The 2010s brought enormous change in Seattle. Our city grew wildly, and while it gained some vibrancy, many would argue that it also lost some charm. We asked four of our writers to identify something — person, place, thing, abstract concept — the city lost in the last decade that they miss most as we head into the 2020s. Here’s what they said.
What do you miss about Seattle from the the last decade? Tell us in the comments.
Room to fail
For a few years, I thought it was my imagination, or maybe a trick of stupid nostalgia, or just me getting old and out of touch, but it felt like something fading from the Seattle cultural scene: a looseness; a strangeness; a glorious, rough-draft energy that seemed born of people with enough idle time and cheap space to let their imaginations go crazy.
Seattle was losing its room to fail.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve asked some arts folks — musicians, directors, artists — if they feel the same way. They do.
Blame it on rents, the cost of living, the cost of everything — but that messy margin, where people made work that could be thrilling or could be awful, but it certainly wasn’t conservative, is vanishing. (Case in point: The median rent and utilities in 2010 Seattle was $721. In 2018, it more than doubled to $1,699. That’s nearly 10 times the rate of inflation for that period.)
I remember pre-2010 art moments that I just can’t find anymore: An experimental new play performed in a derelict building so cold, the actors handed out blankets and provided hot tea and whiskey. The three artists who broke into an abandoned South Seattle warehouse, turning it into a yawning sepulcher with eerie murals and sculpture partly based on monuments from a 19th-century Alaska Native cemetery. The location was secret. To get a nighttime tour, you were told to go to a certain bar and bring a flashlight.
There were guerrilla, performance-art boxing matches in alleyways; lo-fi, high-ambition plays produced for $400; an adaptation of the George Saunders story “Winky” with a set that wanted to crack open and rearrange itself, but couldn’t quite get there; buildings (like the U.S. Rubber Building in Pioneer Square or the 619 Western Building beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct) where hordes of artists lived and worked for cheap, meaning they didn’t have heavy-hustle day jobs, meaning there was time for dreaming, incubating, failing and trying again.
Some remember an entire neighborhood full of warehouses and empty spaces where theaters, arts centers and improbable housing used to thrive. It was called South Lake Union.
Seattle hasn’t fully evicted its wildness and affordability — people and places with that spirit still exist — but we’re getting dangerously close. And without room to fail, an arts scene goes sterile.
“I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, but it’s like fertilizer,” John Langs, artistic director of ACT Theatre, said about our increasingly tamed city. “If one tree is going to grow tall, a lot of other trees have to have fallen down.”
Ode to the Redwood
With its dimly lit, red-trimmed lumberjack aesthetic, drinks named after Richard Brautigan and Lindsay Lohan, a projector perpetually screening black-and-white movies, and a member of Chastity Belt behind the bar, the Redwood was a homey mid-’00s antidote to an increasingly sceney, homogeneous Pike-Pine corridor. I know, I know: It’s been revived as Port Angeles’ the Spruce, and eulogies for Old Seattle that boil down to Grandpa Simpsonisms are as unhelpful as they are ubiquitous.
But the Redwood was special — I lived around the corner, and I’m the kind of annoying born-and-raised Seattleite who still gets a little thrill when a place stocks Olympia over Rainier. So when the bar closed in 2017, I felt like I had lost a formative piece of my young adulthood, a place where I felt at home even when I was making poverty wages at a nonprofit and “going out” felt like a luxury. On dark, drizzly winter nights, its big, neon, tree-shaped window sign was a welcoming beacon in a neighborhood that often seemed to be going through a painful — even occasionally violent — identity crisis.
At the Redwood, I’d order something with whiskey in it and slide into a wooden booth in my oversized men’s flannel, worn-in jeans and purple Vans, across from a rotating cast of friends, which is what I did the last time I was there, on a weekend visit from Portland, where I’d been working at an alternative weekly, and where the Redwood’s aesthetic is a way of life. I sipped a chubby glass of bourbon across from a friend in an appropriately unceremonious farewell to the sticky-tabled place I loved, its coming death knell inevitable and well-documented by local media. I thought of all the times I’d come in from the rain, of the purple Vans and crappy apartments of my youth, of the delirious, desperate hope that had gotten me through personal and professional upheaval during those years, of the dreamy enthusiasm that made a visit to a neighborhood dive bar an adventure.
I came back to Seattle almost two years ago, but I don’t live on Capitol Hill anymore. I live in a different neighborhood now, with a different neighborhood bar. I hope this one sticks around.
Goodbye to a Landmark
As a longtime Seattleite, I’m nostalgic for so very many things: affordable housing, free Bumbershoot, downtown bookstores, off-peak traffic hours, neighborhood restaurants where you get a free side salad with your meal, getting a seat on the bus. But here’s just one thing: Landmark Theatres, the national art-house chain that was a local-moviehouse fixture until the past decade. Though a few of the old Landmark houses are still showing movies under different management (the Varsity, the former Metro and the Egyptian), I miss the ones that closed their doors in the teens: the Neptune (still around as a concert venue, but not for movies), Harvard Exit, the Guild 45th and Seven Gables. All were quirky and creaky and a little bit musty; all smelled of fresh popcorn and memories. I miss the mural at the Gables, the funny little stairway up to the bathrooms at the Guild, the ship-like concession area of the Neptune, the gracious lobby of the Exit and that voice we heard in a promo before every movie, welcoming us to “Landmaaahk Theaataahs.” I drive or walk past the Exit, Guild and Gables all the time these days; they look empty and resigned, like they were waiting for times to change and finally just gave up. We still have some vintage cinemas in Seattle — thank goodness — but a lot of us still hold this trio in our movie-loving hearts, remembering the magic we found there.
The weather’s not right anymore. The climate here used to be this gray blanket we’d pull over ourselves in, say, September, then stay under, a constant light rain falling, until well into June and possibly beyond. Seattle was not for the faint of heart: People would move here from places they believed had better weather, get sad and leave.
We read books for months and months, or just listened to music. Growing up here, lying on the couch by the radiator in the living room and watching the rain come down was a perfectly acceptable pastime. There’s something to be said for close observation, mind wandering, a low level of expectation.
Extremes seem normal now: big snows or long dry times or rain that’s hard, heavy, instead of soft and never-ending. This past summer we were spared forest-fire smoke, and the absence of apocalyptic haze felt like a thing for which to be grateful, just to be able to breathe. Even a decade ago, there was still snow on the mountains in the summertime, and from any hilltop, this place was prettier than any picture.