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Finding ghosts all over Seattle

A new anthology looks at beloved places lost to time, cost, and change

Denise, Gabriel Teodros, ShoNuph at Westlake Park
Michelle Mukai

With a booming economy spurring construction of new businesses, restaurants, office towers, and housing, and 1,100 new people moving to Seattle each week, nostalgia is as much a constant here as the change that inspires it. Countless conversations revolve around the old businesses, restaurants, places, and communities lost to Seattle’s rising costs. Those conversations often turn to hopes and wishes that the places and communities still standing don’t suffer the same fate.

But a desire to protect the past can also throw a wrench in the present. Seattle was built as a suburban city—its core is urban, but nearly half of the city is dedicated to detached, single-family homes. In holding that up as the city’s ideal and fighting to keep it that way, nostalgic Seattleites are both contributing to the rising cost of living and ignoring the history of explicit segregation on which the city was built.

Nostalgia—with all its conflicting good and bad—is the foundation of Ghosts of Seattle Past: An Anthology of Lost Seattle Places. Published in April, it is a collection of essays, interviews, photos, and comics about Seattle places lost to time, cost, and change. Far more than a catalog of former dive bars and hip music venues—though there are plenty of those in the collection—Ghosts traces Seattle’s long history of change and loss from the Duwamish people being forcibly removed from the land by the earliest white settlers to gentrification and displacement in the historically black Central District to the loss of art spaces and queer spaces in Pioneer Square, then Belltown, then Capitol Hill.

Ghosts doesn’t follow a historical chronology of change—the chapters are divided by neighborhood. But the book opens with an interview with Ken Workman, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish leader after whom the city is named.

“Gentrification is a new word for an old problem,” says Jaimee Garbacik, Ghost’s editor.

“Duwamish were forced to leave their land. We had the Chinese Exclusion Act, black redlining, Japanese internment. We were hoping to show the layers of the cities. That you may have eaten your pho in a place that was once a jazz speakeasy that was once a Duwamish field.”

The book grew out of an art project for the 2015 Short Run Comix & Arts Festival. Garbacik was inspired by a makeshift memorial she had seen outside On 15th Video on Capitol Hill after it closed in 2014. “People had left candles and photographs and mementos. I was really struck by the imagery of that. It made me think there weren’t sufficient outlets for people to process change in the city,” she explains.

Her plan was to put together a map of lost places for Short Run. She put out a call for submissions. The only rule was that it had to be a public space that no longer existed. Hundreds of responses poured in and Garbacik realized she had the makings of an anthology on her hands.

Ghosts paints a complex picture of the cultures and subcultures that Seattle has fostered over the years. There’s an interview with Dave Holden, son of Seattle’s “jazz patriarch” Oscar Holden, that illustrates how the Central District’s jazz clubs and players drew some of the nation’s biggest performers to Seattle. Eric Carnell writes about the original Funhouse in lower Queen Anne, a punk rock venue that fostered all kinds of experimental bands in their fledgling years. Alice Wheeler’s photo essay “Capitol Hill Was a Gay Neighborhood” recalls a 1990s and early 2000s queer space that was “inclusive place for people who were excluded from the establishment.”

A group of people celebrate Seattle’s pride festival outside of a cafe in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood
Yva and Tricia in front of Moe's Mo'Rockin' Café. 10th Ave, Pride 1998
Alice Wheeler

In early May, Ghosts of Seattle Past’s publisher Chin Music Press held a reading featuring contributors at Kobo at Higo in the International District. It was while listening to Tamiko Nimura read her essay about a bygone Pioneer Square bookstore called David Ishii, Bookseller, that Ghosts message clicked for me. Nimura came to Seattle to study literature at University of Washington. When she arrived in the city, she discovered canonical white male authors dominated both her major and the bookstores she visited in her neighborhood, leaving her wondering if there was really a place for an aspiring Japanese-American author like her. Then she found David Ishii, a bookstore filled with Asian-American authors and decorated with their photos. She writes, “I started to realize that I could live in Seattle, in a city with a place highlighting Asian American literature.” It was a space in which Nimura felt welcomed, a place that reflected her and her voice.

The places in Ghosts fostered cultural diversity in Seattle. Not only did they give blacks and Asians and queer kids and hip-hop heads and punks and nerds and hippies a space in which they could comfortably put down roots and become Seattleites; they were an entree for marginalized groups to lay claim to the city and dictate their vision for it.

Not all those places are gone because Seattle’s economy is exploding. David Ishii, Bookseller closed when Ishii decided he wanted to do something else. Other places in the book closed because their owners retired or moved. But the high costs of operating in the city are a factor for most of the ghosts in the collection. A cheaper city is better able to foster offbeat spaces than an expensive one like we have now.

Garbacik does not presume to know how best to manage the complexities of a city’s change. She says, “We leave that up to the interpreters of the book in a lot of respects. I hope that it will encourage people to speak more to their community members. To not live inside their own little bubble in the city.”

There are some city policies that attempt to deal with change, such as the Department of Neighborhoods’ historic landmarks and historic districts programs. But a DIY music venue in a Capitol Hill basement will never get landmark status, nor could historic preservation stop a cafe proprietor from retiring. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold has proposed creating a small business preservation program to help support the anchor businesses that communities deem essential. But that too will never stop every change.

Nor should it. Change in cities is inevitable. Few of the authors in Ghosts are Seattle natives. When they arrived, they changed the city for its previous residents much the way newcomers in the 1990s or 2000s changed the city for them.

Stopping change is certainly not Garbacik’s goal. “It was never our intention to put out an anti-development, anti-density anthology. It was never about preserving the places so much as about preserving the memories,” she explains.

Garbacik hopes that preserving the memories of important community spaces will help Seattle to be a more equitable, just place in the future.

“Losing our memory means losing our context of what shaped the city into what made it so attractive in the first place. … We never want to forget all the different ways people have been erased. If we do, it’s much easier to repeat that.”

Garbacik argues in her intro to Ghosts, “Nostalgia is productive and persuasive. It has staying power. It reminds us of what made us, what shaped us, what mattered. It informs who we aspire to be. Without nostalgia, we—in a very real sense—would be lost.”