The decline of gathering places

Loss of the longtime location of the Everett, Wash., Elks Club brings to mind the loss of "third places" generally, where neither home nor work prevail and a sense of community is forged – or was.
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The Elks Club in Everett, Wash.

Loss of the longtime location of the Everett, Wash., Elks Club brings to mind the loss of "third places" generally, where neither home nor work prevail and a sense of community is forged – or was.

The windowed Lenin's-tomb-style architecture of the Everett, Wash., Elks is, well, serotonin-lowering. It's the kind of place that magnifies the natural radiance of the Northwest, because the impulse is to look away. As an unstylish kid growing up in the late 1970s, I sat astride the orange banana seat of a loop-handled three-speed, pedaled past Lodge 479 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, and wondered: Who in God's name is buried there?

A 1960s remodel created a nesting-table effect that's only apparent after you've nosed around inside. And come September, the wrecking ball looms.

There was a time, mid-century, when Everett "Elkdom" ranneth over: 5,000 Elk in a city of 35,000 – the George Babbitts drinking gin with the boys from Scott Paper and the Weyerhaeuser B Mill. The 1953 Polk directory lists the various fraternal organizations that rented space: the Everett Central Lions, Toastmasters, Kiwanis, and Rotary.

The Elks began in Everett in 1899, and their permanent home at 2731 Rucker Ave. has served as a community gathering place for nearly a century. August Heide designed the first mission-style Elks hall in 1910. By 1924, the lodge was expanded in a Heide-designed "mirror image add-on," in the words of historian David Dilgard. It was fated for a fire in 1960, just in time for the inglorious brutalism of the 1960s. (A "remuddle," as local historian Margaret Riddle described it.)

Each corner of the Elks Lodge is a tree ring of Northwest social history: the basement locker room that once served as a speakeasy (complete with a back exit), the bas-relief wood carvings and glitter ball in the cabaret room that featured nightclub legends like Eddie Peabody, Sophie Tucker, and Johnny Ray.

And the stag bar known as "the smoke pit" that has pumped out heart- and lung-diseased Elk for generations.

The lodge was Mon Wallgren's hideaway. Wallgren, an Everett billiards champion, variously served as a congressman, governor, and senator. (Check for his portrait in the legislative building in Olympia – cigarette in hand, he looks as if he's modeling for a Lucky Strikes glossy.) He donated a pool cue and case with the name of the Senate pal who gifted it to him embossed on the side: Harry S. Truman.

It was a place and time that outlived itself. The beginning of the end came in 1977, when Carl Gipson, a respected Everett City Council member, was the only one of 67 applicants to get blackballed. Gipson is African-American. Elk membership dived – deservedly so.

Just as egregious, it took until 1995 before the door swung open for women to dilute the testosterone tide.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam points to suburbanization, work and time pressures, television, and the generation gap as factors driving the decline of fraternal organizations. These forces intersect with the Western tendency for transience and forgetting – a combustible mix for groups like the Elks.

And what of "social capital?" According to Putnam, it's the collection of social networks (like the Elks) that enhance community values and generate public goods. Join a group and you reduce your risk of dying (a conundrum for those of us who are both loners and hypochondriacs).

In Milltown, the seminal work on the history of Everett, Norman Clark underlines the social glue of civic participation: "Everett was organized, even overorganized," Clark writes. "In 1909 the city had 40 fraternal lodges, most of them with women's auxiliaries. There were 25 labor unions with auxiliaries, dozens of reform clubs, political clubs, women's clubs, book clubs, historical societies, and professional organizations, each holding regular meetings, picnics, smokers, clambakes, dances, and parties." Whew.

In 2004, with a crumbling infrastructure and declining membership, the Elks decided to sell their property and build a smaller lodge up the street, financed in part by nine upper-story condos. The net loss of meeting space is substantial: from 36,000 square feet to 22,000 (and significantly less than 22,000 when factoring the condos).

Capitalizing on its proximity to the adjacent Carl Gould-designed Everett Public Library, the seven-story, mixed use-development to be built on the ashes of the Elks is branding itself "Library Place."

On paper, these are all public goods: Drawing folks to live downtown complements smart growth.

Nevertheless, what happens to community values, to social capital, when a "nesting" place supplants a gathering place?

Ideally, the loss of gathering places would have a water-balloon effect: Squeeze it off and it bulges out somewhere else. If only.

We know that gathering places aren't fungible: High-end condos are no substitute for bowling alleys, for Elks lodges, or for good taverns. What's needed are more "third places" – sociologist Ray Oldenburg's catchall for community hangouts outside of work and home. So why not employ a soft-power strategy and carrot our way to more gathering places?

As Knute Berger has observed, government drives the not-so-invisible hand of the urban marketplace. So why not move that hand a smidge to advance community values and keep the capitalists humming?

Everett already embraces the Growth Management Act as well as the smart-growth rules it learned from Seattle, our rich uncle to the south. In fact, we embrace the rules with a vengeance, extending 10-year property-tax breaks to condos in the downtown core, all aimed at promoting densification.

With the demise of the Elks, we have a chance to magoozle a planning tool that will distinguish Everett and serve as an example to even Seattle: Adopt the goal of "no net loss" of gathering places and figure it as a kind of "communitarian capitalism."

We can meet a communitarian-capitalist mission by cribbing from our approach to – and stay with me here – wetlands. Just like wetlands, gathering places have a tangible impact, and the solution is to identify meaningful ways to address net loss.

To achieve a no-net-loss objective, cities could offer developers density bonuses if they create gathering places in the downtown core. Put in 3,000 square feet for the people and you can build an additional floor. Simple, direct, practical.

Make no mistake: Gifting developers a bonus does violence to my inner socialist. Too bad for me, I figure. What matters is what works – and this just might work.

Wallace Stegner, who famously called the West "hope's native home," also observed that, "Deeply lived-in places are exceptions rather than the rule in the West."

The Everett Elks was the exception that, alas, ultimately proved Stegner's rule.

Let's hope something good comes of it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson