Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new book invites Seattle residents to conjure the haunts that have vanished.
The Seattle skyline is speckled with yellow construction cranes, visual landmarks of a city in flux. “They are becoming part of the landscape,” writes the author Jaimee Garbacik, “as Seattle as Pike Place Market, or the defiant hint of Mount Rainier when you crest Yesler Way in fog.”
As tech companies continue to flood into the city and new buildings break ground, housing costs are trending higher. Between June 2015 and June 2016, Seattle posted the largest rent increase of any U.S. city, according to an analysis from Zillow. Overall, the Emerald City ranked 8th in average rent cost, ticking past $2,000 a month, the Seattle Times reported. Fearing that the soaring prices and shifting demographics were eroding the memories of people and places that had made the West Coast city a lo-fi incubator of music, art, and community, Garbacik, a self-described “guerrilla ethnographer,” issued a call for submissions memorializing sites that have been shuttered or built over. She reached out to cultural centers, cafes, and more, inviting heartsick locals to submit recollections in any 2-D medium. Responses poured in: comics, essays, memorabilia, and interviews commemorating the city’s diverse performance spaces and enclaves and the people who shaped and filled them.
Those submissions are compiled in a new book, Ghosts of Seattle Past: An Anthology of Lost Seattle Places, edited by Garbacik and out this spring from Chin Music Press. These dispatches span decades and neighborhoods: a photo essay documents Pride Weekends in Capitol Hill; short narratives recall arcades, bars, and walls plastered with posters taking the pulse of the art scene and activist commitments running through it.
These recollections don’t quite read like obituaries; they’re striped with a sense of life and urgency. Garbacik and collaborators highlighted the contemporary stakes last summer, through a partnership with city councilmember Lisa Herbold and the Center for Architecture and Design. The Residents’ Podium event invited local voices to make a case for existing spaces they didn’t want to see disappear. The work of collecting stories is ongoing, too, Garbacik told The Stranger’s Rich Smith. She hopes to add more “from both young people and seniors, from immigrant populations and anyone whose stories of Seattle might be left by the wayside by less enthusiastic or industrious ethnographers.” An accompanying digital atlas amplifies more voices, echoing Garbacik’s introduction, which imagines placemaking as a communal exercise. “Are we innovating if we erase culture in the process?” Garbacik asks, weighing the promise of new construction against the history it risks displacing. “How do we make space for the new without losing the city’s soul?”
Those are thorny questions that resist simple answers, and they’re far from unique to Seattle. Though that city is changing at a whiplash speed, many residents of cities in the throes of redevelopment booms can relate to the nostalgic pang of seeing a once-familiar corner appear alien, or the sense that a freshly gentrified neighborhood’s quirks have been smudged into sameness. But each of the book’s entries offers a rejoinder: Committing spaces to memory, in ink, is both a mode of preservation and a roadmap for the future, highlighting how people form bonds with places and each other.
That conversation is fated to continue. There’s no singular Seattle; the good old days loom or recede with a different magnitude for different folks. Newcomers and natives have fundamentally different experiences of a place, and there’s liable to be friction as each stakes a claim to belonging. That’s charmingly dramatized in this comic by Eroyn Franklin, excerpted from the book and reprinted here with permission. You can find more of Franklin’s work here, and pre-order Ghosts of Seattle Past on Indiebound.