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Too High & Too Steep

You’re probably familiar with this famous image of the historic Northwest. It depicts the last elevated redoubts of Denny Hill, which overlooked Seattle’s downtown business core until it was flattened in the name of progress in the early 20th century. I’ve always thought there was something noble about these holdout property owners, Edith Macefields avant la lettre, who resisted the steam shovels as long as they could from atop their so-called “spite mounds.” I was quite wrong about what I was seeing in the picture, as I realize now. As always, it took a book to help me understand what really happened (and continues to happen) right under my nose.

Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B. Williams is an examination of the remarkable things locals have done to transform their city–turning the Duwamish tide flats into dry land, slicing a canal from Puget Sound to Lake Washington, rerouting the Cedar River, and, as mentioned, regrading the hills. Each undertaking was impressive on its own, but collectively they altered our landscape beyond the recognition of the original residents. Even before reading the book, I’d known the general outlines of these projects, but not, you know, their actual outlines. Williams describes those to a tee, with such crystal-clear specificity that you can stand on the precise spots where things changed. In his research he did exactly that, and through his eyes you can see what the old Seattle looked like and what glimpses of it still remain.

In addition to where, he also tells exactly when, how, and why the jobs got done, and he does it in an exceptionally concise way. Too High & Too Steep is authoritative and comprehensive enough for any academic, but it’s an engaging and entertaining read for lay audiences. Anyone who’s ever given a moment’s thought to the scenery passing by while strolling a Seattle sidewalk or sailing along its shoreline will find it fascinating. Reading it is practically a civic duty.

David Williams was kind enough to ignore his interviewer’s untempered enthusiasm and answer some questions for our blog ... continued