John Steinbeck on Seattle and the Problem With American Cities


Here’s another excerpt from Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley‘:

Next day I walked in the old port of Seattle, where the fish and crabs and shrimps lay beautifully on white beds of shaved ice and where the washed and shining vegetables were arranged in pictures. I drank clam juice and ate the sharp crab cocktails at stands along the waterfront. It was not much changed—a little more run-down and dingy than it was twenty years ago.

And here a generality concerning the growth of American cities, seemingly true of all of them I know. When a city begins to grow and spread outward, from the edges, the center which was once its glory is in a sense abandoned to time. Then the buildings grow dark and a kind of decay sets in; poorer people move in as the rents fall, and small fringe businesses take the place of once flowering establishments. The district is still too good to tear down and too outmoded to be desirable. Besides, all the energy has flowed out to the new developments, to the semi-rural supermarkets, the outdoor movies, new houses with wide laws and stucco schools where children are confirmed in their illiteracy.

The old port with narrow streets and cobbled surfaces, smoke-grimed, goes into a period of desolation inhabited at night by the vague ruins of men, the lotus eaters who struggle daily toward unconsciousness by way of raw alcohol. Nearly every city I know has such a dying mother of violence and despair where at night the brightness of the street lamps is sucked away and policemen walk in pairs. And then one day perhaps the city returns and rips out the sore and builds a monument to its past.

How did he do all this on a typewriter?!


Filed under America, Books

4 responses to “John Steinbeck on Seattle and the Problem With American Cities

  1. Isn’t it the truth about the cities. As to the typewriter, he probably did it on a manual typewriter.

  2. I’m writing this on a laptop and that will soon be considered an antique.

  3. I’m still astonished that what Steinbeck notices is only true, so far as my travels and reading go, in America. Most places the slums surround the city but in the States we still have have terms like ‘inner-city’ and ‘urban’ and they all carry negative connotations.

  4. Actually, Steinbeck didn’t write the above with a typewriter at all. He wrote “Travels With Charley” mostly with pencil and paper, sometimes pen. The original manuscript is at the Morgan Library in New York. This trivial fact — and other more important facts that prove he made up most of “Charley” and passed it off as a true account of his road trip — can be found in my new book, “Dogging Steinbeck,” at As for cities, American cities are hollowed out from the core not because of some natural cause or some goofy American trait but mainly because of dumb/bad government urban policies — mainly federal — that provided “free” money to local politicians for awful redevelopment projects.