Rising costs have made it difficult for this idyllic, rural island to keep its counterculture vibe.
DOWN ONE DRIVEWAY, in an idyllic Vashon home facing inner Quartermaster Harbor, Gene Baxter asks his distant radio listeners what they think of a man who had 18 children by 17 women. He wonders why anybody would want to own a 5-inch pygmy marmoset monkey, when it wouldn’t be big enough to fetch a beer. He chats with actor Ben Stiller about political correctness.
And Baxter asks his listeners — there are about 100,000 of them in Southern California at any given moment — to phone in to reminisce about serving in fast-food restaurants. “What kind of crazy stuff have you seen working the drive-through?” (The answers mostly involved sex. “I gave them an extra bottle of water to make sure they were hydrated,” one caller says.)
Not far away, down another Vashon driveway that same Thursday morning, a husband-and-wife team invite their radio listeners to reminisce, too. They are talking to a somewhat older and vastly smaller audience, right on the island, which is 22 minutes from downtown Seattle by passenger ferry.
“Here’s a classic that would be on anybody’s top-10 list,” says Jeff Hoyt, launching the theme song to “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a comedy that ended its run on CBS 50 years ago. His wife, Cindy, calls it her “desert island show” — the series she’d watch forever if she had only one.
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These weekday radio broadcasts, by Baxter and the Hoyts, are emblematic of two of Vashon’s faces. Some people here focus outward, connected to the world through technology and proximity to Seattle and its airport, and others focus inward on the small-town life of a rural island. More than a few people do both.
“That’s what’s most fascinating about this island, when these two personalities show up,” says Bruce Morser, an illustrator who works mostly for clients off the island. “How much are we truly outward, worldly-thinking people, and how much do we count on this internal structure that is our identity?”
THE WORLDWIDE communications revolution, which enables growing numbers of people to live and work virtually anywhere, has reached the island. Bruce Haulman, a historian, puts it this way: “If you can do it from anywhere, why not do it from Vashon?”
The island is destined to remain rural, but an influx of people and wealth has made it more worldly. A dazzling new $19.3 million arts center, which overpowers the island’s most historic intersection, symbolizes the juxtaposition of new and old.
“Vashon feels rural, but it’s filled with all these city people, really,” says Mik Kuhlman, a performance artist who moved to Vashon 20 years ago and calls it “a very rare jewel.” She lives in Brooklyn now, where work is steadier for her, but is wistful about Vashon and fears she’ll be priced out when she wants to return.
Vashon is relaxed by nature. The island doesn’t have a carwash. Dress is casual. Many women wear little or no makeup. Affluence is downplayed, and it’s hard to guess what people do. “Many communities are defined by class and status, but on Vashon it’s more of an amalgamation,” Haulman says. “It keeps Vashon real.”
Bill Foege, widely credited with ridding the world of small pox, lives on Vashon. Joe Yarkin installs solar panels in Antarctica when not tending his organic farm. Tammy Brockway Joyce, a refugee from Boeing and Microsoft, runs a distillery and hosts memorable karaoke sessions.
Kurt Timmermeister runs a small dairy farm and makes cheese and ice cream for his Kurt Farm Shop in Seattle, and Peter Scott is an idealistic entrepreneur making greener cookstoves for the poor of Africa.
John Sellers, a professional leftist protester whose decentralized organization, Other 98, has more than 2 million “likes” on Facebook, home-schools his kids on Vashon. Richard Parr, who coaches crew on Vashon but used to coach the Irish Olympic team, lives here. So does an entertainment figure who throws dinner parties for island friends and off-island stars such as Katy Perry and, shortly before he died, Leonard Nimoy.
A bumper sticker popular on the island declares, “Keep Vashon Weird.” While the island remains outside the mainstream, it is less weird with each passing year. For one thing, rising costs make it hard for idiosyncratic people who want to scrape by — the literal and figurative hippies of the past.
“It was an affordable place and a beautiful place, and then sort of a counterculture place,” says Leslie Ferriel, who came to the island in 1989 and became a real estate agent a decade ago. “It was a magnet for artists and musicians and people who didn’t fit the dominant paradigm. But it’s not really that anymore.”
Baxter, who goes by childhood nickname “Bean” on the air, co-hosts a top-rated radio show in Los Angeles. He makes no secret to the listeners of alternative-rock KROQ’s “Kevin & Bean Show” that he doesn’t like living in L.A. and has been talking to them from a rural island adjacent to Seattle for the past 15 years. He tweets them photos of mist over Quartermaster Harbor. He marvels on air about his Seahawks.
The Hoyts, on the other hand, broadcast an intensely local show. Along with other volunteers, the Hoyts have a hand in operating a low-power community station, KVSH, “the Voice of Vashon.” The island has only about 12,000 people, swelling by a few thousand in the summer, and there is no way to know who is listening, or if anybody is, at a given moment.
Jeff Hoyt, a voice actor, is among the many people who work from home on Vashon much of the time, with trips to Seattle a few times a week or month, a commute — usually by car ferry to Fauntleroy in West Seattle — that some islanders call “going over town.” (In contrast, visiting Vashon’s small downtown is called “going up town.”)
“I never could have imagined being so utterly connected to a community as I feel here,” Hoyt says.
FORTY YEARS AGO, Vashon was a farming community that had a modest base of manufacturing and service jobs. Seattle’s Best Coffee had its roasterie on Vashon, and K2 made its snow skies here. But the old-time farmers sold out or died, the two famous companies left the island, and now workers in traditional industries no longer dominate the economy. Locals from traditional fields — often friends since childhood — tend to associate with each other and congregate at places such as the island’s down-home Eagles Club. Meanwhile, a passenger ferry to downtown Seattle legitimized Vashon as a bedroom community, bringing in new kinds of people and broader interests.
Today there are commuters to Seattle or Tacoma who tend their gardens on the weekends; artists and musicians who pay the bills by working as carpenters or massage therapists; organic farmers who do one or two other things, too; socially and environmentally conscious families living relatively modest lives that express their values; and entrepreneurs of many kinds. There also are many people with second homes on Vashon, which resembles the San Juan Islands in many respects.
“Everyone I know that comes here wants to create a sanctuary,” says Lori Means, a parent educator whose work with a social-services agency introduces her to parents from many walks of life. “Almost everyone creates a beautiful space regardless of their means. It ranges from spectacular homes to very simple, low-income homes. I’ve seen some really beautiful tiny houses.”
Plenty of attorneys and businesspeople commute daily to downtown Seattle on the King County Water Taxi. Other people take car ferries 15 minutes to West Seattle, Tacoma or Southworth on the Kitsap Peninsula.
Meanwhile, more than 200 children make a reverse commute on ferries, coming to the island daily from Seattle, to be educated in Vashon’s well-regarded public schools, including its brand-new high school.
BAXTER REPRESENTS a growing number of people who have, in a sense, quietly escaped to Vashon. These people might be big fish in a big pond somewhere else, but when they come to the island they’re just ordinary folks wheeling their groceries in the Thriftway parking lot.
“This is a place where people come to be under the radar and nobody bugs them, and they know that,” says Anneli Fogt, the 23-year-old editor of The Beachcomber, the island’s primary newspaper.
Fogt came to the island last year from a daily newspaper in Southern California. She says she loves the island’s recreational opportunities, including cycling and ballet.
“I knew, moving here,” she says, “that there were a lot of artists and famous authors who would use this as a summer home or as a place they would come to write and then go back to life in Hollywood or New York or wherever.”
Two Academy Award nominees, who are married, spend summers and holidays on Vashon and have for more than 25 years. It gives them utter privacy and a large garden, and they say it was a safe place to raise independent children.
Their kids are rising stars in Hollywood and New York now. But when they were early grade-schoolers summering on Vashon, their parents would drop them off at the library with money and a short shopping list, and pick them up two hours later at a nearby grocery store.
“There was nothing for them to do but play, so they played,” the husband, who wants to remain anonymous, says. “They made up shows. They could go outside anytime they wanted. There are no poisonous snakes, no poison ivy. They could go out and wander in the woods.”
There is a catch, he says. “The terrible thing about Vashon is that there’s no diversity. It’s all white. It’s like being in the United States in the 1950s. That’s the only thing I can think of that’s bad about the island.”
Late last year a study by a California startup deemed Vashon Island the most liberal place in America. This conclusion, based on donations reported to federal election campaigns, was widely reported in the press — and flat wrong.
The study observed that donors listing “Vashon Island” as their home supported very liberal candidates and causes, but it failed to note that this was only a handful of people. You could count them on your fingers. More than 98 percent of the donors from the island said they were from “Vashon,” not “Vashon Island,” and their donations were only a bit more liberal than those from Seattle.
Sellers, the professional leftist, says Vashon is not as liberal as other places he has lived, including Berkeley, Calif. “There’s some good hard-core redneck culture here on Vashon,” he says, “and there’s some good strong Republican libertarian culture that is old and endemic, or transplanted a long time ago. I like that. I don’t want to live in a monoculture.”
The island tilts left. People who are openly gay have long been welcome, and unremarkable, here. Democratic caucuses went solidly for Bernie Sanders — and, long after the holiday season ended, one set of Christmas lights near the north-end ferry to Seattle spelled out “BERNIE” in huge letters. Another spelled out “BLM,” presumably for “Black Lives Matter.”
There’s irony in the BLM sign because the island has almost no blacks and few Asians. Vashon is largely an enclave of white liberals, living in what amounts to a community gated by ferryboats, who might believe in racial diversity but don’t fully experience it.
The Latino community is growing, although almost invisibly except in the schools, where it accounts for about 50 of the district’s 1,500 students. “Many of them live in communal houses,” says Roxanne Hood Lyons, who worked for the Vashon Island School District. “One person will rent a house, and then three families will live together. You have some sleeping on the couch. Some on the floor. They figure out a way so that no one’s on the street.”
Every July Vashon has its Strawberry Festival, which features a weekend of food, art and dance. One highlight is a small-town parade with such traditions as the Thriftway clerks pushing shopping carts in formation, like a motorcycle drill team. Last year, after months of internal deliberations, two dozen members of the Latino community marched and danced in the parade for the first time. The women wore their local festival dresses. It was their way of saying that Vashon is their island, too.
Heidi Hans-Peterson, an entomologist who has put her career on hold to raise two small children, sees a drawback related to Vashon’s rural nature and lack of diversity.
“It is kind of utopian, and I think it’s easy for kids not to have street smarts,” she says. That’s a reason she and her husband, Jeff, a doctor on the island, take their children to church in Seattle. “My kids can be aware of urban issues and learn how to get around in the city.”
Vashon retains a fair amount of economic diversity, distributed everywhere. There’s no hint what’s down a driveway — from a waterfront mansion to a charming cabin to a mobile home. At the low end, there are awkward houses built without permits, houses deep in the woods with thick moss on their roofs, and a few moldy houses and trailers rented by slumlords to people too poor or scared to complain.
VASHON SITS IN the heart of Puget Sound, between Seattle and Tacoma. It is nearly half the size of Seattle geographically, but with a population density of merely 300 people per square mile, it has only a dozen restaurants, one movie theater, relatively few conventional jobs, and little crime or traffic. Not even a stoplight.
“If you flip somebody off at the stop sign, odds are very high that you’re going to meet them at the grocery store 10 minutes later,” says Rebecca Wittman, who led many lives in Seattle before moving to Vashon. “That’s a real governor on people’s behavior.”
Vashon is limited by water in two ways that shape it profoundly. The first is that the sole source of household water is the island’s aquifer, a constraint that severely restricts zoned density and keeps the island rural. The other is that the island is surrounded by unbridged saltwater, an inconvenience for commuters that discourages many and torments some, but delights those who want to keep the urbanity of Seattle and Tacoma at arm’s length and yet accessible.
“There are certain people that would never come to Vashon because, thank goodness, we don’t have a bridge,” says Juli Morser, who came to the island with her husband, Bruce, in 1987. “You have to make a conscious choice to be here.”
Vashon could well have been another Mercer Island, a Seattle suburb one bridge away. In March 1959, the state House of Representatives passed a $194 million plan to build a bridge from Seattle west to Vashon Island and then on to the Kitsap Peninsula, to promote development of western suburbs of Seattle much like such eastern suburbs as Mercer Island, Bellevue and Kirkland. Gov. Albert Rosellini, who lived on Vashon, was strongly for it, and the Senate was expected to approve. But the presiding officer of the Senate, Lt. Gov. John Cherberg, killed the bill by sending it to an unfriendly committee.
“Wow,” says Sellers, when he hears this. “He’s the man. He kept Vashon weird.”
PERHAPS NO SYMBOL of change is as poignant as the brand-new Vashon Center for the Arts, a sophisticated, glassy $19.3 million building that combines a 285-seat theater, a 1,000-square-foot art gallery and educational facilities. There is great enthusiasm for it but also quiet anxiety in a community that treasures the arts but also its traditions.
“One of the great fears about Vashon Center for the Arts is that it’s going to change Vashon, that it’s all going to be fancy-dancy and you can’t come to the theater and bring your muck boots,” says one member of the arts community who, like several others, didn’t want to be quoted by name.
More than half of the money to build and operate the center came from one elderly donor, Kay White. “Sometimes people get a vision about a rich society lady, and that is the furthest thing from what Kay White is about,” says Molly Reed, executive director of Vashon Allied Arts, the umbrella organization that commissioned the facility.
There is some head-scratching about whether the arts center was the best use of so much money, given that the island has other needs, including social services. “Some people are irritated by that,” says civic activist Mary Shackelford, who long ago chaired the organization. “It does seem to me that there’s probably enough to go around. There are some big pockets here.”
The new structure replaced an old feed store, one of three historic buildings at an intersection called “Center,” and kitty-corner to the roasterie where Seattle’s Best Coffee got its start. The modern building is handsome, but arguably oversized for its location and incongruous to its rustic surroundings.
“This looks like a monstrosity,” says Baxter, gazing across at the new building from the covered porch of the roasterie. “I miss the feed store.”
Shaking things up, creating new juxtapositions, is a purpose of art, including architecture. The arts center opened to praise in April, and it’s easy to imagine that all but the fiercest critics might embrace it in time, much as Parisians eventually came to love the provocative Pompidou Center, which is inharmoniously — but arrestingly — stationed amid century-old buildings in the 4th arrondissement of Paris.
“We’re veering along this path,” says Bruce Morser, who helped plan the center. “It is intriguing trying to guess where Vashon will go in the future. I don’t think it will lose its strong identity, internal identity, its cohesiveness. But it will get challenged more and more.”
ON WEDNESDAY mornings, when Baxter looks out across his broadcast microphone at the calm water of Quartermaster Harbor, he sees Hoyt and Morser and other island men in crew shells, furiously rowing. The coach is Parr, who coached the Olympic team for Ireland and the junior national teams for Canada and New Zealand. His love life brought Parr to the island, which he says has some of the best sheltered rowing water in the world, and where he accepted a job as coach of the Vashon Island Rowing Club.
“Coaching is coaching,” Parr says. “When you see joy on an Olympian from winning, that’s really not any bigger than the joy on the 14-year-old kid who wins a novice race. So it’s the same satisfaction.”
One rower who got her start at the Vashon club is Mia Croonquist, the youngest female to compete with the U.S. national team at a world championship. She’s rowing now for Cal Berkeley, where coach Dave O’Neill says she was the most sought-after recruit in years.
“Mia is the most successful 19-year-old girl in the world,” Parr says. “She’ll come back, and she’ll row with the kids. We’ve got this world-level rower, and she’ll jump in with a novice kid. That’s great.”
As it happens, Baxter lives just a few doors from where Croonquist grew up, on Quartermaster Harbor. It’s the second place he’s lived on the island, since leaving the Los Angeles area to find somewhere peaceful and human scale.
“It was never our intention to move to an island, and we certainly had never heard of Vashon Island,” Baxter says. “But who has?”