A River Revived

Duwamish River

Beyond the West Seattle Bridge, alongside the rusting hulks of moored tugs and barges and beneath the towering cranes and steel girders of the overpasses, salmon travel to their distant spawning grounds, Blue Herons poise atop sandbars and songbirds chirp noisily from the verdant wildlife preserve of Kellogg Island. The place, familiar to most Seattleites today as the Port of Seattle’s often rank-smelling industrial waterway, is in fact the mouth of the forgotten and unnoticed Duwamish River, flanked on either side by Georgetown and South Park.

In an empty industrial lot along the eastern bank of the river on a warm Friday night in early June, Christian French’s colossal installation of stacked shipping containers captured surrealism at an industrial scale. A wall of a container opened to become a stage for a performance and sound installation by Berlin-based artists Klaas Hubner and Lysandre Coutu-Sauve. The black-clad duo danced and drank water from large buckets, which they eventually emptied onto the dead grass. Seattle cellist Lori Goldston played a tranquil solo and the sun slowly set over the river.

Christian French's "Estuary"

This summer, Seattle’s only river is the site of Duwamish Revealed, a series of events that celebrate the river’s thriving and tragic past, complicated present and transformative future. From now through September, 40 artists from around the world are presenting temporary, site-specific art installations and performances for and about the river, its changing physical form and the life it continues to sustain. Some artists are gathering evidence of the river’s existence using recorded sound, hidden camera footage or abandoned detritus to create works about the place as it is today. Others are building installations that recall what was once there.

Duwamish Revealed is the brainchild of Sarah Kavage, an artist and urban planner, and Nicole Kistler, a landscape architect with a background in environmental science. The two first collaborated on the Duwamish in 2006 with The Living Barge Project, stocking an industrial barge moored along the river with native plants that grew to cover the upper story. Mirroring the bucolic interruption of the undeveloped Kellogg Island between stretches of concrete and aging metal, it invoked the river’s wartime, working-class past and its toxic, neglected present while proposing a corrective and balanced future. It was the beginning of their partnership with Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) and the seed of this summer’s far more expansive event.

Duwamish Revealed combines the social and natural sciences with community activism and contemporary art practice. The Seattle area has seen its share of successful temporary, land-based public art events in recent years—the LoFi Art Festival at Smoke Farm, the NEPO 5K Don’t Run and Susan Robb’s Long Walk, for example—but none has been so rooted in a history or a sense of place.

“It’s as if we’re casting a net of wishes across the river,” says Kistler, who made an at-scale projection of the Duwamish River basin’s native trees onto the old Fisher Flour Mill on Harbor Island entitled “Illuminated Ghosts.” “This work feeds the river, it brings a new life to a place that has suffered a lot of violence. And in the making, in the sharing, in the dialogue there’s a lot of healing both for the place and for the people experiencing the place.”

Since the arrival of the first white settlers 164 years ago, Seattle has been subject to the repeated displacements of people, of land and water, ecosystems and economies. At the center of this history, beginning thousands of years before the Denny party arrived at Alki Point, is the Duwamish River. Its banks had long been the place where native tribes encamped, constructed longhouses and fished for salmon. In those days, the waters of the Black, Cedar, Green and White Rivers all flowed down from the Cascades into the Duwamish before draining out along its winding course into Elliott Bay. Early accounts of the river describe an idyllic, bountiful scene. Salmon were said to be so plentiful that at the peak of their runs that the river appeared to hold more fish than water.

But the salmon, forests and Native tribes were displaced from the new city by the early settlers with their farms, shops and sawmills. Early settlers were in turn supplanted by wealthier arrivals who came to develop real estate and build shipyards and factories. Nowhere was this reality more apparent than along the Duwamish, which was dredged, straightened and industrialized soon after the turn of the last century. City-appointed developers filled in tidelands along Elliott Bay and regraded Denny Hill, its landmass relocated to create Harbor Island at the mouth of the Duwamish. When the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers opened the Ballard Locks in 1916, the water level of Lake Washington dropped so much that it no longer flowed into the Duwamish via the Black River, which dried up and disappeared.

These changes devastated Native culture and the natural environment, but they also maintained the Duwamish as a key source of Seattle’s industrial prosperity for decades to come. The demand for shipbuilding during WWI and aircraft during WWII precipitated thousands of businesses cropping up along its shores, which kept a large share of Seattle’s workforce housed, fed and clothed for the better part of the century.

The river remains a busy place today, full of cranes, barges and shipping containers along with a surprising array of native flora and fauna. Heavy industry remains vital to the river and the city at large, but it has been overshadowed in recent decades by the region’s burgeoning tech sector, which has itself reshaped the city and brought with it tens of thousands of new residents. For newcomers, the river remains largely unknown, as remote to them as the manufacturing industry that still exists there. As a physical place, the Duwamish has largely receded from Seattle’s consciousness.

If anything, today the Duwamish River is known mostly as an EPA Superfund site where invisible toxic pollutants accumulated for a century beneath the water’s surface. Since declaring the river a Superfund site in 2001, the EPA has managed the river’s major clean-up and late last year announced its final plan, pledging $342 million to rehabilitate the lower five miles. While no one expects the river to return to its pristine state, neighbors and environmental groups anticipate a healthier place for people to live and work and a safer place for wildlife to return to.

“For folks who don’t live along the river, the art creates a reason to come down to a place that most Seattleites haven’t seen before,” says Bill Pease, the director of ECOSS. “If more people knew about the existence of the Duwamish River, it would be harder to justify the evils that are done to our habitat.”

The sheer number and diversity of artists participating in Duwamish Revealed is staggering, and the extent of support from municipal agencies, environmental groups, cultural organizations and local businesses bodes well for future joint efforts at the river. Private industrial landowners have offered up spaces for artists who hope to engage the concerns of environmentalists, Native tribes and other residents. Together they’ve opened a public arena where a discussion of the river’s future can take place.

“Art is magic, and I don’t mean that in a whimsical or cute way,” Kavage says, skin tan from working under the unseasonably hot spring sun, wearing a strappy black dress and red cowboy boots. “I mean that it is a deep magic that holds a lot of power. It breaks down mental silos and reminds us that multiple and even conflicting viewpoints can exist within oneself. It gives people a shared experience and lets them get to know each other in a different way.” Her own contribution to the project, “Traces of Obsolescence,” is a series of framed steel-and-glass photographs of Duwamish history at the 8th Avenue Bridge. Like Kistler’s tree projections, it will ground the viewer with a sense of the river’s past.

Chico Santos's "Invasion"
Chico Santos’s “Invasion”

In early May, the first artwork to appear along the shore of the Duwamish, at T-107 Park, was Brazilian artist Chico Santos’s “Invasion”, an ongoing installation of white ceramic forms affixed to a fallen, moss-covered maple like fungi upon rotted wood. At once organic, anthropomorphic and architectural, they constitute a raucous, surging proliferation of life. In this visually arresting piece, Santos captures the drama of social displacement and environmental degradation that has unfolded along the river, as well as a hopefulness in the river’s exuberance and mutability.

At Jack Block Park on the west side of Harbor Island in West Seattle, artist and landscape architect Jordan Monez has built to-scale replicas of the fake neighborhoods built atop Boeing Plant 2 during WWII to hide the plant from possible aerial bombardment. Monez has been instrumental in creating the Waterlines Map, which traces the original routes and dimensions of Seattle-area rivers and lakes. On Aug. 4 she hosts About Time: 20,000 years on the Duwamish River with collaborator Michael Lewis, an event Monez describes as “a water-based interactive performance” about the history of the river.

Monez’s take on the river is time-based and geological, as observed from both the air and water. “Many residents do not realize that this area has been inhabited by people for thousands of years or that the Duwamish River exists with origins up in the mountains,” she says. “Even if they’re familiar with the river today, they might not think about the fact that the river was once meandering and that it’s still a salmon migration corridor. Every time I’ve been on a boat in the river I’ve seen harbor seals, birds and fish jumping from the water. Despite the industry and contamination, the river is full of life.”

Seldom-seen manifestations of life on the river are the subject of Portland artist Anne Blackburn’s contribution to Duwamish Revealed, entitled “Witness.” Blackburn installed motion-sensitive cameras to document the return of wildlife at Hamm Creek, which drains into the river and was daylighted—redirected to its original, above-ground channel—thanks to the decades-long effort of the late disabled veteran John Beal. The genesis for this project, Blackburn says, came during a canoe trip she took there a few years ago.

“It got me thinking about who really lives in these marginal places and how we relate to them as a place,” she says. “Because the label of ‘toxic’ or ‘polluted’ usually results not in increased attention from the general public but in less attention, because they become dangerous waste places where it’s best not to go get the dirt on your shoes. A non-place the city has turned its back on.”

When she decided to document the inhabitants and routines of life in this toxic environment, Blackburn discovered that Beal had done his observing and held meetings with volunteers at the foot of a large madrona on the banks of the river and decided to set up her cameras there. “The historical surveyor’s tradition of naming large ‘witness trees’ came to mind,” Blackburn says. “This tree and these cameras will witness what is in this place, recently settled and straightened by Western standards, and then neutralized, disrupted as a place by pollution and industry.”

Fish Trap sculpture
“Fish Trap,” a sculptural interpretation of a Coast Salish fishing trap by Jennifer Lawrence Bennett and Pathfinder School

Seattle sculptor Meg Hartwig is telling the river’s history with a “beacon” made out of scrap wood, tarps, fishing net, rope, wire and trash scrounged from the river’s edges. The work, entitled “See What You’re Looking At” installs this month at the old Georgetown Steam Plant pump station at Gateway North. It asks us, in her words, “to bend down to the water’s edge.”

No cultural event at the Duwamish would make sense without active participation by local tribes who made their lives along its banks for many centuries before white settlement. “One of the Duwamish Revealed artists, Jose Montano, told us this: ‘Cultural affirmation is the highest form of empowerment,’” Kavage says “That has become a mantra for us.”

The Native American cultural organization Welcome to Our Native Land’s Revealing Coast Salish Cultures: Journeying by Canoe and Art will celebrate the Duwamish River’s First Peoples on Sept. 12. Canoe families from around the region will paddle in for a welcoming landing and celebration with tribal songs, dances, storytelling and demonstrations from Native artists representing many tribes from the Seattle area, Washington State, Alaska and elsewhere.

“Having local Coastal tribes canoe up the Duwamish River to celebrate it and its First Peoples engages consciousness, awareness and beauty of the Coastal People presence in the Seattle area,” Welcome to Our Native Land’s Kim Camara says. “Presenting cultural heritage and art forms moves people beyond political, environmental, economic and social issues to strengthen a diverse community.”

The Duwamish River basin has seen considerable social upheaval and many physical transformations—not unlike Seattle today. By creating works that dramatize and critique the river’s history, the Duwamish Revealed artists are also addressing the predicament facing many of the city’s residents who may soon be unable to recognize their neighborhoods, their way of life crowded out by redevelopment and rising rents. Those residents may find common ground with the descendants of an ancient people who seek the restoration of a river long ago lost to them.

Editor’s note: The original story has been updated to reflect the current title and description of Jordan Monez’ and Michael Lewis’ project.