"It is the biggest traditional business district north of the ship canal, an urban center that should grow and change with the city. But it has not, its form is frozen and its appearance grubby, its windows etched by graffiti. Several spaces now stand vacant--the former McDonald's, Wizards of the Coast, and Pier 1. Most space is filled and most tenants are making it, but there is a visible malaise." University Way, the article concluded, is in desperate need of "an injection of vitality."
Where to begin?
Not a historic district? It is to me, and to the thousands of other Seattleites who entered the city via the University of Washington. Not vital? Clearly, the members of The Seattle Times' editorial board haven't spent much time in what is one of the most vital and eccentric neighborhoods in Seattle. On the question of appearance: fair enough. The Ave is grubby and always has been. That grubbiness is an essential part of the U-District's character, a reflection of its inhabitants, who are mainly students, academics, aging hippies, Ave rats, street musicians, and crackpot philosophers.
Despite what The Seattle Times would have us believe, the Ave is first a cultural spillway from the university, not a "commercial strip." The flow of academicians mingles with a steady stream of what you might call townies: folks who live in the rooming houses and motel-style apartments in the surrounding residential areas. Business-wise, it's a narrow stretch of fantasy urbania, defined by new and used book and record stores, movie theaters, and inexpensive restaurants.
Culturally, it's the last bastion of real coffeehouse culture--the kind where people hang out all day, every day, with their pamphlets and books and argue about politics or philosophy. People sit in the Ave's coffee places, reading for pleasure and talking about what they read. Because of the proximity of the university and its many droppers-out and hangers-on, it's the densest concentration of intellectual energy in the city. With so many people living a life of the mind in such a small area, the Ave radiates a different energy from the city's more efficient zones of commerce--it may be grubby and graffiti-etched, but it has an independent will, and refuses to fall in line with the mallification of Seattle. Which brings us to point two, the vacant spaces.
Apparently, it's a sure sign of blight when a "commercial district" can't support a purveyor of trash food like McDonald's, a retailer of crappy wicker furnishings like Pier 1, and a gargantuan arena for overpriced video and role-playing games like the Wizards of the Coast Game Center. To these eyes it looks like victory. Go to any other city in America (or Europe, for that matter) and look for a comparable area--close to a college, loads of foot traffic, tons of poor young people--without at least one McDonald's. Lotsa luck. The Burger King at 50th and Brooklyn failed too. Success! Could it be that the Ave has taste? The continued presence of Taco Bell and Jack in the Box might argue otherwise (though the former is notable for its low prices, and the latter for being open 24 hours). Still, on a street that boasts a staggering array of affordable international dining options--Indian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Himalayan, Italian, Greek, Ethiopian--it's nice to know that McFood doesn't fly. Plus, if you need a burger, there's always Orange King.
Of course, the Times editorial's point was less about the businesses themselves than about the empty storefronts, which present a valid concern. But in failing to acknowledge the nature of the former occupants, the Times overlooked a crucial truth about the neighborhood. While those oversized and overpriced storefronts have been sitting empty for a long time now, they didn't simply fail. They were rejected. Let that be a lesson.
As for the Times' last point, can you imagine a neighborhood filled with 20,000 university students that didn't bear signs of a "visual malaise"? It's part of the magic of college. Why should the main drag of the biggest school in town reflect anything else?
CUSTOMERS VS. NEIGHBORS
"For customers who want a planned economy," the Seattle Times editorial continues, "there is University Village, just over the hill." Customers. A planned economy. Is that what we are? Is that all we want a neighborhood to be?
I lived two blocks from U Village in 1995 when the builders came, razing a scruffy, inoffensive shopping center (as well as a great bowling alley with an excellent cocktail lounge--Village Lanes R.I.P) and replacing it with a throbbing upscale mall. Up sprung another Gap, Barnes & Noble, Office Max, Williams Sonoma. The QFC was expanded into a QFCity. A fleet of SUVs rolled down the viaduct, and in the name of renewal, everything suddenly became too expensive for students and most everyone else who lived nearby.
I don't mean to suggest that University Village was some kind of supercool hang before the broom of renewal started sweeping. Servicing students and residents of the Ravenna-Wedgwood axis, it was an accessible spot for shopping, and with the presence of the bowling alley, a social gathering spot for the non-affluent. In that sense, it was very Seattle. Though it may have been undistinguished, it showed no visible signs of depression. There was room for improvement, but in what has become typical Seattle fashion, that improvement took the form of obliteration. Seemingly overnight, U Village became a stucco nightmare of supercommerce indistinguishable from thousands of other malls across the country.
It was also instantly successful, which presents a frustrating paradox for those of us who liked it better before. This is not an argument against growth, efficiency, or renewal. The transformation of U Village is part of the inevitable sweep of the modern city toward suburban efficiency, and most people seem to like it just fine. You can't argue with progress. You can, however, argue with Seattle's definition of progress, which seems to hinge on bland aesthetic sameness.
This trend has many echoes in Seattle, most notably downtown, which has grown into a giant hamster maze of tourist commerce. It was a little seedy before. Now it's positively revolting, another sinister example of the replacement of the body politic with the retail corps in modern city planning. The Seattle Times writes that U Village and the Ave are "two different places, and there is room for both in this city." I should hope so.
The Seattle Times got one thing right: Unlike the rest of the city, the Ave hasn't changed much. Ten years ago this month, I moved to Seattle. I remember riding the bus down from the airless suburbanality of Lake City, stepping off at 45th and Eighth, and feeling a palpable charge in the air as I walked up to the Ave, which was buzzing with foot traffic, street music, and the whiff of tandoor. I spent the better part of the next four years on the Ave, working at the Varsity and Cellophane Square (then the best record store in town), camping out in the good cafés and great used bookstores on every block, eating cheap teriyaki, seeing the flower shop become a restaurant/bar called Flowers (and enjoying their nightly $2 drink specials), watching the grunge hippie Ave rats morph into punk rock Ave rats, and occasionally pretending to study.
I worked afternoons and evenings at the theater for three years. Standing in the door day after day, tearing tickets, I watched the street come alive with people walking around between classes, after meals, and on their way to and from shows, readings, parties. Over time I began to recognize the Ave regulars, beginning with the retinue of spare changers and runaways who never strayed too far, including Pot Roast, the guy who would puke at will, Pup Tent Man (who was rumored to have tens of thousands of dollars in the bank), and Free Eagle, the earnest hippie busker who only knew one song, and sang it a thousand times a day in front of Tower Records. He's still there, singing it. I couldn't walk a block without bumping into people I knew from the other stores, people I knew from school, people I couldn't remember how I knew. Having moved here with nothing, I quickly discovered a culture of people my age who supported themselves and lived the way they wanted to.
In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam defines social capital (as opposed to physical and human capital) as having to do with "connections among individuals--social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." The Ave is rich in social capital. Though I was broke and miserable, the economy of Ave made it possible for me to be broke and miserable in a semi-civilized manner. You could find a cheap place to live nearby, you could find plenty of cheap food, you could find a job that paid just enough to get by. You could even barter, with books, CDs, and clothes. In short, it was a place you could be poor with some dignity and lead an interesting life. The same is true now. The dynamic of the street mirrors somewhat the model of the university, where people go to learn how to live, not just to shop.
THE THIRD PLACE
"Third places exist on neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a condition of social equality," writes sociologist Ray Oldenburg in A Great Good Place (1991). "Within these places, conversation is the primary activity and the major vehicle for the display and appreciation of human personality and individuality. Third places are taken for granted and most have a low profile. Third places are normally open in the off hours, as well as at other times. The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends."
The Ave is a street so loaded with the kinds of places Oldenburg writes about that it becomes its own sort of macro third place. That said, it's also kind of a shithole. Now as ever, there are lots of empty storefronts, and several more that are occupied by tacky junk. Post-boom rents remain high, and several of the bigger spaces could stand to be broken down into more reasonable footage for new retail proprietors. But there are also countless signs of long- and short-term prosperity.
Let's start at NE 55th Street, where the long-dormant University Theater has been built into a thriving all-ages music venue, the Paradox. Despite the city's hostility to such endeavors, the club presents new local and national bands to young audiences every week.
Two blocks down, the Grand Illusion soldiers on. Even without a functioning café, the geniuses at the Northwest Film Forum have transformed a dejected second-run phantom into the premier art house in Seattle, showing many of the best films that come to town. Down the street, the Varsity and Neptune, two theaters in an art house chain that recently returned to local ownership, continue to do the same.
Downstairs from the Grand Illusion, Newberry Books has taken the place of that weird flower store no one ever seemed to go into or out of. It joins Twice Sold Tales, Beauty and the Books, Magus Books, and others in the heavenly host of used bookstores that manage to keep their doors open in the shadow of the mammoth, bustling University Bookstore (another great independent business).
A few doors down from Newberry, Bedazzled Discs has made up for the pitiful demise of Cellophane Square, stocking a smart selection of premium punk and independent records for the past three years. A few blocks down, and just around the corner, Earth River has amassed a truly awe-inspiring stockpile of vinyl that may be Seattle music collecting's best kept secret. Even Tower Records is still there, despite the long-expected collapse of the entire chain.
Keep walking. The weekend wait for a haircut at Rudy's is an hour. The Red Light is a fashion nexus, the center of a local independent business that spread into a mini-empire. The Continental serves a brilliant souvlaki and eggs for about seven bucks. And on down the street. Drinks at Flowers. Dinner at Ruby. Coffee at Roma, Allegro, Solstice. Magazines and newspapers at Bulldog. Beer at Big Time. Pool at the College Inn Pub. And is that a museum?
You get the picture. The Ave may be a shithole, but it's our shithole. And unlike downtown or U Village, it's still a neighborhood, not just a commercial district. The Ave is authentic, homegrown, lived-in, and well worn.
Of all the Ave's third places, none is as vital or important as the Paradox, one of the only spots left in Seattle for young people to congregate for purely cultural reasons. Projects like the Paradox use abandoned spaces to regenerate rather than redevelop. This club gives teenage music fans an option that the city has done its damnedest to rob them of: a subculture of their own. Of all the arguments against the Teen Dance Ordinance, the community-friendly ingenuity of the Paradox is the simplest and truest one I can think of. Seeing any of the outstanding rock shows the club puts on in its disused movie theater space (which is also a low-cost recording studio, indie rock clubhouse, and, on Sundays, a meeting place for the non-denominational Christian Mars Hill congregation) is an object lesson for the cretinous bastards who stand in the way of repealing that vile ordinance. At bottom, the Paradox asks a very simple question: Do we really want teenagers to grow up thinking that Pacific Place is the ideal hangout?
That question extends to college students, too: Do we really want them to spend their study time in the Barnes & Noble? Has it really come to that?
SPARE THE AVE
Because of the Ave's restless character, its empty storefronts present an opportunity for young business owners to try something cool, like the Paradox. An attempt to stimulate the Ave economy should extend first to encouraging such industriousness, rather than re-zoning and deregulating or establishing "private/public partnerships" in an effort to lure another McDonald's. Many of the storefronts on the Ave remain empty because landlords are holding out for big-name tenants, the next Wizards or Pier 1. The city should encourage the Ave's landlords to be realistic (we are having a recession) and lower their rents, thus capitalizing on the vitality that already characterizes the district, a move that would fill their empty storefronts with new, unique, independent businesses.
But if, as The Seattle Times demands, something is to be done to improve the Ave, here's a list of suggestions: Shed a tear for Cellophane Square. Just pretend not to see the Tully's and Starbucks. Up yours, Yunnie Bubble Tea. Down with Denny's "Diner." How the hell do Big 5 and Shiga Imports do it? Off the Wall, for all your bong and dildo needs. China First = China Worst. Away with that electronic billboard at Second Time Around, and while you're at it, tell whoever's in charge that Perkengrüven is the worst name for a café in history. And sure, if you want to put in wider sidewalks and flower pots, go right ahead. An increased police presence? The business owners would likely welcome it. Fine, fine, fine.
Just don't try to turn the Ave into another commercial wasteland in the name of "vitality." And make no mistake, that's what The Seattle Times is calling for--University Village II. And the Times isn't alone. The city council is threatening to "do something about" the U-District, too. A few years back these same people started talking about "revitalizing" the downtown "retail core," and look what happened: Planet Hollywood, NikeTown, Loews Cineplex's Meridian 16, GameWorks, Stars, Desert Fire. Even if these monstrosities wind up staying in business (Planet Hollywood and Stars, bankrupt; Meridian, on the way), the last thing any reasonable human being could call them is "vital."
They destroyed downtown. They spoiled U Village. For Christ's sake, let them spare the Ave.