Say what you want about the Fun Forest — call it seedy, call it run-down, call it a “tired” relic as former Mayor Greg Nickels once derided it — but there’s no disputing that this five acre amusement park at the foot of the Space Needle was a nearly unique urban amenity, and one of downtown Seattle’s rare, family-friendly attractions for almost half a century. And that is why I insist that any plan to replace the Fun Forest must both honor that tradition, and recognize the very real loss its closure represents to the young families who have frequented it for generations.
Backers of a paid-admission Chihuly “museum” conveniently present empty asphalt as the status quo, but the public land they seek to enclose — nearly two-fifths of the Fun Forest site — has been dedicated to amusing children since 1962, and thus their proposal represents a dramatic shift in land use that would upset the balance of the attractions at the Seattle Center, while forever changing its perceived character. I mean, honestly, can one get any more antithetical to an amusement park than a museum of glass, or as my daughter and I have taken to calling it, the “Look, Don’t Touch Museum.”
Chihuly backers argue that there are plenty of other family-friendly attractions at the Center — the Children’s Museum, the Children’s Theater, the Science Center and the various events and festivals that take place there throughout the year — but this myopic accounting fails to see the fun forest for the trees. My daughter and I and our friends didn’t frequent the Center for any one attraction, but for the entire ecosystem of available activities, flitting from one to another as befitted the season and the attention span of our children at whatever particular age.
No, we never went to the Seattle Center for the Fun Forest, but we almost never left without blowing a few bucks on a ride or three. Likewise, we never went just to splash in the International Fountain, or just to run through the same tired, old exhibits at the Children’s Museum, or just to wade through the crowds at the Bite of Seattle. We went for the entire experience, of which the Fun Forest was almost always an important part. And I can assure you that without the Fun Forest, or some comparable, fun, family-friendly attraction, we would have visited the Seattle Center (and spent our money there) less often.
And that’s a bit of math the Chihuly backers ignore when they tally up the revenue their gallery/cafe/gift shop would supposedly generate for the Center and the city. The Fun Forest was an attraction that could be visited again and again and again, while the typical Seattle family might pay the hefty admission fees to drag their kids through a glass museum maybe once if that. Afterwards it becomes just another building to walk by on the way to something more interesting and fun… as useful to the typical Center visitor as the empty asphalt the “museum’s” boosters insist is the only alternative.
What almost nobody in this debate is willing to acknowledge is that we are losing something in the closing of the Fun Forest, and while I’m not so quixotic as to fight for retaining the site as is, I’ll fight until the end to save the spirit of what the Fun Forest represents, and to convince the powers that be that we need more public space dedicated toward amusing children, not less. From a child’s perspective, the closure of the Fun Forest, as seedy, run-down, tired and déclassé as it might be, leaves a huge gaping hole in our urban landscape… a void that the proposed glass “museum” simply cannot fill.
So when I tout my proposal for a Really Kick-Ass Playground and the targeted Really Kick-Ass Playground Levy to fund it, this is the spirit in which it is offered. Not a spirit that rejects cultural and art — for as many of the examples I have cited prove, a playground can be just as much a showcase for art as any museum — but a spirit that embraces the notion of play.
We have an opportunity to remake the Fun Forest into the most unique, innovative and fun urban “playground” in the nation… a vision that should not be limited to the usual images evoked by the word I loosely place in quotes. Or, we could decide we want a Seattle Center that’s notably less fun and less family friendly than it has been since its inception, and just get out of the Wright family’s way.
Put to the ballot, even at the cost of a eight or nine bucks a year, I’m pretty damn sure I know which way Seattle would vote.