Maybe nobody’s business is hotter right now than Cynthia Brothers’.
OK, it’s more of a hobby than a business. But with what’s going on in Seattle these days, “it has ended up kind of taking over my life,” Brothers says.
Brothers chronicles loss. Most days at her website, Vanishing Seattle, she tries to document the city’s “displaced & disappearing institutions, businesses, communities & cultures.” Lately it’s been like taking photos while going over a waterfall.
There was the landmark theater Cinerama, gone. Ballard’s Bop Street Records, with its half-million albums, closed. Bavarian Meats, gone from the Pike Place Market, where it’s been since the World’s Fair. Re-bar, the Seattle club that became a cultural pioneer by realizing it didn’t have to be pigeonholed as either a gay bar or a straight bar, closed and moving out of downtown.
As the pandemic vise tightened again this summer, the sea change appears to be accelerating. The Seattle Times reports that at least 20 more restaurants have folded, including Bill’s Off Broadway, which was there on lower Capitol Hill for 40 years. And unimaginably, Jules Maes Saloon, arguably the oldest bar in Seattle, which had survived in the industrial Georgetown neighborhood since 30 years before the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
“I get overwhelmed at times, at the pace of the loss,” Brothers said the other day during a break in her day job, as a nonprofit program officer.
When she went down to Georgetown this past week to photograph the Jules Maes closing, with its Depression-era pendant lights and mounted deer heads on the walls, she paused to also note the other holes growing in that strip. Guitar lovers’ favorite Georgetown Music, moving out to Burien. The drag queen mecca the Palace Theater, dark for good.
Obituaries like this are being written across the city. Fremont’s Red Door, one of the first craft beer bars in the country. The Big Picture, a speakeasy-style movie theater near the Market. Innervisions, the U District poster shop that has decorated generations of dorm rooms.
Even the infrastructure has felt of late like it’s slipping away.
“We’re praying for you West Seattle Bridge,” read one Vanishing Seattle post.
Brothers, 38, started Vanishing Seattle in 2016, to mark how her home city was being remade by gentrification and development. It was essentially a site about how money was changing the physical landscape, removing the old buildings, the dumps, the dive bars, all the stuff in the way of shiny new tech Seattle.
“Just walking around and seeing what was here disappearing, I had an urge to document it,” she says.
With the pandemic, though, the losses often don’t come with wrecking balls. So she has shifted to focusing more on the quiet alteration of the institutions, the people, the scene, the culture.
Obsessing over loss like this can weigh on you. A lot of her posts recently have instead been about survival. “Not vanishing!” she wrote, for example, about Capitol Hill’s Wildrose, the oldest lesbian bar on the West Coast, when it managed to raise $53,000 on GoFundMe to keep from closing.
It’s a surreal time, because at some altitudes the boom of the last decade roars on. There’s definitely an emerging Seattle, too, up above the vanishing one.
“Despite the pandemic, venture capitalists are pouring money into Pacific Northwest tech startups at unprecedented levels, significantly outpacing the number of deals and dollars invested in the first half of 2018 and 2019,” the tech site GeekWire reports.
“An architecture firm has designed a luxury 1,185-foot tower in downtown Seattle that splits in half to create an elevated private park,” reads another headline, not from last year but last month.
It’s down below where the air is getting dangerously thin.
“Save the Blue Moon,” says another GoFundMe, which has unfortunately raised only $9,000 of the $40,000 goal needed to keep afloat “Seattle’s most infamous bar, successfully causing a ruckus since 1934.”
“We don’t plan on dying yet,” Blue Moon bartender T. Dooley told me. But with the now-extended ban on live music, “it’s been a struggle to say the least.”
The city ought to be doing more to help — financially, and maybe by accommodating more outdoor options for dining and entertainment. Brothers says you can feel the squeeze tightening.
“At the beginning, people were saying the coronavirus could be the great equalizer,” she says. “But it’s been the opposite. It’s leading to a greater concentration of wealth and resources.”
Being the obituary writer for a city is an “emotional labor,” Brothers says, one she struggles at times to sustain. But ultimately what keeps her going is that obituaries aren’t about death.
“People love these places, like a family member or friend, and they want to remember them.” If Seattle’s going to vanish, she says, “I just don’t want it to go quietly.”