In VanishingSeattle online, Cynthia Brothers chronicles the changing face of the city, and gives residents a place to reminisce and take action.
Not long ago, a friend and I were meeting along Seattle’s Eastlake Avenue for lunch. I was looking for a parking space when she called my cellphone. She had beaten me there — only to find there was no there anymore.
“It’s gone,” she said, with childlike confusion. The windows were papered up. A note on the door blamed “rising costs” for the closure after 20 years.
I recounted all this to Cynthia Brothers the other day. Her weary nod told me it’s a story she has heard time and again: Longtime Seattle restaurant/bar/business/home is suddenly no more, thanks to rising rents or gutted insides or entire blocks being felled for something new.
The building boom — and the resulting confusion, anger, nostalgia and resignation — inspired “VanishingSeattle,” an Instagram and Facebook page Brothers created just under a year ago. (She just launched a website, www.vanishingseattle.org.)
Most Read Life Stories
- A year and 1 million passengers later, Everett's Paine Field airport has become a hit with travelers
- 17 Seattle-area chefs and restaurants score James Beard awards semifinalist spots
- An hour-by-hour guide for a wintertime Whidbey Island day trip
- Fancy a cuppa? Stop by Redmond's British Pantry for a spot of tea or some shepherd's pie
- 18 more Seattle restaurant closures — with even more industry turmoil
(For the record, “Vanishing Seattle” is also the name of a 2006 book by local author and former Stranger columnist Clark Humphrey).
On her feeds, Brothers chronicles the old, doomed and demolished. The “Notice of Proposed Land Use Action” signs that seemingly pop up overnight. The chain-link fences, the graffiti. The orange cones. The memories.
Her first post was last Jan. 29 — the final drag show put on by Atasha Manila at Inay’s Asian Pacific Cuisine on Beacon Hill, which closed when the rent was almost doubled.
“It was a documentation,” Brothers recalled, “but also a protest.”
She then reposted an ad for The 5 Point Cafe, directing newcomers to “classic spots” that — just kidding! — were long gone: The Viking, Denny’s in Ballard, The Funhouse and The Hurricane Cafe (formerly The Doghouse) downtown, among them.
They send her photos of places slated for redevelopment, and of places that once were. The Twin Teepees. RKCNDY. Chubby and Tubby.
When she isn’t roaming the city with her camera, Brothers, 35, works as a consultant for nonprofits focused on immigrant rights. She also does online organizing for social-justice organizations.
She is also a daughter of the city who grew up north of Green Lake, went to Garfield High School and graduated from the University of Washington in 2003.
And while that gives VanishingSeattle a certain credibility, a certain eye, “I don’t have to come from my background to see what’s happening,” Brothers said.
“I’ll be driving around Queen Anne, South Lake Union and I don’t even know where I am,” Brothers said. “I lose my bearings, like I’m driving through a tunnel, looking for a business or a store that’s gone.”
The Instagram feed hits people in two different ways.
“There’s a certain element of nostalgia, which is a way to bring people in,” she said. “But there is also social and economic equity. Those divides are becoming more and more stark, and people can see that.
“The impact plays out along race and class lines in terms of how our neighborhoods change and what is valued.”
Even Capitol Hill is at risk of losing its sexual identity, she said, of being an LGBT-friendly enclave.
“You can paint rainbow crosswalks,” she said, “but if queer people can’t afford to live there anymore, it’s just window dressing to make city officials feel better.”
She saw the same thing in New York, where she lived for five years until 2011.
“There’s nowhere to live in Manhattan if you want a family,” she said. “That’s the downside of living in a world-class city. It just becomes a playground for the rich.”
People are sensing that here, sending her not just photos, but quotes. They write memories in the comments.
“I am SO sad!!!!” someone wrote over the closing of The Old Spaghetti Factory. “Almost all my childhood, teenage and 20s celebration dinners were here, then my own family, too. My daughter just had her first homecoming-dance dinner here. Can’t the apartments go above the restaurant? Southcenter just isn’t the same. I’m so mad!!!”
And on the closing of King Donuts in South Seattle: “Nnnnnooooooo please don’t close I’ll do anything but don’t close down.”
On Throwback Thursdays, Brothers posts photos of places long gone: The Lusty Lady on First Avenue. The Northgate Movie Theater. An all-ages club called DV8.
But the feed isn’t just filled with iconic places. They’re everything that makes Seattle what it is, Brothers said.
“I’m not an architecture buff,” she said. “Even when it’s not nice looking, I wonder, ‘Was it livable? Affordable? Were the people kicked out? What’s going to be replacing it? A house that’s three-quarters of a million dollars that no one can afford?’
“What is lost?”
At a recent gathering of followers at the Bush Garden restaurant in the International District (it’s been there since 1953), she got some answers.
“With each business, a community of people are connected to it,” Brothers said. “So in the long term, we lose our culture and identity. Seattle becomes a more homogenized, less equitable, less accessible place.”
The more people reach out to Brothers, the more she sees that VanishingSeattle is becoming more connected offline.
Brothers would like to build on that, and create more “in real life” events, “and amplify what people are facing in their neighborhoods,” she said, “ and encourage people to channel their feelings and frustrations into more concrete action and engagement.”
That could mean making art, getting involved in local advocacy and politics, or just sharing stories.
In the meantime, she continues to post.
“These are my love letters to Seattle,” she said. “It’s also me trying to build community, a movement of people who want to connect with each other and don’t know what to do.”
Ultimately, she said she would like VanishingSeattle to inspire people to take action, and learn about land-use, housing, zoning and how that decision-making process works — so they can stay in the city they are getting to know all over again, one building at a time.