76th and aurora, 1953; seattle municipal archive
Seems every week, something important from this once fair little seaport city is taken away from us in the name of density, development, or “disruption.”
Cool old bars and restaurants and shops, yes. But also a men’s pro basketball team, a daily newspaper, a radio host, a live theater space.
And the new things that replace the old things tend to be costlier, louder, hoity-toity-er. Dive bars get turned into upscale bistros; cheap apartments become luxury condos.
For someone who came of age loving the old Seattle, for all its faults and limitations, today’s city seems more and more like an alien land.
The Soul of Seattle is a hard thing to define, and different people have defined it differently. But this is how I define it.
Seattle’s soul is not loud or pushy. It doesn’t scream at you to order you to love it.
It’s quiet and confident; yes, to the point of dangerously smug self-satisfaction.
Yet it’s also funny in a self-deprecating way. Seattle’s sense of quirky humor can be seen in Ivar Haglund, J.P. Patches, John Keister, the Young Fresh Fellows’ songs, the comic art of Jim Woodring and The Oatmeal.
It believes in beauty, in many forms. The delicate curves and perfect proportions of the Space Needle; the slippery warmth of a bag of Dick’s fries; the modest elegance of a Craftsman bungalow.
It believes in old fashioned showmanship. The fringe theaters of the ’70s and ’80s; the burlesque troupes of the ’90s; the alternative circus acts of the 2000s.
It believes in old fashioned fun. Boat races; cream cheese on hot dogs; tiki parties; comics conventions.
Yet it also believes in schmoozing and in deal making. Boeing got on such good terms ith the airlines of the world that Lockheed never sustained. Microsoft made deals to put MS-DOS and Office on almost every desktop computer.
And it believes in civic progress, however it’s defined. It created monuments to its own “arrival” (the Smith Tower, the Olympic Hotel, the Century 21 Exposition). It built public spaces more beautiful than they had to be (the UW campus, the Volunteer Park Conservatory). It leveled hills, filled in tide flats, raised streets, lowered Lake Washington, and put up parks everywhere from freeway airspace to an old naval base.
There are several places around town where this Soul of Seattle still lives and even thrives.
Here are just a few of them:
(Cross posted with City Living Seattle.)
My ex-UW Daily editor (and proud Armenian-American) Suki Dardarian is the latest SeaTimes leading light to leave the Bore on Boren (née Fairview Fanny). She’s now a senior managing editor at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
She’d been a managing editor here, until SeaTimes management transferred her out of the daily deadlines and into the position of “strategist on audience development and community engagement.”
Her hubby (and fellow Daily vet) Peter Callaghan, currently one of the best remaining reporters about Wash. state government, will join Dardarian in Flour City upon the end of his current contract with the Tacoma News Tribune.
The Comet Tavern reopened to the public on March 31, a little less than six months after it had abruptly closed. Former regulars (from many era of the bar’s history) and curiosity seekers crowded the joint.
The place they entered had been considerably cleaned up. Years (nay, decades) of grafitti, soot, and cigarette-smoke stains had been scrubbed away. Several grody closets had been removed, opening up more of the main barroom. New wooden booths had replaced some wobbly bar tables. The ceiling only had a few old dollar bills taped to it, instead of being covered with them. The bathrooms, and everything within them, were both clean and functional.
Indeed, it still looked mostly as it had looked before. That is to say, it looked mostly as it had since it first opened in the 1930s, as one of Seattle’s first wave of post-Prohibition beer halls.
But the Comet’s “scene,” and its function in the Pike/Pine neighborhood, has changed many times.
A hangout for hippies and bikers in the ’60s, it attracted more of an “art world” crowd by the ’80s. In the early ’90s it was the principal watering hole for “grunge” musicians and their friends.
By the late 2000s it had become a full time live-music venue. It was also a clubhouse for Hate City, a neighborhood skateboard gang; some of its members worked as bouncers and bartenders.
Then on Oct. 2, the Comet suddenly closed.
Reportedly, its then-owner hadn’t paid the rent or the water bill for several months. Even before that, several apparent years’ worth of “deferred maintenance” meant much of its interior looked on the verge of physical collapse.
Many, on and off the Hill, wondered whether the Comet had poured its final pint.
Several would-be buyers announced themselves over the subsequent days and weeks.
The building owners, though, soon chose to deal with people they already knew. David Meinert and Jason Lajeunesse had already opened the Lost Lake retro diner/lounge in the same building.
Besides Meinert and Laneunesse already being known to the landlords, access to Lost Lake’s kitchen meant the Comet could add food, and therefore offer hard liquor, without the Comet needing a new kitchen of its own.
(Just across Pike from the Comet, Meinert and Lajeunesse also co-own Big Mario’s Pizza, and Lajeunesse co-owns the Neumos/Moe Bar/Barboza nightclub complex. Meinert also owns the 5 Point restaurant/bar in Belltown; Lajeunesse also runs the annual Capitol Hill Block Party.)
One of the new owners’ first decisions was to cut the live music from seven nights a week to one midweek night and two weekend matinees. That meant the new Comet would complement, not compete with, Neumos’ shows. It would again be (as it mostly was before 2005) a place to drink and talk, not to see bands.
Another decision was not to rehire the occasionally violent bouncers from the Hate City crew. (I knew a petite woman who’d been worked over badly by them one night there, and was glad to see them gone.)
But the decision to clean up the place was both the most obvious and (probably) the most controversial to the Comet’s former regulars.
A good amount of fixing up had to be done just to get the room back up to various building and occupancy codes.
But by so thoroughly sanitizing one of the city’s last un-reconstructed true dive bars, Meinert and Lajeunesse risked alienating the very regulars they claimed to be trying to please.
Business was brisk on night one. The real question is whether bargoers (old and new) will come back, whether they’ll still find the Comet inviting and comfortable, despite its lack of grime.
While the Comet’s future is more or less assured, other Capitol Hill institutions have been falling to redevelopment projects.
The latest, but undoubtedly not the last: Piecora’s Pizza.
After more than three decades on the Hill, its employees were suddenly given two-week notices on April 1. It wasn’t an April Fool’s joke, either. The building’s coming down for yet another new mixed-use midrise.
At least the Piecora family owned the building, and presumably got enough for it to retire.
(Cross-posted with City Living Seattle.)
Here is a story about the world’s largest “shop from home” company, and the time it started an experimental business operation in Seattle that grew and grew.
The company was Sears, Roebuck and Co. (“Cheapest Supply House on Earth”, “Our Trade Reaches Around the World”).
The time was 1925.
The experiment was to expand from its famous “Big Book” mail order catalogs into what are now called “brick and mortar” retail stores. Urbanization and automobiles (two trends that now seem contradictory) had come to threaten Sears’ biggest market—rural families who wanted prices and selections they couldn’t get in small-town stores.
Because this was a new direction for a company that had grown huge on its existing business model, Sears management chose to save money by placing its first two retail stores in buildings it already owned—its catalog warehouses in Chicago (the company’s headquarters) and Seattle. (The Chicago flagship store closed a few decades back, leaving the Seattle store as the company’s oldest.)
The Sears Seattle warehouse building had been built a little over a decade before, in 1912. The Industrial District (later christened “Sodo” by local boosters) had just been created a few years before, from tide flats filled in with dirt from the city’s massive regrading projects. It was built for the company by the Union Pacific Railroad, whose freight tracks hugged its back side. It was built from solid old growth local timber, with handsome brick cladding and a clock tower (still the neighborhood’s tallest structure, other than container-dock cranes) on top.
It also happened to be two miles south of the city’s traditional retail core. This meant the store would rely less on foot traffic and more on folks driving expressly to go there. That meant it was a forbearer of suburban malls and big-box stores, trends Sears would ride on nationally in the post-WWII decades.
The store housed a subset of the catalog’s almost-everything selection (but not cars, or entire houses in kit form, or non-perishable groceries, three of the catalog’s once-popular sections). It had “soft goods” (clothes and linens). It had “hard goods” (appliances, hardware, auto parts, furniture). For a while, there was even a farm supply department.
In 1951, the new Alaskan Way Viaduct meant Sears was just off of the main highway through the city. A little over a decade later, I-5 would pass nearby.
Generations grew up with our own local version of the store advertised as “Where America Shops,” a chunk of middle class materialistic heaven surrounded by warehouse and small factories.
Perhaps the escalators were narrow and rickety, and the ceilings shorter, compared to newer stores in the malls; but Seattle’s Sears had its own charms. The popcorn machine and the candy counter. The cool pastel colored walls in the women’s department. The Saturday morning cartoons or Sunday afternoon sports games on the wall of TVs.
Meanwhile, the warehouse part of the building grew over the years to 2.2 million square feet, making it Seattle’s largest building by volume.
But the Sears catalogs were phased out in the mid 1980s. The building was put up for sale in 1990. It was first retitled SoDo Center, then Starbucks Center when the coffee giant moved its head offices into it.
The Sears retail store remained but shrank. Part of its space was taken up by by an Office Max. Home Depot opened a huge store across South Lander Street, competing with many of Sears’ “hard goods” departments.
The company wasn’t doing too well nationally by this time either. Walmart had overtaken both Sears and Kmart to become the nation’s top retailer. The 2004 merger of Sears and Kmart failed to revive either chain’s fortunes.
Thus, the end of the Sodo Sears store became inevitable.
Only 79 employees remained with the store when its closure was announced in February, 13 of them in the “Auto Center” department.
The store had become forgotten before it was gone.
Classic P-I building from my book 'seattle's belltown;' museum of history and industry collection
I left the Missy James post up as this blog’s top item for a month, both to remember her and because I’ve been laser focused on finding paying work.
But it’s time for me to get back to the “writing” thang.
And there’s no more appropriate day to do so than on the fifth anniversary of the last printed Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The city lost a huge chunk of its soul and its collective memory when the Hearst Corp., awash in losses here and in its other print-media operations, pulled the plug on our town’s “second” yet superior daily paper.
There’s been a P-I sized hole in the local media-scape ever since.
Yeah, we’ve got the Seattle Times, albeit a shrunken one (though it’s apparently stopped shrinking any further, at least for now).
We’ve got the Stranger, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut, Publicola, and SportsPress NW.
We’ve got four local TV news stations (plus NorthWest Cable News), four local radio news stations, and all their respective websites.
We’ve got Seattle magazine, Seattle Met, and CityArts.
We’ve got the Daily Journal of Commerce, the Puget Sound Business Journal, and assorted tech-biz news sites.
We’ve got Horse’sAss, Seattlish, The Seattle Star, and dozens of other (mostly volunteer-run) blogs covering local politics, sports, and arts.
And, oh yeah, we’ve got SeattlePI.com.
It’s still run by Hearst. It still has Joel Connelly’s acerbic political commentary, Josh Trujillo’s dramatic photojournalism, and the occasional excellent news story.
But its staff has shrunk to 14 reporters, photographers, and “producers,” down from the 20 it had at its stand-alone start in ’09. That, in turn, was a small fraction of the team the print P-I had.
That’s still a full-time payroll comparable to that of any newsroom in town, except those of the Times and the TV stations.
But it’s stretched thin by the requirement to post dozens of “click bait” and “listicle” stories every day.
Hearst is running PI.com according to the 2009 rules of a “content” web business.
Those rules, which nationally gave us the likes of BuzzFeed and Elite Daily, have proven profitable only among the most sensationalistic and most cheaply run operations that feed either on gossip, noise, or national niche audiences.
It’s no way to run a local general-news operation.
And it’s no way to pay for professional local journalism on a sustainable basis.
But neither Hearst nor any of America’s other old-media giants has figured out a better way.
So it’s become the job of us “street level” bloggers to find new rules, new concepts, to forge a new path beyond the ugly web pages stuff with worthless banner ads. To create the New-New News.
My personal bottom line:
I want a local news organization, staffed by folks who know what they’re doing and who are paid living wages.
I want it to attract an audience at least as loyal (and as willing to help support it) as KUOW’s audience.
I want it to be the first place this audience looks to to learn what’s been going on around here, in the last day or the last hour.
I want it to reach out across subcultures and social strata.
I have collected a few ideas in this regard, a few potential pieces of this puzzle.
And I’d love to hear some of yours.
Since most of my most loyal readers will have other things to do on Sunday afternoon, here’s some relatively timeless randomosity for whenever you log back in:
In early October, crews began tossing abandoned personal belongings out of the former Palladian Apartments at Second and Virginia, across from the Moore Theatre/Hotel.
Everything that the building’s former tenants chose not to take with them, along with all of the building’s interior walls and fixtures, was originally sent down the building’s not-always-reliable single elevator, then later by chutes attached on the building’s south side. It all got tossed into truck-sized Dumpsters parked outside.
Among the toss-outs: CRT TV sets. Cheap Ikea shelving. Old clothes in varying degrees of rattiness. Pots and pans. The detrius of more than 60 human lives, detrius left behind and destined for either recycling or dumping.
In 1909-10 (shortly after the the Moore, and a little late for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition tourist business), attorney/businessman Scott Calhoun built the Calhoun Hotel for $175,000. Its block had recently been lowered as part of the massive Denny Regrade project. (The intersection of Second and Virginia is the highest remaining point in what had been the Denny Hill neighborhood.)
Like the nearby Moore, Commodore, St. Regis, and New Washington hotels (the latter two are now nonprofit housing), the Calhoun was the product of a frontier city trying to prove it had come of age.
Its facade incorporated elements of Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts architecture.
Its 152 guest rooms were small by modern standards, but its lobby, mezzanine, and dining room were posh.
There was even a “rathskeller” beer tavern in the basement (which became a Prohibition-era “speakeasy”).
Over the decades, the Calhoun (like its neighbor hotels) got steadily less posh. It essentially became a single-room occupancy residence.
Developers turned it into the Palladian (after a style of window dressing on its exterior) in 1984. The lobby was walled off into two storefront spaces, a building office, and an alcove/mailroom for the residents upstairs.
The storefronts first housed a bookstore and coffeehouse. Later tenants included the Poor Italian Restaurant and Corner Bar; then the Buenos Aires Grill and the Whisky Bar.
The upstairs contained 69 apartments (all studios and 1-brs; some with Space Needle views) and an art studio. It was affordable housing without public subsidies, except a city tax credit for preserving existing affordable housing stock.
However, there were hidden costs within those relatively low rents. The units and hallways were bland looking. Stairwells were poorly maintained. The elevator often stalled.
And it had noise issues, particularly the units that faced the alley entrance to a men’s homeless shelter. This alley became a 24-hour hangout for street people, including drug dealers and users.
In 2011, the city granted historic-landmark designation to the building and its exterior.
The following year, the Buenos Aires Grill’s owners signed a lease on the Whisky Bar’s space. The Whisky Bar’s owners took out all the furnishings and fixtures, which the Buenos Aires people almost completely duplicated to create the new Corner Bar. (A new Whisky Bar moved one block up the street, opening in October 2012.)
Then this past March, notices appeared in the mailroom and the ground-floor office door, asking tenants to personally meet with landlord David Cohanim. They learned that Cohanim, whose family had owned the building for more than a decade, was turning it into a boutique hotel.
City relocation assistance checks arrived in mid-May. Even before that, residents had begun to seek new homes, pack up, and move out. They scattered to places near and far—to commercial and non-profit apartments, to senior buildings, to rooms in relatives’ homes.
The Buenos Aires and the Corner Bar closed by the end of May.
The last resident officially moved out of the Palladian on Aug. 17.
Once the residents’ abandoned trash is removed, workers will take out the appliances, plumbing fixtures, cabinetry, and anything else that can be sold or recycled.
Then, the building’s roof will be knocked open. A crane will drop a small bulldozer onto the top floor. With that machine, crews will knock out the entire interior of each floor, top to bottom; flooring, wiring, and all.
It will take at least a year for what’s tentatively being called the new Calhoun Hotel to open. (Its operation may be contracted out to an established management company, which may want to stick its own name onto the place.)
The last Palladian residents will each get one free night in the hotel.
It’s Saturday Oct. 19. It’s Independent Video Store Day, an industrywide promotion similar to Record Store Day.
Scarecrow Video in the University District is packed with customers, there for special sales offers and cult-movie screenings.
Some of these are once-loyal customers who haven’t been inside Scarecrow, or any brick-and-mortar video store, in a long time.
The store needs them back, and on more than just one day a year.
Scarecrow Video is in trouble.
Not from the owners of the “Wizard of Oz” trademarks. That was quietly settled long ago, with the scarecrow in the store’s logo replaced by the silhouette of a flying crow.
And not from landlords. Store owner Carl Tostevin bought the building (formerly a stereo shop, and then a large Radio Shack) a while back.
No, what could kill the store that boasts of having “the world’s largest collection of films” are the same trends that killed Rain City Video, Hollywood Video, and even the once-mighty Blockbuster.
In the mid 1980s, during the first heyday of home video, attorney Fred Hopkins and record collector John Black had a little used record store, Backtrack, on the 25th Ave. NE strip north of University Village. Hopkins brought in a few dozen VHS tapes of ’50s horror and other cheesy B movies, for rent and for sale.
One day, regular customer George Latsois came in with some tapes of foreign and “art” films. Hopkins and Black agreed to stock them on Backtrack’s rental shelves on Latsois’s behalf. They rented well enough to encourage Latsois to start his own store.
Scarecrow Video began its standalone existence in an old commercial building south of Green Lake. Latsois quickly expanded to a second, then a third, adjacent storefront. He put everything he made and more into increasing his stock. Scarecrow, he decided, would be a destination store attracting customers from around the city and even the ‘burbs.
Latsois and a growing staff of film fanatics outgrew the Green Lake space. They moved to a bigger, and higher profile, location on Roosevelt Way, just off of the NE 50th Street freeway exit.
The U District was one of the city’s traditional film hubs. The Seven Gables and Metro cinames, and the Cinema Books store, were just down the street; the Neptune, Varsity, and Grand Illusion theaters were on or near nearby University Way; the UW itself had acclaimed film-studies programs and screening series. Scarecrow immediately became a major part, then an anchor, of this activity.
It was at Scarecrow that I first saw a DVD being played (the first Michael Keaton Batman). Within 10 years, the DVD format would render VHS (and the niche Laserdisc format) completely obsolete. Scarecrow, though, would hold on to hundreds of VHS titles that still haven’t come out on DVD.
Latsois kept expanding his selection. He tried to balance interesting but unprofitable titles with films in popular or niche-market genres (sexploitaiton, anime, old Hollywood classics). Scarecrow’s collection, already the biggest in Seattle, became one of the, and then THE, biggest in America.
But Latsois’s get-big-fast model caught up with the store’s finances. He was forced to seek buyers. He found them in 1998, in Microsoft managers (and loyal store customers) Tostevin and John Dauphiny.
Latsois died in 2003 in his native Greece; a wake at Scarecrow was attended by loyal customers dating from back in the Backtrack days.
With the backing of Tostevin and Dauphiny (who kept their Microsoft day jobs and didn’t take salaries from the store), Scarecrow continued to grow. To 23,000 titles, then to 80,000, then to almost 120,000.
Every available foot of space in the former stereo shop was turned into shelves. The main room’s collections of “auteur” directors became a labyrinth of tall shelves, separated by increasingly narrow passages. At Scarecrow, shopping for films was as much of an adventure as watching them.
Then came Netflix’s DVD by mail service. Then came streaming and on-demand services. Independent retailers like Scarecrow, which can’t afford the expensive rights (or the technical infrastructure) to stream movies, were cut off from that side of the buisness.
DVD rentals and sales tumbled. The big movie studios cut back their DVD release schedules. Video stores everywhere (independents, chains, big and small) began to disappear.
Tostevin (who bought out Dauphiny’s share) kept Scarecrow open, with a staff of 30. They added a coffee bar (“VHSpresso”), a screening room, and cross-promotions with art cinemas and neighborhood small businesses. They pushed the sales side of the business, and offered different rental specials each day of the week. It hasn’t been enough.
On Oct. 17, two days before Independent Video Store Day, Tostevin posted notice on the store’s website:
“Our rental numbers have declined roughly 40% over the past 6 years. This isn’t a huge surprise—obviously technology has been moving this direction for some time—but the decline has been more dramatic than we had anticipated.… Scarecrow has never been about making money, but it has to support itself. It’s no longer doing that, and hasn’t for a while.”
Scarecrow general manager Jeffrey Shannon told KOMO-TV that if revenues don’t pick up by year’s end, he and Tostavin might pursue a nonprofit, subscription-based model or other options. Completely closing, and disbanding the collection, remains one of those options.
In his website post, Tostevin didn’t ask for donations, just for his former regulars to “come back in” and buy and/or rent stuff; particularly during the upcoming holiday season.
One of the things you could buy is a Scarecrow T-shirt bearing the cartoon image of an anthropomorphic DVD disc and VHS cassette, smiling beneath the slogan VIVA PHYSICAL MEDIA.
In February, we wrote about the impending closure of Bill’s Off Broadway, Capitol Hill’s venerable home style pizza place and sports bar.
At the time, Bill’s was scheduled to close on June 30. Delays in the big redevelopment project on the Pine and Harvard site meant Bill’s owner Don Stevens got to stay open over the summer.
Bill’s finally closed on Dec. 2, coinciding with a Seahawks appearance on Monday Night Football. The old joint was packed with well wishes and regulars past and present. It was more a celebration than a wake, especially with the Seahawks’ easy victory lifting everyone’s spirits.
Stevens and crew will reopen in the new building on the site some time in 2015; a new Bill’s “exile” location is now open on Greenwood Avenue N., north of N. 85th Street.
A long-delayed batch of randomosity (the first in more than a month) begins with the discovery of the newest local “mainstream microbrew.” Underachiever Lager appears to have begun as a promo vehicle for Tacoma designer-casual-wear company Imperial Motion, but is now being rolled out as its own thang in select local bars.
I mourn the Comet Tavern for what it had been. The un-upscaled hippie hangout; the dive that remained a dive when most of the other dives in town cleaned up their acts. I don’t mourn what it had become—a hangout ruled by an oft-violent aggro gang called Hate City. (A good friend, a petite female, was once roughed up by bouncers there, badly.) Could any new owners make it an inviting place again?
We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.
charter construction via ronald holden, cornichon.org
Gosh, has it really been more than three weeks since I’ve done this? Time flies when you’re desperately looking for paying work (i.e., absolutely not “for the exposure”).
We have forgotten what this country once understood, that a society based on nothing but selfishness and greed is not a society at all, but a state of war of the strong against the weak.
pelican bay foundation via capitolhillseattle.com
First, another “sorry folks” for not getting something up to the site lately. I know some of you enjoy these li’l linx, even when I don’t have a major essay about something.
For now, back to Randomosity: