My 15-Minute City: Pioneer Square, Seattle, Washington
I first visited Seattle in the late 1990s, when my sister moved there. I loved the city and had a routine for each visit, making daily treks down Jackson Avenue in the Central District and into the International District for lunch. Then I would proceed to my favorite neighborhood: Pioneer Square. I loved the bustle, the older architecture, the opportunity to eat, shop, and explore the waterfront. It reminded me of my favorite Manhattan neighborhoods.
My absolute must-go destination each trip was the Elliott Bay Book Co., on the corner of First Avenue and Main. It was like the Strand in New York City, but without the congestion, dust, disorder, and people. I could spend hours at Elliott Bay. It was always the focus of my day during short trips. In early 2007, I made the difficult decision to sell my apartment and leave New York. It was a half-hearted choice, but the right one based on what happened during the real estate bust and subsequent recession.
I moved to Seattle. There was an opportunity for a place in the historic Nord Hotel (the sweet, stumpy building in the photo above), which the developer claimed was the city’s smallest historic condominium at just seven units. Erected in 1890, one year after the Great Fire, the Nord was once a single-room hotel for loggers, miners, and gold-rushers. Managed by Frank Nordquist, this modest structure was originally the Thompson Hotel, but Nordquist clearly earned his props during his raucous tenure, and the building was renamed after him. I adore it, but the ultimate attraction was the prime location: It abutted the bookstore!
Living at the Nord meant that I would share a wall with my favorite place in Seattle—and, in less than a minute, I could be there. It was an incredible amenity, far more valuable than a parking space or a gym membership; it was like having a library, office, coffee shop, and extra bathrooms as part of the package.
Local friends hated the idea of my living in Pioneer Square. It was fine during the day, but at night the neighborhood was considered a sort of rolling frat house due to nearby stadium events, nightclubs, and bars. I ignored their advice because I had a sliver of Seattle history behind one of my walls. Sadly, things have changed since then. After two years of having my own bookstore, Elliott Bay moved to Capitol Hill because of rising rent. The space is now an event hall, hosting weddings and receptions that last until midnight. I’m still getting over this tragedy.
Oh, well. Cities are built to break your heart.
At the intersection of First and Main, looking south, is the Union Gospel Mission. During my decade on First Avenue, this part of the block has played host to nightclubs, restaurants, bookstores, rug and art galleries, and, most recently, illegal late-night drag racing due to empty streets during the pandemic. The Mission is a Seattle stalwart, providing help on a daily basis. On holidays, the lines for free meals run around the block. It regularly hosted free vaccination clinics as soon as vaccines were available.
Pioneer Square was the hub of the original city, a hilly location with easy access to the port and the booming lumber mills. The neighborhood is built on the bones of a quirky combination of hills, removed hills, landfill, and increasingly valuable access to Puget Sound. It’s impossible to walk around here without noticing the water. On clear days the view is stunning; after 10 years of living here, I still do double-takes. There was a huge elevated concrete highway that once blocked views, but it was finally removed three years ago. Currently there’s a waterfront development under construction.
Even prior to the pandemic, the neighborhood was in a state of constant change and turmoil, not just because of waterfront development and issues of gentrification and displacement. A lack of affordable housing and chronic homelesness remain huge problems. The first COVID case in the country emerged in Seattle, and the city went through a civic panic attack. My neighborhood was hit particularly hard. Many of the stores remain closed, but the neighborhood alliances did a great job of recruiting artists to activate the shuttered storefronts.
Across the avenue is The Central, which calls itself the oldest saloon in Seattle. (There are many claims to being the “oldest” in the neighborhood.) The wistful mural shown here was painted during the pandemic, when the place was shut down. The bar didn’t open during any of the city’s progressive openings, when venues were permitted to host at diminished capacities. I thought it was dead. However, when the city fully opened, The Central celebrated with performances honoring the late, great Tina Bell of Bam Bam. For grunge enthusiasts, The Central was the first Seattle venue to host Nirvana.
Pioneer Square is home to a lot of permanently undomiciled people. The neighborhood has long been the location of missions, the Chief Seattle Club (which supports native Alaskans), and parks where homesteading is tacitly tolerated. If you’re uncomfortable with interacting with the homeless, you will probably be uncomfortable visiting Pioneer Square.
Originally I thought that the frosted glass bricks embedded in the sidewalk near Yesler Way were a kitschy 1980s development trope. But they were actually installed after the Great Fire of 1889 and designed to allow light into the old neighborhood below, the subterranean city.
Underground Seattle still exists, and you can take a tour of it. It is baffling, and sort of wonderful, to me that we live atop the remains of the original city.
Here is Merchants, on Yesler, the “oldest” restaurant in Seattle, and not to be confused with the oldest saloon. The site’s original structure, the Merchants Bank Building, perished during the Great Fire. Whenever possible, I avoid walking up Yesler, because it’s a steep and difficult incline.
This is the triangle of First Avenue and Yesler, home to the so-called “Sinking Ship” intersection, a parking garage, and Smith Tower. Built in 1914, the 38-story structure was once the tallest building on the West Coast.
During the 1970s, there were plans to raze most of Pioneer Square. The proposed new development would have demolished all of the old buildings and erected two large towers, complete with massive parking garages. Fortunately, a young mayor, Wes Uhlman, and activist citizens, fought for the neighborhood’s preservation. Pioneer Square was one of the first historic neighborhoods in the U.S.
This summer, the architects at Olson Kundig added some contemporary flair to the visitor’s kiosk in Occidental Park. The park is another stalwart in the neighborhood, an essential oasis, serving as a daytime host for workers, residents, and tourists. It is also my dog’s favorite place in the world.
Seattle should be commended for its alley revitalization program. The city has made a real attempt to turn these small, tight, and mostly dirty spaces into opportunities for business, music, and art.
The recent First Thursday Art Walk was the first in more than 16 months, and the turnout was the largest I have seen during my decade here—even before the pandemic. It will be interesting to see what turnout will be with the full-masking requirements in place for the upcoming September event.
The city is lurching back-and-forth about returning to “normal,” but I don’t think there is a normal for Seattle, especially in this 150-year-old neighborhood. During the brutal days of the viaduct removal, with the earth-shattering drilling and pounding from 7 am to 5 pm, along with the near-constant construction on the waterfront (not to mention the huge jump in property taxes), I often asked myself why I moved here. On one particularly loud morning I texted my friend: “Why are we suffering through this?” His way-too-enthusiastic reply—“It’s called progress!”—probably best summarizes Seattle. Highway removal is definitely appreciated, but I wish I still had my Elliot Bay next door.
All photos by the author, with the exception of the Elliott Bay Books image, via Seattle Weekly.