May 29th, 2011 by Clark Humphrey

Last November, Capitol Hill resident Ferdous Ahmed appeared in a full page photograph in City Arts magazine. He was dressed to the proverbial nines in a vintage black suit, top hat, sunglasses, and high-top boots, accessorized with a gold pocket watch.

A lifelong vintage-wear fan and collector, Ahmed had just opened a boutique on East Olive Way the month before. It specialized in outfitting “steampunk” afficianados in suitably outlandish retro costumery, with garments and accessories mixed and matched from assorted real-world times and places (though mostly of a Victorian sensibility).

Ahmed’s boutique, Capitol Hill Vaudeville, is gone now.

The Solara Building, where the store had been, is mostly vacated (except for a tattoo studio). Entrepreneurs Shanon Thorson and Laura Olson (the team behind Po Dog on Union Street and the Grim bar on 11th Avenue), in partnership with Alex Garcia (Emerson Salon, Banyan Branch Marketing), are turning the place into The Social, a mammoth (3,000 square feet) gay bar and restaurant. Construction crews are now reshaping the building’s interior to sport a dining room and at least four semi-detached bar areas.

Olson and her partners are keeping the tattoo studio on the premises during the construction period, and say they want to bring back some of the building’s other former tenants (including a hair salon and a role-playing game store) in its peripheral spaces.

Ahmed’s boutique, though, might not get invited back. It was just getting off the ground as a business when it got sent packing. Harem, another clothing shop that had been in the Solara (and had previously been in its own storefront on Broadway), is definitely not returning; owner Victoria Landis has held her liquidation sale and is moving on.

Two features had made the Solara ideal for merchants like Landis and Ahmed.

The first was the interior flexibility of its main floor. It featured a big open space, where the gaming store could hold tournaments and the boutiques could hold fashion shows and receptions, without having to pay full time for the extra square footage.

The second was the relatively low rent. None of the Solara’s tenants had its own street-facing storefront. Without this means to attract casual foot traffic, in a building that was already set back from the street by a small parking strip, the tenants had to draw their clientele with clever promotion to identifiable niche markets. The building’s low rents were priced accordingly, to allow these specialty destination spaces to exist.

But a couple of alt-fashion boutiques and a gaming parlor just can’t bring in the kind of money a destination restaurant, and especially a bar/nightclub, can potentially generate.

Thus, the Hill is getting a new, high profile gay club. Olive Way, in particular, is getting another stop on what’s quickly shaping up as the Hill’s next major bar-crawling scene.

And we’re losing an experiment in providing urban spaces for highly specialized retail, the first experiment of its kind here since the Seattle Independent Mall (on East Pike a decade ago.)

Any “artistic” neighborhood needs some cheaper spaces within its mix. Spaces where the unexpected can happen, where new subcultures can form, where new concepts can germinate.

I was reminded of this when I read the University of Washington Press’s new essay collection Seattle Geographies. One of its longer chapters is entitled “Queering Gay Space.”

The chapter’s authors (Michael Brown, Sean Wang, and Larry Knopp) noted that Capitol Hill hadn’t always been the region’s gay culture nexus. In the first half of the last century, gay and lesbian bars, cabarets, and residential homes existed, with varying degrees of “out”-ness, mainly in Pioneer Square, plus a few scattered spots throughout the downtown core and in the University District and Queen Anne.

But when gay pride first really took off in the early 1970s, the Boeing Bust had depressed housing prices throughout the region. The Hill’s housing prices were further held back by what the essay’s authors called “white flight and fears of inner-city decay.” That gave the Hill a “large number of affordable apartments and rooms in shared houses,” which “drew young queer baby boomers into the area.”

The Hill’s desirability as a place to live, aided in part by then-low housing costs, helped spur its growth as a place for gay businesses and hangouts; and also as a place for bohemian art, theater, and fashion scenes.

Thus, four decades later, it can sprout a venture as monumental as The Social.

(Cross posted with the Capitol Hill Times.)

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