Growth is so dizzying in Seattle right now that one of the hottest things going is nostalgia for what’s in the way.
At the wood-shingled Shanty Café, which is closing Monday after an epic 102 year-run, the people are lining up outside, taking selfies with the building, cramming into booths for one last chicken-fried steak.
At Belltown’s Queen City Grill, which appears to be losing its lease after 30 years, people have launched a protest, trying to save a place that one letter writer said was not just a restaurant but the “anchor of Belltown.”
And in the Central Area, the planned bulldozing of a Red Apple grocery store for another Vulcan development has touched off an oral-history project — an attempt to capture how a seemingly mundane grocery, of linoleum floors and fluorescent lights, could add up to much more.
“The Red Apple is a community center masquerading as a grocery store,” they say at Shelf Life Story Project, which took over an abandoned Subway sandwich shop next door so people could share their tales of what the Jackson Street store has meant to their lives.
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Seattle is crane city, a tech-fueled construction site of glassy high-rises. This we know. But maybe the hottest thing going is an echo to that boom: nostalgia for what’s in the way.
“Look at all these people!” says Ginger Crowley, co-owner of the Shanty, gesturing at a throng outside the Lower Queen Anne diner Friday. “They all want chicken-fried steak. It’s like they feel they’ll never be able to get a chicken-fried steak in Seattle again.”
That might not be too far from the truth. There are other greasy spoons like the Shanty in the city, but the species is no doubt endangered. At 102, the Shanty is also among the oldest restaurants in Seattle, behind the Pioneer Square saloons (some of which date to the 1890s).
“It’s super-warp-speed change in Seattle right now,” Crowley said about her decision to end the century-long run and sell the building. “We just couldn’t keep up.”
The development boom has sparked a bunch of memorials and remembrances of what couldn’t keep up.
There is a forthcoming anthology of stories and art, called Ghosts of Seattle Past, in which writers throw a collective Irish wake to the vanished city, such as the Sunset Bowl in Ballard (now an apartment building).
My favorite, for the simplicity and humanity of the stories, is the Shelf Life Story Project. Six writers and photographers are chronicling the community influence of a single grocery store, the Promenade 23 Red Apple, before it’s gone.
I shop at this store semi-regularly and didn’t know any of what they’ve uncovered. Such as that the store manager is an ordained Baptist minister, hired specifically to aid the surrounding inner city. Or that they “adopt” families each year to give groceries to. Or that customers come from all over King County for the store’s catfish.
The point of the project is that once the Red Apple is gone, nobody will be able to say “there was nothing there” except an old store. They plan to archive the oral history at the Seattle Public Library.
Most of the folks doing the remembering say they aren’t protesting growth or change.
But I do wonder: When we’ve taken to memorializing even the loss of our grocery stores, maybe the pace of change has pushed us to some sort of emotional limit?
Back at the Shanty Café, change is part of the décor, in the form of cutouts of a logger and a fisherman at the entrance. Now much of the clientele is “the nerds,” Crowley says, as well as the construction crews putting up the nerds’ buildings.
A few years ago they had to do some plumbing work, and when they dug down into the ground along Elliott Avenue West, they found layers of shells. It turns out the Shanty, across the street now from the corporate headquarters of a $9 billion tech company called F5 Networks, was built on a beach.
“We’re all sitting on sand,” Crowley says.