The city

She asked “Has it always been this way?”

I had no ready answer.

The “way”, the subject of the inquiry, had to do with an article in the local paper making a case for a certain aloofness observed by residents new to this city by the vast inland sea.  Labeled by the author as “The Freeze”, it is said to be exemplified by “Polite but distant”. “Have a nice day… somewhere else”.  A transplant hailing from New Jersey is quoted: “Here, it’s so weird, people are so nice in these passing situations, but beyond that there’s a wall”.  A sociology professor coins a phrase for it:  “the phenomenon of the plastic smile”.

News to me.  I’ve lived here all my life but my sense of place does not include “The Freeze”.  For my first twenty years or so, it didn’t even include people from other places.

The houses on West 70th Street where I grew up in the Fifties contained mostly families.  There were a few older folks who were living out their retirement in the same homes where their children had grown up.  Home sales were rare.  Comings and goings were limited mostly to circumstance, rather than discretion.

Being a kid on West 70th Street meant continuity.  My mom was always home.  She was there when I walked the two blocks from school for lunch and when I came home at three in the afternoon.  I met Dad at the bus stop at the end of the block, when he came home from work.  I carried his lunch pail home.  I had my bike.  There were kids my age all over the block.  We played in the street.  I had my little workbench Dad made for me behind the basement stairs, where I could build models or work on slot racing cars.  I went to the same schools my sisters had gone to.  The same teachers were still there.  Every summer, Dad would hitch up the camp trailer he built and we’d go off for two whole weeks to see the wonders of the National Parks.  Every Christmas there was a tree, decorated with the ornaments that had been on every Christmas tree I had ever known.  There was a sameness, a predictability. 

The dad’s on the block were working men.  Cindy’s dad ran a gas station.  Ron’s dad built fishing boats.  Larry and Lorene’s dad owned a neighborhood bakery.  Ray and Virginia’s dad worked at a book bindery.  The man next door to Chuck’s house drove a cab.  My dad worked in the parts department of a marine engine company, near the docks of the fishing fleet.  The closest thing we had to a professional was Judy, Joyce and Janet’s dad, who sold cars at the local Ford agency.

My first encounter with out-of-towners was the family that moved into the big brick house at the end of the block.  They were from someplace in the Midwest.  Jeff, Mary and Paul’s dad was a school principal.  Their mom was a teacher.  Both of their parents had been to college.  Both of their parents had jobs.  This fact alone made them unique on our block.  The kids told us about a place called McDonalds where they lived before, a place that sold hamburgers for ten cent; millions had been sold.  All this made them seemed worldly by comparison.  Had I asked, the people in the big brick house might have described the place they had moved to as provincial. 

Our family was typical of many; my folks were involved in the PTA, the Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts.  We visited with the families of my parents friends.  Entertainment didn’t involve restaurants much, movies less, never theater or museums.  Entertainment was well-regulated and reserved for the milestone events of life.  Graduating seniors went out on the town to places like Canlis, the El Gaucho and Rosellini’s.  The rest of the time, those places were the province of the town’s elite; political leaders, bankers, doctors and lawyers.  Meanwhile, families like mine gathered around the TV to watch “Disneyland” or “Bonanza” over a bowl of Horluck’s ice cream, served on a TV tray.  If we went out, it was to a place called the “Homestead”, a sedate, respectable, quiet place you could take your grandmother for anniversaries or birthdays.  Other times, a big evening was Smitty’s Pancake House on Aurora on a Friday after Dad got home from work.

This corner of the country was isolated.  The homogenizing effects of national retailers and cable TV were still years away.  The town was quirky.  The guy who did the weather on channel five drew cartoons of clouds and seagulls.  Kids watched Brakeman Bill (a guy who ran his electric train set for the camera), Stan Boreson (a Scandinavian who played the accordion), Captain Puget (who we believed did his show from his sailboat, the “Windward Four”) and J.P. Patches (quirkiest of them all, a retired clown who, we were told, lived at the City Dump).  In the summer, we went to the Aqua Follies at Green Lake and the Torchlight Parade downtown.  In winter, we went to the mountain passes to ski.  A generation of kids sat on Santa’s lap behind the huge plate glass windows at Frederick & Nelson’s department store and made the toy trains run by pressing little hands on the palm-shaped cut-outs on the window glass.  My Mom would take me downtown on the number 17 bus.  I would hold her hand as we walked the sidewalks and, if I was good, there would be a stop at the bakery counter at Frederick’s, near the east entrance, for a sugar cookie from the big glass bakery case.

There were places we knew not to go, places not safe for people from the neighborhoods.  No one went to the waterfront where burly men unloaded cargo from ships.  No one went near “Skid Row”, a term said to have been coined here.  Wandering too far away from the big department stores led to a different city, with a different kind of resident, the ones my mother collectively dismissed as “bums”.  By the fifties, the Public Market where Mom had shopped with her mother was in decline.  She no longer went there to shop the farmers’ stalls. Mom shopped at the A&P in our neighborhood, on Friday evenings, the day Dad got paid. 

The city I knew seemed to reflect the Fifties and a family-focused personality.  I knew families whose makeup was different than ours but it as a question of degree, the difference between Swedes and Norwegians.  The life I recognized existed in a number of similar neighborhoods, so I was sure that everybody was more-or-less like us.  But it was an awareness brought about by insularity.  The city was compartmentalized.  It was possible to live here and never be aware of people who looked different or spoke other languages.  There were others in other parts of the city who must have seen things very differently.  The city I knew existed in a vacuum, any variation contained in the parts of town I never saw.  It was not until I got to high school in the Sixties that I realized, watching intramural sports, that there were kids from other schools in town who didn’t look like us at all.  And in the sixties, those differences were about to turn into friction.  The conventions of place that kept us all separate were about to break down.

From the beach at Golden Gardens, we saw the place we lived.  Emmett Watson said “Mountains, water, beaches, trees and views were something you had, like mud and wet feet, and you didn’t brag about one and apologize for the other.”  The city had yet to see itself as a shill for the natural attributes that were about to become prized by people from places that lacked “lifestyle”.  The water and mountains were about to be seen as marketable commodities.

In 1956, voters approved a ballot issue for a World’s Fair.  Almost completely overshadowed by the New York World’s Fair two years later, the city somehow got the needed backing, condemned entire blocks of real estate, set about construction, promoted it to the world and managed to get it open in 1962, two years later than intended.  For years, Seafair, with its parades, pirates and speedboats, was our annual summer block-party.  A World’s Fair was something bigger, something to attract tourists.  People were said to be coming from all over the world.  The newspapers wondered where all these visitors would stay.  To augment the dearth of hotels rooms, a trailer camp was set up near the beach at Golden Gardens, by some enterprising local who sought to cash in the overflow. 

The idea of tourists coming here seemed strange to us.   

The World’s Fair, homespun as it may have been, opened a door.  After that, a migration began.  Magazine articles singing the praises of livability fueled the influx.  I knew a guy who came for a visit, returned to his home in the Midwest, quit his job, sold everything that wouldn’t fit in his car and drove back here, without so much as a new job or place to live.  The already inflationary 70’s combined with the influx pushed home prices past all previous records.  Anecdotal reports of buyers standing on the lawn of a home for sale, biding up the price against each other, well in excess of the asking price, became the stuff of “can you top this?” stories around the water cooler.  People selling pedestrian homes in California came here with their money and bought homes in toney neighborhoods with views of the salt water and mountains.  Developers saw what was going on.  Suburban agricultural land was sold for far more than it would have brought for growing.  Houses and condos replaced crops.  Rich, black river bottom land, fed for centuries by glacial silt, was paved over for industrial use.

New people who came to secure a piece of this place for themselves nonetheless brought along pieces of the places left behind.  The first espresso cart I ever saw showed up under the Westlake Monorail terminal.  The city grew theaters.  Art galleries opened in empty storefronts and former industrial spaces.  Thai restaurants became ubiquitous. 

The water, trees and the mountains being discovered by people who saw them as something to be revered, more than merely “something you had”.  Recreational Equipment Incorporated was started by locals in 1938 but it took the influx of new people who idolized nature to propelled REI into the outdoor retailing giant it became. 

Not all of the reviews were stellar.  An Esquire article described “dusk on a November night, the sky, the water, the mountains all the same color: lead in a closet.  Suicide weather.”

Some transplants found our drab little town to be a welcome respite from the concrete and density of other places; some found it backwards and laughable.  Perhaps reflecting the tastes of the new arrivals, or perhaps reflective of national trends toward reducing all parts of the U.S. to a set of common elements, the quirkiness began to disappear, slowly at first, then more quickly.  Dag’s faded away, replaced by scores of McDonald’s.  The Aqua Theatre at Green Lake was torn down.  The Bubbleator from the World’s Fair ended up on the front lawn of a home in Redondo Beach.  Frederick & Nelson was acquired by out-of-state investors, who had so leveraged their deal that the store failed.  The Bon Marche’ became another outpost of the Macy’s empire.  Even home-grown companies contributed to the homogenization.  Starbucks, the venture of an English teacher, a history teacher and a writer, begun as a coffee roaster in the revitalized, respectable and trendy Public Market, proceeded to dominate the nascent coffee culture and became one of the defining elements of the city.  The cart under the Monorail, where I had my first espresso, disappeared.

It’s not like we don’t have new quirkiness.  One need only visit the statue of Lenin or the Troll in Fremont, “Center of the Known Universe”, to realize that it still exists.  But these new forms seem more like inside jokes, unlike, say, hydroplane racing on Lake Washington, which just seemed like a natural part of summer. 

If there is a debate about “old” versus “new”, I probably come down somewhere in the middle.  Some of the old was not so much defining as just odd.  The car ferry Kalakala comes to mind.  It was rebuilt in a streamlined design using the hull of a San Francisco boat that had burned to the waterline; it was rough-riding and the aerodynamic shape was just plain silly on a craft that never saw the other side of 18 knots (slower than most downtown car traffic).  The Twin Teepee’s restaurant outlived its time and nobody was able to make a business work there anymore. 

But I miss some of what has passed.  Bob Murray’s Doghouse was where a generation of newspaper reporters met and ate.  The rotating neon globe on top of the Sixth and Wall headquarters of the Post Intelligencer was an icon of the city. 

We had our own music.  Long before “grunge”, there was a definable sound.  The Viceroy’s, Jimmy Hanna and the Dynamics, the Kingsmen and the Fabulous Wailers played the Spanish Castle and Parker’s Ballroom.  We bought their records on the Seafair-Bolo label.  Northwest rock and roll had geographical boundaries.  If you were from anyplace further away than Portland or Boise, you never heard it.

Radio was terrific.  Without the lowest common denominator effect of acquisition and consolidation of ownership, formats were unique, as were personalities.  Jack Morton and Bob Hardwick were part of the fabric of the city.  Lan Roberts on KJR played the top-40 hits and gave us his “Little Green Thing with a Picture of a Duck On It”.  Then, in 1967, KOL-FM happened.  Pat McDonald, John Chambliss and Max played Jimi Hendrix in stereo and blew our minds. 

The cultural phenomenon described by the news writer as “The Freeze” eludes me.  The temptation is to dismiss it as something experienced only by those who originated elsewhere. 

Before the city described by the newspaper article, there was a different town that I knew.  Quirky as it may have been, isolated and innocent as it was, we had a sense of who we were.  We had a sense of place.  It wasn’t something that was boasted of, it wasn’t something that was packaged and sold to Californians.  It was our town, our place, with its own character.  We ate chowder at Ivar’s Acres of Clams.  We tuned into Exploration Northwest on channel 4.  We went to the boat show in the Armory.  We rented bikes to ride around Green Lake.  We watched Bill Muncey, in the Miss Thriftway hydroplane, crash into and sink a Coast Guard cutter during the 1958 Gold Cup race on Lake Washington.

If this town has an identifiable character of its own here in the 21st century, please tell me what it is.  Maybe then I might have a chance of understanding this “Freeze” thing.

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