Seattle Poised for Greatness?

It’s funny how much difference a few months can make. Back in February, Seattle was riding high with a warm fuzzy feeling, a sense that We Can Do Anything! The Seahawks had just won the Super Bowl by stomping the Broncos, with our players being called thugs in the national press just for speaking their minds (or in the case of Marshawn Lynch, for not doing so). Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had just won their Grammys, bringing a horde of Seattle singers and musicians along for the ride. For a few of my friends and me working with Microsoft Research, we had just finished the Gigapixel ArtZoom project, a celebration of the arts in Seattle with a launch at the Seattle Art Museum and excellent international press.

The city’s spirit was well captured in Charles Mudede’s exuberant piece in the Stranger, Seattle Has Stolen the Microphone. Mudede posited us as a city with a new voice and suggested that Seattle is, at least metaphorically, “an island off the coast of America,” suddenly a place for understanding race and pop culture in America, a place that is evolving its own strangeness outside of the main.

But through the spring, we seem to have become mired in a season of our discontent. Facebook has become more and more alight with threads and bitter comments about a city in danger of losing its soul, not to mention cheap apartments, in the face of the latest wave of barbarian invaders. It’s a strange soul searching, a fear that the city is on the edge of being lost to some horde of really uncool people, and that we’ve made too many deals with the devil du jour, most recently Amazon.

I tend to go the other way. I believe that we have built a remarkably dynamic culture in this city, that the microphone didn’t need to be stolen because we’ve been getting it for quite some time. And if we are beholden to our local corporations, they have played a minimal role in the culture we’ve created.

We’re seeing an anger over the trap of feeding at the trough—or sucking at the teat—of the big local corporations. Boeing is rightly seen as union busting, there’s an anger at Amazon for, among many things, trying to dominate huge swaths of consumer business, and somebody’s still pissed at Microsoft for, well, just being Microsoft.

In June, the Stranger was angry enough to devote much of a issue to the Amazonian specter, especially in the way that we’ve been bought off as a city. “Why aren’t we more outraged?” Eli Sanders asks.

For long-time Seattle observer Knute Berger, it’s about Seattle as a city where the liberals need to atone for “talking idealism while catering to corporate bullies,” for living in a town that thrives on the dollars generated by “corrosive” corporations: Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Boeing. Berger suggests that our snobbish self-image is flawed by our unwillingness to look at the values and costs of our economic engines.

In Tricia Romano’s odd rant in May, it’s all about how Amazon Is Killing My Sex Life, about a date with the Amazon coder who “spent the entire time talking about his job and the opportunities it was going to bring him. He didn’t appear to have any other interests—he certainly didn’t seem to have any interest in me.” And how such self-absorbed souls with too much cash are invading and destroying Capitol Hill.

Then Knute Berger worries about the future of post-Center of the Universe Fremont, hoping that the encroaching tech companies will contain enough nerds and free spirits to revitalize the neighborhood.

Much of this is silly. Berger’s corporate bullies piece is one of those trend articles where the author stretches the facts to fit a thesis, and much of it is very old news. Microsoft has not been the Evil Empire for a very long time; nowadays it’s a player in a complex landscape, working to define its future. Starbucks has been about as successful as Dr. Evil in the Space Needle in killing local coffee shops. Take a look at the epicenter: if anything, the chain may have provided a conceptual model for such successful local chains as Victrola, Fuel, and Vivace.

And then there’s Amazon. Jeff Bezos is doing exactly what he said he would: provide accessible goods at low prices. To the extent that we subscribe to the model of instant mail-order, we are also subscribing to disruptive competition, to the extent that we may be hurting other things we like: local bookstores and a diverse publishing ecology. This is definitely Pogo territory: we have seen the enemy and he is us.

Romano’s rant is nothing but crude stereotyping. If she’d been writing about women or people of color, she could be justly called out as sexist or racist. (Though I recognize that the impulse is appealing. For myself, I have to realize that the hordes who invade Pike/Pine on a Friday night are not all idiots, as I like to say. The trick is to turn them into an opportunity, though what that opportunity is remains murky. But I’m amazed that no one is regularly putting on good, boisterous street theater on the corner of 10th and Pike at midnight on a Friday night. Think of the ready audience of groundlings. Damn, there goes that stereotyping again.)

Amanda Manitach, writing in City Arts about a community meeting in May to discuss the 12 Ave corridor, worries that we’re headed for a “normcore culture,” sees us as a bunch of underachievers, “polite” artists who because of a cultural amnesia, as she quotes Matt Richter, are “not getting anywhere.” She quotes Scott Lawrimore in a wistful remembrance of Seattle’s past: “When you think about Mark Tobey, [Merce] Cunningham and [John] Cage hanging out here, can you imagine what that energy was like?”

Manitach has fallen in love with the days of and/or, a seminal Seattle art space, harking back (in a nice recap) to the golden age of and/or in the late 70s and early 80s, with its “powerhouse” culture. She proposes a utopian vision of a 12th Avenue Arts District—and by extension a city—with more opportunities for artists, yearning for a place where Amazon gives food baskets to artists, big-time artists are flown in the way and/or used to do, artists run cafes and bars, and there are “more watering holes and meeting places with cheap booze and sandwiches for less than $12 a pop.”

Manitach’s utopia already exists, to a large extent, though I do acknowledge: there is a weird funk going on, a sense that the city is spinning toward a death of the soul, toward a place of too many high-priced condos and high-priced bars with way-cute names.

The funk isn’t everywhere; in Manitach’s own City Arts, Hollis Wong-Wear is positive: “The beauty of Seattle is being this cultural frontier land, where there’s so much energy and the ability to harness it in the way that one sees fit—that’s why we’re such an experimental city. That’s why we’re such an interesting, eclectic city. That’s why Blue Scholars were so refreshing and so embraced by Seattle.” I don’t think that it’s an accident that Wong-Wear, by nature a fighter, long engaged in the trenches of youth activism and anti-racism work, can see the positive forces at work in this town.

Otherwise, anxiety seems to be on the rise. And I know, it is getting nasty out there: the onslaught of high-price condos and young men and women with too much money and good people being forced out of their neighborhoods and so much other shit. But overall, I tend to come down in Wong-Wear’s camp: we are in an amazing moment in this town.

Manitach wants us to be more aware of our history. Let’s take a look at that history, not back so far as that golden age of and/or, but rather just 20 years back. I’ve been thinking about a theater production that’s coming later this summer. A reborn Intiman Theatre—reconstituted more as a home for generative artists in ensemble and an education venue than the “major” it once was—is once again staging Tony Kushner’s Angels in America 20 years after it was first produced here by the great Werner Shook. This time, rather than taking two seasons for the production, in an effort of tremendous ambition they’re staging both plays simultaneously. (It opens August 14; go.)

What sort of city did we have then? Stepping out of our time machine, we see a town that at first glance doesn’t look too different from the one we have now, except for more tall buildings and more traffic. The culture of that 1994 city revolves around its majors, the core institutions: SAM, the Opera, the Henry, the Symphony, and so forth. Those, along with the major art galleries, a few alternative spaces (mostly CoCA and 911), and a few small performance companies, make up most of what the 1994 city has to offer. Several of the galleries and theaters from that time have since departed, such as Francine Seders’s long, amazing project and the venerable Empty Space Theater. Otherwise, much of what was there remains in place.

Take a look at our city of 1994, and note what it does not have, in no particular order: the Northwest Film Forum, Velocity Dance Center, Hugo House, the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, SOIL, West of Lenin, the Northwest African American Museum, Café Nordo, Smoke Farm, NEPO House’s 5k Don’t Run, the Gage Academy as a year-round school, Arts Corps, Studio Current, Vera Project, Town Hall Seattle, the Wayward Music Series in the Chapel Performance Space, Vignettes, Suyama Space, SPOCS, the Project Room, Seattle Theater Group, the Canoe Social Club, the reconceptualized Frye Art Museum. Our 1994 city lacks any of the circuses and variety spaces that have proliferated here since then, from Teatro Zinzanni to SANCA and the Moisture Festival, or the explosion of honk bands and the wonderful Honk Fest West. In 1994, artist-run bars like the Hideout, the Royal Room, and the wonderful Vermillion are not even a glimmer in their proprietors’ eyes; the only artist-run bars are the old Two Bells and the Virginia Inn, both and/or spin-offs. We’ve lost the 619 Building and the Shoe Building, but in 1994 there are no large-scale, low-income artist housing projects like today’s Youngstown, Hiawatha, and Toshiro-Kaplan.

In 1994 On the Boards exists, but without the permanent home that has since allowed it to take the risks that make it such a valuable part of our lives. OtB has, I think, assumed the national/international artist mantle from and/or, while at the same time providing a solid support structure for local artists, along with an opportunity for experimentation, and the possibility of very public and very constructive failure.

Think about living in that city of 1994, without any of the organizations, opportunities, and groups that have grown up since, and you can imagine how frustrating life here could have been then. I remember thinking in the early 90s that if you weren’t part of grunge or working with a major institution or actively represented by a major gallery, most of what was left was CoCA and 911, more spin-offs from and/or. There was little else. Those days were marked by a certain amount of despair, especially around a lack of funding for small arts organizations and individual artists. There was a sense that all arts funding was going to the majors, and precious little was trickling down to the artists. Money was going to the top and not the bottom, for the most part.

I think what happened in the years that followed was that artists and curators and organizers began to react to that bottoming out of support, and to the influx of money that subsequently came with the tech boom of the late 90s. They began to build the city that Manitach calls out for. I don’t believe that they all knew that this is what they were doing; most were just trying to survive as artists. But that’s what happened. So much has been built. And a lot of wonderful stuff was created after 1994, as with any experimentation, that didn’t survive the ensuing years: ConWorks, Lawrimore Project, Circus Contraption, Curtis Taylor’s wonderful vodvil theater, the Capitol Hill Arts Center, the amazing What’s Up, 33 Fainting Spells, and more.

We are living in an exciting time in this town, a time of huge opportunity and tremendous risk. It’s not just that we’re a city with gay marriage and legal dope and solid hope of a $15 minimum wage. It’s that we are seeing unprecedented energy. And much of what is happening is invisible unless you’re doing it: house concerts and small, under the radar arts and performance clubs. Sure, I worry that what has been built in recent decades might be brought down by the onslaught of careless money and crazed developers. But I also think that we are stronger than that. We do need to work to keep what we have. But the culture we’ve been building in this town is so lively, so vital and interwoven, and so filled with potential that we can weather any onslaught, even while we’re yearning for more cheap watering holes and free food baskets from Amazon.

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7 Responses to Seattle Poised for Greatness?

  1. Ann S says:

    Not to mention there is the largest contingent in the country of Burners – actively being expressive and making an impact on the culture and boundaries of city life.

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  2. Ev says:

    there IS so much opportunity! Let’s get over ourselves, use home as our watering holes with friends, and create! Thanks J.B.!

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  3. John you bring up great points and have done your research. I can only respond to a fraction of what you touch on, so I won’t try. I am reminded of the quote “All change is seen as loss.” I think that many artistists today see all the money flowing and people eating out every night and forget that in the 1990’s artists had potlucks. We were Invited into the parties of the rich as decoration and to show they were artsy. But very few of us were living like those that had full time corporate jobs. Its never been that way. But its hard not to compare ourselves to others and Seattle is much bigger and more affluent in some ways than it has been in my lifetime. Maybe the 1970’s Boeing times saw the truely largest affluent middle class. But that is only part of what you are writing about. The main point is if Seattle has a more artistic life to it than before. That you document well. I remember when many of the sub pop artists worked or hung out at Guidios pizza. They were living hand to mouth like almost all the other artists. Maybe that is forgotten when people think there is less opportunity for artists in Seattle than before. I know that as someone who is coming home after 4 years of working overseas I am overjoyed to be going back to a place where the arts are actually alive. It won’t be the same but all change is not loss and I appreciate your positive, thoughtful and historical look at it.

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  4. Chris Bruce says:

    Hey – and if you can’t afford it, there’s always Olympia, just down the road!

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  5. janeAnne says:

    As you say, ” The trick is to turn them into an opportunity, though what that opportunity is remains murky. “

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  6. Anne Focke says:

    Thanks for stirring the pot, John! There’s lots more to say, but just to note a cross-posting… I added a comment to Amanda Manitech’s City Arts article about and/or that includes a reference to this piece of yours.

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  7. Carolyn Law says:

    I’m glad you have taken up the digital pen John.

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