Seattle seafair ele4m0

Image: Adam Hancher

When I was a kid, before I knew better, Seafair was a blast. 

Every spring when the hydros began their trials on the lake, kids from Mercer Island to the Rainier Valley could hear them from our classrooms and thrill to the roar. I remember sunny Seafair Cup Sundays out at the floating perimeter of the course, the log boom, leaping from bow to bow in search of the best parties. Every year we would compete with our neighbors to see who could pick the Seafair Queen from the pictures of the princesses in the paper. In high school I danced on a float in the Torchlight Parade. 

Then I grew up, left, and came back. Something changed.

I guess it was me. Now that I had a time clock to punch, the requisite I-90 closure for the Blue Angels wasn’t a lark, it was a late-to-work day. I wanted to like the Blue Angels, I did, but the Reagan years were perhaps not the optimal moment to nurture in a young progressive an appreciation for the military-industrial complex. Later, when I and all my friends had dogs and babies, annoyance at the Blue Angels morphed into rage, as they buzzed our back decks, coming so close we could see the fear in their eyes. Oh, they were afraid—of us. It was nap time, goddammit. 

By this time I was living in Columbia City, where almost everyone hated Seafair—source of garbage, noise, traffic jams, miles-long cyclone fencing, teeming hordes, drunk people, ill-advisedly exposed flesh. Oh, we knew in our heads that Seafair was actually a whole summer’s worth of community events—but they were eclipsed in the public eye by that one horrific week of hydro madness in late July/early August, which many of our neighbors greeted by leaving town. We loathed it and we bonded over loathing it—as if Seattle’s uniting celebration wasn’t Seafair, it was Hating on Seafair.

Since then I’ve encountered that attitude more frequently, in neighborhoods across Seattle, and it makes me wonder: How can an innocent summer festival provoke such strong feelings? Only as an adult have I recognized the extent to which the event is tainted with issues of class, the haves bobbing in yachts at the log boom versus the have-nots vying for ever-diminishing patches of unobstructed shoreland. I know I’m not the only one who wonders if refugees from war-ravaged countries duck and cover every time a Blue Angel thunders past. As celebrations go, even those who like it can agree: It’s not a terribly subtle one.

Weirdest, for an event meant to celebrate Seattle, Seafair manages to be as ironically, spectacularly un-Seattle as it could be without being, I don’t know, Mardi Gras. The progressive, cerebral values this city’s known for stand in precise opposition to the festival’s most visible traditions: a Miss Seafair Pageant, an ear-blistering demonstration of martial superiority, a big-ass waterborne NASCAR race. That’s our Seattle festival? Throw in Fleet Week with its inundation of randy sailors and the traditional invasion of drunken “pirates” and now it’s also vaguely predatory. Whoopie!

I was whining about all this with a South End friend—a Seafair booster so unreconstructed she regards the period between hydroplane trials and Seafair Sunday her own personal High Holy Days—and she shook her head. She began to spin wistful tales of the summers she spent skipping down the street to her neighborhood festival, the Rainier District Pow Wow—one of the many neighborhood festivals that united to become the very first Seafair in 1950.

The powwow was folksy for sure—there were pie-eating contests, baby beauty contests, husband-calling contests—and it needed to evolve with the times, ditching the culturally appropriated name, for starters. But its folksiness was just right, for this was a neighborhood festival, comprised of families growing up together in community. White Center had its Jubilee Days, West Seattle its Hi-Yu Festival, Lake City its Pioneer Days. Eighty-four years ago the Bon Odori Festival began as Seattle’s version of the Japanese Buddhist ancestral celebration Obon.

 So here’s the newsflash: The descendants of each of these still exist—within Seafair’s current calendar. 

It’s this Seafair—this less frenzied, less publicized web of blocked-off streets and roadside musicians, of food stalls and parades, of multicultural celebrations and, yes, pie-eating contests—that reflects Seattle’s soul, to this native anyway, much more authentically than the one ear-splitting weekend most folks think of as Seafair. This Seafair begins in early June and pops up nearly every weekend through July, and it does an infinitely better job capturing the Northwest’s roots than the Seattle Hearing Loss Festival the first Sunday in August.

As for those hydros? Sure, they were a big deal when Stan Sayres won the Gold Cup in 1950, scoring hydro racing for Lake Washington before Seattle had its Mariners, its Seahawks, even its Sonics. Today, however, interest in the fast boats is waning, not just here but across the country. For rising popularity, you need to go to all the way to Qatar, where hydro racing is booming. Sheikh Hassan is a huge fan.

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