Gas Works Park

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Last weekend I discovered Seattle’s Gas Works Park. By accident. And ended up on a tour through the derelict gasworks – led by the park’s designer, Richard Haag. The structures are fenced off, so I got the impression this was an unusual privilege. Fortunately my camera’s battery wasn’t completely exhausted, though I was torn between taking photos and listening to Haag recount his efforts several decades ago to convince the city that the industrial site could be bioremediated. Among his persuasive arguments: growing a nice crop of tomatoes in what was thought to be dead soil.

A former refinery that converted oil and coal to gas, the plant became obsolete in the 1950s, leaving the ground beneath saturated with tar and aromatic hydrocarbons. It was one of the first toxic industrial sites to be successfully reclaimed for public use through bioremediation (although it is still monitored, and intermittent cleanup efforts continue).

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My first reaction was WTF?!? How could I know nothing about this extraordinary place? I am so impressed with the city of Seattle (and Haag) for maintaining the towers in their rusty steampunk glory, instead of leveling them, as the original plans for the site demanded. Out of 1400 such gasification plants once operating across the US, this is the largest remnant left standing.

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From the park outside, the gasworks now resemble a gigantic modern sculpture with a fashionably distressed patina. The unreal blue-green of the Seattle grass contrasts so strongly with the red rust that it stings the eyes. But in among the towers, the scene is ghostly. Blackberries twine lushly through the iron girders, obviously undaunted by any lingering contamination in the soil. Small piles of bleached bones, perhaps from rodents or birds, litter the ruins. Only a few dangling loops of slender T1 cable, probably from a security system, betray that the Internet Age has supplanted the Industrial.

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Although the refinery is barely over 100 years old (and despite its rivets and cogs, not properly “steampunk” at all), rain and benign neglect have left it seemingly ancient, like a half-exposed fossil. I hope these images capture its aura of timeless decay.

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15 Responses to Gas Works Park

  1. John Dennehy says:

    Fantastic photos!

    And thanks for the plug:)

  2. 1) Your pictures are fantastic, Cicada! What filters did you run those through?

    2) Are you in Seattle now?

  3. cicada says:

    Thanks, John!

    HH – 2) yes, for the summer. Or most of it, anyway. Although I’m a native of Washington state, I’ve somehow spent negligible time in Seattle. I think I should go buy a guidebook and pretend I’m a tourist, because I’m that ignorant!

    1) Speaking of ignorant, I don’t know my filters, so I just tweak layers in Photoshop manually until I get what I want. It’s kind of like visual meditation. In this case it was mainly desaturation, tinting, and layering in a bit of texture (taken from some closeups of the same structures). Overall, I was going for a sort of early hand-colored postcard, souvenir photo look. The only prepackaged effect I used is the vignette-type filter on “danger” – but I’m not even sure I like that, really. I think it might be trying too hard. :)

  4. mdvlist says:

    It may not be properly “steam punk,” but it apparently has prog rock appeal. I’m fairly certain my brother and his metal band posed there for their album’s obligatory group photo. Your photos make it look like the sort of place where anybody who wanted a bit of artistic cred ought to go and pose.

  5. cicada says:

    Your brother has a metal band? Then why aren’t you also edgy and cool? Do genetics have no power???

    I’d have loved to have had my cheesy senior photos taken here. As it was, I had them taken at the same college where I ended up teaching ten years later. As a result, I’m paranoid when I have my pictures taken outside landmarks. Who knows what bleak future I’m locking myself into? (I have a picture of myself at age 7 outside our alma mater, you know).

  6. mdvlist says:

    Genetics do come from various places, you know. One grandfather was a NASA physicist, the other was a silk screen artist. I clearly owe my manifest lack of coolness to the former– but maybe things would have been different if I had ever had my picture taken in some underground NYC night spot. I suppose there’s still hope.

  7. cicada says:

    At your request, I will be happy to take faux-artsy shots of you in NYC. Just let me know when. And where all the underground night spots are.

  8. Annie says:

    Have you seen Charles Sheeler’s photos of Ford’s River Rouge plant? I like his tidy paintings but I really love those photos.

  9. Skid-Mo says:

    “Steam-punk” eh? Maybe I should go somewhere and look up what this word means, though I think I am able to figuer it out myself. If you did not classify the Gas Works as “steam-punk” because the machinery was not steam-powered or steam related, you are wrong. All the turbines were steam powered, steam was used to create the reaction to make the hydrocarbons, (the “hydro” element came from steam). The “punk” element is definately there, though. I am myself not really a “punk” by traditional definition, though this actually seems to change and expand, I dress like a prisoner, try not to swear and do not much like the music, I have for a long time been addicted to heroin (clean now– thank God for buprenorphine), been homeless, and am a bit “left” politically, and this lifestyle lets one see, out of necessity, a side of society that would otherwise be hidden. Gas Works park has a special place (or is a special place) in this kind of “underground” or “punk” lifestyle. Because of the fire-pits, bathrooms, and electrical outlets in the machinery barn, and also because the police rarely cruise through, the park is a Mecca for homeless, all of whom (don’t believe them if they tell you otherwise) are drug addicts or severe alcoholics, drug dealers, who you might find sitting in their vehicles in the parking lot– I knew a crystal meth dealer who used to hand out there in a motorhome, and a heroin dealer who waits for his Mexican dealer there. The park is within walking distance to the University District, which is full of drugs and other vice. Along the road in front, away from Fremont and closer to the U.D. car campers park their vehicles. I did this for a season; thre was one cop who patrolled that area, and when he figured out what I was up to, told me not to leave any trash anywhere.
    If one is underage and wants to drink, Gas Works is one of the best places to find a bum willing to buy it for them. The park is a perfect place to drink as well, in the trees or below the wall alongh the water at night.
    Go to Gas Works at night– late, like 1:00 am– and you will see that part of Seattle that hides– for whatever reason, maybe an old crack-head hiding in the barn, sheltered from the wind, not because he is cold, but to protect the flame on his lighter, or maybe a hobo, who is hiding from the weather, who hides everytime he sleeps, but still never has privacy, or the young punks hiding from authority figures because they are illeagally drinking, (though they are usually easily found– just sniff around, follow the scent of the pot smoke), the ones up above the wall are usually equip[ped with skate boards, and, though I don’t recommend looking, sometimes people hide in the trees to have sex.

    I like the bums in the barn who roast weiners and watch tvs plugged into the outlets.
    nice little rant!

  10. Pingback: More Gasworks | Carrotrope

  11. david poxon says:

    Stumbled upon your world, dont know how, dont even know what most of it means! but – the pics of the factory , pipes and towers, are wonderful.Full of texture, shape, and wish I’d discovered them first- ripe for painting and preservation in their transient state forever!
    An inspired spot, thanks for sharing.

  12. Sean says:

    Gasworks is the site of the annual Seattle Hempfest, and a viewing area for the 4th of July Fireworks at Gaslight Park. Gaslight Park is on the North end of Lake Union. Stone way ends at Gaslight Park, my family grew up on the opposite end of Stone on 49th. I used to go there all the time, even before it was a park. We used to crawl through gaps in the chainlink and dink around. Great Fun as a child, although I probably am lucky I never got sick from the pollution then.

  13. Martha says:

    You know I was at GWP this weekend and when I took a look at the towers the first thing that came to my mind was “Steampunk”. I guess I’m not the first to make that connection.

    I love this park – the towers are fantastic and I love the fact that they have been preserved. To me – their beautiful.

    I would have loved to go on that tour.

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  15. Eric says:

    GasWorks park is not the site of Hempfest. Hempfest is held at Myrtle Edwards Park and has been for years.

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