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Seattle Sketcher

An illustrated journal of life in the Puget Sound region by Times artist Gabriel Campanario.

March 23, 2012 at 11:04 PM

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Seattle's streetcar drawing riders

streetcar main-m.jpg

Sketched, March 13, 2012

When the South Lake Union streetcar opened in late 2007, I wondered who would ride those brightly colored cars.The dormant neighborhood of warehouses and light industry didn't strike me as a destination. But since Amazon opened its campus here, I've seen more people riding the 1.3-mile line.

Amazon employee Guhan Venkatesan, who lives in Sammamish, said the streetcar is really convenient to reach his office after busing downtown. He admitted he could sometimes walk instead, "but I would have to walk very briskly."

kindle guy -m.jpgVenkatesan wasn't the only Eastside commuter I met on the streetcar.

Joe Schulman (left), a young fellow wearing a stylish hat and reading on a Kindle, commutes from Bellevue by bus and takes the streetcar at the Westlake Hub. His stop arrived before I could ask him many questions, but he later sent me an email with his feedback. He wrote that the streetcar is only practical if he gets lucky and catches one. Otherwise it takes him less time to walk the mile than it does to wait and ride. But "if it ran twice as frequently then I would never consider walking," he wrote.

Lindsay Stratton (below, left) a biologist at Fred Hutchinson, also takes a bus from Bellevue to downtwon before hopping on one of the streetcars. She said she appreciates the service, especially on rainy days, and that it gives the city a European vibe. "It looks more like Amsterdam," she said.

The current scene in South Lake Union makes it easier to picture more streetcars cruising through another employment hub, First Hill, in the spring of 2014. Construction of that line between Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill begins next month.

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Web Extra

I visited the streetcar maintenance facility on Fairview Avenue a couple of days after drawing the sketches posted above. Coincidentally, the same purple car I had drawn while holding my umbrella at the Westlake Hub was now parked indoors for a routine inspection.

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Operations chief Dale Lewis shared more technical facts than I could retain as I quickly outlined this sketch under the front bogie of the parked car. But a few things he said stuck with me, like the fact that these cars came from the Czech Republic. Lewis said that Czech engineers used to be the go-to technicians for the streetcar lines of all former Soviet countries and the central European nation has become a leading manufacturer.

Lewis worked with several Czech engineers here during the first years of operation. He said a team of two or three were always on deck during the first two years --while the cars were under warranty-- and they all shared an apartment in Green Lake.

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Streetcar maintainer Lou Swan is a 32-year employee of King County Metro, the agency that operates the city-owned line. Streetcars are not new to this veteran mechanic, as he was assigned to the Waterfront Streetcar in the early 2000s.

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Streetcar operator John Nolan told me about some of the challenges of driving the 60-foot long cars through busy traffic and distracted pedestrians who pay more attention to their cellphones than to the street. Since steering away is not an option, he has to do a lot of honking and ringing to alert them.

"People take it the wrong way, but I just don't want to hit them," he told me as he was getting ready to turn the car on and drive down Westlake Avenue.

What has drawn your attention around Seattle lately? Send me your suggestions of interesting places and people to sketch via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. Have a great weekend!

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