiefer. He had some big ideas. They were so big that they didn't make any sense either visually or on paper. I remember some mention of vitality and Belltown's improvisational ability, but little else. What this theory translated into was pink concrete railroad ties embedded in the sidewalk:

You get the idea. These dumb pink things stretch from Lenora all the way down to Wall. There's no rhyme or reason to their placement. It's completely random.

Also during the sidewalk project, the city put in more lighting, so that people could get a better look at their assailants. Kiefer's idea was to have the lights hang by small steel constructions, like so:

Yeah, out of all the things he could have done, he chose the most inappropriate option. If this design appeared in an industrial area, then fine. But 1993 Belltown had a reputation for being a rough-edged grunge paradise. Not a whole lot was being manufactured here. It's like Kiefer had absolutely no idea what the neighborhood was all about. First the pink railroad ties, then skeletal light fixtures. Those two things were silly and unsightly enough, but the jewel in the crown of awfulness was the bench.

It stood between Blanchard and Bell and immediately became a bum/crackhead/drunk/crazy person magnet for the area due to its placement at a bus stop. Its reputation as such soon made it the most hated piece of public art in all of Seattle, as this story asserts. After years and years of agitation, the bench was finally removed. Well, more like unceremoniously cut out of the sidewalk, but it's gone just the same. All that remains of it is this:

Again, if Kiefer had given some thought about the bench's placement in relation to the dynamics of the neighborhood, he would have put it somewhere else - or perhaps he could have omitted it altogether. Honestly, I can remember seeing the cops investigating all kinds of weirdness there dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. It was like there was a giant neon sign above it, reading: "Hey scummy people! Come sit here and drink until you get into a fight!"

What did we get for that 1%? A hodgepodge of statements completely at odds with Belltown's true identity. Honestly, it's like Kiefer never visited Belltown. And for all this I'm told he was paid quite handsomely. Wow, talk about money poorly spent! OK, so the offending bench is gone and thank God for that. It's a shame we can't remove everything else that was foisted on us.

1 comment:

Jim said...

I think the goal of the pink railroad ties was to conjure up Belltown's pre-sidewalk past, when drunken laborers walked over wooden planks set atop the ever-present mud. I'm not sure why they are pink, however.