In Mike Leigh's masterpiece Naked, there's a scene that almost steals the whole movie. It involves an exchange between the main character, Johnny, and a security guard, Brian. It's late at night, and Johnny, who has been wandering the streets of post-Thatcher London, comes across an office building and, after staring for a moment at its spotless and glassy lobby ("A postmodern gas chamber," he calls it), is invited to enter by the lonely security guard. Homeless Johnny walks in, looks around, and asks with a thick northern accent: "What's in the building?"
"Nothing. It's empty."
"So what is it you guard, then?"
"You're guarding space? That's stupid, isn't it? Because someone could break in there and steal all the fuckin' space, and you wouldn't know it's gone, would you?"
The scene gets to the irrational core of capitalism. It is here, in the empty offices, conference rooms, and halls that Brian and Johnny discuss the nature of time ("You're not in it now, you're not in it now, you're not in it now") and biblical prophesies about the end of human time. In short, in the absence of business and the pressures of moneymaking, we are free to think about other, deeper problems.
Naked was made in 1993, near the end of a recession that cost George Bush the first his presidency. We are now near the end of 2010 and caught in a recession that has every appearance of being permanent—indeed, in the way that moments of expansion seem to have no end in sight, moments of contraction seem to have no end in sight. Seattle now has many new and empty "postmodern gas chamber[s]" guarded by men like Brian. One such building is 904 Seventh Avenue. A look into its spotless lobby (glass reflecting the corporate and civil towers across I-5) reveals unused furnishings and a flat-screen TV that's set to a financial network. No one is watching the frenetic news from the business world.
Pioneer Square feels like it has been hit particularly hard by the recession. A walk around the neighborhood gives considerable weight to this feeling. Several large businesses have either died or relocated. The old place has lots of empty spaces. Everywhere you look, there's a sign adverting a space in desperate need of business. Some of the spaces are stunningly deep and dark—like the one vacated by Renaissance Rug Gallery. It's hard to imagine the kind of store that has the courage and optimism to fill that immensity.
One response to the rise and rise of empty retail space has been to occupy it with art. Storefronts Seattle is an organization coordinating this response. According to its website, the program, which went through a selection process over much of the year and had its opening on September 2, "is a community-driven effort to help revitalize Seattle's historic Pioneer Square and Chinatown–International District neighborhoods by bringing vibrancy, activity, and light to otherwise vacant spaces and sparsely populated streetscapes." The forces behind Storefronts are "a number of local business, art, government, and cultural organizations." Apparently, other cities that are dealing with the great recession (Portland, New York) have similar programs.
I have seen the art in a number of the Storefronts locations and have no desire or plan to review it. This program is not about good and bad art, but about filling empty spaces with things made by artists. It is the act of filling and not the content that matters. Indeed, the sole weakness of the program (in my eyes) is that it does not go far enough. It's too small, too limited, too spread out. And because it does not occupy that much, it runs the risk of exposing (rather than covering) the emptiness of this great part of our city (yes, I live in Pioneer Square).
It makes sense to have the Storefronts program in Pioneer Square because, ultimately, it is the art district of the city. Capitol Hill, Ballard, and Belltown can take many things away from Pioneer Square (bookstores, clubs, and so on), but not that distinction (to do so would be like taking the Asian restaurants out of the International District). You do not need a crystal ball to see that Pioneer Square has no other future than the business of dealing and seeing art. (There is one other future, multimodal transportation—meaning, being a hub for entering and leaving the city—but unlike the age that inspired much of the architecture in Pioneer Square, our moment does not take rail transportation very seriously.)
Because Pioneer Square has no other future, the city should make it mandatory that any empty storefronts in the neighborhood display art. And this commitment should be done not for the sake of drawing businesses, but to affirm the area's sole remaining identity.