The six-story Publix Hotel, across the street from Uwajimaya, has stood vacant for years, with a haunted-castle grandeur.
I first noticed it while exploring the International District in high school. It was stained and apparently disintegrating, and pigeons had nested in its ornate metal awning, the etched word "Publix" coated in dirty feathers. Angular Tudor-Gothic ornaments topped a roof that could easily have sheltered a wizard. I'd sometimes get off my bike on the corner of King Street and Fifth Avenue South and look up at its empty windows like you look in someone's eyes when you can't tell what they're thinking about.
Dozens of buildings like the Publix, called single room occupancies (SRO), went up in Seattle in the late 1800s and early 1900s, providing modest accommodations for "workingmen and transient laborers." The Publix was designed by John L. McCauley, architect of a variety of local buildings, most of which no longer exist, according to a report compiled by the National Park Service's Register of Historic Places. Built in 1928, the Publix was owned by Rainier Heat and Power, which operated a steam plant in what is now Uwajimaya's parking lot. Rainier Heat and Power was initially financed by owner William Chappell's Klondike gold-rush spoils. Many SROs are vacant today (ever notice those boarded-up windows above the Comet?), as they are difficult and expensive to renovate, and it's unfashionable in the United States to live in a space the size of a Fisher-Price Playhouse. But they provide affordable urban housing for working-class people—a kind of housing rapidly disappearing in Seattle. I live in an SRO two blocks away.
The original rooms in the Publix were modest, to say the least. "I think the smallest room size I ever saw was in the Publix Hotel," Dr. Marie Wong, an associate professor at Seattle University's Institute of Public Service, said in a recent interview with HistoryLink. "The rooms in that [place] were literally no wider than you could expect to see for a single bed."
Those rooms were priced accordingly, making it possible for low-income people to live in the city without, say, having to rely on designated low-income housing (which didn't exist then). Many vacant SROs are still standing in the International District—easy to overlook because of the busy shops and restaurants at street level. But one of the historically fascinating features of the neighborhood is the number of SROs that are still in use, like the one I've lived in since 2013.
SROs were built for profit. Nonetheless, their existence acknowledged the value—the necessity—of working-class people and their contribution to the economy and culture of Seattle.
Dr. Wong, who is writing a book about SROs, went on to say: "If you look at the history of Seattle—and I'm specifically talking about the residential hotels that were south of the line (and the line was Yesler Way)—that if you look at those hotels, people who lived in them understood diversity in a much broader—and I'm going to say a more holistic—fashion than we understand the word today. They knew the one thing they all had in common—they were poor, they were financially strapped... it was the Chinese and Japanese and Filipino Americans. But the whole area was populated by pockets of Italians, Scandinavians, Germans... prostitutes lived [in] the residential hotels."
As Dr. Wong tells it, the function of SROs changed over time. "Over the years, you start to see less with respect to the hotels being used just for transients and more that the hotels start providing long-term living for very, very low-income individuals. And you also see that the population of those people that were part of a very active labor force, they're all getting older, and so they're not engaging in this kind of work—not just to the canneries but also to agricultural opportunities in Walla Walla. That they're staying now in Seattle because this becomes their home."
That was still the function of the Publix in 2004 when it closed: long-term housing for low-income individuals. It is also the function of the SRO where I currently live, home to veterans, disabled people, artists, and students of diverse ethnicities.
A longtime resident of my building told me that around the time the Publix closed, it was inhabited by "the kind of guys who hang out at Joe's." Joe's is a bar across the street from the Publix. The first thing I heard about Joe's when I moved into the neighborhood was that it was known as the bar people go to fresh out of prison. I like Joe's because of the exceptionally friendly bartenders and because a "beer back" there is a schooner. Owner Jim Davison told me that in the 1920s, Joe's was called Helen's, and then some time in the 1960s, Helen's became the beer-and-wine-only Red Front. To get liquor, you'd go to the greasy spoon on the ground floor of the Publix, which was legally allowed to include a cocktail bar because it served food. He also confirmed the rumor I'd heard that for many years the Publix was men-only, and he remembered watching girlfriends and sex workers climb the fire escapes. When I suggested that was why the fire escapes have little wrought-iron hearts on them, he said, "They had different fire escapes back then."
After being obsessed with the vacant Publix for years, I got to venture inside in 2012, when some friends were filming a movie about purgatory there. It had been closed about seven years.
As soon as the padlocked door creaked open, I was struck by the beauty and attention to detail in the design of a place made to be a low-rent residence for transient workers. The Publix was the (far more affordable) Apodment of its time, yet its lobby was ornate, all marble and carved hardwood, with a wide staircase ascending to a honeycomb of tiny rooms.
The filmmakers and I first walked up to the room they had turned into an office. The second floor was like being inside a giant decrepit egg carton—paint peeling from rows of rooms each about the size of a large residential bathroom, furnished with sinks and mirrored cabinets. There were no private kitchens or bathrooms, and shared bathrooms could be found on each floor.
After only 10 minutes in the building, I was flooded with excitement, something between falling in love and handling human remains. Was I a ghoul? This was a place where people living in a kind of poverty I had never experienced rested after work far beyond comparison to my dreariest dish-washing job.
Danger was certainly part of the thrill. My friends' tour of the building included a room where a pedophile died some time in the 1990s (or so a former Publix employee had told them), the walls brown from cigarette smoke in the corner where his bed had been. My friends told me sometimes the door to that room closed by itself. They showed me where they'd found an ancient cigar in the insulation (which, regrettably, I later smoked) and a room with all of the signs of the zodiac painted on the ceiling. One of the rooms was a gym, with a few very antiquated—possibly pre-1960—pieces of exercise equipment, including a homemade punching bag. Around every corner there seemed to be something I had never seen—hand-operated elevators and pay phones built into the wall at regular intervals.
The basement was lined with filing cabinets of yellowed financial records and clothing left by former occupants. I was especially delighted by names and dates scratched into the paint on one wall—"Timothy was here, 1939," etc. It made me incredibly happy that no one had painted over them.
The Publix provided a glimpse of history I could see and smell and touch, though I was hesitant to touch anything, feeling the sort of awe one experiences in museums. I thought about the way historical objects die in the venerated, regulated museum environment, despite my adoration of museums, the best venues we have for their physical preservation. Rather than the museum experience of witnessing a beautiful memorial for something no longer part of life, I saw (and used) the Publix's antiquated mechanisms, many of which were still functional. This seems like a dumb, obvious thought, that history is still happening and we're part of it, but I felt it in my body at that moment, like the way you feel that life is finite when you slice your hand while cooking.
I've always hated being in new structures that are ugly, like cell-phone stores. It was in the Publix that I realized this is partly because they provide no intimacy with the past, no sense of historical context. They make it seem as if everything humans make has always been ugly and always will be.
In a brand-new building, outdated styles and outdated consumer goods are out of view. In such an aesthetic vacuum, one may forget how, in the grand scheme of things, it's useless to buy a bunch of shit. The Publix reminded me of traditional Japanese landscape painting, in which humans are often tiny dots, a few brush strokes against dramatic forested mountains. When I saw "Timothy was here, 1939," I felt small in the best way possible. I was glad just to exist.
In the basement, a 20-foot-high window with metal shutters looked out on a brick wall retaining some of the massive quantity of dirt relocated during the Denny regrade. The window was probably once at street level. Things got more interesting the deeper below ground we ventured. A spindly plywood catwalk strung with metal lamps spiraled into the black subbasement. I'm not sure how far below the street we actually went. White mushrooms sprouted on the boards at the base of the catwalk, next to a greenish sump and the skeleton of a cat. The air felt cool and wet, and the only sounds were cave-like dripping and traffic far above.
Rows of rotting wooden theater seats were stacked against a wall, the remnants of a speakeasy from Prohibition, I was told. A narrow staircase led up to street level, beside a sort of stone booth with a tiny barred window where the owners of the speakeasy could safely survey potential customers. (Another anecdote from the filmmakers: Once, during Prohibition, there was a natural-gas leak in the subbasement. The following day, the space was littered with people who had collapsed mid-party, spilled drinks lying beside their lifeless hands. Granted, this anecdote sounds too cinematic to be true, and I couldn't confirm it from any other source.) At the far end of the room was a cement tunnel. It seemed designed to be looked at, its shape similar to the ornaments on the roof of the building.
My tour guides told me this tunnel was part of a network of tunnels (the Seattle Underground) that once connected the storefronts of Pioneer Square and the International District after the Denny regrade raised the street level 12 to 30 feet. After the city closed the underground in 1907 to prevent bubonic plague, many of the uninhabited spaces on the waterfront became dens of vice conveniently linked by the warren of tunnels. My friends had been told the tunnel under the Publix was probably built by the famous bootlegger Roy Olmstead. Of course, I went in.
I won't deny that the idea of a subterranean network of bars, brothels, and drug dens is romantic to me, or that that romance is stupid—I know the reality of such a life in the early 1900s was probably mostly awful. I'm also certain if I had been alive when this network was functional, I would have visited, just to see, on legs shaking as hard as they did in that tunnel under the Publix in 2012.
Twenty feet in, the tunnel was obstructed by a metal wall. It startled me—it looked like a spaceship crashed into a medieval castle. My friends speculated it was part of the bus tunnel. Miye Moriguchi, development manager of Uwajimaya (who graciously supplied me with historical information about the Publix, and who is part of the family that bought the Publix and the land its on in 1974), confirmed that the passage once connected to the bus tunnel, which opened in 1990, but that she didn't know its original purpose.
When I emerged from the tunnel, my friends were poking around the subbasement, discussing old cans and possible explanations for some of the place's stranger architectural features. There was nowhere I would rather have been than there with those four people, and later I wondered if part of my happiness that day resulted from the weird plausibility of "meeting" like-minded people from the past. The Publix tenants and speakeasy patrons were still there in some capacity, like background radiation. My elation from visiting the Publix lingered for weeks—anything seemed possible.
In 2013, I moved to my current home, an SRO similar to the Publix, just up the street. I love my apartment, but it's a studio the size of a kitchen and I resent the idea of being priced out of it. I'm getting priced out of the city where I was born and have lived my entire life, and I don't really want to live anywhere else, but there's nowhere else in town I can afford. I worry my moving to the International District might perpetuate the cycle of gentrification that drove me out of my previous neighborhood—poor, white, queer, media weirdos of various kinds move into a neighborhood historically inhabited by people of color, displacing them, and then affluent people notice the neighborhood is "funky," buy all the real estate, rename it something like "The West Edge," raise the rent until no one but other affluent people can live there, and then presumably salt the earth and move on.
While this certainly still happens, and is still a huge problem I worry I'm part of, it seems the type of gentrification going on in Seattle these days has more to do with global capitalism. Overseas developers track the activities of big corporations and build the cheapest housing possible wherever they can profit the most from it. It's easy to loathe the tech bro yelling "faggot" outside some brand-new restaurant, but he was brought there by much more powerful, complicated, and poisonous forces than his own ignorance.
In 2015, when I first saw the "proposed land use" signs outside the Publix, I assumed the worst. Later that week, I noticed a box under construction on the rooftop—an elevator shaft. Soon a Graham Baba sign appeared on the fence, architects of the Melrose Market, the current incarnation of the Seattle Center Armory, Ballard's Revel & Quoin, and many other popular local businesses. I learned Graham Baba will assist an overhaul of the Publix led by the Clark Design Group.
The remodeled Publix will contain 125 market-rate apartments, studios and one-bedrooms inside its original facade, and two- and three-bedroom apartments in a new wing. Opening this summer. Its more luxurious amenities include an off-leash dog area, a community party room, and bike repair stations. Restaurants will open on the ground floor. Uwajimaya board chair Tomio Moriguchi told the Seattle Times, "Like the 1930s, we have thousands of workers moving to Seattle, and we want them to have the opportunity not only to visit but live in the Chinatown/International District... I think the district needs more people with income."
He added that the Moriguchi family "doesn't feel that adding more people with low income is healthy for the whole district."
On the one hand, the claim that the Publix is being used for its original purpose doesn't exactly hold up. Yes, the thousands of Amazon employees expected to move to Seattle over the next decade are "workers," but they're not like the "workingmen and transient laborers" employed by Rainier Heat and Power. Their equivalent today are people in the service industry and in retail, and people like my dad, a carpenter, who are being told by developers to "go to Shoreline," where he has in fact had to go.
On the other hand, I completely agree with Moriguchi that it isn't healthy for one neighborhood to contain all or most of a city's low-income housing. Ideally, each neighborhood should accommodate as much diversity of income levels, professions, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, etc., as possible. That's how people learn from each other. I certainly don't want affluent people to get out of town—I just want to live here too.
I look forward to seeing the Publix's elegant lobby restored (my favorite detail of the renovation plans). I hope that although the subbasement has been filled in, the tunnel to nowhere, deep, deep below the building and all of its new tenants, remains completely untouched. When I'm walking west of the transit tunnel, I often wonder if the side I couldn't reach is right below my feet.