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Hillman City neighborhood gets its great good place

Queen Anne Avenue on a bustling Sunday.

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.

But in spring 2010, the news broke: Laurie Lusko, the Beacon Pub’s owner, would open a new joint at Rainier and Orcas Street, in the heart of Hillman City. It would anchor an old building handsomely restored by Dan Fink and Denise Gloster, Hillman City’s diehard boosters. (Much of historic Hillman is still clad in the shabby stucco, plywood, and aluminum of later decades, waiting for the Columbia City Fairy to sprinkle restoration dust on it.) For years Dan and Denise struggled to get a viable tenant there. Would this be the spark that would ignite a long-awaited Hillman renaissance?

And then things fell apart. Laurie Lusko lost her lease on Beacon Hill. Her Hillman spot’s windows stayed wrapped for a year in brown paper as she flailed, not always expertly, with city and state requirements and the bank-busting mechanical headaches of inserting commercial kitchens in old buildings. Dan Fink, the neighborhood’s staunchest defender, succumbed to cancer, and Denise struggled to pick up the pieces. Mike McGinn, who’d paid more attention to neglected Southeast Seattle during his mayoral campaign than any politician since Norm Rice, got elected, but nothing changed at City Hall. It seemed like the same old tale of urban entropy.

And then, this past June, the kraft paper came down from the windows and Orcas Landing debuted. (The name’s meant to signal it’s not a dive bar, but it also evokes the long wait for this ship to come in.) It was a soft, not grand, opening: the kitchen still wasn’t ready, and the food someone was supposed to bring from home hadn’t showed. The décor was definitely not dive, but odd in a vaguely retro way: walls painted burgundy with bright paintings of jazz players and mirrors in heavy ornate frames, a fake-wood laminate bar top. The doorstopper volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete tales and poems standing proudly at one end of the bar is a courtesy to patrons craving reading matter. But it’s a bit macabre.

There’s little here to excite a drive-by reviewer. The food (yes, the kitchen’s working now) is mainstream, good enough but nothing special. (You can also get a pizza, made by a Cham Muslim from Vietnam who learned the art in Europe, from Eyman’s Halal Pizza next door.) Service can be frustratingly slow. The tap selection is modest but intelligent. Lusko wants to accommodate children — young parents in the area crave a place where they can go get a glass of wine without having to get a sitter — but is having trouble making the space satisfy the legal requirements.

I feared this would be another of those well-meaning establishments you pray will succeed but which just don’t click. And another candle would blow out in Southeast Seattle. Man, was I wrong.

Orcas Landing is packed, thriving, alive. More than that, for all its unexceptional superficial qualities, it may just be the best bar in Seattle, because it’s the one that most nearly approaches the ideal of the great good third place, the neighborhood meeting ground and mixing chamber. In small part that’s because the music’s convivial and grown-up — bepop and cool jazz or ’70s soul, a couple local guys playing jazz, Friday karaoke — and kept down to a convivial volume. That alone puts people on good behavior, and Lusko and company have chased away any dealers and trouble-makers who aren’t dissuaded by the vibe. In larger part it reflects the nature of the neighborhood: Patrons know Hillman City needs a place like this. They share a sense of refuge: There is a there here, and we’re glad we are too.

Credit also one inspired design element: The bar curves in a long horseshoe, so patrons sit about two meters across from each other, with the bartender mediating in the middle. That’s far enough apart to huddle with the person beside you, but close enough to strike up a conversation across the way. As at a dinner table. It’s impossible not to eavesdrop, hard not to join in.

The result is an alchemy almost unheard-of in Seattle: black and white folks (about equally split in the early weeks) don’t just share the space, they talk to each other. That’s a fragile balance, always susceptible to the push-pull of flight and gentrification — on the last visit the crowd trended more white — but I hope it lasts. It makes for some interesting cultural crossings. One August night an older black gent with a silvery goatee and backwards baseball cap, sipping cabernet with a friend, greeted a bespectacled young white woman — a grad student or librarian? — who was polishing off a Cobb salad.

“Hey there, what do you like to do?”

“I play pool.”

“Oh yeah? Where do you play?”

“Not here.” She glanced around the table-less room and named a bar in the U-District.

“You a trick shooter?”

“What’s that?”

“Do you do trick shots?”

“They aren’t trick shots if you’re good. They’re solid shots.”

“Whoa… sounds like you know what you’re doing.”

“I kicked ass tonight.”

The other night two guys on my right passionately discussed the joys of rugby and extreme mountain biking. The woman on my left recommended the brown ale that was on special: “It’s more like a porter.” She was right. Her friend, who was there with her mother (the second time I’ve met moms and grown daughters drinking together at Orcas Landing, whatever that means) asked where I lived. I said I had a house in Brighton Beach. Far from being nonplussed, she told me more about the place: She was writing a history of Seward Park, where her family had lived for four generations. Swedes also settled here early on, she said. Othello used to be Mortenson Street.

As I turned to leave, another woman, who’d been grooving to Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘”Fantasy” (a.k.a. “The Twelfth of Never”) on the sound system, bounced up, unable to sit any longer. “C’mon, you can’t not dance to Earth, Wind & Fire!” she laughed, noticing me. And so we danced, and I headed out into the night.

This is not what rough, ragged Hillman City is supposed to be like. But it sure doesn’t feel like Queen Anne either.

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