Is Seattle Still The Same? 30 Tales of Loss
A tour through what’s been loved and lost in Seattle
Over the last decade I have lived in Seattle too many times to count and in just as many places — Ballard, Fremont, Madrona, Magnolia, Capitol Hill, the Central District, the U-District, Eastlake, even a houseboat on Westlake and one in Gasworks Park. With the renaming of neighborhoods for real estate marketing, I probably lived in even more places, perhaps ones I’ve never even heard of. I keep coming back, yet every time I return, despite its changes, it feels like I never left. It’s like that old adage about the boat whose hull gets repaired so many times that eventually every piece of it is different, yet we know it to be the same boat. How? But it is.
I got that adage from an ex one evening while we were out drinking at The Canterbury. It was a bar so beloved that I cynically suspected it might have closed down since I last lived there. It turns out I was only partially wrong; it closed and then reopened. But what I remember is The Canterbury’s previous incarnation, and with it the feeling you get in an old wooden tavern: cozy, steeped in history, and in the mood to ask ponderous questions. Is the boat the same boat? I wish it were.
Sometimes it is. One of the most trepidatious treks I ever made in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t summiting an Olympic peak, but rather going to Elliott Bay in Pioneer Square only to find it had moved to Capitol Hill, and then walking back to the Hill with a cold fear in my bones. Elliot Bay, the beloved Pioneer Square bookstore, had character creaking out of its floorboards; even its gloomy downstairs cafe managed to be the most convivial basement in the city. Elliott Bay was one of the biggest reasons I fell in love with Seattle and I had little hope that its new digs were going to do it justice. But I was pleasantly surprised. The building was new but its old soul was intact. The Elliott Bay on 12th Ave E, in my opinion, is the brave new face of a changing Seattle, and it works.
But it’s hard to keep a brave face for the brave new face of Seattle when your most beloved places just disappear. The Half Priced Books on Belmont is one of them. That bookstore was my go-to on a rainy day which, in Seattle, was nearly every day. For a while I spent more time in that place than I did in my apartment and probably more money than I did on rent. The first time I went there was beautiful. I was visiting the city before I lived there, staying at my friend’s place one block over. One evening he had us scale his fence and hop over just so he could be like, “ta da!” that there was this great place essentially in his backyard. We went in and looked at records. Record shopping and fence-scaling were our pastimes as kids and thanks to Half Priced Books, he managed to recreate the magic for us 1,200 miles away.
My friend was so good at curating Seattle for us recent transplants that I joked he secretly worked for the Chamber of Commerce on commission. A more prescient joke, though, would have been that he was uncanny at sharing places that would one day close for good. Down the block was B&O Espresso, the first restaurant I loved in the neighborhood, one in which I could read and poke at a crème brûlée undisturbed for hours and hours on end. The Globe, a vegan restaurant on 14th, was another such place. At the time I was a dirty-haired activist, so ramshackle places like The Globe were my spiritual home.
Another ramshackle place that at least in jest was a spiritual home was Coffee Messiah. Named appropriately given its location next to Holy Smoke, it was loved for its irreverent burlesque-esque events and its gaudy, godly motif. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to win them much fortune from above: the caffeinated savior needed to be saved, financially, before long. I still have the flyer from their benefit concert. An old man in attendance that day had cupped his hands to the sky and proclaimed, “That’s not rain! It’s sorrow.” I doubt God cried that day; it wasn’t his only begotten coffee shop. Even He knew it wasn’t long for this world. It had committed the mortal sin of being located on Olive, or Pike, or Pine, or Denny — corridors destined to fall from grace.
Spanning all of those streets is probably the biggest development on Capitol Hill: the light rail station. Before construction began, Denny just east of Broadway was home to the old Espresso Vivace. If you could forgive the ghastly mural on the wall and the stench of roasting beans, their coffee was excellent. I spent many a dreary weekend there reading The Stranger. Stranger still was thinking how the entire block and everything around its leafy brick corner would just cease to exist.
Oddly, the strangest experience I had with Vivace happened just today. I looked up its old Denny location on Google Street View and saw the latest image, in this case from June 2014. To the west is a temporary wall blocking Denny that’s covered in graffiti, and to the south is Cal Anderson Park. The temporary wall is as far west as you can go on the map and in real life; behind the wall is a construction zone. I had looked it up in the name of research but got caught up in nostalgia and clicked the path into the park, as if intending to take a virtual stroll. However, after I went a couple clicks into the park, I rotated the view and everything changed. Now the image it gave me was from November 2007, when Vivace was still there. I could even see its logo on the wall amidst the autumn leaves. There is a Jack in the Box across the street, a place I don’t recall which jarred me to see — I can’t quite reconcile it with my memory. All of it was a surprise; I didn’t expect to “get in” behind the temporary wall, and I really didn’t expect to be thrust back in time. Our memories, and certainly the memories of other people, live on the borders of the impenetrable, locked away in time; to encounter them at all, one must stumble upon a portal. A portal to the Vivace of November 2007 still exists today in the strange form of Google Street View.
Which is stranger: that the block is entirely gone, or stumbling upon 2007 from my couch in New York in 2015? Thanks to the internet I was able to find a vestige of Vivace’s past and a piece of my own. In the intervening years we’ve really intensified our ability to record the now, augment it, and even unseat our future memories with it. We’ve always been alone when walking down memory lane, and now we have to figure out how to share the road. We search for the searchable truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Google. But what I have loved and lost in Seattle isn’t so easy to track down. It is non-data, fundamentally private, stored nowhere but in my own mind. It is slippery, haphazard, un-indexable and perhaps even incommunicable. So I sit here on the couch and time travel with my thoughts, alone, and try to search my past to find a piece of what’s gone.
We search for the searchable truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Google. But what I have loved and lost in Seattle isn’t so easy to track down. It is non-data, fundamentally private, stored nowhere but in my own mind.
One of my favorite places in Seattle is un-Googleable anyway. We called it “the speakeasy” and it was held in a private apartment on Olive Way once a week. To get in, you had to find a little door buzzer that had been nestled into a small tree next to the entrance. Then you’d look up and someone would open a window and toss you down the key. The proprietor was an eccentric who went out of his way concocting elaborate themed parties with retro costumes and matching playlists. The drinks were free and there was always an eclectic mix of people, making it perhaps the best bar in Capitol Hill. Eventually his rent went up, or he lost his lease from throwing too many shindigs, and all that’s left of his nostalgia-tinged parties now is our nostalgia for them.
I guess it makes sense that the cheap-drinks places are quick to close: something about catering to the broke and transient seems to make one broke and transient. On that list there are tons of places that have kicked the bucket, like the Jade Pagoda, Kincora whose Tuesday night DJ played psychedelic garage rock from the 60s, and the old Cha-Cha where I first heard the word “hipster.” It’s strange now to remember there was once a moment where, in order to play hipster bingo, I had to ask, “Wait, guys who wear trucker hats? That’s actually a thing?” I hadn’t really noticed yet, though I lived with at least one faux-trucker in my shared Craigslist house. The house was a real shit hole with month-to-month rent, a home as temporary as the bars we went to, like the Bus Stop — places that don’t bother with furniture because, fuck it, we won’t be here in a year.
I guess it makes sense that the cheap-drinks places are quick to close: something about catering to the broke and transient seems to make one broke and transient.
That’s certainly how I felt. I was a rolling stone because, despite how much I loved the city, I didn’t know if I could make it there. Having a college degree was enough to keep me chronically underemployed, which was enough to prevent me from qualifying for a lease. I didn’t mind, but all that in combination with some serious seasonal depression made me invest more in wanderlust than in a long-term future, or its physical counterpart, furniture.
Nevertheless I stayed; I rolled my Sisyphusian stone all over the city. In every neighborhood you could hear the same collective sigh as the one in Capitol Hill. The sigh was a sign that if rent was affordable it meant the place was guaranteed to become unrecognizable soon. It was just a matter of time.
This was perhaps most true for Ballard. A decade ago, my boyfriend at the time was about to move sight-unseen to Seattle from Sweden, so I found us an apartment in Ballard, in a beautiful brick building owned by an old-school family willing to cut me a cheap lease without checking my credit. That was the beginning of my deep gratitude for Ballard and all that it was, and I have nothing but fond memories of the neighborhood and my time in it. But going back there now tends to grate on me: every high rise condo is like a giant fingernail screeching down a chalkboard, or a giant middle finger pointing at, maybe, all of us.
Market Street has suffered much of Ballard’s hasty augmentative surgery, including Sunset Bowl which closed in 2008 and the Denny’s that closed in 2007, both of their buildings lost to condo development. To be fair, the loss of Denny’s can only give one mixed feelings; it’s just a chain restaurant after all. On the other hand, fuck mixed feelings, they sold great mixed drinks, stiff ones, in their dark relic of a bar. When they were open, the diner and the bowling alley were open 24 hours and had been around for decades. Of course locals adored them— we love the places we had a great time in, and full-bar diners next to all-night bowling alleys are a, um, strike. Or a grand slam.
The Denny’s used to occupy an iconic 1964 building on Market and 15th that you’d pass when entering Ballard from upper Fremont or the Ballard Bridge. In a case of too little too late, after it shut down the building was granted landmark preservation status, largely because of its retro “Googie” architecture. Googie, with its parabolic sloping roof, was a popular style in 1960’s Southern California that slid its way into what we consider Americana (though the Denny’s building in question was once more accurately described as “Scandigooginesian” — a mash-up of Scandinavian, Googie and Polynesian styles). The corner is now home to a condo complex and a Five Guys chain. If I’m allowed to coin a term as weird as Scandigooginesian, the building represents what I’ll call the new Ballarcondull style, one that has yet to be embraced as Americana but in 50 more years, just might.
With all the new development, it’s hard to not feel like you have to swallow a bitter pill when you enter Ballard now. When I lived there, it felt quite the opposite — the places we’d pass by when coming home greeted us with a wink and maybe even a drink, and the pills weren’t bitter at all. Places like the Bit Saloon on Leary were always good for a nightcap, their back patio full of chatty old codgers and hard-drinking motorcycle mamas. It was there I truly learned to respect crow’s feet and leather on cleavage, a lesson that will do me well in old age. The Bit, which closed to become the 2 Bit, eventually bit the dust and closed for good. Now that throughway into Ballard is studded with high-rise condos, so many that even Leary is probably leery of them.
I didn’t want to gripe about condos, if only because it’s so overdone. But it’s hard to resist feeling like it’s all some bad joke; condos like Hjärta — Swedish for heart — give a nod to the neighborhood’s roots while systematically ripping them out. I don’t know what would be better: a moratorium on redevelopment that just creates more sprawl? I’d love to see people opt for sharing space in order to make use of what we have rather than tearing down and building bigger. The tearing down makes me tear up, not so much from nostalgia as from the pain of wastefulness. I can’t help but wonder, though, that if I had actually watched each condo get erected maybe they wouldn’t have jarred me so much. I felt like I came back one year and they were everywhere, and because I missed the transition they all stick out in my mind as much as they stick up into the sky.
Maybe it was seeing all these condos that gave me extra reason to drink… yeah, that’s it. On to the next whiskey bar. Up the street was a favorite spot, an old dive called The Viking on the corner of 24th Ave NW and NW 65th. Now that was a bar. It was patronized daily by old seafarers until the final day it closed. It’s too bad it’s gone, but I don’t feel bad for the proprietors; they ran the bar for the last 23 years and also owned the land, which had a barbershop and some homes, and sold it for $1.2 million.
Across the street was another favorite spot, though I never actually managed to go there: the Copper Gate, a dark old haunt I used to pass by every day and wish were open. I think it lived and died in the time after I’d moved out of the neighborhood — I’m not sure, and I’m not Googling it to find out. It occupies a nice place in my memory, like someone who once winked at me that I never actually talked to. What we could have had remains a mystery. It’s an unrequited bar so I love it implicitly, even with little to go on.
My love for Ballard’s lost places isn’t all bars, bowling alleys and Scandigooginesian architecture — it also extends to other bastions of frivolity, like the old Archie McPhee. Yes, the snarky-humored toy store closed down, and yes, like Elliott Bay it reopened elsewhere (Wallingford) and didn’t lose its soul. But when I lived in Ballard I loved having a neighborhood place for all my rubber chicken needs. I liked that it was out of the way, on a quiet block near the Ballard Locks that required effort to get there. Having to go to the far reaches of the city just to visit it made going to the toy store a special event. I’m sure they’re doing fine on 45th right by Molly Moon’s and other stuff visitors and children like, but I feel for the kids who only get five minutes in the holy grail of toy stores while their angry dad is down the street waiting in line for ice cream. Making a day trip out of the Ballard Locks, the Sloop Tavern, and the old Archie McPhee might have been the last time fun for the whole family wasn’t an oxymoron.
Another out of the way place in Ballard was a real gem while it lasted. Hostel Seattle, a beautiful place to stay overlooking Puget Sound on Seaview Avenue, quietly operated for just two years and then disappeared. One time I was visiting the city during a heat wave — all 90 degrees of it — so for the love of air conditioning, I spent a couple nights there amidst some vacationing Aussies and Spaniards. It was great fun and gave me a natural excuse to play tour guide (though it got me no closer to being contacted by the Chamber of Commerce to work on commission).
Not everywhere I miss was a commercial establishment. My old bus stop on Ballard’s 75 route is one of them. The route still exists but the stop is gone and likely so is its driver. I used to board the bus there every morning on my way to work at a waterproofing company in Crown Hill. At the time I was so broke that I had started reusing my bus passes, and it’s likely the driver could tell: who’s transferring on a residential street way out in Ballard with a crumpled up pass that looks like it went through the wash? But he never let on. Instead, we talked. I would sit up at the front and the conversation would pick up where it had left off the day before. He was a writer, the kind I admired who got up at 4am and wrote in the dark before his wife woke up. We talked books and even exchanged books — I don’t remember why I gave him Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but it seems fitting now. In the end, he obliquely hinted that he knew I was scamming the bus passes, which prompted me to back-pay Sound Transit, but he was kind enough about it and spared my dignity. If your city bus driver is a lovely human being, and a writer, and up for conversation, you might be in Seattle.
The place I worked at in Crown Hill was a really shitty contracting company, so it’s for the better that it’s gone now, or at least under new management. The foremen I worked with were knock-around guys that would have been right at home in Queens, yet, fascinating to me, they somehow managed to be total Seattleites. Every morning they’d come in late with a tall latte in hand, bitching about the traffic at the drive-through coffee shop. The office banter usually centered around shit-talking and wondering whether the office should install an espresso machine. Coffee does not maketh the man, but if a foreman can appreciate great coffee, he’s a Seattleite.
All the other places I used to work in Seattle are now gone, too, occupying a ghostlike space in the city and on my resume. Seattle Language Academy, the nonprofit language school along the Fremont Canal that operated from 1996 to 2010, was a great place to work. I used to help run their English program which over the years was home to hundreds of foreigners, students from Europe and businessmen from South Korea. My job as their advisor was, partially, to help acclimate them to life in Seattle, a job I took very seriously (ahem, Chamber of Commerce?). The school taught ten languages, even Turkish and Latin, and added a little cafe downstairs with affordable food and a manager that chilled out and played Toots and The Maytals all day. If you worked there you could take classes for free; I also got paid lunch, sick leave, and kayak parking (sadly, never used), all of which might help explain how they ran out of money and had to close down. Like all utopias, they’re great but they don’t last.
Another Seattle institution I worked at was Bulldog News. I started at their newsstand on The Ave in the U-District as my first paying job out of college. I slung magazines, drank coffee (they also had their own cafe, because Seattle) and earned a cool dollar more than the state minimum wage. The staff was a cherry-picked group of radicals, and the founder, a UW graduate keeping it real in the neighborhood, had the beautiful dream of getting us to take the place over as a workers’ collective. That location is still there, thankfully, but the location I moved to, in the QFC complex on Broadway in Capitol Hill, is now gone. The whole building was new when I was there anyway, displacing whatever may have been there before. In the churn-and-burn history of Broadway (Charlie’s, Bailey-Coy), it’s little surprise that a newsstand next to a grocery store that has a newsstand was not going to last long — another utopia that went the way of the buffalo.
Ironically the buffalo, near extinct, has its own role to play in the changing landscape of the city. Well, maybe not actual buffalo, but certainly their taxidermied heads. They’ve become a staple in bar and restaurant decor and for a while it seemed like every new place was adorning itself with stuffed heads and antlers. It’s done in an attempt to impart a sense of history in places that have none, while at the same time old buffalo heads were coming down in historic places that had to close, like The Buckaroo Tavern in Fremont. That tavern was one of the oldest in the city, closing in 2010 after 72 years in business. It was a wild, salty place that preserved the rough and tumble element a few blocks from Aurora in upper Fremont. The front patio, always packed with drunken smokers, was a great place to get my Yamaha scooter made fun of as it sat there feebly parked next to a row of Harleys. Among the hogs were other animals, their preserved heads lining the walls: all hunting trophies acquired by salty patrons of years past. To be fair, it’s possible the new taxidermy-filled bars are mounting real carcasses pilfered from closed down bars like this, with places like The Buckaroo quite literally passing the buck.
Relatedly, also gone is the motorcycle repair shop up the street behind the Caffe Vita on Fremont Ave. Tucked in a little garage was a great place to roll my scooter into for repairs, especially considering the place I used to get it worked on, University Honda in Capitol Hill, had closed. I don’t necessarily miss University Honda as I only went there twice, but both times happened to be pivotal. The first time was the day I moved back to town and decided, fuck it, to really do Seattle I need my own wheels. I went in there with no money and no job and was miraculously given a line of credit and a good deal on a scooter. I grew up riding motorcycles, which was good for a shot of confidence to get me through negotiating with a bunch of biker dudes, but it was only after he handed me the keys that I admitted I’d need a practice run before getting on the road. The dealer sent me up to their rooftop parking lot, showed me and my girlfriend the ropes, and then sent me off into traffic. The second time I came to University Honda was about a year later. I walked in like a man who’d been blown up. I was bleeding: an arm, a kneecap. I had oil and grime down the left half of me, and a broken fender in my hand. I had crashed into the back of a car in traffic by all the construction near South Lake Union and, in shock, had picked up the bike, heaved it onto the sidewalk, checked it and myself over, and drove to the shop. It didn’t occur to me to do anything but get the machine in for repairs, and only after I saw the look on the dude’s face there did I realize I probably needed to get myself to a hospital. The bike is now fixed, my body-length bruises are gone, and the scene of the crime is now completely rebuilt. Only the cringe-worthy memory remains.
Another scene of past crimes is between The Buckaroo and the motorcycle shop: an innocuous-looking laundromat that had closed and later reopened. No hard feelings there — it was the only place in America where I’ve had my underwear stolen from a machine twice, and the only place where I’ve actually seen the person doing it. I might have done something about it if the perpetrator wasn’t an elderly crack addict. Aside from being a haven for crackheads and junkies, it was also a great place for people to sit around and case the neighborhood, which is what happened one day when I had to deal with an impeccably-timed home invasion. That this was my local laundromat might account for why my wardrobe tended toward being a bit more unwashed than average, which was fine, especially if I was hanging out at The Buck.
That section of Fremont saw a lot of change in a short period of time but because I was there to see it, it didn’t feel alienating. But then again, I was part of the population that these changes were meant to serve. Across from the laundromat was a new Caffe Vita whose sidewalk was full with the Saturday brunch crowd and their designer dogs, all of whom were within clear view of my house when it got broken into. Despite the sense of safety I lost, not to mention the stolen unmentionables, there’s still a place in my heart for the old laundromat if only because I spent so much time there.
I wouldn’t have minded if instead I had been able to take my laundry to the old Sit and Spin, the laundromat downtown that was also a bar and venue. Their premise was brilliant: no one wants to sit around waiting for the laundry, but given that drinking involves a lot of sitting around, it’s a perfect combination. The tumbledown bar with tumble dryers closed ages ago. There are other downtown spots now gone that you can miss drinking and spending your quarters at, like the Funhouse in Belltown, a bar that Not For Tourists touted as a fun place to mess with tourists who stumbled in while waiting to Ride The Duck.
In one last bid to be granted honorary status as a Chamber of Commerce undercover agent on commission, I will say that I always gave great recommendations to tourists who wanted to get to know Seattle’s neighborhoods. But my knowledge is a little out of date now so that ship might have sailed. I’m turning into one of those people who, like the Irish joke goes, give directions based entirely on pubs from days of yore. If you want to get downtown, turn left where the old Twilight Exit was on Madison. Or the marina is just up ahead; if you pass the S.S. Marie Antoinette, you’ve gone too far. Because I saw these changes happen before my eyes, my memories of the city are overlaid atop its actual geography, a ghostlike layer haunted with things that no longer exist. I’m too young to sound like an old guy going on about what’s gone, but my relative age has been accelerated by the changes around me.
I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that my own presence was part of that change. I’m from California, as were the friends I moved there to be around. I was just one in a long chain of people who knew each other and relocated there, and I continued the chain by bringing still more people who later brought their own. Like the Googie-styled building in Ballard, and even Denny’s itself, we spread upward from California, leaving our imprint on the landscape. As a result of these continued incursions, a local joke was tailored for us: the rain in Seattle isn’t really that bad, we just say it is so Californians don’t come up here. But we transplants came nonetheless. It did not take long before I became a Seattleite and felt myself in the same boat as everyone else, that I belonged in the glittering boomtown where transculturation is a permanent process with infinite permutations. In the surgery Seattle is undergoing all we can hope for is that the transplant fuses with the whole and makes it better than it was before.
The first day I hung out in Seattle as a rent-paying resident, I got together with some friends. We sat out on their stoop, on Summit between Olive and Denny. Across from us was Wing Dome, a neon eyesore looking like something that a suburban tornado had dropped intact. They lamented the view, cursing Wing Dome and everything it stood for: the displacement of local business, the encroachment of bro culture, the corporatizing of the neighborhood. We had one of the most touching conversations on civics, loving one’s city, planting roots and deciding what should grow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this conversation took place in the heart of the neighborhood, in the heart of Seattle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the heart of Seattle became the epicenter of redevelopment. Seattle is essentially getting heart surgery and everyone’s concerned about whether it will pull through. So we get together and talk. We fret. It doesn’t always make for a cohesive narrative. Across the street from us, a janky truck rolled up and two crust punks jumped out, grabbed a barrel, and drove away. They were collecting Wing Dome’s discarded veggie oil and would use it assumedly to power their truck. Bearded radicals had managed to incorporate a corporate chicken joint into their daily lives, as had the locals inside patronizing the place. Unlike my friends, some people were glad it popped up in the neighborhood. Of course, in the end those people had reason to lament along with us: even Wing Dome eventually closed down.
Seattle is essentially getting heart surgery and everyone’s concerned about whether it will pull through. All we can hope for is that the transplant fuses with the whole.
We share stories of what we love, what we remember, what we miss. Sometimes these stories resonate with our own, subtly uniting us with other people who share them. Sometimes these stories take us down an unexpected path where we stumble upon a portal that leads us somewhere we forgot, somewhere we love, somewhere we feel at home. More than anything, revisiting our past gives us a chance to reconnect with ourselves, to invoke who we were and how we felt. Fortunately, Seattle makes me feel the same now as it did then: cozy, steeped in history, and in the mood to ask ponderous questions. Is the boat the same boat? Yes. How do we know? Because our memory of it is overlaid on top of it, because we were inside it and watched it change before our eyes, because in here it still inheres.
If you enjoyed this you should check out Ghosts of Seattle Past, an atlas of memories and a collaborative map of places loved and missed. Ghosts of Seattle Past is on a U.S. tour through April 2017 and is holding a Seattle walking tour in partnership with Atlas Obscura on May 6, 2017.