Last Wednesday afternoon at the 619 Western building, fat daubs of oil paint sat out on palettes, barely drying at all in the unheated air. The artist, a Vietnam vet, sat in the room—high ceilings, one wall all windows revealing the industrial red cranes of the working waterfront behind the curve of Seattle's dilapidated viaduct—and told stories.
He told about that uncommonly beautiful year in Saigon, where he had a Vietnamese girlfriend he shared an apartment with on the sly. About discovering in 1981 this abandoned warehouse, at 619 Western Avenue, with rice and coffee beans and dust strewn everywhere, sitting right at the base of the Seattle street that coined the term "skid row." His studio is dotted with mosaics using colored glass collected from buildings that have been demolished in Pioneer Square over the years. One night recently, asleep in his studio—where he's slept and eaten without heat or private running water for 30 years—one of his own windows broke mysteriously, like a premonition. He never found the big shard of 100-year-old glass that fell. Ever since then, there's been only air between his bed and, across a narrow street, Seattle's original post office and steam plant with its black smokestack still rising.
On the floor directly below this was another artist telling stories—everybody was feeling nostalgic, because less than a month ago, the artists of 619 were told they're being evicted in March 2012. Some have already jumped ship, scrambling to get what affordable studio space is left in the city before it runs out. Others want to protest but wonder whether they should apply for the relocation assistance money that may be available from the government—which is taking applications this month already—since it's the city and the state that say the artists have to be out, the 100-year-old building demolished, to make way for the underground tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
"This is one of the oldest all-arts buildings on the West Coast," said Johnny O'Brady, an artist on the fourth floor. "There's a good chance the tunnel won't even happen, but people are already packing up. There's tons of confusion."
The confusion comes from the fact that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) told the building owner about the eviction six months ago, but he didn't tell the artists. The artists found out in a meeting that was advertised with only a few days' notice—and by the time the meeting was held, the "public comment period" for the tunnel's environmental review process had already lapsed. In reviewing the environment, the state left out the heart of the heart of Pioneer Square: the artists.
O'Brady is a generation younger than the Vietnam vet. He wears combat boots and remembers SoHo in the '80s. His stools are made of skateboards broken into halves; he sat hunched over the floor, which was covered in canvases depicting the faces of old-time pinup girls. There were so many canvases that he had to step on them. It was the day before art walk—the city's original art walk and still its biggest, the one that has been held the first Thursday of every month in Pioneer Square for the better part of 50 years. Pioneer Square's art walk is said to be the oldest in the United States.
The 619 Western building is not about sheer ambition. O'Brady is not about to be on the cover of an art magazine, and only some of the 100 or so who rent at 619 Western are "about to be" anything at all. They simply are artists. Occasionally they sell something. Maybe they teach this month, wait tables on the side, or have an entire modest daytime career. (This raw place does not attract anyone accustomed to wealth.) But no matter what else is going on, they make pictures and objects within these walls and show them every month—and that alone makes 619 Western, for lots of people, the best part of the original American art walk.
After the white cubes of the commercial galleries close at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., everybody heads over to 619. The floors creak, the elevator is painted steroidal eggplant colors (and contains a blurry painting of the Cheshire Cat), and closing time is unknown. The nearby Tashiro Kaplan Artists Lofts building was developed in 2004 as a replacement for 619, but it is a qualitatively different place, containing galleries and hosting open studios only once a year. At 619, in spades, is what every museum and gallery wants just a dose of: messy, living art energy.
The art is all over the place. It runs down the hallways and staircases. You can show anything: Japanese animation drawings, dour geometric abstraction, black-and-white photos of your mother, garish paintings of lecherous old men being breast-fed tequila shots by naked green women. That latter scene is meant to be a satire; it was made by an older artist called Johnny Wow!, who's been at 619 for several years, and all of his paintings are, well, like that.
The longest-running tenant is Edd Cox, who's been at 619 since 1981. He makes highly skilled photo-realistic paintings of flowers and people in old-fashioned cars, and he also makes looser, New Guinean–influenced scenes he calls his "jazz" style. Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, a founder of the Capitol Hill gallery/collective pun(c)tuation, rents here; so does street artist Weirdo, whose latest project (made possible by a small grant and Weirdo's cheap rent at 619) is a mural wall available to emerging artists that spans the length of a city block nearby, across from the historic Smith Tower. The businesses at Second Avenue and Yesler Way, including contemporary art gallery Howard House, have closed. The giant mural—vibrant orange, yellow, green, blue, and red—is the only thing lighting up the block besides the crackheads.
The 619 building has one non-art tenant in the upper floors where the studios are (the first of the six floors, available for retail, bears multiple FOR LEASE signs). The non-art tenant is the U.S. office of the Tibetan Nuns Project, an international nonprofit run by the Dalai Lama's sister-in-law that's supported Tibetan nun refugees in India for 20 years. Just outside its office is the crack, inches wide, that runs down the center of 619 Western and that widened during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake; in some places, you could pass a kitten from one floor to another through this crack. The building has settled in parts; spray-paint cans roll toward wavy, slumped windows. Firefighters who were visiting the building once told the Tibetan Nuns staffers that in case of fire, the wooden stairs and the fire escapes (not firmly attached) should be avoided, and advised them instead to jump out their fourth-floor windows. They laugh when they tell this story; they would rather take their chances than move to someplace duller than 619.
If you did jump out of 619, you might see the name "SU JOB" in cornflower-blue letters on your way down. Job was a redheaded artist and the soul of 619 for more than 15 years before she died in 2008 of cancer at age 52, and her name is stenciled on the building; also tattooed in out-of-the-way places on 619's skin are names like "CRIS BRUCH," another beloved Seattle artist.
It's a typical story: What makes 619 special is what makes it vulnerable when accountants, engineers, and bureaucrats come around. The tunnel is set to kill the living, breathing organism that is 619 Western.
The city council could intervene, but it has shown scant interest in doing anything but pushing the tunnel, even though voters rejected a downtown tunnel in 2007. After being contacted by the artists, a few council members visited the building recently. Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council's Transportation Committee, said he was not able to go and has never been to the building but is planning to meet with the artists soon. "We want to help," he said. But he had no specifics yet, and he recalled the deeply discouraging situation at Magnuson Park's Building 11, where 24 artists were kicked out in 2008 to make way for a commercial development in the public park.
Even though the environmental impact study is still incomplete, WSDOT signed contracts with a construction company for the multibillion-dollar project on January 6. O'Brady went to the signing. He raised his hand and asked that the artists be considered part of the environment. The ink dried anyway. WSDOT didn't respond to an interview request for this story.
Pioneer Square is a federally named historic district, eligible for strict protections. But the "council has blown us off again and again," said Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition. "It's maddening because it's not like they have to do anything controversial or difficult. They just have to hold WSDOT accountable to the laws that have existed for this purpose for decades." At the very least, "the city should demand from WSDOT that even if the building is demolished, the use is preserved" through funding or other support, Moon said.
The same environmental study that buried the pending displacement of a hundred artists also buried the fact that an additional 65,000 to 70,000 vehicles will flood downtown streets, including Pioneer Square, because the tunnel will have no exits north of King Street and will have tolls up to $4 each way. "The tunnel project could destroy Pioneer Square in several ways," Moon said. "The interchange [at King Street] is huge, suburban-scaled, and completely out of context with this fine-grained fabric." The state says this is the city's problem; it certainly is. The council has no money and no plan to deal with it.
The plight of the 619 artists is the first symptom telegraphing who's going to bear the brunt of the city's failure to protect and envision Pioneer Square. If the council won't do anything, an angel would have a legal case against WSDOT, said attorney David Bricklin. "Oh, yeah—WSDOT has been trashing the environmental law in their rush to get this project done. I think they're very vulnerable if somebody mounts a timely challenge." The state is prohibited from even choosing a tunnel—let alone displacing artists and signing contracts—before the environmental study is complete.
Will anybody stand up for the misfits of 619?
"Getting to be here has been an honor," said Carl Faulkner, who with his girlfriend, artist Redd Walitzki, shows his own and others' works in curated group shows in their 619 studio. When they moved in, the manager told them they could do anything besides throw a couch out the window. That had happened before. Anything else, he said, goes.