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Geographic Ignorance

Like many a native New Yorker, I grew up with the idea that Washington State was frontier territory. Maybe back then it was. However, after moving here thirty years ago, I quickly adjusted, and quickly tired of some of the odd ideas people in the northeast had about us. Such as imagining that we’re next to the Canadian Rockies. Or Alaska.

As Seattle and the state have grown, as Microsoft, Starbucks, and Costco have joined Boeing and Weyerhaueser in putting us in the nation’s business news, I had the notion that maybe we were a little better understood.

Until this morning, when I read Catherine Lutz’s review in today’s NYT of Janny Scott’s just-published biography A Singular Woman:
The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother
. In the second paragraph, I learned that

Ann Dunham … followed her peripatetic parents — a mother in banking and a father in furniture sales — through several states, to an island off Washington State, and finally on to Hawaii, where she met two husbands and got her B.A. and eventually her Ph.D. in anthropology.

Mention of “an island off Washington State” brought me to a stop. For a moment I was puzzled about whether islands “off” Washington are part of Washington. Would we say that Nantucket is off Massachusetts or Catalina is off California or the Keys are off Florida? That seemed odd. Maybe Nantucket is off the Massachusetts coast, and so on. But the larger puzzle was that I couldn’t think of any islands off the Washington coast. Sure, there must be the odd speck or two, but no one visits or lives on them. There are lots of islands within Puget Sound and the adjacent protected salt water inlets of the state. Bainbridge Island. Vashon Island. Whidbey Island. The San Juan Islands. Some are Seattle suburbs. Others are closer to Canada. But they are all some distance from the Pacific, not what one would call “off Washington State.”

Which of these islands, I wondered, did Ann Dunham live on? I suppose I must have read about it before, but I couldn’t remember. i went to the computer, looked her up, and my jaw dropped. Mercer Island! You see, the thing is, Mercer Island is not off the coast. Mercer Island is not in the state’s interior saltwater by-ways. Mercer Island is in freshwater Lake Washington, the lake that runs north-south along the eastern edge of Seattle, with such cities and suburbs as Bellevue, Kirkland, Medina (Bill Gates’ home), and Redmond to the east. (On the map above, you can see Lake Washington between Seattle and Bellevue, with Mercer Island the pink blob in the southern end of the lake.)

Two bridges cross the lake. One is just a stone’s throw or two from our house. (Okay, maybe three or four, and maybe with Aaron Rodgers doing the throwing.) The other is the I-90 bridge. Interstate 90 starts on the south edge of downtown, by Safeco Field, and ends 3000 miles later a little past Fenway Park in Boston. A long trip. But its first stop heading east out of Seattle is Mercer Island, just three miles away.

What this means is that Mercer Island is closer to downtown Seattle than any other suburb, and closer to downtown than most Seattle neighborhoods. In what universe, or what terminology, does that put Ann Dunham on “an island off Washington State”? Please, Professor Lutz, look at a map!

Note: I was so flabbergasted this morning that I wrote a letter to the NYT editor. I’ll spare you its text. This is essentially an expanded version.

Categories: Geography, Journalism
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