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(Published in Seattle Times online on Aug. 29, 2019,
and in print on Sept. 1, 2019)
A West Seattle sign that won’t wear out its welcome
By Clay Eals
Long ago I learned a simple yet profound way to help newcomers grasp the mystique of West Seattle, where I live. You can practice it as you read this text.
Raise your right hand, palm out, as if waving to a friend. The bulk of your hand is the rest of Seattle. Your partly extended thumb is the West Seattle peninsula. (Some call this the “reverse Michigan.”) Arguably, the story of West Seattle is about getting from the thumb to the hand, and vice versa.
This maxim ran deep in the hearts of local business leaders who in 1986 celebrated, in our “then” photo, the installation of a wooden welcome sign to be seen by westbound traffic on the Fauntleroy Expressway where it curves toward the peninsula’s business hub, the Junction.
The West Seattle Chamber of Commerce worked with the city for three years on the sign project before its fruition, and the context was potent. The high-level West Seattle Bridge had just opened — eastbound in November 1983 and westbound in July 1984 — and even appeared on the sign.
For decades, motorists had suffered delays caused by frequent openings of two low bridges (similar to the Ballard, Fremont, University and Montlake spans) built in 1924 and 1930 over the busy industrial Duwamish Waterway. Relief followed the fabled 1978 ramming of the northern span by the freighter Chavez, which rendered the span inoperable, triggered a flow of federal funds to build an elevated bridge and snuffed a bridge-related secession campaign. During construction, drivers braved four years of dizzying detours. All of this reinforced a citywide sense that West Seattle was a hassle to visit.
Of course, the new high bridge made it easier to get to West Seattle, but the reverse also was true. The bridge aided locals’ trips to suburban malls.
For the Junction core, 1986 generated other rumblings:
- The pullout of JCPenney after 60 years as an anchor.
- Declining public-school enrollment, due in part to desegregation busing, which led to the razing of a nearby elementary school to make way for a competing retail center.
- An impending tax on merchants to support a Business Improvement Area.
- A prolonged zoning debate over maximum building height (85 feet bested 65 feet, in a 5-4 city council vote).
In this milieu, the welcome sign was more than … welcome.
It stood sentinel for nearly 33 years, but the elements took their toll. In 2018, Adah Cruzen, widow of local business pioneer Earl Cruzen, contributed to the chamber some of the “extra zeroes” he’d bequeathed her for a steel replacement, installed last spring.
To some, West Seattle still may seem remote, but the new sign’s greeting promises to endure.
To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Below are a video of the May 8, 2019, unveiling of the new sign, an extra image from 1948, plus, in chronological order, two clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and one from the West Seattle Herald that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column.