Sometimes I’ll slip it into conversation—with a coworker, a new acquaintance, anyone with enough Seattle mileage on them to have a memory of the place—just to reassure myself I didn’t imagine the whole thing. “Do you remember that block?” I’ll ask, and describe the 500 block of East Pine Street just as I first saw it: six single-story buildings lined up like squat row houses. Nearly all were bars—Cha Cha Lounge, Bus Stop, Manray, Kincora—plus Bimbo’s Bitchin Burritos, home to the surliest service Seattle could dish in June 2006, when I moved here. One look at that block and I knew I was home.
I suspect most newcomers, whether they arrived within the past few years or the past few decades, possess in their mind a place like this, a place that defined their early Seattle experience. And in all likelihood that place is gone.
You don’t need me to tell you the city is changing at a breakneck clip—vintage buildings torn down, glassy condos sprouting up. We’re living, after all, in the third fastest-growing large city in the U.S., our population of roughly 660,000 increasing at about 2.2 percent a year. As of June 2015, active construction projects downtown numbered 106, according to the Downtown Seattle Association, the highest number since 2005. Sixty-three of those buildings are slated for residential use.
This month’s cover story (“I’m New Here: A User’s Guide to the Emerald City”) is a celebration of what it’s like to move here for the first time. It’s also a look at who we are now and where we’re headed. (For a glance at the future of Seattle, see our profile of one-year-old Sasha Mehdi.)
At the same time, it must be acknowledged, Seattle has struggled to remain a city for anyone other than the wealthiest, a problem that, left unchecked, will likely mean even more drastic changes to the city as we know and love it.
I had never lived anywhere that contained what I saw on Pine nine years ago, hailing as I had from rural California, Wyoming, and, most recently, Salt Lake City, where by state law only two bars could occupy a single block. But it wasn’t only the juxtaposition of so many places to enjoy a drink—a section of street that seemed designed for bar crawling—I was attracted to. It was also the worn look of the block, the buildings droopy and covered in graffiti, and the carnival of patrons who seemed to belong to the previous decade. Even then I knew I was looking at ghosts, remnants of a bygone Seattle era I’d never truly know.
Within a year the businesses were shuttered or relocated, the buildings unceremoniously leveled and paved over with a parking lot. There’s a big shiny condominium there now. Many of its inhabitants are, I presume, new here. I wonder if they’ll ever look back on that block the way I do.