Since way before Mac & Jack's was cool, the Bainbridge Island Mac n' Jack's has been quietly going about its business repairing cars and serving as a gathering place for the island's yeomen.
SINCE WAY BEFORE Mac & Jack’s was cool, the Bainbridge Island Mac n’ Jack’s has been quietly going about its business repairing cars and serving as a gathering place for the island’s yeomen. It is a touchstone for measuring the current state and worth of Bainbridge. Stop in there almost any time during the workday and you will find a few of his fellow old-timers visiting with Jesse McFarlane — the “Mac” in Mac n’ Jack’s — in the repair shop’s front office, alternately swapping old stories and discussing the current state of the island.
My favorite cultural event of the year is held here: the annual Mac n’ Jack’s Christmas party, for which the station operators clean out the service bay and set up tables and countertops for the laying out of food and drink. Old- and middle-timers from all over the island bring whiskey and lutefisk, McFarlane sets up a stew pot full of “Fawndue” — venison chili made with meat from a deer killed by a car — and everybody parties like it was 1955.
The parties furnish great instruction in island history. One recent Christmas, the dean of the old-timers, 70-year-old lifelong island resident Arnie Jackson, kicked off the proceedings with a typical lesson: “That chimney at the head of the bay” — in a little clearing on the edge of Eagle Harbor — “remember when that house there was a whorehouse? My mom was always telling me, ‘You boys stay out of that place!’ And then when it burned down, Crazy Bob kept coming around wailing, ‘When are they gonna put that house back up?’ “
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The chili is something of a local legend. The first time I attended the party, I asked Dave Jackson — the “Jack” in Mac n’ Jack’s — “Is it true, Dave, that this is made from roadkill?”
He looked at me, mock-aggrieved. “Well, it was found near the road!”
With its view of a horse pasture, its concrete floor and relentlessly anti-modern ambience, Mac n’ Jack’s has been a haven from progress since opening in 1974. The station didn’t have a computer, cordless telephone or electronic credit-card reader until four years ago. It was only after the unexpected passing of Jackson, from a heart attack in 2002, that McFarlane consented to the first remodel and equipment upgrade in the enterprise’s history. And now you hear the clash of old and new Bainbridge every time the two phones ring and chirp: McFarlane has his old phone, with its metal bell, still connected to the grid, and callers to the station always set off a furious, dissonant mechanical/electronic argument over progress.
Now, between the phones and the constant talk among the old-timers about the sudden, horrible shift upward in island fortunes, intimations of ruin are almost constantly in the air at Mac n’ Jack’s. One day a neighbor dropped in, declaring, “I come by to tell everybody that the world’s coming to an end! I just come back from Bangor, I went by the Wal-Mart — I don’t know when they opened that place — and the parking lot was full!”
Walter Ball, a neighbor who works occasionally at the station, answered, “Oh, I thought you were talking about the Hamas and Al-Fatah bunch over there . . .”
Arnie Jackson got everybody back on topic. “Y’know, they just get to building this stuff around here, there’s so much construction going on now it’s unreal.” As all island old-timers do now, he pointed to Harbor Square, a huge condominium-and-retail development across Winslow Way from the ferry terminal, as the prime example: “Y’know, it just, well, the Cave property” — he was referring to the development by the name of the family that settled there in 1895 — “look at that big project going on there!”
It is a big project. Against the island’s rural backdrop, it has the proportions of a skyscraper, the most alarming change on the island since Bainbridge’s bankrupt bowling alley tellingly morphed into a fitness club in the early 1990s. With units priced from $340,000 to $1.1 million, Harbor Square had sold 159 of its 180 condominiums before construction and is one of several developments that built 380 new condo units on Bainbridge in 2006.
It doesn’t help Harbor Square’s image that the Cave House, built for the first general manager of the Hall Brothers Shipyards, had to be moved to make way for the condos, only to have the city subsequently declare that the lot the Cave House was moved to was too small for the building’s footprint. Islander Bill Moore, who spent three years trying to preserve the home, was forced to have it demolished.
The irony that current zoning permits a 180-unit development and condemns a historic, single-family home wasn’t lost on anybody.
The weirdest and most frightening aspect to Harbor Square is that it didn’t just evaporate the way grand schemes traditionally do here. Bainbridge, after all, has long been the Island Where Big Ideas Come to Die, and the schemes have generally been greeted by a mix of opposition, complacency and amusement. When the Port Blakely Mill Co. tried to build an 1,100-home development around Blakely Harbor, the island incorporated to stop it, and the company withdrew after a three-year legal and public-relations battle. When islander Kevin Lawrence tried to parlay his bowling alley-turned-fitness club into a get-obscenely-rich scheme in the form of Znetix, a high-tech fitness-and-health-maintenance operation in which he sold approximately $100 million in unregistered stock before being prosecuted for the largest securities fraud in state history, Bainbridge just shrugged knowingly.
It seemed like big dreamers were always running afoul of one thing or another through the 1990s. When the Bainbridge police rowed out to an old, rotting houseboat one day in 1998, during a lamentable attempt to clean up the harbor, the houseboat’s resident, Ralph Leonard, opened up on them with a shotgun.
Gentrification of the harbor was put on hold.
Most notorious was developer Jason Lowe, who that same year tried to build Winslow Landing, a 66-unit condo development with a 60-bed hotel, on the aforementioned Cave property. The effort foundered when Lowe was apprehended with a 15-year-old girl, and ultimately pled guilty to various charges.
Somehow, though, Lowe’s scheme emerged years later from two bankruptcy proceedings a much bigger beast, under new ownership. And now it seems that everybody on Bainbridge is talking like Arnie Jackson, suggesting that the island is going through an unprecedented transformation into, as Bainbridge city councilmember Bill Knobloch put it, “La Jolla, high-end communities.”
Knobloch was referring to what he sees as a dramatic trend in the island’s demographic. Projected to grow by 350 families per year, Bainbridge instead is growing at the rate of 500. “And what kind of people are moving here?” Knobloch asks. “Older people, with more money.”
IF THERE IS one recent development that crystallizes everyone’s fears about the island, it is Money magazine’s designation in July 2006 of Bainbridge Island as the second-best place in the country to live, between Moorstown, N.J., and Naperville, Ill., and eight slots ahead of Mill Valley, Calif. The list was of toney, deliberately precious, high-priced suburban communities — arguably as far from the island’s traditional self-image as you can get.
About that self-image: To cite one example of how out of whack with reality it is, an annual parade celebrates the one natural resource the island no longer has: racial diversity. According to the 2000 census, Bainbridge is now 93 percent white, and likely getting whiter.
Next to the Harbor Square project, the Money magazine designation was the most-talked-about Sign of the Times on the island in the months after it appeared. It is particularly telling that Bainbridge’s appearance on the list elicits more dismay than denial here. For no one disputes the legitimacy of the designation, as they would have in years past; rather, people point to it as another sign that Bainbridge is being destroyed — for real this time. In the past, says 29-year island resident Linda Allen, “there’d be a little growth, it would plateau, we’d all adjust. But now the changes are big and permanent — before, there was always a sort of return to normalcy.”
Some pretty alarming numbers back up Allen and Knobloch. The median 2006 home-sale price on Bainbridge was $740,522. In 2005, it was $569,000 — up $100,000 from 2004, and $215,000 higher than King County’s median sale price. One home on Bainbridge sold for $3.5 million in 2006, and the highest-priced home listed at $7.9 million.
I don’t think we’re in Dogpatch any more, Toto!
It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that Bainbridge is pricing out its old-timers. Like many of his fellows, Arnie Jackson is watching his land valuation and taxes soar. “This last year, they raised my assessed valuation from $39,000 a year to $174,000 on this piece of land I got. I really can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Put another way, by middle-timers like me: I live in a place I couldn’t afford to move to now, with people I can’t afford to live among.
It’s not just the money. It’s also the change in emotional climate, which is often given expression by fears of elitism. Old-timers viewed the 1990 battle over incorporation (the island’s third, and the first to succeed) as an attempted takeover by Seattle-centric new residents. The newcomers’ determination to “preserve” the island by restricting development was viewed by the old-timers as a way of driving land values up and pricing them and their descendants off the island.
After the newcomers won, a subsequent ban on franchise operations, intended to preserve the island’s rural character, had the unintended side effect of making Bainbridge feel even more exclusive.
But these have just been small ripples in the inexorable, rising socio-economic tide. When I moved here with my family, a good number of residents lived and worked on the island, or lived here and worked in Kitsap County. Now, nearly everyone either works in Seattle or doesn’t have to work. When our oldest daughter entered first grade in 1985, all the teachers we met lived on the island. When our youngest daughter graduated from Bainbridge High in 2005, almost none did.
You can’t help but notice a change in Bainbridge’s image, either. Time was, when I told people in Seattle that I lived on Bainbridge, I was envied for my laid-back life among backwoodsmen, paradoxically within easy reach of downtown. Now, people roll their eyes and mock me for living in a privileged community.
Let’s face it: All my pretensions to the contrary, I’m one of those Seattle-centric people. There are days when I feel like I hang around Mack n’ Jack’s because I’m trying to pick up street cred.
More and more, Bainbridge feels like a gated community in which the old- and middle-timers no longer belong, the islandward passage through the gates in the Seattle ferry terminal like the passage past the security guard’s station into Broadmoor. Throw in a steady diet of legal disputes with the city by the island’s nouveau riche — more than 10 lawsuits filed by people in multimillion-dollar new homes who want to build docks in Blakely Harbor, an unhappy combination of prime marine habitat and prime real estate; a threatened lawsuit by a group of newcomers unhappy about an old-timer’s view-obstructing trees; increasingly strident demands that the ferry system move its maintenance yard off of Bainbridge, and so on.
Small wonder that Jesse McFarlane says ruefully, “The island doesn’t feel like home anymore. It’s changing too fast. It’s a different era now; people’s attitudes are just different.”
ISLANDER MARILYN McLauchlan, a 1960 Bainbridge High graduate descended from a founder of Seattle, senses the same change in attitude. “It’s all of a sudden getting a little precious. Like when you’d go to old California towns when I was a kid — now everybody there has a sweater wrapped around their neck, and so the charm is gone.” She remembers celebrating her high-school graduation by calling the island’s only police officer and telling him that “it looks like somebody’s jumping off the Agate Pass Bridge,” the bridge at the north end of the island. “We waited until we saw the police car go screaming up in that direction, then we went down to the ferry dock and painted ‘Class of ’60’ on the ferry’s hull. Now, kids paint that kind of thing just on the streets and they get handcuffed and hauled off to jail.”
Douglas Crist, editor of the biweekly Bainbridge Review (recent headline: “Spartans top Mercer Island in WASL”), who settled here in 1991, paints the change in particularly stark colors. “I look at it as I got here at the tail end of the period when you lived here because you wanted to,” he says. “And at the start of the period where you lived here because you could afford to.” The $350-per-month apartment he moved into, in a converted barracks with a view of Mount Rainier, is now a $595,000 condominium inhabited by someone else.
But the statistic Crist finds most alarming is not directly financial; it is the 40 percent decline from 1980 to 2002 of people between the ages of 18 and 35 as a percentage of the island’s population. Fewer and fewer people starting families can afford to live here. “The schools here have always been a great point of intersection for everybody in the community,” he says. (They’ve also been the island’s greatest cultural achievement and selling point.) “But with this new kind of resident, we’re going to have a growing segment of the population that never had any connection to the school district. What’s going to happen to that support then?”
An indication may have come in 2005, when island voters for the first time in Bainbridge history turned down a school levy.
This all raises two vexing questions. One: How did this happen, when the island for so long has been so determined to prevent it? And two: Why does this seem to matter so much more on Bainbridge than other places?
The answer to the first question is simple, and no different from the answer throughout Puget Sound: Growth pressures are irresistible, no matter what local governments try to do; and the 35-minute ferry commute to downtown Seattle, once considered a long haul, now is not only relatively short but immeasurably more pleasant than commuting from just about anywhere else.
The answer to the second is more complicated, and goes something like this:
Bainbridge, for whatever reason, has an almost obsessive sense of its history. A recent writer to the Bainbridge Review prefaces his letter with an apology: He has lived on the island only since 1951 and may be a little presumptuous in commenting on the state of Blakely Harbor. Historical markers dot the island, describing areas as sites of significant events. The World War II internment of the island’s Japanese Americans is called to your attention every day, whether by monuments, the sight of the Joel Pritchard Park memorial, the “Let it not happen again” display outside the post office or the Japanese names of so many islanders.
Then there is the way you are regarded by old-timers. I have lived here 21 years, and am still referred to by many neighbors as “Fred Moody — the guy who lives in the Thomas’ house.” Four new homes have been built on “Mike Hare’s property,” Hare having fled to Arkansas years ago. And “that driveway just before the dip in the road there,” Jesse McFarlane told me one day, “goes up to the Peterson place — where the Soundgarden guy (bassist Ben Shepherd) lives now.”
You can’t regard and be regarded this way without feeling uneasy about your stay here, as if you are not a property owner or resident so much as a temporary steward of something traditional, invaluable — something that should remain unalterable, come hell or high incomes. You see that sentiment expressed throughout Eagledale, as the neighborhood around Mac n’ Jack’s is known. The defining architectural style there is Early Northwest: homes around 100 years old, lovingly preserved and altered as little as possible on the outside.
So the appearance of gigantic new houses, and the fact that Harbor Square and the seemingly innumerable other developments around the island are turning into actual residential quarters leaves you with a sense of helplessness and failure that is new to the island. Walter Ball, an inveterate writer of letters to the editor of the Bainbridge Review, has been writing less frequently. And islanders in general seem less actively opposed, even resigned, to new development, the volume of protests and letters over that issue nowhere near what it was just a few years ago.
It also seems now that everyone has a story like this last one of mine. Walking through the Colman Dock ferry terminal one day, I noticed a tourist approaching the Washington State Ferries’ information desk. “Is it worth taking the ferry over to Bainbridge Island? What’s it like over there?” he asked.
“Well,” answered the kindly clerk. “Do you know what Sausalito was like in the 1950s? I grew up there, and Bainbridge now reminds me of what Sausalito was like then.”
I repaired immediately to Commuter Comforts, with its nouveau Mac & Jacks, for relief. And I yearned for the days of yore, when the worst thing bucolic Bainbridge could imagine was turning into Mercer Island.
Fred Moody is a freelance writer living on Bainbridge Island. Harley Soltes is a Seattle freelance photographer.