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BAR WARS: HOW BELLTOWN WON
February 24th, 2010 by Clark Humphrey

As the Elliott Bay Book Co. prepares to leave Pioneer Square a business neighborhood without an “anchor tenant,” the Square’s major retail industry, big rowdy bars, is also in decline. The J&M shuttered altogether (it’s rumored to be reopening under new management as less of a bar and more of a cafe). Others are rumored to be in trouble.

I remember the glory days of the Square’s nightlife scene. I remember that milieu’s signature street sound. You’d stand in front of the pergola around midnight on a Saturday. You could hear, from five different bars, five different white blues bands, each cranking out a mediocre rendition of “Mustang Sally,” each band slightly out of tempo with the others. It was a cacophany only avant-garde composer Charles Ives could have dreamt up.

That scene was already waning before the infamous 2001 Mardi Gras melee gave the Square a bad PR rep.

Fast forward almost a decade. Today’s loci for bigtime drinking are Fremont, Pike/Pine, and especially Belltown.

Belltown’s bar scene has its own signature street sound. It’s the arhythmic clippety-clop of dozens of high-heel shoes trotting up and down the sidewalks of First Avenue. Creating this sound are many small groups of bargoers, small seas of black dresses and perfect hairdos.

These women, and their precursors over the past decade and a half, are the reason Belltown won the bar wars.

In my photo-history book Seattle’s Belltown, I described the rise of the upper First Avenue bar scene:

“After the Vogue proved straight people would indeed come to Belltown to drink and dance, larger, more mainstream nightclubs emerged. Among the first, both on First Avenue, were Casa U Betcha (opened 1989) and Downunder (opened 1991). Both places began on a simple premise: Create an exciting yet comfortable place for image-conscious young women, and the fellows would follow in tow (or in search).”

To this target market, the Square was, and would always be, too dark, too grungy, and too iffy. The condo canyons of Belltown, in contrast, were relatively clean (if still barren) with fresh new buildings and sported (at least some) well-lit sidewalks.

The state liquor laws were liberalized later in the 1990s, leading to more and bigger hard-liquor bars. Casa U Betcha and Downunder gave way to slicker fun palaces, all carefully designed and lit, with fancy drinks at fancy prices to be consumed while wearing fancy out-on-the-town clothes and admiring others doing the same.

And, aside from the occasional Sport, nearly all these joints sought to attract, or at least not to offend, the young-adult female market.

You’re free to make your comparisons here to the high-heeled and well-heeled fashionistas of HBO’s old Sex and the City.

I’d prefer a more local comparison, to Sex In Seattle. In case you don’t know, that’s a live stage show that’s presented 17 installments since 2001. Its heroines are social and career strivers, less materialistic and less “arrived” than the Sex and the City women.

And they’re Asian Americans. As are Sex In Seattle’s writers and producers.

As are a healthy proportion of the clientele at Belltown’s megabars these days.

These customers want many of the same things Belltown residents want. They like attractive, clean, safe streets with well-lit sidewalks.

They may make a little more noise outside than some of the residents want to hear.

But we’re all in the same place, geographically and otherwise.

(Cross posted with the Belltown Messenger.)


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