Are neighborhood ale houses losing their allure?

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The front line of gentrification, as in most revolutions, is often the most dangerous spot. After a while, the avant-garde and new is no longer the target of those who resist change. It becomes a tarnished has-been, and, like all has-beens, has to go. Take the corner of 34th & E. Union, long occupied by a pharmacy, where Burke Shethar opened the Madrona Eatery & Ale House in 1995. He was on the leading edge of a transformation in Seattle neighborhoods, from clusters of tiny, service-oriented businesses (dry cleaners, convenience-store groceries, barber shops, and so forth) to broader commercial uses (cafes & diners, clinics, dress shops).

In the intervening years, the neighborhood ale house, well-lighted and family-friendly, found its place in the Seattle landscape. Here, kids could sit in front of a fireplace while dad ordered a fish & chips and a Manny's, and mom waited for a chicken-pesto flatbread and a glass of chardonnay. Shethar's Ale House prospered, as did the businesses around it.

A block away, the venerable High Spot serves robust breakfasts. Across the street, celebrity chef Ethan Stowell has turned a difficult space (three owners in five years) into a mid-price steak house, Red Cow. A street-level winery, Wilridge, is surmounted by a wine-tasting bar that just renewed its lease and applied for its own liquor license. A much-loved dinner house, St. Cloud's, prospers.

Quiet and tree-lined, Madrona was abuzz this summer with news that the Ale House – essentially neighborhood's anchor for two decades – was being forced to close. The landlord, who lives in Hawaii, didn't want to renew Shethar's lease. A not-for-attribution neighbor suspected the landlord has fallen under the spell of a property manager whose primary interest is in writing a new lease and pulling down a new commission.

Neighbor David Brewster mounted a petition on Facebook to try to change the landlord's mind. Brewster, who lives a block from the Ale House's front door, has a thing for community gathering places. Founding publisher of both Seattle Weekly and Crosscut Public Media, he was also the driving force behind the short-lived Mark Tobey Pub in the Alexis Hotel. Brewster's open letter to the landlords stated, "We are very concerned about the looming loss of this crucial neighborhood gathering place...The Madrona Pub has been anchoring the commercial neighborhood and the wider residential neighborhood for 20 years. It is that rare place where whole families can gather, where people can watch sports, get good food and good ales as in a European pub."

No response from the landlord, so Shethar went ahead with plans to auction furnishings and equipment, then lock up and walk away. Ever the good boss, he lined up jobs for his staff with a bar group in Ballard. "The reality is sinking in that this 20-year run is coming to an end," he says, recognizing that he now has to find a job for himself as well.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).