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#BoomCity #GhostsOfSeattlePast: Q+A with Jaimee Garbacik

We recently spoke with Jaimee Garbacik, author of Ghosts of Seattle Past, by phone where we chatted about Seattle and the cultural remains often left in the wake of a boom.

PL: You’ve referred to yourself as a guerilla ethnographer. Can you talk a bit about how this project came about?

JG: Sure. Back in 2015, my friend, Eroyn Franklin, Creative & Development Director of Seattle’s Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, approached me and asked me if there was something I wanted to do for the festival that year in the way of programming or an exhibit. I brought up how every conversation that I was having [at the time] in Seattle [had a similar theme]:

“Everyone was very focused on places that were disappearing and there was this very tangible sense of loss that seemed to be embedded in people’s sort of collective consciousness at the time.”

At the same time there weren’t any concerted efforts that I could see to preserve the memories of these places or to offer people a way to vent or to do something productive with those feelings and to process the changing climate of the city. We were talking about this, and then in the midst of that the video store On 15th Ave closed, and when it did, there was a vigil held outside. [People left] candles and memorabilia, and at that point it really clicked for me that people were truly mourning and had nowhere to put it.

So she and I talked about an exhibit that I would curate, asking people to send me art, memorabilia, stories, photography, comics, anything in the 2D medium to commemorate a place that was public and that they remembered from within their lifetime that haddisappeared or closed. My partner Josh and I created a digital map and threw it up on the website, using a Google plug-in. People could tag spaces on a map of Seattle and share their stories of those places. The thought was that we would make some hand-drawn maps of the city in the exhibit and we would have this art exhibit and a digital version of the maps, [and a zine], and it was meant to be a one-off for that day.

But instead, when I started reaching out to the community, organizations and tapping friends and putting flyers up around the city–we expected a response because we knew this was on everyone’s minds but we had an avalanche. Hundreds of submissions came pouring, and at that point it was pretty obvious that it needed to be a lot more than this one-day event. So I decided to pursue turning it into an anthology and flushing it out with interviews from people all over the city to try and show the different layers of the city and the diversity of it, the many different kinds of erasure that were happening culturally and over time.

PL: That’s terrific.

JG: Thank you, and, obviously, it became a much larger project…

PL: Can you talk about the bit about the concept of nostalgia and its importance in the digital age ? You mentioned that you thought nostalgia could be dangerous, in some sense. So I wonder if you could sort of recap your thoughts on that?

JG: Yes, well

“Nostalgia is two pronged as far as I’m concerned, I think it’s really productive and persuasive in reminding us of what shapes us and who we aspire to be or it can inform who we aspire to be. I think it provides a lot of cultural context that’s really important. I do believe that forgetting is dangerous.”

Seattle has a history of ignoring the past and having a lot of exclusionary practices. So making sure that these things are on people’s minds and present and that each wave of development doesn’t continue to erase more people, is very important.

I think it’s really important to treat it as a way of informing what made us and what matters in a place and at a time. But there’s another kind of nostalgia, a kind of rose-colored glasses version of nostalgia, that I think can be tricky because it assumes that there was this time in the past that was better than the present. And I don’t think that’s accurate for  [many populations], any person of color, any queer person, or for women. You know, we’re having a really difficult political time at this moment, but in many ways [women and minorities] have more rights and more visibility now than at any point in history.

So when you have this sort of, “Oh, in the ’60s life was perfect” or in any decade, if you pick a point in time and talk about the magic of a cultural moment–and it may have been a dramatic moment artistically or culturally for a group of people–but it’s pretty easy in getting wrapped up in that. It’s easy to whitewash the past and forget about the people who during those times were oppressed and were paying for other people’s privilege in a pretty major way. [This is something that was brought up] at our book release by Anisa Jackson, one of our anthology contributors, who interviewed Elmer Dixon, the Seattle leader of the Black Panther party. They brought up [the danger of nostalgia] in a really challenging and really wonderful way, how nostalgia can [whitewash or erase oppression]. The triumphs and the difficulties and oppression of people in the past.

So we wanted to be really conscious in this project to allow people space to remember the places that were important to them and that helped make them who they were and that helped make this city special. And at the same, we tried to be cognizant of those whose past is laced with major obstacles,  some of which are institutional, and which may come from the way the city handled its politics, and to remember that too, and to make sure that their voices and that their history are not left by the sidelines. What could have been another ’90s grunge anthology–that was certainly not what Ghosts was about.

PL: What do you think the impact of technology has been on nostalgia and the current transformation of Seattle?

JG: Well it’s certainly a correlation in Seattle, just like San Francisco, that the tech explosion brings a lot of workers who make a lot more money than the former median income of the city. I think that affects housing and it affects who has access to what and who comprises the neighborhoods that are most appealing to live in. When wealthy people come into a new city and have a lot more buying power than the people around them, they tend to situate themselves in whatever the culturally hot district at that moment is.

But it’s not entirely like their specific fault; it’s also about the way the city is planned and about the way that development is [incentivized and managed.] I don’t mean to pin it exclusively on tech workers, because if Amazon had hired from within or if their campus wasn’t smack dab in the center of  Seattle, or if the city had offered incentives to developers to do things in a way that was more equitable–I mean there’s a lot of forces at the same time and I don’t really want to point fingers at one specific thing.

PL:  What about big-box stores replacing the small storefronts?

JG: Part of what we’re touching on here is a decision to develop areas that were formerly mixed-use, into block-long buildings that have one main floor use. Because it’s one thing to have property values go up and potentially price out the mom-and-pop businesses, and it’s another thing to have an entire block be one swath of space which can only be occupied by a giant box store or chain. If there are not actual physical spaces for smaller to business occupy, then they’re pushed out in a completely different way by nature of simply not having the real estate to set up camp, regardless [of whether they can compete or pay higher property taxes]. And I think that changes the character of an area very rapidly and it locks out huge demographics.

JG: And the thing with that is, my concern isn’t so much any individual business that disappears that has character, say, as it is that there are culturally-specific businesses and services that get shattered. And residents don’t have somewhere else to get those same services. There’s an example I’ve given before, but it’s very applicable – when I was interviewing people in the Central District, one of the main things that kept coming up was a particular hardware store that was gone, Welch Hardware, and the sense of loss that residents felt around that because that had been a black-owned business where the owner extended credit to neighbors and would go to their homes and had helped people with his specialized knowledge. You know, build things and renovate their homes directly, and that’s the kind of thing that is never going to happen with a Lowe’s, right? You don’t have that same kind of community buy-in and that same desire to make human connections and to offset people’s economic situations.

PL: Well, Amazon’s new grocery stores don’t even have humans! Just go in and shop, buy something with your phone and leave without any human interaction. That’s the future.

JG: To the best of my knowledge there is not a single black-owned bank in the metro area. Whereas if there were, especially in the Central District, getting a loan or getting a home refinanced–it is a very different process when people know each other rather than from dealing exclusively withl corporate banks.

PL: The trickledown effect of all this is just massive, it’s really big.

JG: I mean you can just as easily blame foreign investment as you can the tech industry.

PL: But it really comes down to government regulation and putting on- imposing some restrictions and things that are happening in places like Vancouver that aren’t happening in Seattle that maybe will come or not but I think most people feel like it’s too late anyway but yes, so it’s interesting.

JG: Well, I think it really comes down to whether or not there is vested interest among those who are making these decisions. Are they having inclusive conversations with members of the community to identify what is important to them and what could be preserved that’s culturally significant or that offers a service they really need.

“Because regardless of what kind of incentives come in, regardless of what kind of perks developers or city officials or whatever else, have access to; if they consider the human element of this and want to work with community organizers, it’s not as though they are not available to be brought into the conversation.”

But my work is ethnography and storytelling and editing this book and I’m not an urban planner.

PL: But I think that’s exactly what makes it so interesting because this is the voice from the street, this is the voice of people who are living in this world designed by urban planners – or not. So I think that’s exactly why it’s necessary and so interesting that with the work that you’re doing because it’s like, I can imagine the drawing boards of the architects who are planning the city. It might look super different and exciting to those people in the room and they’re not thinking about all the things that you’ve considered and all the conversations that are having about it and how it really feels to live in that space that that might look good on a whiteboard, right?

JG: No, I appreciate that. I just don’t want armchair philosophize too much about it.

PL: No, I get it, I get it. Let’s talk about your book tour and how has it changed your views.

JG: Sure, yes. I think it’s really easy when you are in Seattle or San Francisco or Portland, to kind of have this perception that this is happening all over and that it’s tech driven. And one of the things that we were realizing is that [cities are changing and redeveloping very rapidly] all over but it’s not always spurred by exactly the same thing. It may be a more important issue that we even realize, because like, when we were in Philadelphia, – and please fact check this for me – but I was told when we were there that the poverty rate is almost 25% in Philly.  And what was coming up there was that their real estate isn’t really worth a lot. Their home values aren’t particularly high compared to most metropolitan cities, partially because there isn’t this great growth in jobs. So they’re not getting pushed out of neighborhoods for housing, at least not [on the scale] that we’ve become accustomed to in our city, but they are absolutely experiencing other forms of gentrification and other forms of cultural displacement.

So it’s a very different conversation there, and I guess, maybe it’s still related to tech. Maybe it’s the fact that tech isn’t moving there and the jobs aren’t flowing in, that there’s still a city dependent on old industry that’s not present any more.

[Whereas, when we were] in D.C., there’s so much grassroots organization, and maybe that’s D.C.. Maybe that’s because it’s near the center of power and everyone has this sense of mobility and the authority to push back and resist and be politically engaged. I couldn’t say. But we partnered with an organization there called One DC and they are responding to housing equity and also trying to reclaim culturally significant buildings. They have had a lot of positive results from their direct action campaigns and it was really encouraging to hear their sense that they did still have a lot of agency in their city to be able to say, “This is ours and we’re gonna fight for it.” But at the same time, they expressed concern about the ratio along racial lines, the very rapid gentrification of their historically black districts. The conversation there wasn’t about tech either, and that maybe just who was present at our event, who we spoke to. I’m not sure the extent to which that is a major factor there.

PL: What do you think about people migrating to new places to make new memories? Do you feel that there will be an impact on the suburbs and the outlier cities? There is that sense of possibility and small spaces and affordability and all those things that makes a city interesting –  and without the traffic…

JG: [Where to start?] I think the question really was about what I think of people migrating to new cities to recapture the past or their sense of belonging and being able to create homes that feel like theirs. And my response to that is that I’m sure people will- and I don’t have any personal judgments about it. I did so myself. It has to do with access however. It is a privileged move to be able to relocate that takes a certain level of means. Not everyone who has been affected by this big shift in demographic in cities has the opportunity to move somewhere else, whether because of the job situation or because of the cost of uprooting their home or their family. It’s not always an option, and so you wind up with, yes, these new rich- and I don’t mean economically, I mean culturally rich- enclave of essentially transplants, which is what Seattle was in the first place.

I don’t say this with judgement – yes, there will be smaller cities with rich scenes, but left behind in the wake of those departures are those who weren’t able to leave and whose economic systems and distress will become exacerbated, not only by the lack of services available to them but also the vacuum of everyone who abandoned ship. Who will help to cohere the cultural institutions and organizations that were holding up those people previously? So it is tricky, I mean I certainly don’t blame anyone who bounces town because there’s all kinds of reasons that that may be necessary, but it has its own impact. And those cities that we flee to that are cheaper then become less affordable for the people who populated them previously as a result of our doing that too. So it’s tricky, a lot of this is all in response to the dumping out of the suburbs. I mean a generation back, everyone fled the city- or more accurately- affluent people fled the city, mostly white affluent people fled the city to the suburbs.

Then meanwhile, both poor people and people of color, and artists, and people who just decided to stay for whatever other reasons, built up these incredible cultural spaces and then suddenly they became very appealing and everyone wanted back in. And then it pushes the people who actually made it that rich cultural landscape, back out again. So this is a cyclical thing You would think or hope that we might learn from how it’s happened in the past and be more accountable to the current population, but it’s a slash and burn kind of a thing.

PL:  Your project has been so well received by the public and you had some great successes in terms of feedback. You’ve been able to get in front of some city planners and  decision makers. Is it your hope that more people will buy the book and engage in this conversation and make their voice shared? Are there other outreach efforts that people can take part in?

I made the book because I wanted to raise voices that were being heard and preserve people’s memories and hand the city back to them in a way that they could hold in their hands.”

JG: Going forward, my hope for the book is that it will help to inform newcomers to the city, developers, city officials, about what we value and about what can make a city a thriving, inclusive, exciting place to be. Hopefully, they will turn around and make more accountable and more inclusive decisions going forward. I also hope that people will read it and turn around and think of new ways to engage. A big thing I’ve been saying on tour, in other interviews and just in general about the book, is if there’s anything someone can learn from this book, I hope it’s to show up. Show up and have conversations with people outside your comfort zone, with people outside your little bubble.

So much of what has made Seattle a place that people love and why they have this nostalgia and attachment to it, is that it was a scrappy place where people from a lot of different backgrounds were comfortable making a melting pot of art and culture. And that can only have been when we interact with our neighbors and when we interact with people who are a lot different from us and where there’s a level of acceptance and warmth. That I think is the biggest loss, it’s the biggest thing that we’re seeing disappear and fighting back against. The lack of, you know, going to community theater events, going to a Central District neighborhood picnic.

Showing up and talking to people about old Seattle, about new Seattle, about their home, about their lives, about their needs; better decisions will be made because we’ll be more informed about what’s happening not just to our own little pocket in the city. It’s knowing all the layers of the city. There is an initiative that’s going forward working on a legacy business program designed to potentially offer grants to offset rent hikes for culturally significant businesses.

Part of that was in response to a Residents’ Podium for Seattle Legacy Spaces that we held last summer at the Center for Architecture and Design where I asked a bunch of key organizers and residents and artists to testify on behalf of places that they wanted to see preserved, in front of an audience of developers and city officials and architects. The idea was to have them listen and take into account the needs of the residents and the things that were disappearing that were important to them. Just breaking people out of this mindset that those who were pushing back against development are exclusively people who don’t want their single family housing torn down and that it’s just sort of like suburbanites in Seattle who don’t want to see anything happen in their backyard. No, they need to realize the significant and actually real things that are disappearing.

Less economically privileged parts of the community are seeing their gathering spaces disappear and their services disappear, and that I think was a pretty big eye-opening event for some people. I think more forums, creating more space for people to have these conversations across demographic lines and across economic lines and across, well, power lines frankly, of who is in charge versus who is affected, is going to make for some better decision making. If those sorts of things keep happening, that’s what I’d really like to see.

GHOSTS OF SEATTLE PAST is available now



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