Louie Raffloer can vividly recall a Fourth of July party in the early 1990s, not long after he opened Black Dog Forge, his blacksmith shop in Belltown.
"A buddy and I blew up a can of spray paint in the alley," Raffloer says. "We set it down, lit a slow-burning wick, and backed way up. Then I shot it."
The resulting fireball reached the walls on either side of the alley and sent a mushroom cloud 30 feet into the air, twice as high as the buildings on the block. Raffloer and his friend liked the effect so much, they did it again. And again. And again.
Belltown was deserted back then. A handful of artists had moved into the neighborhood, a few bars had opened, there was a single coffee shop.
"You didn't have to crane your neck to look at the tops of any buildings down here back then," Raffloer recalls. "It was all two-story buildings, most of 'em empty, some union halls. Nowadays, you have to worry about drunken frat boys beating you up. Back then, you had to worry about drunken bums throwing up on you. The only drug problem here was hardcore alcoholism."
Raffloer and his buddy would go on to blow up 17 cans of spray paint at that early-1990s July 4th celebration before someone in the neighborhood noticed the explosions—and the fireballs and the mushroom clouds—and called the police.
"We see a fire truck coming after explosion number 17 and we duck into the Rendezvous," Raffloer laughs, "and that was the end of our patriotic fireworks display."
Things are different in Belltown now.
"Now we get the police called on us for noise complaints at six o'clock at night," says Mary Gioia, Raffloer's business partner and best friend for more than 20 years. "We were using a trip hammer and, yeah, it makes a bang. A legal bang. Someone in the condos called the cops, and they came right away."
Not much has changed at Black Dog Forge over the last quarter century—there's just more soot on the walls—but Belltown has been transformed. Condo towers have replaced most of the low-rise, light-industrial buildings. Expensive restaurants occupy storefronts that used to be host to record shops that kept irregular hours. The bars that opened to serve the artists who "discovered" the neighborhood in the 1980s and early 1990s—many of them opened by artists—have either closed or gone upscale. The Vogue, Tugs, Hawaii West are all gone; the Rendezvous today bears little resemblance to the Rendezvous that Raffloer fled to after blowing up that 17th can of spray paint.
The same thing that's happening to Capitol Hill today happened to Belltown in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Artists, queers, and indie entrepreneurs "discover" and revitalize a neighborhood, developers take note, one or two funky old buildings come down, the first condos go up, artists and small businesses are priced out as more condos go up, and bigger businesses move in to capitalize on the neighborhood's cachet. To add insult to injury, developers use the neighborhood's indie/edgy/artsy vibe—a vibe they're helping to extinguish—to market their new condos and apartments to people who wouldn't have been caught dead in the neighborhood 5 or 10 years earlier.
I lived in Belltown when I first moved to Seattle in 1991. I lived in a single-room-occupancy hotel on Second Avenue, directly across from Black Dog Forge, and I worked at Cafe Septieme, then Second Avenue's only coffee shop. (Gioia tells me that I waited on her—I served her a bowl of coffee—the day she met Raffloer. Their meeting is a funny story, more on that in a sec.)
People complained about the destruction of Belltown 20 years ago in the same apocalyptic terms that people complain about the destruction of Capitol Hill today. Sometimes it's the same people who are doing the complaining. The Hill, we keep hearing, is being destroyed. Everything about the Hill that made it unique and interesting is being lost forever. That's not true. Everything about the Hill that made it unique and interesting is shifting. Just as Cafe Septieme eventually moved from Belltown to the Hill when Belltown was in the process of being "ruined," some of the small businesses being priced out of Capitol Hill will move on to other neighborhoods. The artists, indie entrepreneurs, and queers who "discovered" Belltown and the Hill—both neighborhoods that existed before they were discovered—will "discover" a new neighborhood. And that will be good for those neighborhoods, even though that will mean some businesses and residents there will be displaced.
When Cafe Septieme moved to Capitol Hill, it displaced Andy's, a diner that had been on Broadway for decades. At the time, people complained that Cafe Septieme's arrival signaled the death of Capitol Hill. When Cafe Septieme closed a decade later—its one-story building replaced by a six-story apartment building with a chain bagel place on the ground floor—people complained that Cafe Septieme's demise signaled the death of Capitol Hill.
Capitol Hill has been dying for longer than many of its residents have been alive.
But even after the cycle is complete—even after the artists and indies have been forced out by developers and condos and upscale restaurants—some of the businesses and artists and bars hang in there. You just have to know where to look for them.
Pockets of the old—old that was new once (new and threatening to what was there before)—will remain on Capitol Hill just as pockets of the old remain in Belltown.
The alley between Second and Third Avenues, between Bell and Battery Streets, where Raffloer makes bondage gear and garden gates and repairs pinball-machine parts, where Gioia makes decorative railings and jewelry and curtain rods and fireplace pokers, is one of those pockets. Louie Raffloer grew up in Bohemia, New York, and moved to Seattle from New York City in the mid-1980s after "throwing a dart at a map." He was 30 years old and looking for work as a graphic artist when he stumbled into a blacksmith shop in the basement of a building in Pioneer Square. "I asked a lot of stupid questions, and they offered me a job," says Raffloer. He worked at the shop for two years before opening his own shop in Belltown.
Mary Gioia grew up in West Seattle and was working as a costume designer when she encountered Raffloer. "I was doing some outfits for a dominatrix, and Louie was making her a throne," Gioia recalls. "That's how we met—both doing some piecework for the same dominatrix. And then I walk into Louie's shop here and I saw what he was doing and I thought, 'I don't want to sew anymore.'"
When developers move into a neighborhood like Belltown, they tell the businesses that are already there—at least the ones that aren't being evicted—that their new condos and apartments will mean lots of new customers for them.
"When the condos first started going up around here, people were like, 'Oh, you're going to get so much business from the new condos, all these new people around here!'" says Gioia. "But it was crickets. The people in the condos don't even know we're here."
So if the new residences didn't bring new customers into Black Dog Forge—"The condo people get in their cars and drive to Bellevue," says Raffloer, "they're not really part of the neighborhood"—how has the place survived?
"We have a great landlord," says Raffloer. "The family that owns the building is very pro art, and we are still here because our landlords have not jumped on the bandwagon—they never cashed in on all the growth."
What do they miss most about the old Belltown?
"Free parking," says Gioia.
If you want to see what Belltown was, go to Shorty's or Lava Lounge for a drink—while you can—and have dinner at Mama's Mexican Kitchen, which has been open for 38 years. Then walk up the alley between Second and Third and go to Black Dog Forge this weekend. It's their 25th annual open house and holiday sale.
You can experience what Belltown was like before the condos went up.
What will you find there—besides Raffloer and Gioia and their tools and hammers and anvils and forges?
"Affordably priced trinkets and gifts: from candleholders to bottle openers to fire pokers to really cool iron jewelry, stuff that ranges from $15 to $75," says Gioia.
No bondage gear?
"I'm going to throw some shackles out there," says Raffloer. "They always sell."