A bar can mean many things in different times and places: a port in a storm, a secret sanctuary, a safe house for cutting deals and making assignations — a foretaste of oblivion before the grave. In merrye olde days, it offered a refuge from wolves and highwaymen. Ideally but only rarely, it’s the Great Good Place, the heart of a community, the local, where neighbors meet and newcomers become neighbors and strangers, who aren’t drunk or hustling, talk to each other.
I can remember when a bar or tavern really meant something on Queen Anne, the neighborhood I landed in when I washed up in Seattle 32 years ago. In part that was because there were so few. There was the Hilltop Tavern, a dark, smoky red-vinyl joint where worn-looking men hunched over cheap schooners of Rainier’s Brew 66. And there was Targy’s Tavern, which was (and is) an improbable grandfathered-in survivor from the days when zoning didn’t keep them out of residential neighborhoods.
Targy’s was a smoky dive, too, but a more affable one. It was a clubhouse for a borough that was still more blue-collar than blueblood; in the early 1980s Queen Anne was the last close-in neighborhood save Beacon Hill and, maybe, the CD without draft ales and espresso. After Redhook and Grant’s Ales, the first local microbrews, debuted in 1982, I begged Targy’s to get them. The manager shrugged and kept pouring Bud and Miller Lite: “That’s what our customers want.”
The bland beer and raspy smoke were a drag, and the latter finally drove me out of Targy’s for good. But the social tableau kept me coming back longer than my lungs could stand. To sit at the bar was to be instantly admitted into a social frieze that had been unfolding for decades, populated by characters whose edges hadn’t been worn off by generic gentility. One night a guy everyone called “Chief” laid a steaming roast salmon on the bar and invited everyone to dig in. Another guy with a Z.Z. Top beard had moved to Marysville or some such place but still drove down to drink Bud with his buds. Evidently he drank too much. Once at closing time, without noticing, he backed his van over a 20-foot maple on our parking strip, flattening it to the ground. I tied a rope between it and my rear bumper and pulled it straight. It grew fine.
Today trees stand unmolested on Queen Anne’s parking strips, often with exquisite flowers and bushes planted around them. Dog owners wouldn’t think of leaving unscooped turds there. These are all very good things, small pieces in the jigsaw assemblage of amenities that make a neighborhood desirable. Espresso and ales are everywhere, and a single block of Queen Anne Avenue offers more varied dining and drinking choices than the whole neighborhood did then. The neighborhood has even become something of a nightlife destination. Folks from elsewhere actually come here to eat, to try the new sushi bar or Ethan Stowell’s latest culinary outpost. Young dolls wearing tiny dresses in winter scamper giggling across the Ave to the Paragon, which started as a jazz club and became — on Queen Anne! — a meat market. Once I even saw a limo parked in front.
Nearly next door, the Hilltop Ale House succeeded the Hilltop Tavern in 1991, just as the neighborhood was becoming chic; it’s now the patriarch of the strip. Its oaky décor and wall of taps are way beyond red vinyl and Brew 66. But as a third place it’s a bust, for acoustic as well as social reasons: Strangers couldn’t talk to each other over the overamped music and ambient clatter, even if they wanted to. And its status as a neighborhood institution is undercut by the fact that it’s a clone of another neighborhood’s institution, the 74th Street Alehouse on Phinney Ridge — a formula since replicated again in Columbia City. If there’s any there there, it’s somewhere else.
You could say the same thing generally about all our progressively gentrified, homogenized in-city neighborhoods. When there are so many fine eating and drinking establishments, none of them really matters. Few seem of and for their neighborhoods, much less essential to them. We’re spoiled by the glut.
The only glut in my other neighborhood is of auto body shops.
For longer than I care to think, we’ve been rehabbing and preparing to inhabit a big old house in Hillman City, neighborhood that’s about as far as you can get within the city’s physical and mental perimeter from chic, pricey, cozy Queen Anne. It was dubbed Brighton Beach in the 1880s by immigrants from Brighton, England, who settled the area south of the Bailey Peninsula (today’s Seward Park) along Lake Washington and inland across Graham Hill and the Rainier Valley.
Today “Brighton Beach” draws a blank even from many people who live there. The beach and everything within site of the lake are now "Seward Park." The inland area is just part of that long amorphous stretch of the Rainier Valley between Hillman City, Columbia City’s tattered twin to the south, and Rainier Beach.
The old name survives only on Brighton Beach Motors, a (you guessed it) auto body shop on Rainier Avenue. But it fits nonetheless because of its association with another Brighton Beach, beside Coney island in Brooklyn. Seattle’s Brighton Beach is as much a multinational mixing pot as Brooklyn’s ever was. The oft-repeated claim that its zip code, 98118, is the most ethnically diverse in the United States is bogus (how would you measure anyway?), but diverse it certainly is. Over the years, within half a block of our house, we’ve had Punjabi, Tongan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Somali, Mexican, Russian Jewish, and Hunkpapa Sioux neighbors, plus a gay couple, a soldier from Tennessee, and the longtime African-American families and new Euro-American couples of “transitional” neighborhoods. It’s a multilingual far cry from Queen Anne, which often seems like a pre-retirement community for nice liberal boomers like me — an all-too-comfortable comfort zone.
I’ll be writing in coming months about the city as viewed from both sides. Being suspended between two farflung neighborhoods can be disorienting, but it affords some perspective on Seattle’s essential bipolar nature — the push and pull between its north and south. This bipolarity reflects the city’s elongated shape — stretched between lake and sound, and wasp-waisted at the middle — and its history. It was founded at the waist, but ever since then money and power have inched north, culminating, for now, in the new downtown at South Lake Union. Meanwhile, whatever the gentry don’t want next door has gotten pushed south: vice to the Tenderloin, industry to the Duwamish tideflats, the drunk and homeless to Pioneer Square, the poor and colored and foreign first to the CD, then to the Rainier Valley and Delridge, and now to the south suburbs.
In that Tenderloin past (and in Pottertown stereotypes), downmarket districts swarmed with gaudy bars while the upscale ones banished them. Today, thanks in part to stricter liquor enforcement, things are opposite: Bars proliferated on Queen while vast Beacon Hill, with more residents and much more territory, had just one, a popular dive called the Beacon Pub. No wonder Amazon moved out. A long swathe of the Rainier Valley below well-oiled Columbia City had just two, in Hillman City, both opaque to the street: Maxim's, a Vietnamese disco where what looked like go-go dancers would sometimes step out on the sidewalk when the bathrooms were full, and Mel's, a cave-like dive with hip-hop booming through the solid door and the occasional lost soul tottering on the sidewalk outside.
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