Spokane: what Seattle used to be

Mossback becomes enamored with a city he once regarded with disdain and considers what it would be like to move there. It reminds him of pre-1970s Seattle, before the yuppies ruined it.
Crosscut archive image.

Downtown Spokane. (U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

Mossback becomes enamored with a city he once regarded with disdain and considers what it would be like to move there. It reminds him of pre-1970s Seattle, before the yuppies ruined it.

One of the great things about travel is having the right to develop a crush on another city. You can enjoy the skylines and charming alleyways without thinking of the inconvenience of commutes, provincialism, or the local tax burden. If I bought an apartment in every city I'd been smitten by in my travels, my annual orbit would include San Francisco, Seville, Siena — what is it about cities that start with "S"?

The latest is Spokane. Weird, huh? Like most native Seattleites, I grew up with a strong prejudice against anything to the east, starting with Bellevue and continuing across Eastern Washington all the way to New York City. Forward-thinking Seattleites were raised to look west, to the Pacific Rim, or north to Alaska, or upward to a sky dominated by Boeing and the Space Age. The east was always yesterday.

That's part of the reason the Cascade Curtain dividing Washington has been so impenetrable. As wetside cities grew, the dryside towns became old news — fading farm towns, atomic waste bins, burgs full of left-behinds. I remember the superiority I felt toward Spokane in 1974 when it hosted a world's fair. Spokane was the smallest city ever to host a modern fair, and having one there seemed to cheapen the very idea. I chose not to attend, because I could not imagine that it had anything to offer that we hadn't already seen at the '62 fair in Seattle. Why on earth would anyone go to Spokane?

My view has changed over the years. I read many articles touting Spokane's rise from mediocrity but have been skeptical, just as I am when Tacoma announces every five years or so that it is having a "renaissance." It's had more rebirths than the Dalai Lama. But in June, I went to Spokane as a delegate to the state Democratic convention. I saw the city in a whole new light.

It's called sunlight, which was scarce in Seattle last spring, the coldest since 1917. While Seattle was chilled, Spokane had blue skies and 70-degree days. It was enough to seduce the soggiest of mossbacks.

Driving in on Interstate 90, the city that emerged from the pine forests was modest, not megapolitan. The high rises weren't too high, and the skyline was marked with old church towers and well-preserved or restored 19th-century brick buildings. The streets were broad and easy to navigate, and through the city spilled the lovely namesake river — the best central fountain a city ever had, with its park and pathways; a civic center that is walkable and where nature is alive, flowing and making music.

I was struck by the familiarity of the city's scale. Spokane reminds me of the 1950s-'70s Seattle where I grew up: a gorgeous natural setting, an urban zone that didn't overwhelm with towers and pretension. A livable city before Yuppiepalooza took over.

Which isn't to say Spokane doesn't have its yuppie charms. There are good restaurants, local microbrews (I sipped a very tasty one from nearby Coeur D'Alene, Idaho), and a thriving club scene — some blocks were packed at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night — not the scene I remember of the old railroad town of yore. At the convention, I met a cadre of the city's growing Democratic Party. Democrats now dominate the city's delegation to the Legislature in Olympia and the City Council. The Inland Empire might be red, but its capital is now purple, and turning bluer.

Spokane seems like a blast from Seattle's past, but in a good way. Not retro, but progressive, urban, close to nature — for example, the Idaho wilderness lies just beyond. Moose still occasionally invade urban neighborhoods. The city is also more affordable and scaled to Northwest sensibilities.

What's wrong with this picture? To a traveler's eye, nothing. Sure, Spokane has its share of problems and scandals (remember the late accused molester-mayor, Jim West?). But another thing gave me a queasy feeling. The booster ambitions that drive western cities also tend to spoil them by overreaching. As the region's inland cities, like Spokane, Boise, Bend, and Walla Walla, grow and mature, I hope they realize there are wise limits. What they offer is an alternative to the idea that more is always better. Create a city that's just right and stick with it. That way, Seattleites will always have a place to visit, and remember.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.