Paul Dorpat’s fascination with Seattle’s ‘sense of itself’ led to a career, a partnership and our weekly column ... and the rest, of course, is history.
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from “Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred” (Documentary Media, 244 pages, $49.95), the new book by Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard.
THE LATE SEATTLE newspaper pundit and historian Emmett Watson once said it is fitting for a flourishing city to have a “sense of itself.”
“I’m not even sure what I mean,” he wrote in 1984, “but it has something to do with a feeling for its past, a curiosity about its origins, a pride in its present.”
Watson’s sage advice resonates today amid our city’s tangle of construction cranes, pricey digs and teeming tech jobs — a veritable frenzy of future-focused development.
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So, what is Seattle’s “sense of itself”? People of all stripes likely would agree that it derives from the city’s unique lay of the land — the lyrical, physical contours that created a natural stage for urban beauty and demanded ingenuity for the shaping of a prosperous port.
In the bustling “now” days of our city, hordes of newcomers might give these enduring qualities only fleeting thought. But longtimers, with visions of “then” dancing through their heads, have a more deep-seated grasp.
They summon formative years when the post-World War II mindset was the glory of growth. A prominent case in point: the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair — drawing nearly 10 million visitors to a gleaming “Jetsons” view of the future — trumpeted the trend. “Take a way-ahead look at tomorrow, just as if you were there,” crooned its catchy theme song.
But it didn’t take long, as baby boomers reached their 30s and 40s, for a generation clamoring for peace, equality and the environment to reach back in time to embrace and protect local icons and characteristics targeted by the business bulldozer.
Evidence in the 1970s and ’80s was undeniable. Seattle voters saved Pike Place Market. The city council crafted a tough landmarks law. Grassroots heritage groups sprouted like spawning salmon. The past was becoming palpable.
Enter Paul Dorpat.
TODAY HE IS known as the indefatigable purveyor of what has become, over the past 37 years, a beloved citywide optical institution entitled “Seattle Now & Then.”
Back in 1966, however, the 28-year-old was a newcomer to our city. Raised in Spokane by a father who commanded a preacher’s pulpit and a mother who devoted herself to public service, Paul was anything but resolute about his future.
He had considered the cloth while bouncing around Northwest colleges, but once in Seattle, he applied his insistent conscience to the counterculture, founding the Helix underground newspaper near the University of Washington and launching the (pre-Woodstock) Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair in 1968 near rural Sultan.
A freelancer throughout the 1970s, he was gravitating toward a life of painting and film when, as he puts it, a “serendipitous spin” gave him an immersive entree into local history. As is typical in the tracing of Paul’s trajectory, this biographical juncture started with the bidding and support of a friend.
College buddy Dick Moultrie was seeking to reopen Merchants Cafe, reputed to be Seattle’s oldest bar, in downtown’s oldest and most fabled district, Pioneer Square. He asked Paul to investigate the backstory of the business. Unwittingly, a die was cast.
Paul found himself diving into classic Seattle history tomes by Murray Morgan, Bill Speidel and others. Soon, projects that pointed to the past and piqued his native intelligence and inquisitiveness began to spiral.
First, while assisting a sculptor, Paul became intrigued by the lowered hills of the Belltown district north of downtown, and he prepared a detailed article on the city’s massive, early 20th-century Denny Hill Regrade for the Dec. 20, 1978, edition of the alternative weekly The Seattle Sun.
Then, after learning of the thesis of a UW graduate student in architecture who was digging into Seattle projects that were never pulled off, Paul assembled a “Then, Now and Maybe” exhibit of photos and visionary sketches for a June 1980 event called CityFair at Seattle Center Exhibition Hall.
The true turning point, however, came in fall 1981. Drawing from his budding collection of old images, Paul produced for the Mayor’s Small Business Task Force a sepia-toned booklet that displayed photographic collages of Seattle’s past. The charmingly titled publication, “294 Glimpses of Historic Seattle: Its Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Businesses,” sold for a clever $2.94, one penny per “glimpse.”
The response in that pre-internet era was phenomenal. Spotlighted in a column by The Seattle Times’ Erik Lacitis, the initial printing of 3,000 copies sold out in a flash. Eventually, 40,000 were snapped up, with proceeds going to charity.
IT WAS THE tangible beginning of an endearing pattern for Paul: He was simultaneously fueling and riding the wave of local interest in heritage.
There was no secret to his strategy. It was the photos — the city’s visual “sense of itself” coming alive.
“Each of these images is in some way quite precious, precious because of what it tells about the city,” Paul told Lacitis in 1981. “When I show this little book … to people who’ve never experienced the pictorial history of Seattle … they are completely amazed. There is a sense of wonder that creeps across their faces. It spurs their imaginations, and they smile. … There are always new discoveries. Sometimes you see values that have been lost. But, happily, you see examples of things improved. It makes you respect the human effort that went into this city.”
With Lacitis’ help, Paul pitched a continuation of this concept to The Seattle Times. The paper’s Sunday magazine editor at the time, Kathy Andrisevic, agreed, and the inaugural “Now & Then” appeared Jan. 17, 1982.
That first weekly column showcased a formula that persevered through more than 1,800 installments and continues to this day:
• Find a long-ago, well-composed “Then” photo taken in the Seattle area.
• Juxtapose it with a “Now” image taken from an angle close to the original — a venerable art form known as repeat photography.
• Add a brief, well-researched essay telling a story about the visual pair.
A key word in this recipe, a journalistic one, is “story.” In Paul’s lexicography, the story invariably centers on the common man and everyday life — and, not insignificantly, is leavened with gentle humor and layered with irony.
Presentation of the weekly feature has waxed and waned over the decades. Several dozen times, the magazine deferred the column for other priorities. In early years, “Now & Then” covered a generous two full pages but later shrank to one page and, occasionally, to two-thirds or even half of a page. Thankfully, in recent years, it has rebounded to a full page, sometimes more. It consistently graces the magazine’s inside back cover, and all of the “Now” photos appear in brilliant color.
Through all the variations, the heartening constant is that those reading the Sunday Seattle Times count “Now & Then” among its most beloved features.
THE COLUMN ALSO maintains a fortified online presence transcending The Seattle Times’ site to Paul’s own blog, pauldorpat.com, which allows magnified views of the “Nows,” “Thens” and countless other related images.
The launch of the blog 10 years ago also marked the full bloom of Paul’s partnership with Seattle teacher, actor and photographer Jean Sherrard, who has taken nearly all of Paul’s recent “Now” photos and is the “Now” photographer and driving force behind this commemorative tome.
Jean’s formidable skills, imagination, artistry, tenacity and equipment (not to mention a tall frame) have let him create captivating present-tense pictures. But his greatest asset might be the dedication and joie de vivre he brings to his friendship with Paul. Recognizing this, Paul altered the voice of many of his later columns from “I” to “we.”
The dynamic of the Paul/Jean relationship is noteworthy yet typical. Though Paul jokes that his friends are few and “long-suffering,” his basso-voiced personality is nothing if not mesmerizing and magnetic. This produces ties with many that reflect uncommon loyalty and affection.
Such bonds contributed to the persistence and appeal of “Now & Then.” Paul’s resulting stature led him into myriad offshoots, including countless regional talks and installations, three book-length column compilations (1984, 1986 and 1989), and other publications both slim (on First Avenue and the University Book Store) and behemoth (the public-works epic “Building Washington,” 1998, with his partner, Genny McCoy, and “Washington Then & Now,” 2007, with Jean). He also produced a panoramic, two-hour video tour of 90 years of city history (“Seattle Chronicle,” 1992) and a one-hour KCTS documentary on the first 30 years of the Bumbershoot Festival (“Bumberchronicles,” 2001, with Catherine Wadley and Jean).
At the core of Paul’s persona, however, is “Now & Then” (“Seattle Now & Then” on the blog). The “best of” volume is a culmination — a subjective selection and update of the most compelling and essential of his 1,800 columns. By definition, it celebrates Paul’s lifetime contribution to inspiring all of us to both enjoy and champion the history of our city.
THE OCCASION OF THIS anthology also is personally momentous. It salutes a prolific track record that has required of Paul considerable initiative and fortitude.
Yet today, well into his 80th year, he doesn’t see it all as profound. He describes himself as merely “a sentimental guy” who long ago stumbled upon a vehicle to provide the “simple pleasure” of allowing people to imagine a visit to the past.
“It’s like hide and seek,” he says. “That’s a really deep motive in all of us, to figure out how things are hidden, where things have changed, what things are revealed.”
Of course, Paul is grateful for the popularity of “Now & Then” and the many doors it has opened for him. He also comprehends and revels in the societally therapeutic virtues of comparative history. How could he not?
“History is delightful,” he says. “It’s understanding. It’s actually the truth, if you do it right, and the truth is progressive. It always is.” To that end, he cautions that elevating an old scene does not always make it more treasured than its more recent counterpart: “I don’t mind some things being knocked down.”
But lifting up the city’s heritage, Paul allows, is inherently altruistic. It also feeds his “pretty radical” personal politics, which he knows he can’t tout every week to a mainstream readership. “To some extent, I toe the line,” he says. “I don’t express what I really feel about the usury and avarice and stinginess of the 1 percent.”
Paul keeps other avocations in his sights, including his younger pursuits of painting and film editing. A hope he holds dear is to complete a mammoth online biography of the beloved Seattle folk singer, restaurateur and self-promoter Ivar Haglund.
His most substantial aim, however, is to secure the professional storage and cataloging of his enormous archive, so that citizens one day will be able to access everything in it, including all of his “Now & Then” columns, free of charge.
Underlying this archival quest is Paul’s yearning to inspire others throughout the region to likewise share their own local photos, films and ephemera — his version of vox populi (voice of the people).
Through it all, “Now & Then” abides. Though Paul laments his flagging energy (“It doesn’t cook as quickly — my cuisine is always resting on simmer”), he has no plan to pull back from his weekly dispatch.
That’s fortunate for all of us navigating the seemingly relentless change of the city’s latest boomtown ethos, a time when each “Now” threatens to become a “Then.” We need Paul “now” for as long as humanly possible.
“I love Seattle,” he says. “It’s the multifarious topography, it’s all my friends I’ve made over the decades, it’s my knowledge of it — they’re the kinds of reasons we do all these things. This is my home.”
What better guide could we have to discover, and rediscover, Seattle’s “sense of itself”?