Becoming an artist in Seattle used to mean coming alive in a city of possibilities

As the promise of affordability fades, can the magic of the mid-2000s be reclaimed?

People dance in Seattle

A man who goes by the single name Ishdeep dances during Republic Days Bollywood night at Chop Suey, Feb. 3, 2007. The mid-00s saw an influx of artists and subcultures thriving in Seattle, but the economic boom and gentrification that followed in the next decade placed the cities legacy as a haven for artists on shaky ground. (Dustin Snipes/AP)

At my Seattle high school, we were allowed to draw on the walls. Every surface was a mosaic of funny nonsense statements scrawled in Sharpie, pictures cut out of magazines, stickers, cartoons and spray-paint graffiti. The couches that lined the halls or furnished the classrooms would have looked at home in a punk house. One morning, apropos of nothing, a life-size living room made of construction paper appeared in a second-floor hallway.

Nova, a tiny alternative school, is home to equal numbers of juvenile delinquents and prodigies, and many of us were both. The history teacher had been part of the Weather Underground, and the chemistry teacher was a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a “leading-edge Order of queer and trans nuns.” The school had a unique genius for fostering creativity, partly because students were exposed to all kinds of art in high volumes and encouraged not to fear the blank page. Nova was, for me, the place where I learned the role of artists in a community and the great importance of community to artists.

Sharing visual space made students believe that our thoughts were more important than maintaining a prescribed image. The way the school looked was a collective decision, one made continually by everyone involved with the school, from the freshmen to the principal to the janitor.

Unlike artists who do graffiti, a straightforward political act of claiming public space, no one at Nova had to seize space — it was given freely to everyone. It made us comfortable, seeing representations of our inner lives everywhere we went. These expressions of ourselves were recognized as fledgling forays into art making, rather than a public nuisance quickly blotted out. The aesthetic egalitarianism of the environment created a sense of possibility.  

‘The dream of the city’

I thought that college was going to be a more academically challenging version of Nova, but upon leaving my utopian high school of fewer than 300 students for a traditional university with more than 40,000, I realized I’d have to work harder than ever to find my community.

I got involved with University of Washington’s writing clubs and started an all-girl GG Allin cover band called Teenage Twats, which played the house show circuit, my main source of new friends. I met slightly older kids who gave me my first taste of working with grown-up artists, and showed me the surreal, beautiful and scrappy art world of mid-2000s Seattle. While I’ve heard that many Seattleites were already lamenting the cultural death of the city at that point, I felt like I had suddenly found myself in Oz or Narnia. The sense of belonging and possibility I felt in high school was there on a grand scale. It felt like a place where everyone mattered and the population was diverse enough to constantly surprise.

Seattle was an incredibly exciting place then. I learned about all of it from the Stranger. The paper’s descriptions of Pho Bang, a punk drag cabaret, were so compelling that I couldn’t sleep after I read them. I did anything to get into those shows, scaling barbed-wire fences and dressing up as the pope because the person on my fake ID outweighed and outheighted me to a ridiculous degree. Apparently every kid with a guitar migrated here when Nirvana’s first chords played on the radio, and artists and weirdos had been accumulating ever since.

It was also cheap. The first room I lived in outside my parents’ house cost $250 a month, in a decrepit building with carpeted-over holes and a floor so warped that objects rolled into corners. Over the years I lived there, it was home to members of the bands Tacocat, Tit Pig, Childbirth, and the performance art group Implied Violence. I got through my first year of college by making the city’s arts community my home.

My friends and I used to get dressed up and dye each other’s hair to go out walking around Capitol Hill. Nobody had any money, but we would get refillable coffees and talk until wherever we were closed. When I told my friend, novelist and essayist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, about these seemingly pointless expeditions, she said, “Ah! The dream of the city.”

We had no specific objective or destination in mind. I never knew what I was looking for, but frequently I found it. I remember a dapper fellow I’d met at Neighbours the night before who approached me at Bauhaus to ask if I knew how he’d gotten a large gash on his face. I remember doing Exquisite Corpses (a surrealist parlor game) with complete strangers. I remember how my heart raced when some other Bauhaus regular I had a crush on walked in.

There used to be an email listserv called Party Volcano, in which people advertised their ragers to its long list of unaffiliated subscribers. From this I learned about a party in a diner built out of train cars (one of them formerly belonging to FDR) celebrating “the closing of the borders between Wiglandia and Wigdonia.” At the time, the bar/diner was called Randy’s, and I’m delighted to say it still exists as a pan-Asian restaurant/bar, now called Orient Express. I got a cheap wig from Display and Costume, and set out alone for a party hosted by people I didn’t know. I was thrilled when the bartender saw my wig and directed me to the cocktail box car without requesting ID. Inside, people wearing a rainbow of wigs of all dimensions described in overblown fake accents their fictional lives in the lands of Wiglandia and Wigdonia. A guy with a polaroid camera issued passports. I still have mine somewhere, with its overexposed image of me in a ratty wig, grinning with the most genuine joy.

All of this, I imagine, is the kind of thing that inspires small-town kids to move to New York and people in dead-end relationships to dream of Paris — a particularly magical sense of possibility.

Finding hope in a changing culture

Over the past decade, the arts community I grew up in seems to have scattered. A couple of years ago I was walking past that gray wedge of condos that stands across the street from Pony on Capitol Hill like some sinister space battleship from Star Wars, complaining to a friend about how ugly it is. His reply: “It doesn’t matter that it’s ugly. Neither of us could afford a closet there.” The culture of the city has become less about making things than buying them. Not only am I unable to afford practically anything new in Seattle (housing, restaurants, clothing), I don’t want anything that’s for sale. Favorite neighborhood book stores and restaurants have been replaced by a T-Mobile outlet or a Mattress Firm — which isn’t to say we don’t need phones and beds, but those corporate franchises didn’t have to displace neighborhood cultural hubs.

In the mid-2000s my friend McKayla ran a little clothing shop on Capitol Hill that sold a mixture of the wildest garments— dresses that looked like spider webs of ribbons, tweed coats decorated with spray-paint stencils and a bin of sometimes damaged but always fascinating used items for under $5. I never knew whom I would run in to there or what I would see. Sometimes a party would be going on in the middle of the day. Every time I think of that place I smile, but the pleasant memory is tinged with loss. I like that things change, I just think it’s alarming that the majority of places that have replaced the ones I loved seem to lack an important quality, a certain mixture of vitality and genuineness that the old ones had.

There is, however, considerable cause for hope. The arts community lost a particular sense of cohesion when local magazine City Arts went under, but those still here are fighting to keep the creative community alive and frequently succeeding. After nonprofit writing center Hugo House was torn down, it was rebuilt on the same plot of land as part of a residential building with its own beautiful new custom space on the ground floor. Facing closure like many indie video stores, Scarecrow Video survived — even grew — by becoming a nonprofit. Event space Town Hall is thriving, and was recently remodeled. When the owners of Open Books retired, new owners that believed in the store stepped up and kept it alive. There’s even a still-thriving contingent of the type of queer punk galleries where I first fell in love with art, such as Party Hat and the Factory. The resilience of these organizations like these, not to mention the wonderful Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute and UW’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery, gives me hope. There’s also the fact Seattle has always been a boom-and-bust city — for better or worse, change is likely. Rents have plateaued and even fallen in many parts of town, as the housing market becomes saturated.

Older writers tell me they have seen all this before. At 33, I’m aging, too, and I hope there are teenagers playing shows and making things in their parents’ garages that would blow me away. I taught a poetry class a couple of years ago at Nova. It didn’t seem to have changed a bit.

Reclaiming the dream of the city

The more biologically diverse an ecosystem is, the more life it can sustain — not only a wider range of organisms, but more organisms of each species. If there are 15 types of corn rather than five, and environmental conditions change in such a way that 12 die off, corn will still exist.

Cities are just the same. That people who code for a living earn high salaries is not a problem. These people spend money and make the economy healthier. The problem is that if only a few professions draw enough money to live comfortably in the city, different types of people are less able to interact with each other and live in the same buildings or neighborhoods. This essentially creates a less diverse cultural ecosystem, where most people can’t afford to draw on the walls, even metaphorically.

People talk a lot about the physical spaces lost since Amazon moved in, the cost of living and the people who can no longer afford being here. And they should, because without a roof over their head, people can’t easily think about making art. As the cost of living skyrockets in major American cities and drives people out of the cities or onto the streets, I’ve seen the same handful of chain stores appearing block after block. As our neighborhoods become more predictable, the multitude of possibilities present in every urban moment contract like a massive cultural sphincter. You would think that if the people who remember what the city was like before this happened are still here, the soul of the city will persist. But if San Francisco is any indication, people just get tired and lonely and want to leave. Whether living in a city or a suburb, whether they own a condo or rent a lighthouse or they’re the old woman who lives in a shoe, people deserve more than this.

Recently I stayed at a Best Western on the outskirts of Portland. There was a Walmart, a Burger King, a Shell station and a Lowe’s hardware store. Many of these businesses were physically 20 times the size of an urban corner store, but the whole point of generic franchises in rural and suburban areas (besides being cheap in every sense of the word) is that they are standardized, so the possibilities they offer, at least in the sense I’m describing, are extremely uniform.

While there is some appeal to uniformity and (obviously) affordability, when you’re not seeing yourself in your surroundings, when every commodity is pumped in from some massive inhuman nonplace like the goop that kept people in suspended animation in The Matrix, it can feel like your creations don’t have meaning or value. When I was in high school, the other queer kids and I got together in each other’s basements to view prized little glimpses of a relatable narrative, such as Rocky Horror Picture Show or Labyrinth. It was a real occasion when somebody discovered a dusty corner of the Blockbuster “special interest” section containing films by  directors like John Waters or Kenneth Anger who showed us some representation of life that resonated with us. Even these directors were available only through a big chain video store, leaving us to wonder what else was out there, how many brilliant directors were for some reason not marketable.

It’s possible for the dream of the city to invade an urban location of a big corporate franchise. The Capitol Hill IHOP, for instance, is not really an IHOP after 2 a.m. so much as a raucous living room where red-eyed artists and club kids draw on napkins together and soak up the night’s excesses with towering stacks of meat and pancakes.

The job of artists is to renew the world. When we are very young, we have huge moments that overwhelm us with joy and mystery because we don’t understand them. Hearing your first story about sex is a good example, but so is eating spaghetti or going to a movie for the first time. When art works, it restores us to that wonderful state of bewilderment. A city’s capacity to foster this state, to be a place where artists can do their job, is truly what constitutes its soul, and Seattle would be wise never to forget this.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Sarah Galvin

Sarah Galvin

Sarah Galvin is a poet, essayist, and performer based in Seattle, WA.