Monday, October 8, 2012

City Speak by BJ Neblett

I worked as a radio DJ in Seattle during the '90's but lived in Redmond (before it out grew itself) and didn't spend a lot of time in downtown Seattle. Upon my return in 2009, taking up residence in Ballard and having more time on my hands, I finally have the opportunity to discover and explore all of the Emerald City's secrets and treasures. Here is a commentary from some of my first impressions. enjoy.

City Speak
by BJ Neblett
© 2010

            Walking around town I’ve come to an embarrassing discovery about myself. It seems I am the only person in Seattle without a back pack, cell phone and I-pod. Actually I have a cell phone which spends most of its time in my jeans pocket, and I’ve been carrying the east coast equivalent of the ubiquitous back pack, a black, officious looking briefcase. Still, I remain the only one without something to occupy my ears. This is ok. Part of the fun of urban life is the sound of the city. Having spent some thirty plus years in broadcasting, I suppose sound is as important and natural to me as breathing.
            Sound is what gives a city flavor. Cities speak to you. You can judge a city’s character by the complexity of its language. New York has traffic, and traffic means horns. No one can make a car horn talk the way a New York City cabbie can. Then there are the street performers and sidewalk peddlers. I was partly raised in the heart of South Philadelphia. Along South Street every store has its own pitch man, nattily dressed and pacing like a hungry tiger. Hawking their wares like carnival barkers, they extol the virtues of Big Mike’s Deli Sandwiches – each with a kosher pickle; or a suit from Ben Krass – Store of the Stars. Their precision patter, always at maximum volume, has a lyrical, sing song quality, hypnotizing and enticing.
            Public transportation lends a city its own unique voice. A subway doesn’t sound like a street car which is different from a trolley which will never be mistaken for a monorail. In Philly, the clang of the trolley bell, much like the city itself, tolls with sober authority. San Francisco’s cable car bells have a much happier and friendlier ring. The differences are subtle, but there.
            Unfortunately, it’s not just ambient sounds that people have switched off. We have tuned out each other as well. I blame air-conditioning. Before Freon and other noxious gases, we cooled our homes with clean fresh air. Open windows brought in cool breezes which carried with them more sounds: Mrs. Delmar next door summonsing her errant children; Tony D’Agistino and Bobby McNab arguing politics; Phillies baseball drifting up from the radio at the corner candy store; Tommy and Johnny and little Lisa playing tag. More than just noise, these are the pulse and heartbeat of a city; the sounds I miss the most.
            Once we started closing our windows we began to close important links, links that turn areas into neighborhoods and neighborhoods into communities. We stopped listening to our neighbors and soon stopped talking to them as well.
            Seattle seems to me refreshingly different. Many houses and offices in the eclectic neighborhoods lack air-conditioning, and it shows. Hiking the endless hills and valleys of my adopted home, I get that old sense of community, something I haven’t felt since I was a kid. People do talk to each other here. The other day, while trudging up Yessler Way a man watering his postage stamp lawn smiled and said hell-o. That is one sound badly lacking in cities and towns and villages across America.
            I haven’t quite discovered all of Seattle’s special sounds yet. Perhaps my ears are still functioning on Eastern Time. But I’m listening. I am sure they are out there. And I’ll bet the Emerald City resounds with a distinctive sound track that is as charming and beautiful as the city itself. One just needs to remove the ear buds and turn off the cell phones and take the time to listen.
            You can keep the back packs.

                                                                                                            Seattle, WA
                                                                                                            May, 2010