As one of Seattle’s most
dynamic areas, Aurora Avenue is
representative of a variety of social, cultural and economic issues that
operate within an urban space. As the
preeminent birthplace of highway culture in Seattle, ethnography
based in the visual analysis of Aurora aids in the
understanding of these issues. In
analyzing the iconic highway signage that dots the strip, an official and
unofficial history of the area emerges—that is, a history of both the literal
and practical information that these signs proffer, as well as a history of the
socio-cultural associations attached to this medium. As such, it is possible to understand Aurora and its
signage in the broader context of American highway culture, as well as through
the personal histories of citizens engaged in this transitioning urban space.
living in Seattle have taken a trip down Aurora Avenue at one time or another. A trip to Beth’s Café, shopping for a car, a
game of miniature golf—all are among a variety of reasons for taking a drive
down the busy thoroughfare. But for
those who do not live or work there, a prolonged stay on Aurora usually is not on the agenda. To outsiders, Aurora is largely associated with kitsch
value. The infamous neon signs that line
the road mesmerize and provide an effective throwback to times gone by—they
mark Aurora as a place with history and character. Yet the era that originally conceived of
these neon “sites” is over, and the influx of traffic that was once the area’s
boon has become a source of crime and decay.
The kitsch and dilapidation that now characterize Aurora give a superficial impression of the area; such
aesthetics only point to part of a complex whole. Indeed, it is only by looking into Aurora’s signs and
images—evaluating both their literal visual information, as well as their
ideological socio-cultural associations—that we can arrive at a deeper
understanding of one of Seattle’s most important and richly debated spaces.
Questions and Methods
In researching Aurora, we have tried to reflect the wide diversity that
marks the area as a whole. With that in
mind, our very status as researchers puts us at an unavoidable distance from
our subject. Much like the voyeuristic
positioning of photography as a whole, examining Aurora from the outside requires a certain sensitivity and
an expectation that that, as researchers, we are indeed approaching from the outside.
This same idea is reflected in Susan Sontag’s analysis of photography:
“essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality”
(57). It is with these ideas in mind
that we developed our research strategy; in addition, these principles allowed
us to ultimately reflect on our successes and failures, which will be discussed
further later on.
“Rich detail is of limited value if
it is not articulated in meaningful conclusions,” (58) states Malcolm Collier
in his essay “Approaches to Analysis in Visual Anthropology.” We as researchers have analyzed our data in
an attempt to draw parallels and interpret the patterns arising from our
research as meaningful and provocative. In
viewing our data within a theoretical framework, we have found it useful to
group the content of our data into connotative
and denotative spheres of meaning. Using the work of Roland Barthes in Image, Music, Text, we define these two
terms as: “a denoted message, which
is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the way
in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it” (17). This theoretic framework will allow us to
draw out the “objective” information which our data denotes, as well as other
ideological inflections associated with it.
Our research methods seek to place
contemporary socio-cultural issues relevant to Aurora into the greater perspective of the area’s
history. Our guiding framework of
analysis views the iconic signage along the avenue as an entry point for
understanding these issues—by viewing Aurora’s signs as entities with both connotative and
denotative meanings, the complexities of the area are allowed to surface. This theoretical approach allows both
“objective” information and “subjective” accounts to enter the analysis;
furthermore, it allows a recognition of Aurora’s “official” history (based in city and mainstream
media analyses), and the area’s “unofficial” history (examined through personal
accounts and marginalized points of view), as well.
Our specific research questions
included: What roles have signs played in American history and culture in
general, and how can this information be applied to Aurora’s own cultural and physical development? How can these signs help us understand
individual and community identities (including views of the area from the
inside and outside), and how are they characteristic of Aurora’s “sense of
place”? What social, economic and
political issues exist within this community today, and how are these conflicts
tied to Aurora’s historical conception and development? Any one of these questions could constitute a
thesis on its own, but by combining select aspects from each, it is our hope
that the “larger” picture of Aurora will be gleaned.
our analysis of Aurora
used a wide range of research methods tailored to mimic the diversity of the
area. We collected a variety of images
from different sources, including personal collections and city, historical and
academic archives, in addition to taking our own photographs of the area. One trend we noticed in taking our own images
was that we tended to focus our photographs on Aurora’s signs exclusively;
images from personal and archived sources allowed us to examine visually those
perspectives which were not immediately available to us. In addition to these visual methods, we
examined written historical accounts of the area from the Seattle Municipal
Archives, the Shoreline Historical Museum and various other published sources. We also collected oral histories from
business owners and residents throughout the area in an effort to further draw
out the variety of experiences representative of Aurora. Newspaper
articles and statements from community organizations also allowed us to differentiate
between “insider” and “outsider” perspectives, as well as provided current
information on relevant social, economic and cultural issues in the area.
By first examining the history of Aurora, a better context will be given for the “current
state” of the area. Our historical
analysis will expand to include a specific cultural context that we feel is
essential for a thorough understanding of the area, namely, American highway
and automobile culture. This particular
approach allows an effective entry point into an examination of the operations
of Aurora’s signage by creating a theoretical scaffold that
supports both connotative and denotative interpretations of the visual
“markers” that serve to identify the area.
Our analysis is one that privileges the importance visual culture and
interpretation, and as such, photographic analyses will be provided throughout
the study in order to give a better “picture” of the complexities that permeate
of Aurora Avenue
history of Aurora
Avenue is a
rich one—the strip itself is iconic of several important historical shifts in
the development of Seattle and north-lying areas. Before foreign settlement began in the area,
much of the land was occupied by Native tribes; for instance, the Duwamish
tribe was active in the area that would become Licton Springs (Sheridan 1). Much of
the land was initially settled for farms, agriculture making up a significant
part of the area’s economy (Fiset 2). Aurora itself began as North Trunk Road in the late
1800s. The road itself mimicked the
wagon trails used by settlers and developers new to the Northwest. Some of the area’s earliest businesses were
built along North Trunk, one of the most prominent being the E.E. Rogers General
Store, built in 1911. The proprietors of
the store, Marion and Earl Rogers, witnessed the development of the dirt road
into a paved and plumbed thoroughfare.
In a photograph provided by the Shoreline Historical Museum (Fig. 1), one can see the Roger’s store before North
Trunk Road was even paved. This
photograph was used as a postcard, which Marion Rogers sent to her mother,
wouldn’t believe there are seven families living within sight, and many more
out of sight of our store, would you? This
picture was taken before they cleared the stumps and trees away. In front, you can see the electric cars go
past the store. It’s a forty minute run
information and transcription courtesy Victoria Stiles, Shoreline Historical Museum)
In another photograph (Fig. 2), it
is apparent that North Trunk Road has become a viable road—the plumbing lines
are visible and the road itself has been widened, sure signs of a developing
transportation infrastructure in the area.
But what else can these pictures tell us? One component of these early photographs is a
pastoral, “undeveloped” quality of the physical space. The photographs give us certain “objective”
knowledge of what existed before the strip was developed; a comparison between
the 1911 and 1913 helps the viewer acknowledge the pace and extent of the
development that occurred. Yet these
images also provide another level of complexity, a subjective level emboldened
by our knowledge of the sentiments Marion Rogers chose to attach to her
photo. This interpretation yields a more
personal view of the development—connotative meaning embedded in Marion Roger’s
pride in having a business where families where settling and modern amenities
like the Seattle-Everett Interurban were accessible. It is only by combining the visual
“information” the photograph offers with such subjective associations that we
can begin to understand Aurora’s
official and personal history.
The road itself would spell the demise of the Roger’s
business in 1928 when the road was extensively developed and widened—one can
see Sontag’s characterization of the photograph as “sublimated murder” (Sontag
14) as a relevant statement concerning the documentation of Aurora’s history and development. Such events established a
lasting tension in the area, highlighting conflicts between local business and
residential interests and the need to accommodate transportation throughout the
Aurora’s story is inextricably linked with the appearance
of the automobile in America, and the subsequent development of car and highway
culture. Before the highway, the area
was serviced by the Seattle-Everett Interurban, a trolley line that, by 1910,
made possible a ninety-five minute commute between the two cities (Sheridan 3). The
Interurban closed in 1939, and remains a testament to the forms of
transportation that were rendered anachronistic by the advent of the
automobile. One can even see echoes of
this phenomenon today, as debate rages over whether Seattle should institute “greener” options like light rail
service, or continue to privilege cars and road development. The late 1920s and early 1930s mark the
beginning of the cult of the car in Seattle—a cultural phenomenon that will be discussed in
greater depth below--and the transformation of Aurora from a primarily residential street to bustling
With the end of WWII and economic
prosperity on the rise in America, automobile consumption and highway culture reached their
zenith. The fifties and sixties marked
an era of extensive business development along the strip. It was during this time that many of Aurora’s infamous motels were built, and development of the
area seemed to reach critical mass during the early 1960s (Ryan 3). The construction of Interstate 5 and the
“faltering economy in the 1970s” (Ryan 3) marked a period of decline for Aurora, ending in the 1980s with an improved economy. Even so, Aurora’s status as a bastion of modernity and car culture
was over. Strip malls flourished and
crime increased, contributing to the socially and economically complex
characteristics that mark Aurora
Highway Culture and the Strip
The designation of the Aurora thoroughfare as Highway 99 in the early 1930’s
brought a new mentality to the area, colored by the emergence of car and
highway culture. The cult of the highway
marked an important shift in American culture: city planners were now required
to consider the needs of a mobile society, as well as issues like population
concentration. Here, it will be helpful
to take a closer look at highway culture in America and on Aurora. By examining
the car’s impact on culture and economy, we will be better able to describe the
functions of highway signage in communities at large.
In the 1920s, the automobile became an increasingly
popular mode of transportation for American families both for everyday and
recreational purposes. Businesses began
locating themselves outside traffic-clogged city centers, instead choosing
positions along arterial routes or highways (Gudis 40). Advertisers quickly
took advantage of the “increased speed of vision” of passing motorists, which
demanded larger and brighter signs, to utilize electricity and newly-available
neon (Gudis 133). Lower real-estate prices and the new fashion
for “tourist camps” (also referred to as “auto courts,” the earliest form of
auto-oriented motels) brought the advent of the free-standing sign, a type
still widely in use by motels and other businesses today (Mahar 12). As early
as the 1950s, some American city planners were recognizing the drawbacks of
auto-oriented commercial areas along highways. To them, “this unplanned
arterial growth forecasted nothing less than an endless ‘roadtown’ based on the
prioritization of the automobile and commerce over social and communal facilities”
(Gudis 159). The development of the shopping center was meant to counteract
this dispersion by bringing people together in single, pedestrian-oriented
places. However, as is observable on Aurora Avenue today, the appearance of shopping centers had
minimal effect on the overall environment of the highway strip (Gudis 159).
From this general description of highway culture in America, we can proceed to the specific effects of the
automobile on Aurora. For
instance, the strip had its own “auto courts”—those establishments discussed
above that provided all of the facilities a modern traveler might need, from
gas stations to restaurants and showers.
In fact, these auto courts provided some of the earliest signs of Aurora’s development; in 1925, the National Auto Village opened on the strip, featuring an auto shop, a motel
and restaurants. The commerce of the National Auto Village depended largely on prominent signage, as business almost
entirely relied on mobile patrons. These
auto courts—and later, the spread of the common motel—are iconic of the
changing consumer consciousness that developed as a result of increased access
to the automobile.
A look at some images from the Seattle Municipal
Archives gives a good impression of the generative stage of highway and auto
culture along Aurora. In 1945, the
Department of Community Development drew up a zoning plan (Fig. 3) to specify
the residential, commercial, and business districts of a section of Aurora Avenue. This plan was created in order to break down the
construction of Aurora and potentially preserve the natural environment
surrounding it. However, over the years, Aurora businesses began to boom and more social problems,
such as thefts and prostitution, started to occur. It is interesting to see a
cluttered environment such as Aurora so concisely broken down into anonymous city
components. This city plan could be a board game or a blueprint for any city in
any country, because it breaks down the urban space into its most basic
elements. The plan essentially
translates Aurora into a “neutral” entity, a sterilized portrayal that
reflects little of the avenue’s true character.
A look at another image will help to
draw out more complexities of the area, specifically in relation to the
burgeoning need for infrastructure and pedestrian protection that presented
itself as highway culture on Aurora developed.
The photograph of Aurora
(Fig. 4), for example, depicts Aurora in 1936.
While there are only two cars in the picture, the tension between
pedestrian needs and
Aurora’s function as a thoroughfare is evident; this
photograph was in fact taken by the city Engineering Department in order to
depict the need for an overhead pedestrian crossing on Aurora. Such
information provides several layers of meaning for the photograph. On the surface, it is an image denotative of
a specific time and place—Seattle
during the 1930s, a time when areas outside of city center were beginning to
rapidly expand. On another level, the
image is connotative of a particular problem emerging in the area, the
accommodation of pedestrians and automobiles in a single urban space. Furthermore, the source of the photograph—the
city Engineering Department—adds yet another layer to the image, one infused
with tones of the political and economic operations embedded in area’s growing
Longtime Shoreline resident Helen Oltman clearly
recalls the impact automobile’s impact on Aurora and the area’s subsequent
development—her family owned Cox’s Garage on 175th and Aurora in the
1930s and 1940s, and she has lived on the avenue at various times throughout
her life. Beyond the number of years
that Oltman has been in the area, her perspective is made especially unique by
the fact that her mother drove and served as the parts deliverer for the family
garage (a very uncommon role for a woman at the time). Here, she recalls one particularly humorous
part of driving around Aurora
with her mother:
We had a little English Austin… [My mother] would park it someplace, and she’d come
out and here it was up on the sidewalk and somebody else had parked in her
spot. We’d have to drive down the
sidewalk to get out. It was small and
people loved to play tricks.
Oltman also recalls issues of development and
pedestrian safety along Aurora
in its early days. For instance, she
remembers the experience of crossing Aurora before there were any stop signs or traffic lights:
always had patrol boys up on Aurora for us. At
lunchtime, they’d be up there, one on one side one on the other, with their
little flags to stop the traffic…And if I went home for lunch, I had to cross
with the patrol boys, or they’d be after me.
Such recollections speak to the
variety of ways in which Aurora’s
development as a thoroughfare changed ways of life for residents and
visitors. As for the development of
businesses and signage along Aurora, Oltman remembers “more businesses were coming all
the time and growing up along the highway.”
One comment her father made in the midst of all of this development
particularly stuck with her: “I remember going to Everett with my folks and he
said, “One of these days it’s gonna be one city from Seattle to Everett, and
this place, where we’re in, is going to be the middle of the city.” And boy, he called it.” When asked what she thinks about the negative
connotations that have developed around Aurora, Oltman uses a simple and honest phrase to describe
these reactions: “Growing pains.”
Having established Aurora’s historical context, it is now possible to proceed
to a more focused examination of the implications of the highway sign. Just as the images already discussed point to
a variety of denoted and connoted meanings—an official and unofficial history,
in parallel terms—so, too, do Aurora’s array of “iconic” signage. This examination will help to establish a
transition to the current social and economic issues related to Aurora and the “future visions” for the area.
Signs and Aurora
The commercial highway strip and
neon signage are historically and visually linked in order to help visitors to
the highway strip identify it as such. Here, signs act as more than denotative
markers of businesses. As Lisa Mahar asserts, “[m]ost simply, signs address
basic commercial needs: identifying the name and type of business, marking the
location, and attracting customers. But signs also fulfill a more important
need: making the unknown familiar” (Mahar 12). This familiarity is achieved
through what John Jakle and Keith Sculle term “categorization,” a crucial task
in an observer’s assessment of his or her surrounding environment or
only are specific objects named or labeled (identified through word
association), but they are also sorted out and named according to the patterns
that they create as ensembles. At the macroscale is landscape: the
all-encompassing surrounding assessed in terms of broad patterns … (Jakle and
Aurora’s signs help the passer-by translate the visual
information proffered by signs and other visual markers into the idea of
something familiar: the American highway strip.
A more general preliminary example
of our approach to the highway sign will be instructive in drawing out
pertinent theory—both the connotative and denotative associations attached to
an individual sign. Take, for example,
the image of the Villia Del Mar Motel (Fig. 6).
From the design elements and general look of the sign, one may be able
to infer certain denotative information from the image—its status as an
artifact from a certain era (the 1950s) and the fact that the sign is no longer
kept in good repair, for example. But
beyond this visual “information” lie subjective, or “connotative,”
associations. In Route 66, Mahar glosses this very idea:
orient people in unfamiliar landscapes, functioning not only as physical
markers but as cultural, political, and economic ones as well. …Signs also convey, in three-dimensional
form, strongly held beliefs and desires:
this is where their beauty lies…The ways sign makers approached the
generation of form are of paramount importance.
If we apply the relevance of such
“beliefs and desires” to the Villia Del Mar sign, other inferences—beyond the
objective information and “official” status as marker inscribed in the sign’s
presence—emerge. For instance, the
conditions of the sign’s disrepair point to the socio-economic decline apparent
throughout Aurora. To certain
individuals, the sign may represent housing issues and a source of transitional
housing some are forced to seek during hard times. The variety of social and economic
implications that any single sign on the strip creates are each as important as
the visual “information” they offer.
Along the Avenue and Current Social Issues
can now combine our understanding of Aurora’s history, the characteristics of highway culture
and the operation of the highway sign in general to look at a specific example
of Aurora’s change over time.
The changes on Aurora
in the last fifty years are readily apparent in a comparison of two photographs
of the Puetz Golf sign: one taken in the 1960s and one taken in 2006. Taken
from the lot just north of the sign, facing south down Aurora Avenue, the early
photograph shows empty lots to either side of the Puetz Golf Range driveway,
though the appearance of lack of development in the area may be accentuated in
the image by the presence of the Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery across the street.
The cars in the photograph point to Aurora’s by now lengthy existence as a highway, though the
traffic level appears much lower than it is now (in addition, the highway
itself does not have as many lanes).
of the most important details visible in this early photograph is the lack of
sidewalks along Aurora
the photograph from 2006 (Fig. 7), narrow sidewalks can be seen, indicating
that there has been some effort to provide areas for foot traffic during the
past forty years. Another photograph (Fig. 8), however, taken to the south of
the Nites Inn Motel, shows a better view of these sidewalks, which
are uneven and obstructed by electric poles.
The issue of pedestrian accommodation remains one of the most
significant problems in the area, as is demonstrated by the current Department
of Transportation underway to widen the sidewalks along Aurora.
Most noticeable in the newer
photograph of the Puetz sign is the general development which has occurred on
either side of the driveway. To the south, the Nites Inn Motel has sprung up;
to the north there is a paved parking lot which serves the commercial buildings
which stand out of the frame to the left, and are represented by the dark,
square sign now standing to the right of the Puetz Golf sign. The visual effect
of the large, three-story Nites Inn Motel and the addition of signage, both for
the motel and for the businesses to the north, downplay the monumentality the
Puetz sign possessed earlier when it was surrounded by empty grass lots. In the
earlier photograph, the sign dwarfs the large American car parked beside it;
now it almost blends into the landscape. In the third photo we can see how the
Nites Inn Motel sign has blocked the southern view of the Puetz sign, something
which Dave Puetz mentioned in his interview as unfortunate (Puetz).
difference in the visual effect of the sign itself in the 1960s versus today is
thus clearly visible in the comparison of the two photographs, and it
illustrates the connoted shift which occurred in the character of highways over
the course of the 20th century. When land was affordable along
arterial routes, detached signs like Puetz’ were the norm and advertisers and
businesses favored large, bright signs which would catch the motorist’s eye
(Mahar 13). As arterial routes such as Aurora become engulfed by urban development, the growth of
visual clutter begins to obscure the former visual importance of signs like
Puetz’, which become, instead of highly-visible landmarks, simply elements in
an urban-highway landscape crowded with visual information. Still, Puetz
insists that his sign constitutes one of his most important forms of
advertising, and he relies on its status as a “landmark” to bring him new
approached with questions pertaining to the unique issues facing Aurora Avenue, the responses of local residents and business
owners were representative of a diverse body of opinions. Some neighbors have joined together to form
advocacy groups in order to better address the area’s issues. This is not to say, however, that a broad
consensus on these issues exists in the area.
This is to be assumed, as Jakle and Sculle intimate in their analysis of
the social implications related to highway signage:
one of the most important means by which social discourse is brought to and
inserted into social life. Signs…stand
in landscape to influence thought, if not action. More so in some settings and less so in
others, signs are what the managers of a place rely on in asserting social
control. Through signs, social agendas
can be imposed and maintained. And, of
course, social agendas can be challenged (xxix).
In light of the “social agendas” implied by highways
signs, we chose to also research current social issues and sentiments connected
Avenue. We investigated local newspapers and
community press and talked with business owners and community groups. The
primary concerns for these groups revolve around the improvement of Aurora as a safe and attractive place for residents and
businesses. According to a recent Saturday issue of the Seattle Times, “About
45 percent of all Seattle homeowners live in the area, and it’s where 34
percent of the city’s crime is committed” (Sullivan). Various organizations
have joined together as Greenwood Aurora Involved Neighbors (GAIN) “formed
specifically to address problems of increased crime in the neighborhood” (GAIN
website). Business owners and members of the Aurora Merchant’s Association have
also offered negative views on the topic of criminal activity (Puetz), and many
have created prohibitive signage of their own in response to crime happening in
the area (Fig. 10). Both organizations
have taken steps to curtail crime. The Merchant’s Association has had signs
posted on corners marking them as High Prostitution Areas. They use video cameras to record license
plates of cars picking up prostitutes and have a 24-hour hotline for people to
call and report prostitution (Romero). GAIN holds community patrols during the
evening and some weekends, organizes monthly clean up events, and initiates
community building projects to help make the area appear well-tended to in
order to shy away criminal activity.
As part of our research, we solicited the opinions of
individual GAIN members through the format of open-ended questions dealing with
future visions, distinctions between the Aurora neighborhoods and others in the Seattle Area, the
overall impact and identity of Aurora Avenue, and insider versus outsider images of the
area. When looking at the responses, we
can see that some highly individualized concerns are addressed, but a
commonality in response does emerge on one theme: aesthetics.
When listening to the perspective of one living among
the objects being addressed, such as signs in our case, the subjectivity of the
individual must be somewhat magnified.
The sentimentality of case and point under these circumstances need to
be recognized by us as researchers. However, a question arises: If, on four different occasions, the same
questions are raised and the answers fall into a pattern, what does this mean
for the establishment of fact? For
instance, in each interview conducted, mention was made of the fact that Aurora is viewed by the neighbors surrounding it as,
“visually UNAPPEALING,” “embarrassing,”
“an ignored cesspool,” “ugly,” and “broken down and tired.” Gudis’ mention of outdoor advertising failing
to create the image of “Prosperity Avenue,” (Buyways, 40) as dreamed up by entrepreneurs is
especially relevant here. What we make of the local resident demographical view
of the area is highly subjective and based on denotations apparent in Aurora’s visual whole, businesses and the signs they
display contributing a major portion of this whole. The claim that Aurora’s unsightliness is based in ignorance and neglect,
if taken purely by the opinions of these interviewed few, is one very important
denotative aspect of Aurora’s character.
Furthermore, such views of Aurora must be viewed as equally legitimate as any
“objective” or “official” view if an honest and effective analysis of the area
is to be made.
The commonality of the groups’ concerns, however,
does not imply that there are not tensions and conflicting views present among
those seeking to address and eliminate Aurora’s problems. One area where these conflicting views converge
is around the proposed transit plans for the area. Business owners fear the
loss of what denotes a car-friendly area of commerce (i.e. parking lot space
and right-of-way for cars) (Puetz). Homeowners and residents, on the other hand,
support the city-approved project to widen Aurora Avenue by twelve feet, which would add an additional lane
for buses and create wider, more attractive sidewalks (City of Seattle). This friction between interest groups creates
problems and stands to create a hindrance to a solution for a longer-standing,
larger, issue: the crime which they all face.
Visions for the Strip
the post Interstate-5
and its apparent dilapidation, its apparent things have changed and continue to
change. However, in this city decay is the opportunity for well-intentioned
rebirth. The city of Seattle is interested in giving Aurora a greater sense of community, and is working to
create residence-friendly city décor, as well as attempting to avert focus from
the area’s highway character. One such plan of action is the “Aurora-Licton Neighborhood
Plan” (created in March of 1999). It was
drawn up to create the potential for community, emphasizing its residential
appeal. This plan includes Licton Springs Park, Wilson-Pacific school site, and areas east and west
including businesses from NE 85th Street to NE 110th Street. Through the description of the current conditions
of this area presented in the plan, Aurora Avenue is seen as a barrier in the city and a haven for
crime and traffic. The city blocks are not conducive to pedestrians and the bad
traffic flow and constraining lanes make even transportation difficult.
However, Aurora is looking forward, hoping to create smaller city
blocks and safer, more convenient pedestrian crossings. Within the next twenty
years, there is also the hope of revamping Aurora’s aesthetic, which could very mean ridding it of its
signature neon signs and iconic businesses (Fig. 11). The plan proposes
replacing the dingy, stagnant motels with livable and affordable apartments and
condominiums. Development of light rail
transit would also provide more accessibility to the area, truly bringing it
into the 21st century.
constructed, the Aurora and surrounding areas never really had a chance when
it came to city planning. Because of its bizarre emergence along with Highway
99, there exists a vast array of changes that are necessary to make Aurora a thriving area once again.
Reflection and Concluding Comments
We as researchers (and as humans) are inhabitants of
our own spatial and cultural design; we contribute to our own sociology. The varying perspectives which comprise any
impression associated with a culture are personal, private and public, and are fluidly
interchanging. These perspectives fall
within a multitude of approaches, including but not limited to: historical, photographic, scholarly,
anthropological, commercial, administrational, analytical, residential,
transient or observational. We have
tried to link what we have found from each of these listed fields as cohesively
as possible within the constraint of the forever conflicting, yet consistently
coupled, text and image. As researchers,
the place best to stand is perhaps at the intersection, being careful not to
create an impasse as we do so. Just as
this place in the middle is most ideal, the surrounding areas and complex
regions are unavoidable in any attempt at retrieving detailed and accurate
We, as photographers, take our use of the photograph
as our middle-- our “objective”-- ground.
We can stand solidly behind a camera, at the desired distance from our
subject, and choose what it is we would like to frame and take home. The photographs are our captured and frozen
moments, our silenced messages. The fact
that contextual noise and movement has been stripped, we must realize, will
leave that space empty for the viewer.
The subsequent “filling-in” of this space will be the unknown part of
the whole of this picture we attempt to fully create. We will not always be certain of the message
we convey, for as Roland Barthes says, “…whatever the origin and the
destination of the message, the photograph is not simply a product or a
channel, but also an object endowed with a structural autonomy” (“The
Photographic Message,” 15) In many ways,
this finding alone confounds any effort at a thorough understanding by us, or
by the many who view our visual data.
In this, we must not only be concerned with the
viewers’ judgments, but also confront the delicate topic of privacy
preservation while conducting our research.
It then goes to be said that the voyeurism often attributed to the
photographer or interviewer, even when he or she is not attempting any affront,
is in some ways a valid assessment.
Investigation may be easily taken to be interrogation; both photography
and the collecting of oral histories and interviews are mediums requiring a conscientious
application. As in any situation,
gauging the comfort level of others’, while simultaneously maintaining an
appropriate amount of poise as to properly convey one’s intent, has proven
Regardless of the paradoxical behavior of photographs,
we can still be led to a certain sociological discourse. Yes, it is true that a framed photograph has
been chosen for a reason that often adheres to an assumption of ideological
norms, never allowing the subject to reach its “zero degree”(Camera Lucida 12). But does the photograph not still “furnish
instant history, instant sociology, and instant participation” (On Photography,
75), as Sontag suggests? Here we, as viewers,
are given an opportunity to allow for new questions to evolve from those which
the photographer and photograph itself may be asking us to explore. This is the challenge, but whether we assume
the position of photographer, ethnographer, researcher, or one who stands
before the product of the data, it may be a fortunate obstacle to confront.
As researchers utilizing photographic data, we make
use of our abilities to ask questions, to frame in a photograph that which we
may feel is a representative part of an existing whole, or as Barthes may view
as producing a “certificate of presence.” (Camera Lucida, 87) This is not to say that we are purveyors of
absolute truth. As Madison states in Critical Ethnography,
the cultures, communities, and the lives we strive to understand are in some
way divinely connected, we must keep in mind that what we witness will always
have deeper, more layered, and broader implications, consequences and contexts
that we could ever grasp or interpret in the space of our lifetime. (86)
We have taken pieces of data and have placed them
together so that they may create a depiction of Aurora Avenue the way we have
come to understand it. We do hope that this work will both raise new questions,
and advance a greater understanding of the area as a whole.
Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
---. “The Photographic Message.” In Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang,
Malcolm. “Approaches to Visual Analysis
in Visual Anthropology.” In Handbook
Analysis, T. van Leeuwen and C.
Jewitt, eds. London: Sage, 2001.
Paul. "From Byway to Speedway." Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer
18 December 1988: Pacific 26.
Louis. “Seattle Neighborhoods: Broadview and Bitter Lake.” History Link.
“Greenwood-Aurora Public Safety Position Paper.” Accessed 26 Feb. 2006. <http://www.gainseattle.com/aboutus.html>
Gudis, Catherine. Buyways:
Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape. New
Jakle, John and Keith Sculle. Signs in America’s Auto Age: Signatures of Landscape and Place. Iowa City:
Univ. of Iowa
Madison, D. Soyini.
Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics and Performance. Thousand
Sage Publications, 2005.
Mahar-Keplinger, Lisa. American signs: form and
meaning on Route 66. New York:
Monacelli Press, 2002.
Rich. Personal interview. 17 February 2006.
Oltman, Helen. Personal interview. 28 February
Puetz, David. Personal interview. 23 February 2006.
Ryan, Dennis and Ron Kasprisin, eds. Development Concepts Supporting Light
Rail Transity Along Aurora Avenue, Seattle, Washington. Urban Design
Planning Studio Class 507. Seattle: University of Washington, June 1992.
“Sting Operation aims to clean up Aurora Avenue.” Northwest Cable News (NWCN). 13 Feb. 2006. Northwest Cable News. Accessed 13 Feb. 2006 <http://www.nwcn.com/topstories/stories/NW_021106WABauroraaveEL.
and Carol Tobin, “Seattle Neighborhoods: Licton Springs.” History
2001. Accessed 24 February 2006. <http://historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=3447>
On Photography. New York: Picador, 1990.
Rudi. The New Let there Be Neon. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1988.
Personal interview. 18 February 2006.
“Prostitution Sweep Targets Aurora” The Seattle Times 11 Feb. 2006.
Andrew. “Life on a Parking Lot: Making a
Living off the Strip.” Diss.
University of Washington, 1989.
courtesy of The Seattle Municipal Archives and the Shoreline Historical Museum.