Has Ballard Lost Its Norway?

Thousands turn up for the Seventeenth of May. The rest of the year, finding Seattle’s Scandinavian community takes a little fishing.

By Zoe Sayler May 16, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Syttende Mai breathes the Nordic into this neighborhood.

When I moved to Ballard at the beginning of 2021, my knowledge of the neighborhood and its Scandinavian roots was superficial and mostly past-tense. My grandma’s friend Norm, the son of a Norwegian fisher, grew up here (and still makes pilgrimages for fish cakes). And like everyone else with a soft spot for ’90s Seattle, I watched defunct sketch comedy show Almost Live! parody the neighborhood with a driving instructor who bestows “Uff da!” stickers on the bumpers of Ballard’s deeply incompetent drivers.

So hopefully my own Norwegian ancestors can forgive me for assuming the horns I heard on May 17 were some sort of Seattle transplant roadside rebellion (seriously, Ballardites, you can’t parallel park “by sound”).

The Norwegian flags dangling out of the cars lined up on 54th that day told a different story: This was a pared-down version of Ballard’s famous Syttende Mai parade, usually—and given the year, maybe still—the largest celebration of Norway’s Constitution Day outside Norway. When the 17th of May rolls around, everybody, including Swedes and Danes, flies a Norwegian flag, says Seth Tufteland, host of Seattle’s Scandinavian Hour on KKNW. “It just transforms” into the Ballard of years past, when those red-and-blue flags hung on nearly every building and sawmills lined Salmon Bay.

Norway lost more of its population to the United States in the twentieth century than any country other than Ireland, and those who made it far enough west to see the snowy Cascades across North America’s southernmost fjord system found a place that looked a lot like home. Familiar geography lent itself to familiar industries—loggers found their place in Washington’s forests, fishers on its waterways. 

But Shingletown lost most of its sawmills by World War II. The 2008 recession shut down two of three remaining Scandinavian shops.

It wasn’t a mass exodus. Scandinavians never made up more than a third of Ballard’s population, per History Link. But you might not know even a modest contingent remains until May 17 rolls around. Other parts of the year, Nordic Ballard is mostly relegated to small groups of enthusiasts, often immigrants or second-generation Americans. The crowd that gathered in the parking lot of Scandinavian Specialties with pølse med lompe (long, smoked hot dogs wrapped in a lefse-like breading) and Solo (a Norwegian orange soda) for their impromptu pandemic parade route, for example. Or the Hrafngarðr Vikings, Tufteland’s Bothell chapter of the Northwest Viking Alliance, which sends bearded men in chain mail to the National Nordic Museum as docents. The older guys reminiscing over Sloopersized beers at a “real Old Ballard” tavern founded in 1953 by a guy named Ole Olsen. 

Since taking over Scandinavian Specialties in 2017, Bjørn Ruud feels “some mantle of responsibility” to provide lutefisk and fish cakes to Ballard’s Scandinavian population. But he’s not afraid to welcome cross-cultural collaboration and whatever else New Ballard, younger and diversifying, might bring. “Just rehashing and celebrating the things that our grandparents did doesn’t have the same appeal,” he says.

The National Nordic Museum, completed in 2018 and granted its official federal title soon after, couldn’t be a better symbol of a neighborhood that’s “evolving, not losing any of its heritage,” per curator Leslie Anne Anderson. Next to model Viking boats and bunad—traditional Norwegian dress well represented at the Syttende Mai parade each year—the museum highlights gákti worn by Native Sámi people, oral history recordings from Puget Sound residents with Nordic and Indigenous roots, and one big, recurring question that Ballard seems to ask itself every year: “What does it mean to be Nordic?”

Just next door, a vintage furniture shop refurbishes Danish modern chairs the Ballard old-timers remember from their childhood. Sparklebarn owner Shane Bastian doesn’t have Scandinavian ties himself. But he can recognize an Eero Saarinen table or a Kaare Klint chair anywhere. Danish modern furniture is functional, humble, and efficient—beautiful, but subtle. “Good design, you don’t notice,” Bastian says. Remember that next time you wonder where Ballard went. 

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