Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I spotted Edith Macefield's house the other day and reminded myself to write a post about a true Ballard hero. I didn't get around to it, and now she's dead.
Her brand of defiance and spirit gives the rest of us something to live for.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I have mixed feelings about Theodore Roosevelt, but I thought this quote from the man nicely summarized my recent trains of thought: "There is nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty."
I suppose old Teddy wasn't talking about a bowling alley, though.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Keep Seattle Interesting?

Music: Party Shuffle
Bessie Smith- Give Me a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer
Steve Earl-Here I am
Story of My Life-Social Distortion
Drivin' Nails in My Coffin-Supersuckers

Okay, I return to the forum feeling somewhat rejuvenated. I was seriously considering giving up on this blog--Reading other people's reactionary vitriol in the comments section on My Ballard made me wonder if being an Internet reactionary was really a worthy pursuit. I was wondering if I wanted to stand up to the onslaught that my rants might eventually invite. I was wondering if I could or should bother to craft arguments that might be based more on nostalgia than anything else.
But you know what? That's bullshit. Yeah, change is eternal, and some of it is good. Creative jobs are good, urban density is important, and a small yuppie bistro or a PR firm that has the taste to keep an old neon sign is infinitely better than a box store. But that doesn't mean that we should welcome all development with open arms. As OCD OD so eloquently stated, it's not so much a matter of keeping Seattle seedy as keeping Seattle interesting. As much as I love pull tabs, jukeboxes, pawn shops, glowing liquor bottles, and drunken camaraderie, below the layers of filth and shag carpeting what really distinguishes a good dive is that it is interesting---as any night at the secret bar will attest, unexpected things happen more frequently in conducive environments.

What do I mean conducive? Places that have imagination, a sense of humor, and the intellectual and emotional capacity to review things on a case-by-case basis. Places that are at least marginally concerned with community--whether that means a bunch of drunks who look out for each other or more constructive types. A plant nursery could just as easily fit that profile as, say, a bar or a bowling alley.
I like nice restaurants and sometimes I like to look at things in stores, but I sometimes worry that we are losing our diversity--becoming too slick, too polished, too generic. I worry that we are creating spaces that are going to draw, for financial and aesthetic reasons, a rather homogeneous crowd. And no, I don't have anything against people with money who eat at nice restaurants--I just think it would be sad if we lost all the scruffy little places and utilitarian family businesses that make cities interesting to live in. Based on empirical evidence, we're not making provisions for these businesses in our current development plans.
Yeah, some of my arguments are nostalgic or based on arbitrary aesthetics, but is that so much worse than blindly making prosperity your end goal?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

douchebags will win in the end, anyway

It looks like I opened up a can of worms with my comment. These people seem quite vitriolic. It kinda makes me wonder what I am doing writing this blog. Do I have a logical defense against progress? Can one really argue for character and authenticity? My best arguments are details---a buzzing neon beer sign in the rain, treasures in a junkyard, blackberry vines snaking from garage doors, the delight one feels, in stores or bars, at the discovery of random and unexpected things. But that's all ephemera, isn't it?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Two things...

1. Denny's is doomed.

2. This made me think of my favorite tavern in Olympia, The Brotherhood. All of my four readers have heard me drunkenly wax nostalgic about The Brotherhood in person (and two of you remember the bar itself), so I'll keep this short.
The Brotherhood was a beautiful place. The bar was carpeted in diverse shag remnants; there were nicotine-stained posters of naked ladies sitting on hay bales and other great art, including a giant bottle neck mounted on the wall like a taxedermied animal head. The Brotherhood had all the elements of a great dive: it was mostly populated by sad old men, it smelled horrible, the bartender had seen better days, the jukebox was heavy on the Hank Williams Jr. side of things, and you could win cases of Niblets canned corn by playing pull tabs. (To prove The Brotherhood's greatness, I will iterate that I have never found another dive that meets that last qualification.) For athletic types, there was also shuffleboard and free pool on an abomination of a table.
To make a long story short, The Brotherhood became inundated with college kids and hipsters. I still loved it, but it became so popular that the owners sold it. The new owners transformed the place. They knocked out the low asbestos ceilings, painted the walls deep red, and hung up kitschy velvet paintings and other ironic trappings.
There is nothing wrong with the bar that stands in The Brotherhood's place. It's a nice enough place to drink, and they even hired Buck, one of the original bar's bartenders. Buck is fine with the transformation because he makes better tips. But in my estimation, the place has no real glory. And it bothers me, personally, that they left the sign up. The bar that stands there isn't The Brotherhood, and shouldn't be called The Brotherhood. I don't see why anyone would find that sort of gesture a comfort.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Save Denny's

For some time now I have been amused by the saga of the Ballard Denny's, otherwise known as the Manning's Cafeteria building. If you are unfamiliar with the story (from out of town), you can catch up at my blog has been following the struggle since the beginning. If you are too lazy to read the whole thing, here's a brief recap:

The notoriously ugly Ballard Denny's building, which is supposedly an example of an obscure 50's-60's architectural movement known as 'Googie', has been the subject of hot debate for at least six months. The Denny's is closed. The Benaroya development group wants to knock it down and build condos; neighborhood activist groups want to save the building.

The building was originally home to the Manning's cafeteria, and the most prominent group fighting to save it is called 'Save Manning's', presumably because it sounds better than 'Save Denny's'. Interestingly, neighborhood residents fought to save the building when Manning's closed back in 1983. They won the battle, and Denny's set up shop in 1984.

In February the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted 6-3 to designate the exterior of the Ballard Denny’s a city landmark.

Since then the Benaroya development company has filed suit in King County Superior Court to challenge the decision.

Newsweek has covered the story, along with the AP and all of the major local news sources.

When I first heard that people were fighting to have the building declared a landmark, I cracked up. The building is so ugly that I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that Ballard residents protested when the building first went up in the 60's.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I appreciated the fact that people were fighting to save this 'retro-futuristic' dinosaur. The battle has been criticized for being political and not aesthetic--apparently no one protested when the building was slated to be demolished to make way for the now defunct monorail project, but people got riled up when Benaroya, a development firm, bought the lot.

I find this last detail profoundly pleasing. Talk about heart. I appreciate that there are people in this city who are paying attention and scrabbling to protect the things that give us character. Even, or , perhaps especially, if they happen to be divinely ugly.

When you really start to think about it the Manning's building has an ugliness that verges on grace--much like a good dive bar, the ugliness has a glory to it. One can imagine infinite sags of love and loss unfurling there over cigarettes and coffee. Seedy? Definitely.

I was bitching about this whole saga with a cab driver the other day, and mentioned that there is some talk of incorporating the Denny's building into the proposed condo development. I thought this was pretty funny and was getting a kick out of imagining the monstrosity that might result. We discussed what they would be likely to put into the retail space, and I went on my usual rant about Seattle's glut of useless bistros and salons. Poverty proposed that they put a miniature bowling alley in the space to replace Sunset.

"You know what everyone in this neighborhood really needs?" said the cab driver. "A Denny's." Good point, man.

specimin #1 continued

Some town homes near and dear to my heart appear on my, followed by various interesting comments.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Aurora Avenue--Last Bastion of Seediness

On Saturday we drove out Aurora Avenue and I was reminded that some parts of Seattle are still complying to my militant agenda.
An artery famous for its ghetto motels, suicides, and hookers, Aurora also offers a fine selection of pawn shops, sinister Chinese restaurants, strip clubs, gun shops, junk yards, casinos (I don't get how that works as it seems unlikely that north Seattle is a patchwork of Indian land), and sagging strip malls.
As a critic who often makes judgments on purely aesthetic grounds, can I really feel comforted by a strip mall?
The answer is yes, yes I can.
You may note that this blog is called Keep Seattle Seedy not Regress Seattle to A Pristine Woodland Meadow.

I am not singing the praises of just any strip mall--I certainly have no use for the strip malls of the TCBY and Panda Express variety. The strip malls on aurora are special--an endearing mishmash of mom and pop taxidermy shops and what Poverty insists are 'nail salons with happy endings'. (There are clearly several flaws in his theory, but I thought it was worth mentioning, if only the image it conjures.)

You know what makes the ugliness of Aurora better than the ugliness of the latest Ballard condos?
Two things.
1. Aurora is useful.

The retail space in condos is not useful.
Bistros are not useful. Salons are not useful. Boutiques are not useful. The amount of people who can afford them is small, and the clientèle they cater to is select. Aurora, on the other hand, offers a little something for everyone. Cheap Chinese food anyone? Not your gig? OK, how about house paint? Or a garden shrub? Or a bicycle? Or a hand gun? Or a taxidermied duck? Or a stripper?

2. Tom Waits

Although I'd like to believe that Tom Waits could do anything, I'm not sure he could write a good song if strictly limited to describing the aesthetics of a typical Seattle condo development. But Aurora Avenue? He'd have a field day.

Monday, April 21, 2008

specimin #1

Seattle is covered with town homes. I've lived in my current house for a few years and during that time three clusters of town houses and a small condo complex have gone up within the part of the city visible from my windows. There's another cluster being built as we speak. Each cluster has 6 or so identical town houses done in the prevailing style--beige pseudo-craftsman with blank white plastic-framed windows and crappy siding that is supposed to look like wood but doesn't.

I really don't see the point of living in a house if you don't get a yard, but I'm not necessarily opposed to the concept of town homes. That said, I loathe nearly every single one I see. I have thought hard about why.....
  • It's not the snobbery of the upper class---I'm a renter and I certainly don't make enough money to buy a pseudo craftsman piece of crap.
  • It's not an envy thing either--I don't have any driving desire to own a town home or lead a yuppie lifestyle. (In fact, I fear it wholeheartedly.)
Call me shallow, but in the end it comes down to aesthetics. I'm sure it's possible to build a nice looking town home, but the ones I see around town usually don't qualify. You can't slap some fake shingles onto the side of a building and tell me it isn't built on the same philosophy as a strip mall---minimum cost for maximum profit. They offer all of the amenities of an apartment and an aesthetic offense that equals a modern apartment building. The distinct disadvantage is that they don't house nearly as many people.

Poverty and I were walking home from our neighbors extended happy hour last Friday. We stopped at the gas station for a bottle of wine and as we were walking past the newest construction zone, Poverty grabbed my hand and suggested we explore.

I've spent some time lurking in construction zones at night with bottles of wine (what else does one do when underage). They always give me a gleeful romantic feeling---padding up dark stairways that smell of sawdust and rain.

I still enjoyed the smell of sawdust and rain, but this time I felt like I was undercover, looking for answers.

I looked at the plywood walls and the frames that had sprung up in just days and imagined the layers of drywall and plaster that will soon cover them, followed by the final touches--a flat screen TV, cheesy Target picture frames trapping smiling couples, obligatory art. I looked at my own house across the street with its kindly windows and missing shingles, its overgrown yard and bedraggled American flag, and I wondered how it would look to the people that will live in the insufferable and soulless plywood box.

I then began imagining how many town homes you could fit on our giant corner lot. One, two, three, four, five, six., seven...I came to the final answer to my question--I loathe these town homes because they threaten me. I imagine them eating up the city, swallowing the shabbiness, the bedraggled, the seediness, and then marching on in the name of progress, white-frame windows gleaming.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Requim #1

Despite my sycophantic love for The Big Lebowski, I'm not much of a bowler. I always thought I should be. Unfortunately, like most activities involving balls (other than sex), bowling intimidates me. That said, I do like bowling alleys, and I am pretty sad to hear that Sunset Bowl closed its doors after 51 years of business.

You may be wondering why I like bowling alleys if I don't like bowling, and my #1 answer is that they are not giant hideous condo developments that mar the landscape and serve no useful purpose to anyone other than their wealthy residents. My #2 (composite) answer is that there is always a good mix of people at bowling alleys, bowling is a good excuse to drink cheap beer, and I certainly prefer the aesthetics to that of the ball-less yuppie bistro that will undoubtedly replace Sunset bowl.

I used to be able to say that I was conveniently located next to Sunset bowl, but now I will have to say that I am conveniently located next to a giant condominium. This will be useless as a landmark, seeing as how Ballard is full of giant condominiums. Speaking of which, I saw a really excellent bumper stick on 1-5 the other day. Hippie parents and a tenure at Evergreen killed my love for bumper stickers, but this one is a real exception: Ballard Welcomes Our New Condo Overlords. As I suspected, it's from Archie's. I'd put that on the van.

But I digress....I missed the closing night at Sunset because I was out of town. I ran into my friend Thirsty on the bus and he filled me in. Evidently he had to bowl in his socks. The guy behind the counter said everyone was just walking out with their bowling shoes. When I asked him about it, Thirsty conceded that the guy's tone was 'vaguely pissed off'.

The last time I had seen Thirsty, previous to our bus run-in, was at Sunset. It was on the same expedition that I noticed that Sunset employed a hunchback and a punk albino, both quite efficient. I remember thinking that I was unlikely to find a hunchback and a punk albino employed in the bland 'retail spaces' that will undoubtedly replace Sunset Bowl.

Sunset wouldn't have won any beauty contests either, but it had character, heart, and soul. They write songs about that shit.

Manifesto #1

I don't have a problem with urban density per sé. I love Chicago and New York and a number of other cities that are teeming to the gills with life. Seattle is growing. The population of our country continues to increase. We need to adjust to that. I am concerned about the environment, and I realize that increasing urban density is a step in the right direction in terms of reducing our emissions.

I do have a problem with banality, with soullessness, with vacuous yuppie bullshit. I have a problem with many of the condominiums and town homes that are popping up across Seattle at an alarming rate, displacing houses and businesses that once contributed to my city's flavor. It is a problem to me that the retail space available in these new condo developments is incredibly expensive, ensuring that it becomes filled with upscale salons, boutiques, and bistros, or, more frequently, corporate atrocities like Starbucks and Taco del Mar. It is a problem to me that these developments manage to be tacky and pretentious at the same time, and that in another 20 years they will look much, much crappier than they do now.

Seriously, what the hell is up with the 90's color schemes for the bigger developments? Can anyone around here build something that does not have white frame windows? Is it possible to build a town home that is not a beige pseudo-craftsman piece of shit? Can we get a little originality, or maybe some respect for the neighborhood? I want to know.

Ok, I'm ranting now. My goal with this blog is to highlight individual developments and write requiems for the institutions they are replacing. One at a time. I am writing this blog because I am angry and sad, and I don't know what to do about it. I hate protests, I hate meetings, and developers scare me. So I'm going to hide in a dark room and blog about this until I feel better. I will try to include pictures, and, when the occasion merits it (and it usually does), humor.

My next post will be devoted to the demise of Sunset bowl. Stay tuned for more ranting.