When an airplane flies overhead at the Georgetown Trailer Park Mall, near the site of Seattle’s original Boeing Field airport and just miles north of Sea-Tac, it’s so close that it feels disorienting. Even awe-inspiring. How did we get here, perusing upcycled Pez dispensers in an outcropping of vintage Airstreams as flying machines skim the rooftops?
And then that nagging question emerges, one that wiggles its way into the cracks of each eccentricity in a city intent on pricing them out: Will it last?
What remnants exist of Old Seattle, the way people remember it before the tech boom, are mostly trapped in bar floor Rainier spills, like bugs in amber. Georgetown Trailer Park Mall—though it was founded in 2010—stands as a small but mighty exception to the rule that only establishments with booze-soaked wallets stand a chance against Seattle’s changing economic tides. Eight trailers arranged in the dusty parking lot of the unselfconsciously divey Star Brass Works Lounge hold creations from dozens of local artists who might otherwise have little chance to reach customers. “All those little galleries are gone,” Trailer Park Mall owner Mary Enslow says of the havens that used to keep working artists in the city’s core. Now they “just end up doing something else or moving. We’re not keeping that kind of energy here.”
The mall provides a shockingly affordable oasis. The littlest trailer on site rents for $250 a month, a fraction of Seattle’s sky-high brick-and-mortar costs. It’s also warmer, more neighborly than naysayers claim Seattle’s becoming. Karrie Cole Swain sells miniature art scenes lovingly enclosed in glass display domes from her shop Boxes of Glass, posts vendors’ work on the mall’s social media accounts, and dreams up events, like the annual holiday market. Khalil Othman, whose wife, Jessica, sells crocheted plush creatures as A Chain of Events, offers handyman skills throughout the mall as their daughter Hula-Hoops close by. “There’s a real sense of community,” says vendor and upcycler Melissa Boscolo, who takes turns running Enslow’s trailer. And the whole I-5 adjacent strip feels like an extension of that neighborliness, where nearby bar servers happily play witness to Shotgun Ceremonies’ shipping container elopements, and chance meetings between friends happen with the frequency of a small town.
Seattle’s self-proclaimed “oldest neighborhood” has changed since its early days of railroaders and Rainier Beer. But despite housing prices rising over the years, the usual specters of gentrification—lookalike condos, aesthetically draped string lights—have mostly steered clear. That’s not totally surprising: The vast majority of the land is zoned for industrial use, with just 7.7 percent reserved for housing. And though some happily accept rumbling jet-fueled interruptions to their quirky shipping container nuptials, most would take exception during bedtime.
Still, every drop of Georgetown was hard-won through active resistance. Since 1996, Bennett Properties has bought up much of the commercial spots on the main drag with the goal of restoring and revitalizing “the last bastion of reality in Seattle,” as founder John Bennett called the neighborhood in an interview with Seattle Business Magazine. Down the street, community-focused developer Sam Farrazaino offers six-figure square footage (and counting) to artists via Equinox Studios—in an era when such spaces are barely hanging on, much less expanding. “It’s part of the fabric of the community” to have artists “thriving to a degree where we can live comfortably,” mall owner (and Equinox tenant) Enslow says.
It’s helped create a neighborhood where people nonchalantly head out on a shopping trip in a car shaped like a giant lemon or arrive at the mall’s bubblegum pink chapel with a Pee-wee doll for a groom (only to have their vows cut off by a jet plane). It brings “the rare and sublime” advertised by the Trailer Park Mall’s tagline to Georgetown in spades.
Next time you find yourself wondering whether it’ll last, instead ask yourself: How can I make sure it does? “Come down here,” Cole Swain says, “and don’t forget your wallet.”