“It was my secret, a private spot, which, like so many others like it, was public land.”
"My Secret City" is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.
A few blocks down the street from the house I grew up in, there’s a tiny path—just a single paver square wide—nestled between two fancy driveways. The owners of the houses on either side seemed to purposefully grow their gardens and hedges over the path, narrowing it even more. On hot summer afternoons, barefoot and towel-toting, I’d look for the lighter-colored section of pavement between blacktops and follow the path to the bottom of the hill, where it widened into a ten-foot square of usually-dead grass before narrowing again at the edge of Lake Washington. There, a rickety piece of plywood with chipping yellow paint balanced on four metal rods: a mini-dock on which I sat throughout my childhood, reading, brooding, playing, being a kid. It was my secret beach, a private spot, which, like so many others like it, was public land.
If you ask 100 local Seattleites where Secret Beach is, you might get 100 different answers. Flanked by Puget Sound on one side and Lake Washington on the other, with Lake Union sandwiched in the center, the city boasts 200 miles of shoreline. Much of that is claimed by mansions, waterfront palaces where single families sprawl on their huge lots leading down to private docks. But to those who know where to look, the crevasses between some of the estates hide slivers of public property. Neighboring land owners do their best to disguise the lots, to avoid wide access to their precious commodity. Sometimes they do so with overgrown plants, but other times they take more aggressive measures: building garden sheds and green houses, or, in one case, blocking the land with an old hot tub used as a sandbox.
After years of contention over the secret beaches, a 1996 city resolution codified the preservation and improvement of 149 of the so-called “shoreline street-ends,” in other words, they would reclaim them for the public--installing signs, clearing (sometimes purposefully) overgrown bushes. Then, a 1999 City Council ordinance provided for fining private property owners for blocking off, paving, or otherwise encroaching on the properties. The city uses the hundreds of thousands of dollars collected from these fines—when they’re paid—to landscape the beaches and mark them from the street. But sometimes the homeowner opposition escalates.
A few blocks from my house in the opposite direction from the secret beach, my elementary-school bus stop stood in front of a wide belt of high grass. It connected the road to the water, a quarter-acre ending in another beach, intended to provide public access to the lake. But the serene swath was the site of one of the more famous stands by the city against homeowner encroachment. As reported by local newspapers at the time, the issue was a towering hedge occupying 2,400 square feet on the public property. Inland neighbors in the less expensive houses fought to keep the path to the beach open and clear—as an obvious park—while the owners—which just happened to be Bill Gates’ sister and her husband—let the fees they owed for blocking it (about $4,000 a year) go into collections. Eventually, in 2012, the city won the fight and the homeowners removed the hedge—right around the time that a similar case, in Lake City, was heading to the state Supreme Court over a fence.
But the laws about the secret beaches of Seattle were the furthest thing from my mind when they were my haven. My slice of beach was my private refuge from nagging parents, annoying brothers, homework, and, often, reality. I daydreamed on the scratchy, unmaintained grass and dangled my toes off the impromptu dock until the resident rats scared me away. It was where I thought I was hallucinating after a solo night-swim one May (average water temperature: 55˚F), until my brother asked if I’d felt the earthquake. My friends and I jumped in on hot summer evenings, splashing around until we got too close to the neighbors’ giant docks and tricked-out yachts, setting off motion-sensor lights, or, worse, alarms. We would giggle with the innocent fear of pre-teens pushing boundaries as we raced, soaking wet, out of the water, leaving a path of lake-water dribbles from the beach back to my house.
I made out with my first boyfriend on the soft lawn of another secret beach: Belvoir Place, which appears from the street as a narrow path marked by a small sign wedged into a bush. Below, it opens into rolling grass leading down to a wide beach with a panoramic view of the city. Later, friends and I would escape the crowded halls of my Central District high school to a series of small, quiet waterfront spaces lining the waterfront just five minutes away and known as “the String of Pearls.”
But contrary to the homeowners’ fears discussed in newspapers and court cases, we would never trash the beaches: these were our teenage sanctuaries. We didn’t come for wild revelry—there was plenty of anonymity for that among the throngs of bonfires on the crowded public beaches or in private homes—we came to escape, to find a place of peace and tranquility.
In a city with so many shores, these parcels democratize private beaches, keeping the expensive, expansive stretches open to more than just the millionaire landowners. Today, I live further inland—not walking distance to any secret beaches—but come summer, when the big public beaches strain under capacity crowds, I’ll grab my picnic blanket and my toddler and we’ll drive along the lake in search of a dead end and a spot where the pavement changes color. Maybe we’ll snack on smoked salmon and she’ll learn what it means to inherit the bounty of Seattle’s shorelines in more ways than one, as I let the pokey brown blades of an unmaintained August lawn demonstrate the oxymoron of how important public land is for making magical private moments.