Now that I’ve been living in the Pacific Northwest for a bit over two years, I sometimes reflect on the things I miss and don’t miss about living back east.
Things I most certainly don’t miss include the stifling humidity, the allergies (I’m literally allergic to the air in my own hometown), and the bleakness of winter when all the leaves fall off the trees and leave a barren landscape of brown sticks for months at a time.
Things I do miss include lightning bugs and crickets during the summer, proper bagels and pizza slices in New York, and the occasional drama of a strong Midwestern thunderstorm.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, I miss the architectural landmarks that help give various cities their civic identity. My hometown of Cincinnati punches far above its weight in that department, with nationally-renown landmarks such as Music Hall, Union Terminal, and the Over-the-Rhine historic district. My adopted hometown of Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper, with older landmarks by Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan sharing the skyline with mid-century classics like the Inland Steel Building and the John Hancock Center.
When I lived in New York City for a while, I’d go out of my way to pass through neoclassical palaces like the New York Public Library and Grand Central Terminal. One can legitimately be aghast at such colonialist chest thumping and simultaneously marvel at the public spaces it created. When you arrive on a train at Grand Central, there’s no question that you’ve arrived someplace that matters. Compare to the dungeon-like experience across Midtown at Penn Station, where the demise of that facility’s predecessor in 1963 lit a fire under the historic preservation movement nationwide. (In fact, I was so put off by Penn Station during a summer internship in NYC that I made it the subject of my grad school thesis.)
We don’t really have as much of that here in Seattle. The Pioneer Square district is a happy exception—it reminds me a lot of downtown Savannah, Georgia minus the Spanish moss. Pike Place Market is truly one of a kind, and there’s the Space Needle and the Monorail, which are unique for somehow having gone from being futuristic to historic without ever having been truly contemporary. The future certainly isn’t what it used to be. But King Street Station? All well and good, mind you, but it’s no Grand Central Terminal.
Which brings us to the Showbox Theater on First Avenue, which is currently threatened by a proposed high-rise tower on the site. I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about this one. Some of my favorite musical experiences have taken place in similar venues, like seeing King Crimson at the Park West in Chicago, and The Sun Ra Arkestra with Yo La Tengo at the Trocadero in Philadelphia. I also know what it’s like to lose a beloved venue: RIP, Chicago’s Lounge Ax and The Double Door. I’m not completely unsympathetic to those calling for the Showbox’s preservation.
But based on its architectural merits, the Showbox just doesn’t meet the threshold of a historic landmark. Its exterior is bland and nondescript—I lived on First Avenue a block away from the Showbox for over two years, but still had to look it up on Google Street View to remind myself what it looks like. It’s certainly not in the same league as grand palaces like the Moore Theater on Second Avenue or the Paramount on Pine. Its interior has been extensively modified over the years, which is typically a big strike against properties up for designation as landmarks. It’s also pretty safe to presume that the cost of bringing the Showbox up to modern seismic and ADA standards would be prohibitive.
That hasn’t stopped city council from springing into action. Let’s give the City of Seattle credit where due: when it comes to truly important things like addressing the housing crisis or public transit, the glaciers on Mount Rainier move faster. But watch the city government sprint with the urgency of Usain Bolt when given any chance to take a purely symbolic stand that requires no political backbone. This past month, city council passed a resolution that temporarily expands the Pike Place Market historic district a block east to include the Showbox.
Regardless of the Showbox’s merits as a historic landmark, this approach to preservation is like killing a fly with a Howitzer and seems to be driven more by misplaced nostalgia and anti-density fanaticism than by genuine concern for historic preservation. It smells a lot like what our friends down in the Bay Area are up to, where things like gas stations and laundromats can simply be declared “historic landmarks” because a bunch of wealthy neighbors don’t want new housing being built there.
What’s next, Seattle? “I once saw Pearl Jam at that theater when I was in high school, so we absolutely must save it. Also, I used to wash my Pearl Jam t-shirt at that laundromat, so yeah, we need to save that, too. And Eddie Vedder once filled up his car at that gas station. Boom. Historic landmark.”
And it’s ultimately counterproductive: If preservationists choose this hill to die upon, good luck pretending you have any credibility the next time a legitimate landmark in Seattle comes under threat.
Ironically, New York’s Penn Station shows a possible way forward for the Showbox. Sitting on top of Penn Station is the current incarnation of Madison Square Garden. Since 1879, The Garden has been home to concerts, sporting events, political conventions, and other events with far more historical consequence than anything that has taken place within the walls of the Showbox. The current facility is the fourth venue to bear the name Madison Square Garden, and nobody is going to argue with a straight face that it has the even slightest merit as an architectural landmark. Chances are good that within the next decade or so, Penn Station will be rebuilt again. At that time Madison Square Garden, along with all its cultural memories, will likely find its way to yet a new home.
And so it should be with the Showbox. Build the new tower, and carve out space for a new and improved Showbox within it. In time, nobody will miss the old one.
Originally published in The Stranger on 5 September 2018.