A city without crowds isn’t a city. It needs people on its streets, on their way to work or shop, off to see art at a museum or to meet a friend for lunch to give the place its pulse. Without that, it dies. It becomes a collection of neighborhoods that all function separately, without a living heart to unite them into an urban whole.

What’s keeping Seattle’s downtown alive is its tourists. Although no demographic among them has been identified, it seems that most of them are here because they’re waiting to sail off on one of the many cruise ships that loom white and massive in the sound, like 21st century Moby-Dicks. The passengers have to be here because Seattle is the starting point and the end of their voyage. This means our streets are being animated in large part by a captive audience.

Will they come back by choice, eager to spend more time in this city? That depends on what they see when they aren’t on the ship. The waterfront can keep them amused for a day and then they can spend another at the Market. And then? Well, thank heaven for Nordstrom and the monorail that will whisk them off to MoPop and the Chihuly Garden. 

When I fell so thoroughly in love with Seattle that I persuaded my husband to move here, it was because of downtown. The Market and the waterfront were delightful but it was the vibrancy of the city’s core that was the real draw. Within its borders were four department stores, little shops that seemed left over from the days of World War II with names like Buddy Squirrel, Mode O’Day, and Toys Galore, at least four movie theaters, and a bounty of bookshops. Restaurants catered to all income levels, from the lunch counter at Woolworth’s to the luxury of the Olympic Hotel’s Shuckers and the Georgian Room. There were a few high rise buildings but the ones made of brick and terracotta were filled with shops and cafes. There was even a small but thriving red light district that was benign in its unobtrusiveness and beyond that Pioneer Square’s gorgeous old buildings contained shops selling everything: art, books, kites, capes made of Irish wool, and loaves of freshly baked bread.

And there were crowds. Yes, they all disappeared at six o’clock but even after they went home, my husband and I took our children to movies at night. The hoboes we encountered after dark were always friendly fellows. If anybody was shooting up or nodding out, they weren’t in plain sight.

Seattle was a pleasant place to visit then. Now I have friends coming from Tucson in a few weeks and although they’ll only be here for a day, I feel weirdly ashamed of what they’ll see and what they aren’t going to find.