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Roadside Chat | Meet Susanna Ryan, author of the Seattle Walk Report!

Susanna Ryan, author of the Seattle Walk Report, speaks about her work at a public event, with one of her illustrations visible in the background. Photo credit: The Bushwick Book Club Seattle

Often during our daily commutes, we tend to overlook some of the unique characteristics that define Seattle’s most lively neighborhoods. Susanna Ryan, local author and illustrator of the Seattle Walk Report and Secret Seattle, uncovers these special attributes and oddities during her daily walks around town. Ryan’s illustrated walking tour in Seattle Walk Report highlights Seattle’s fascinating history while taking note of new and old sights, findings, and feelings that arise – like that all too familiar feeling of rocks in your shoes.

We recently spoke with Susanna about what inspired her book, and how walking can bring a whole new perspective to Seattle! We hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as we did!

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey as a comic writer and illustrator. How did you first get into this work?

Ever since I’ve been able to hold a pencil I’ve liked to draw, but it was always strictly for fun. Growing up, I mostly limited my artistic escapades to making overly elaborate birthday cards for friends or little drawings and projects just for myself, and as an adult, the majority of my creative energy was put into making cute art for book displays at my job at the Seattle Public Library, honestly! The Seattle Walk Report comic was actually the first time I put my drawings out there to a wider audience and I never could have imagined that it would lead to everything it has led to. I continue to keep it fun and just enjoy the process of creating and sharing art, and you can still find me working for the library.

When did you get so passionate about walking?

I have never owned a car – I actually never even learned how to drive! – so walking has always been a part of my life, albeit one I somewhat begrudgingly treated as a means to an end that I wanted to get over with as quickly as possible. But then one day in 2017, something compelled me to leave my apartment without a plan or destination and just take a walk, so I did. It all clicked. Within minutes I was seeing so many interesting things, even blocks away from where I had lived for seven years at that point, that I had never noticed before, or weird little discarded items along the sidewalk that seemed like a tiny story going untold. It truly felt like by suddenly deciding to open myself up to the unknown, Seattle started revealing this side of itself that I had never seen before. From that day on walking was all I wanted to do, and since then I’ve walked over 10,000 miles around the city.

Susanna Ryan, a woman wearing a black jacket and holding a clipboard, walks along a sidewalk in Seattle, where she encounters a white cat. Green hedges are visible in the background.
Susanna comes across a fluffy feline on a walk in Seattle. Photo credit: Susanna Ryan

What inspired the idea to create the Seattle Walk Report?

Like most good things in my life, it happened on a walk! I was walking on the Elliott Bay Trail through Interbay towards Magnolia a few months into my walking adventures, and yet again, I was struck by this side of Seattle that I felt like I was seeing anew. At the same time, I was walking so much that I was forgetting much of what I was experiencing in one long blur, which was sad because walking had become such a huge part of my life. Right there on the trail I thought, “What if I combined my two true loves, walking and drawing, to create an illustrated walk record, like a travel journey for my own city?”

I initially thought I would keep it to myself like most of my creative pursuits, but after taking notes on my next walk and making a comic about it, something told me I should put it out there for other people to find, even if no one ever did, so I downloaded Instagram and chucked it up there. I just kept on walking and kept on making comics about it as more and more people began following along. About a year into making the comic and sharing it online, I got the opportunity to create a book companion, Seattle Walk Report, which came out in 2019.

What are your favorite Seattle neighborhoods to walk in and what do you like about them?

It’s genuinely hard to pick a favorite. I’ve walked them all and even in the places I feel like I should know by now, I am constantly amazed by how they still manage to surprise me, or how I can walk the exact same route two days in a row and have completely different experiences and notice new things each time. That’s part of the magic of walking for me: it has tuned me into the small details and changes in the environment in this really delightful way. Capitol Hill is the neighborhood I’ve walked the most by far and I still love walking it, mostly due to all the interesting non-arterial streets you can weave around. It’s also a great starting point for longer walks in any direction. I also love Beacon Hill for similar reasons, and Mount Baker, because it has so many parks and things to discover.

What is one of your favorite comics you’ve created to date?

The longest walk I’ve ever taken in a single day was 30 miles from Seattle to Bellevue without using the bridges, so all around the upper half of Lake Washington through Lake Forest Park, Kenmore, and Kirkland. Even though the comic about the walk itself isn’t the most exciting thing ever committed to record, it’s a special one to me! And who would have thought I’d see a snake in Kenmore?!

A comic by Susanna Ryan showcases the many sights that she encountered on a 30-mile-long walk from Seattle to the Eastside, including a large historic building, a bicycle-pedestrian trail, numerous pebbles and other findings.
A comic from the Seattle Walk Report showcasing an extra-long 30 mile walk from Seattle to the Eastside – and the many sights encountered along the way. Artwork credit: Susanna Ryan

You’ve also written a second book, Secret Seattle, about the fascinating history of Seattle from a walker’s perspective. What was the inspiration for this book?

After my first book came out, I found that the things that were capturing my attention on walks had shifted slightly. Whereas before I might have said, “Ooh, a banana peel on a lamp post, this is so exciting!” I found myself thinking, “Hmm, I wonder about the lamp post under this banana peel!” Basically, I started noticing the overlooked parts of the streetscape that were a little more permanent, like utility covers and fire hydrants, and realizing that they had quirks, and likely stories, all their own.

One evening on a walk, I saw something that was compelling enough to research immediately: an old coal chute door on the side of a building on Capitol Hill. I dove into finding out more and was able to piece together all this information through old newspaper archives and Census records and the like about this local guy and his turn-of-the-century coal chute. A few weeks after spotting it for the first time, I returned to the coal chute to get a better photo, and IT WAS GONE! At that very moment, staring at the piece of plywood that replaced the chute, I said, “This is it. This is my next book.”

I spent the evening looking through my phone at all the photos I had taken over the past few months of all those sidewalk and infrastructure oddities and made a list of all the things I wanted to learn more about and before I knew it, I had the outline for my book, Secret Seattle. It’s sort of funny that had that coal chute not been removed, I don’t know that I would have had that moment of inspiration or felt as urgent about my desire to write another book so soon. But in that moment, it felt very “now or never” – what other tiny pieces of infrastructure history haven’t been researched or documented and run the risk of disappearing without anyone even having noticed they were there to begin with?

Drawings of many pieces of Seattle infrastructure history as seen by Susanna Ryan during her walks all across Seattle. This includes a column, lamp posts, a fire hydrant, exterior doors, and other historic structures.
Drawings of many pieces of Seattle infrastructure history. Artwork credit: Susanna Ryan

What is one of your top fun facts or little-known pieces of trivia about Seattle history?

One of my favorite things that I was able to shed light on in Secret Seattle is contractor stamps on the city’s sidewalks. When Seattle was first getting concrete sidewalks in the early 1900s, it was common for the contractors selected for the job to stamp their name into the concrete, and across neighborhoods today you can find many of these, signifying a sidewalk that is likely over 100 years old.

Since doing the research for the book, I have done additional research into contractors whose names I’ve seen across town. One is the stamp of John Kalberg, who was awarded a contract in 1903 to add sidewalks to a section of what is now Belltown. The streets were torn up, the existing plank wood sidewalks were removed, and then Kalberg did nothing… FOR 14 MONTHS! The Seattle P-I newspaper described the streets as “seas of mud and water” and reported that residents had to wade in WATER UP THEIR KNEES to get in and out of their houses… again, for 14 MONTHS! Can you imagine fielding complaints on the SDOT support line if this happened today?!

A sidewalk stamp of John Kalberg's name, as printed into the concrete sidewalk in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood in the early 1900's.
A sidewalk stamp by contractor John Kalberg in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, from the early 1900s. Photo credit: Susanna Ryan

How has walking through the city’s neighborhoods changed your perspective about Seattle and various modes of transportation?

If you had told me even five years ago that I would EVER utter the sentence, “walking has completely changed my life and perspective on everything,” I would’ve been like, “is future Susanna OK?!” It sounds so ridiculous, especially coming from a lifelong indoor enthusiast! But, it’s true: even if I had never started Seattle Walk Report, from the moment I took my first walk, my perspective of Seattle began to change, and in time, my perspective of myself, of others, and of life itself all changed, too.

Something significant happened when I started taking it slow, being present, and simply observing the environment. Not only was it like I was truly SEEING Seattle for the first time, I developed a pretty profound sense of gratitude that anything is here at all, whether it’s the leaves on the trees or the plastic alien-shaped drinking cup someone stuck on its branches. It also made Seattle seem huge and endlessly explorable to me in a way that I had never felt on the bus or riding in someone’s car.

I don’t want to generalize my experiences because I recognize the myriad ways that modes of transportation other than cars aren’t accessible to everyone, so just for me and my lifestyle, getting into walking reaffirmed that living a car-free life in Seattle is more than doable for me.

Do you have any words of advice for those considering walking more, or learning more about the many community spaces available to explore across the city?

I usually advise people to take it slow, not think too much about it, and do whatever feels comfortable. Honestly, on that fateful day when I was inspired to take my first walk, I think that if I had considered whether or not to do it for a second longer, I probably would have talked myself out of it and none of this would have ever happened. So, if you’re considering getting into walking, try not to overthink it and just set out and see what happens.

The city opened up for me so much when I realized that a great walk didn’t need to start somewhere special: it could start right outside my front door and take me wherever I had the time and energy to go. Maybe it lasts for five minutes—that’s great! Maybe it lasts for five miles—that’s great, too!

In conclusion…

Seattle Walk Report encourages us all to take in the people, places, and objects we encounter in our day-to-day activities. The next time you’re out for a walk or roll, take a moment to see what makes your neighborhood unique!

Want to get into walking but not sure where to start? Our website includes walking maps of North, Central, and South Seattle with time estimates and steep grades for residents and visitors to find the perfect walking route. You can also check out our overall Pedestrian Program web page for a wide variety of other resources to safely get walking and be active throughout Seattle!