Last summer, I watched a girl running along the old, russet towers of Gas Works Park’s namesake gasification plant. She hopped from one scaffolding to another, posed atop a tank, drifted along a pipe. She couldn’t have been more than 15. A city worker arrived and yelled at her to get down. Falling—and she could have at any moment—would likely mean broken bones, torn ligaments, internal bleeding, perhaps death. Yet she moved with the unworried finesse of an acrobat or gymnast. The Gas Works plant, dormant since 1956, was repurposed into a sort of public art piece in 1976, when the park opened. Now the girl repurposed it again as a performance apparatus.
This spirit—a little recycling, a little transformation—animates the neighborhood around Gas Works, too. That’s fitting for an area in which the dump has a glass-enclosed viewing room. Many of Wallingford’s defining features used to be something else. The Good Shepherd Center in Meridian Playground was once a Catholic girls’ orphanage. In 1977 the organization Historic Seattle turned it into a community center. Between that and Gas Works, the Seattle Daily Times posited then, Wallingford was becoming a “better place,” no longer just a slope of aging craftsman houses. Today the Good Shepherd Center, with its groomed grounds and stained glass, is home to various tenants, including an art school, Seattle Tilth, a senior center, a “ketamine-assisted psychotherapy” practice, and the C.G. Jung Society of Seattle.
Along the neighborhood’s main retail strip, North 45th Street, you’ll find business after business located in residential houses—a coffee shop, a Thai restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, a thrift store. You’ll find Wallingford Center, the neighborhood shopping hub, which was once a public school. And you’ll find a reader board proffering the sort of jokes typically reserved for bumper stickers and coffee mugs: “Flat earthers have nothing to fear but sphere itself.” “Tried to grab the fog. I mist.” “Cremation is my last hope for a smoking hot body.”
In 2005, the nearby Wallingford Chevron station no longer needed its reader board for promo materials. So owner Jim Bernard decided to use the small sidewalk-adjacent sign to coax laughs. For the last seven years, many of those jokes have been written by Michael Boursaw, one of the gas station’s employees. He says he draws on a few sources for inspiration—customers, the “watercooler jokes” he heard while in the Army, the dad jokes of “older gentlemen” at the nursing homes his mom works in. He just needs to massage the wording to work as text.
It’s called the Wallingford Sign. Though if you’ve driven through the neighborhood, you might figure that moniker belongs to another bit of signage, equally repurposed. In 1996, neighborhood grocer Food Giant sold to QFC. When the chain took over, the large blue and white letters on top of the store spelling “Food Giant” no longer made sense. But instead of scrapping the whole thing, the store jettisoned only an O and a T, then added a W, two Ls, and an R. True to neighborhood spirit, the recycled descriptor reads—in glowing blue and white—Wallingford.