Seattle is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Chief Seattle's grandfather. He remembers poppies growing by the boat ramp on Alki Point. They're still there. Seattle is from Ohio, but she moved here three years ago and mourns the loss of that coffee shop in the Melrose building. Seattle used to be there, right there—but then Seattle kicked Seattle out, and now Seattle's there. Actually, you just missed Seattle, she's been waiting here for you this whole time.
Boomtowns like Seattle plunge their residents into existential crises on a regular basis, and often those crises rage out and fizzle in the beer-soaked air of bars scheduled for demolition.
Instead of letting those conversations evaporate, Jaimee Garbacik, Josh Powell, and Jon Horn have created Ghosts of Seattle Past, a tripartite art engine that's producing tons of art based on the memories of Seattle mossbacks, transplants, and the dispossessed alike.
Over tea at Ada's Technical Books (which used to be another bookstore, which used to be a vacant building), Garbacik carefully removed from a plastic grocery sack part I of the project: a beautiful, overstuffed, art-object book-thing. The screen-printed, birch-bark cover, illustrated by Horn, features a ghostly clear-cut tree whose rings interweave with topographic contour lines of Seattle, a reminder that our pasts hide in the landscape. It reminds me of a line from "Our Valley" from former US poet laureate Philip Levine: "You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains / have no word for ocean, but if you live here / you begin to believe they know everything." Garbacik binds the book with two long pieces of thread, which serve two functions: They allow her to drop in artwork and writings as the project grows, and they also allow for a wider variety of artistic expression.
The collection of photo essays, interviews, vignettes, and comics are arranged by neighborhood and subject to change, but right now the book opens with a fascinating and touching conversation between Ken Workman, the great-great-great-great grandson of Si'ahl, Chief Seattle, who reminds us that there's 10,000 years of Duwamish life buried in the ground below your beloved cafe. Eroyn Franklin, taking advantage of the book's novel binding, continues defying the genre expectations of comics and presents a many-page panoramic panel that two people can read at the same time. A detail from the panorama is below. The full comic shows two groups of friends—one recent transplants, the other less recent transplants—walking in opposite directions down a street on Capitol Hill, both having the conversation about how much the place has changed. The piece is funny and touching, and it rests in the awkwardness of the question of who really "belongs." As if in answer, and also on the comic tip, Jon Strongbow includes a short comic book called Gone—But Not Forgotten that depicts illustration of First Peoples from all over the globe interacting with many Seattle locations lost to development. One illustration features a Northwest Coastal medicine person surrounded by animals and standing outside of what looks like Pioneer Square. In the text box, Strongbow quotes the medicine person: "We are all one people, though we have taken many forms in pursuit of the endless variety we crave to sustain our souls."
There are so many Seattles in Ghosts of Seattle Past, and Garbacik is working to include so many more. She told me that she especially wants to collect more memories "from both young people and seniors, from immigrant populations and anyone whose stories of Seattle might be left by the wayside by less enthusiastic or industrious ethnographers." She continued: "We are by no means going to let Capitol Hill and/or cis straight white voices fill the bulk of the collection. And we are keeping a careful tally of the balance of different genders and racial and demographic backgrounds as a whole."
To that end, and in addition to writing to and physically dropping notes in mailboxes at several community centers around town, Garbacik hopes to install the book in galleries and the like over the course of the next few months, mimicking the setup at Short Run comics festival, where this project got its start. At these installations, the book of places becomes a place in and of itself, an art object surrounded by art objects from older and newer Seattles—a chair from the Velvet Elvis theater, for example, and new work by Garbacik herself.
On Saint Patrick's Day, the Ghosts crew plans to throw an Irish wake party at LoveCityLove's new location on Pike Street. It's going to be a big six-hour shindig full of readings, musical performances, short films, and art, all inspired by the book and/or memories of Seattle places lost to development. The event is all ages, but there will beer for purchase from Fremont Brewing Company. Huge maps of the city will surround the big book, and visitors will be encouraged to stick tacks into the maps and tell stories of what used to be there.
There are plenty of performers to get excited about at the Irish wake. Readers include powerful performance poet Elissa Ball, multitalented (writer, actor, singer, director, the list goes on) arts leader Kibibi Monie, and the always surprising and hilarious poet Sarah Galvin. Alice Wheeler, whose photographs helped to define 1990s grunge-era Seattle, will present her intensely colorful depictions of disappeared gay venues and culture. Mita Mahato will have displays of her dark and gorgeous cut-paper comics. Dave Holden—son of local jazz legend Oscar Holden—will play jazz, queen quartet Halfway Haus will perform a fierce and funny drag show, and Flight of the Condos will provide the rock jamz.
All of that is only part I of the project.
Part II is the website (seattleghosts.com), which primarily chronicles the steps of the book-making process but also features an interactive Google plug-in map. There, you can drop pins down on places you used to frequent and reflect on the good times you had there.
Part III of the project is the big news: Once Garbacik is satisfied that Ghosts is ready, the art book will be published by local publisher Chin Music Press. If all goes according to plan, they'll publish in the fall/winter of 2016–2017. Two versions will be produced: One is an art book that mimics the birch-bark prototype; the other is a high-end but affordable paperback you can stick on your shelf.
What I love about the Ghosts project is how much it focuses on doing something instead of just "having a conversation" about the history of development in Seattle. Politically speaking, the book doesn't amount to an attack on developers. It's more of a polyvocal municipal autoethnography thing, a collection of memories that might help us all see some of the commonalities between our many experiences of our many Seattles. And it's an excuse to make art.