butting in…

Posted 26th January 2007 by tom

After nearly 13 months of Washington’s smoking ban, this week’s birdcage liner has written a front page expose on the proliferation of butts littering our public spaces. The feature article is worth perusing although it is somewhat light fare for a feature. After reading, file subsequently under “The Obvious — Mastery of — Tell Us Something We Don’t Know”.

There is a good reason for my snark that goes well beyond the Seattle Weekly bashing that is the height of Emerald City fashion these days. Way back at this time last year, we had a stellar undergraduate student work on an independent study project to document and investigate the effects of the then-only-months-old smoking ban. With more initiative and resolve than I would have had, she gave up sleeping in on Sundays and investigated several bar-heavy neighborhoods on the mornings after weekend debauchery –most notably Ballard, Capitol Hill, and Pioneer Square. Additionally, she took a ton of photographs. And unlike the Weekly, which spoke to only some deputy vice-komissar at King County Public Health, Beth went straight to the top and contacted Roger Valdez, head butt-snuffer himself.

I found his comments particularly telling of the bureaucratic mindset and of the militant zealotry that prevented anyone from actually thinking about the implications of the ban:

[Mr. Valdez] told me that most of the planning had been around how to deal with the expected onslaught of complaints about violations concerning the 25-foot rule. The number of complaints, however, turned out to be far fewer than expected. Valdez admitted that an increase in cigarette butts on city streets was never a consideration but acknowledged that it (as well as increased noise issues) is, indeed, a problem. Interestingly enough, Valdez noted that an increase in cigarette butts could be a positive thing because it shows that people are following the law.

Her full reflection and selected photographs can be viewed on the project web site. I can’t really criticize the Weekly’s skinny article too much cuz nobody cares what us academic types say, so it gives us a chance to piggyback our work on the popularity of a mainstream media piece while saying “we told you so” at the same time.

Personally, the execution and the draconian mean-spiritedness of the ban rubbed me the wrong way, which is why I, as a non-smoker, vehemently opposed the ban. The entire campaign was run on a very emotional –rather than factual– level reminiscent of the way certain presidential administrations run shop. With relative impunity, the majority felt free to run rampant over the minority. Furthermore, as Philip Dawdy so masterfully analyzed, it was a divisive campaign to vilify and dehumanize smokers themselves. Moreover, such dubious legislation resulting from a flawed initiative could easily be transferred to run any rights-curtailing campaign. The day that municipal units decided to redefine outdoor bus shelters as enclosed public spaces warranting protection of the 25-foot rule, I knew that the long arm of the law had reached too far.

At one time last summer, I had written a polemic piece about this whole debacle. And that was long after I had the chance to cool down a bit. I was annoyed by the nagging feeling that Mr. Valdez et al. despised smoking so much that providing ashtrays seemed verbotten for fear of encouraging smoking within the 25-foot zone, or breaking the law somehow by providing a venue for people to light up. It was mystifying how quickly any ashtray had been Stalinistically purged from the public sphere.

These days, though, we are trying to be more constructive. Therefore, we’ll end on a positive note by pointing, as usual, to the forward thinking of our neighbours to the Nourth, who realize that you can have your smoking restrictions while still providing for the needs of citizens who smoke.

Mr. Valdez, let us have some ashtrays!

chicago aerials

Posted 24th January 2007 by tom

These photos were taken aboard Southwest Flight 202 from Seattle to Chicago on December 22, 2006.

Here we are over the Thornton Quarry, looking south. That’s I-80 in the foreground; notice the bridge carrying the Interstate across the deep hole in the ground.


Thornton Quarry, looking south

Looking northeast over Lake Calumet. Right now, it is sort of an industrial lake, part of the somewhat derelict Port of Chicago, located next to a landfill and other industrially-ruined lands. Its shores have been artificially shaped into slips for shipping with a turning basin at the top of the lake. There are plans for clean-up and wetlands restoration.


Lake Calumet

Looking northeast, here’s the junction of junction of Interstates 94 and 57. Unlike suburbanites, Chicagoans like to use proper names instead of highway numbers. So let’s go about this from the top. The Dan Ryan (Expressway; I-94) comes in from the north and splits into the Bishop Ford Freeway (formerly known as the Calumet Expressway; I-94) and I-57, which doesn’t have a name because it is sort of the red-headed stepchild of Chicago expressways. It is also the major highway for students travelling between Chicago and the University of Illinois or Southern Illinois University –or for drugs being shipped to Chicago from the south.


I-57 ad I-94 junction

We took several twists and turns over the city, resembling a big S shape, before landing at Midway from the northeast. Here is our final big turn before lining up on the runway.


View of downtown, with wing

Finally, we flew over this commercial strip along South Pulaski Avenue. I noticed that I could see my uncle/aunt/cousin’s house, so I took a picture.


South Pulaski Avenue

South Komensky Avenue cropped from the photo above. I could even see the concrete patio in their backyard.


South Komensky Avenue

Damn this is a nice camera!

five volcano day

Posted 23rd January 2007 by tom

I love taking aerial photos from airplane windows. I took this photo on my flight to Chicago on December 22, 2006.

photo of Cascade volcanoes, looking south

Foreground to background: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson.

I assume the last one is Jefferson since that is the next one in the chain.

Left to right: Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Saint Helens.

The San Antonio Decorated Shack

Posted 19th December 2006 by irina

a shorter version of this is posted on my blog

Only the tourists walk in San Antonio, Texas. After a couple of days at the National Communication Conference we decided to get out of the tourist themed commercial zone of the Riverwalk and headed north, the city quickly turned to sprawl. We were vaguely looking for an old whorehouse, now a hip old tilted Victorian house/coffee shop. Every local told us that it was way too far to drive to it, the map told us it was a 2 mile walk.

We decided to see where the widening streets might take us. Our way was littered with dilapidated Victorian houses, urban decay, an art school haven, unexpected graffiti, and plenty of decorated shacks. This painting is a memorial mural over an industrial building that we thought was empty until we saw a tattooed guy come out an iron gated door. We guessed, maybe it was a squat. The entire building was painted from top to bottom and one side had the mural to Angel. There is a list of tags on the right wall in this image (Angel’s friends?). He was born in 1979 and died in 2006.

Naked cherubs lurking in the doorways and Angel’s hair spread along the wall in wavy curls, the mural transforms the ordinary building into either a sacred or a profane space, depending on what side of the Broken Windows argument you’re on.

San Antonio art museum falls into the butt ugly beautiful category. The color must have come from the mismatched section of the paint store for 50% off. And the building is basically a rectangle reminiscent of a prison. But in the true style of the decorated shack, described by Venturi, an interesting window shape and some conceptual art balls rolling out of it, make this building surreal and admirable. A resourceful way to make the ugly into the eye catching.

Like this pig crouching over a little shed, the decorated shack is effective in intriguing the driver from a distance and cheap. Basically bargain price architecture.

Venturi described this is as “inclusive architecture” that efficiently makes for a more vital city. While modern architecture is concerned with good taste and order and often renders the place uninteresting and sterile, the vernacular architecture of the decorated shack brings life to the street. Modernists got rid of small decorations on buildings and unconsciously created mega-structures that themselves became expensive ornament (Seattle Public Library for example). Venturi argues for the ugly and ordinary architecture (decorated with sign) over the heroic architecture (building as the sign) as being more socially responsible because decoration is more flexible, cheaper and adapts better to the environment.

Not sure if I agree because a solid building that is art in itself is more likely to last longer and more resources are saved when a building is built with good materials and to last. Too often the shack is so flimsy that it needs to be demolished and replaced and no one cares because the materials and craftsmanship are so crappy and plastic. This turns into the old debate about what’s better, democratization or conservation of resources.

But i sure do appreciate the decorated shack over the predictable strip mall architecture, like this Safeway plaza turned into a Mega church! You can still see the faded ghost signs of the pharmacy and the Safeway sign is replaced by the small abstract painting of a cross. I wonder why they bothered to get such a large space and opted for such a small sign. I wonder how the members of this church feel about going to Safeway for their religion.

Ave Prepares For Much Needed New Thai And Pho Joints

Posted 1st December 2006 by tom

Originally posted to Seattlest.com on November 29, 2006
[ Link]

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With the closure of yet more businesses, the Ave’s storefront streetscape is treated to more vacant storefronts. We’ve given up thinking that such things are harbingers of the end of the world or, more locally, the Death of the Ave. People in this town, or any town for that matter, love talking about and citing evidence for the Death of insert business district. We believe that commercial turnover is just another one of those cycles that happens. Unless the UW decides to up and move, the Ave will very likely remain the area’s “campustown” commercial and restaurant strip–through better and through worse.

Off The Wall was one of those cheesy head shops that sold pot accoutrements and incense to the masses. It was the place to go if, as a college kiddie, you wanted to show off your rebelious individuality by getting a Bob Marley poster or a t-shirt with the likeness of Che Guevara on it. As such, it always had slightly less character than the other, more cramped tobacco shops up and down the street.

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This is a shame, since the physical store itself had a charming spatial configuration. It was one of those old-style storefronts in which the entry was recessed into the facade. The doors were centered on a U-shaped front window. As one turned off the sidewalk and headed for them, there was a 15-foot stretch of roofed, enclosed space transitioning between public sidewalk and the private property of the store’s interior. On either side of you, then, there was a windowed display area where, in the romanticized past, the merchant could show off his or her finest and newest wares.

More importantly, however, it was one of those nebulous semi-private or semi-public spaces–it was technically private property but it was open to the public and not really part of the store. It was an enclosure–a separate transition space. It was a place where a homeless person could reasonably and comfortably sleep out of the elements while offending nobody, visually or physically. It was also a space into which Chas. could duck out of the rain as he serendipitously ran into Hal, his chum, walking down the street the other way. The two would converse there for a few minutes without obstructing the sidewalk. During the conversation, Chas. would spy a piece of fine haberdashery in the display and then buy it after Hal excused himself to run off to an important appointment at 11:15.

Seattlest mourns the loss of such genteel public spaces.

So it was with a certain amount of nostalgic malaise that we looked on as the new owner of the space demolished the recessed entryway and proceeded with construction of a new, flat, characterless storefront. We certainly don’t wish to challenge the inviolable right of private property and the self-determination that comes with it, but we are apprehensive about these developments. Far too many times in recent years, we’ve watched a vacant storefront on the Ave re-emerge as Yet Another Pho place or Yet Another Thai place. Don’t get us wrong, we lovelovelove both pho and Thai. However, we’ve had it with the lack of culinary diversity we’ve begun seeing on the Ave. And we’ve already watched a decent Greek place, a sub shop, and a Creperie close up shop.

Some day soon, we’d like to dig into the new owner’s plans, so that perhaps we’ll get some indication of what will appear. In the meantime, there are two additional vacant storefronts on the street level of this building. Our greatest fear is that the Asian Hegemony will continue to squeeze the strained gut of the Ave.

If we’re lucky we might get another Starbucks. After all, there is not one currently on this end of that block– why bother when Sureshot is across the street and Trabant is just down 45th–and the only other one is down at 42nd–right across from Cafe on the Ave and Bulldog News.

On the other hand, what with the Ave’s commercial turnover, it’ll be just a few months before whatever opens here goes out of business and is replaced by that new WalBartRite that we so desperately need.

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good morning, ice world

Posted 1st December 2006 by tom

Originally posted to Seattlest.com on November 29, 2006.
[ Link ]

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NE 52nd Street, University District, Seattle

Back when we lived in the periodically-frozen tundra, we dutifully shoveled our sidewalks because, personally, we hated walking across others’ snowy sidewalks which subsequently froze over to resemble the desert of Arizona a jagged lunar surface. And after shoveling, the procedure called for sprinkling one’s walk with automotive-floorboard-eating, soil-poisoning rock salt to melt any ice. Thankfully, these days there are some less harmful alternatives that will not harm our verdant metronaturality Emerald City.

We utterly failed in our civic duty the other day. Good Pedestrians and Perambulators, we do apologize! On the other hand, aren’t leaves frozen in ice kinda pretty?

Well, it seems that the folks over at Getty Images would have none of this prettiness –what do they know about pretty imagery anyway?– and duly de-iced their sidewalks. Getty is located in a two block stretch known as the Fremont Tech Ghetto; this district includes other luminaries such as Adobe, Google, and, most importantly, a small company what empowers librarians.

Needless to say, a lotta highly important shit goes down in this area, day in and day out. There can be no tolerance for people succumbing to the whims of weather and the compromised physics of reduced traction. But being the visual connoisseurs that they are, the building stewards at Getty threw out a colorful twist on the old, boring, white pellet de-icer…

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600 block, N 34th Street, Fremont, Seattle

Russian art

Posted 15th October 2006 by irina

This summer, a trip to the homeland left me wanting more. After only ten days, my head was swimming with thoughts about all of the paradoxes that are now post communist Russia.

Statues of Lenin smeared with pigeon shit next to coca cola signs, Kentucky Fried Chicken written in Cyrillic and translated into Russian — ципленок кентаки, newly shined and polished façades of the touristy Nevsky Prospect just blocks away from utter post-soviet decay.

Wealthy young Russians with cell phones and fancy cars, post-soviet grannies begging for change or selling pathetically wilting flowers, old men working as billboards for banks.

Amway in Russia???!!

Another paradox that struck me is the incredibly prolific, sexy and inspired public art in contrast to the hollowness of advertisements slowly spreading over the city like some alien virus.

This sculpture is one of the four famous iron “horse tamers” on the four corners of Anechkov bridge over Fontanka canal. Each of the four sculptures shows a tamer, progressively taming the horse. On one corner, the tamer is on the ground getting trampled under the feet of the rearing animal. In this one, he is walking calmly along. I was awed not only by the shiny, perfection of the round buttocks, but also by the incredible detail. The animal skin draped over the muscular and veiny rump of the horse looks soft, though it’s cast in iron.

The story itself is Russianly poetic. Man taming nature, yet there is something melancholy about it. The man is naked alongside the horse. He is pummeled by the beast and I don’t feel the righteousness of victory. The progression is more about the struggle. These sculptures stand over a channel that flows into the temperamental river Neva. Many people died in it while St. Petersburg was being built.

A hunk of granite is missing from the pedestal. A plaque tells the story. The pedestal was damaged during WWII by artillery fire but the statues survived because they were removed and buried in the palace garden nearby. My mom remembers when the statues were resurrected after the war was over. She saw them when she was a little girl, these naked men kept safe in the earth, raised back out of the dirt.

What can be more poetically paradoxical than the symbol of man’s triumph over nature protected by the earth itself from the destructiveness of man?

leaving a psychic wake in Grays Harbor County

Posted 14th October 2006 by tom

A recent post by Urban Archivist John’ has drawn some attention from Aberdeenians. Welcome Aberdeenians! We’re glad you’ve stumbled upon our fledgling blog. As the administrator, I’ve had to approve the comments (due to the current rise in abuse by comment spammers.) Anyway, these comments have reminded me that I’ve had a small essay cooling on the back burner. As a result, I have finally finished it. It represents some thoughts I had when passing through Aberdeen and Hoquiam on the weekend of September 10.

the road through Aberdeen, Washington

Aberdeen reminds me a little bit of Escanaba, da UP, Michigan. Both towns are situated in lucrative timber country. Both possess desirable, coastal locations and access to water-borne commerce and transport. And both towns have seen their economic hey-days and are perhaps waiting for the nadir of the cycle to swing upward. They have the enduring and historic architecture to prove it, relics of a more boosterist, speculatist, and skyward-looking time.

Currently, they are afflicted with some of the remnants, or ruins, of busted, downsized, or relocated industries. The industries, mostly timber related, that have remained are a fraction of their former size and import; yet they still push onward and do what they can to keep themselves and the town economies spinning. And despite the loss of jobs and prestige, the remaining residents seem determined to weather the long-haul with a certain personal tenacity mixed with acceptance, civic pride to counter the criticisms of outsiders, and a subtle glimmer of hope in the future.

I have been in Aberdeen on a handful of occasions, unfortunately all of which involved passing through on the way to somewhere else. At most, I have done a loop on the main drag or stopped in the decrepit Top Foods (has it been replaced? I have not been able to find it.) to pick up some supplies before venturing back into the hinterlands. I suppose that I, too, have left a bit of what fellow Urban Archivist, John, so eloquently called “psychic graffiti left in the wake of passing Puget Sounders on their way to” somewhere else.

In my defense, I hope that it wasn’t too much the result of “indifference, vapid hostility, and eyes that can easily overlook whats right in front of them.” On the one hand, it is easy to fall prey to such pratfalls when making quick judgements about a locale based on “windshield surveys” rather than by doing some social research legwork. On the other hand, I do fancy myself empathic to people and place and, as a result, I tend to feel social environments and built environments. Also, I’m a sucker for a good urban story; despite my sometimes brazen comments, I’m wholly willing to give towns, and their citizens, a patient ear and a sporting chance.

To those ends, I have always harbored some curiosity toward Aberdeen and its surrounding area. After all, there is something charming about the sound of Grays Harbor County. Gray –very Washingtonian– and Grays Harbor sounds distant, haunting, very hinterlands-like. Some day –and I hope soon– I will be able to delve into some of Aberdeen’s mystique.

Aberdeen, like its UP counterpart, has always given me a melancholy feeling –more bittersweet rather than depressing. Perhaps it was something I read in the rusting physical infrastructure or perhaps it was in the collective average of what I saw on peoples’ faces. And, no doubt, it was also partly due to what I have heard in outsiders’ comments about Aberdeen. So, all of this points to the fact that there is some foundation there, some established historical basis for the story that is Aberdeen. Certaily, much of it involves the past rather than the present. However, the lovely thing about history is that it tends to revolve around itself cyclically –and non-linearly– with something new and novel emerging on each revolution, given a keen eye and the “landscape literacy” to recognize it, that is. As a result, even though Aberdeen may have had a brighter past than it is having a present, it has something solid to build on for the future.

southbay college of TOM

Image courtesy of Laura Passin.

Of course, my personal inclination would be to institute and provide a strong (higher) educational foundation. In the silliest narratives of my pantheon of personal fantasies, I have grand delusions of amassing a fortune, a la the greedy industrial barons of the nineteenth century, and subsequently spending it on pedagogic philanthropy. In essence, I would like to become the Andrew Carnegie of colleges. I have in the past pontificated on the establishment of Port Townsend (or Admiralty) College centered in the beautiful Jefferson County Courthouse overlooking Admiralty Inlet, say, or Forks College in Forks, Washington. The former would specialise in oceanography, maritime trade and business, and perhaps boatbuilding while the latter would have a solid writing programme and a Melancholy Studies department.

Thus, as we drove through Aberdeen the other day, I thought that a college in or near Aberdeen would be in a spanking location for an institution specialising in forestry, forest resource management, silviculture, and other forms of dendrologic study. Upon further research, it seems that something already exists with the charmingly-named Grays Harbor College. Perhaps they should think about adding a Seaside Town Studies department; I am available to cobble a program together, GHC.

My other inclination would be to facilitate investment of The Gay Dollar in the area. The power of The Gay Dollar is certainly nothing to be trifled with. It is something that can bring stunning new life into shuddered old hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, and the like. Certainly, a modest tourist influx could add smashingly to the town economy. Aberdeen is, after all, at a strategic crossroads for traffic headed to Ocean Shores, on the hand, and Westport, on the other. Admittedly, this is part of my greater personal agenda to build cross-cultural tolerance, at least, and acceptance, ideally. In the end, my utopian goal would be to have events like neighboring Hoquiam’s Logger’s Play Day happily co-exist with Pride. It is a project that would take some time, of course, and wouldn’t work overnight… but think about it, Aberdeen.

Speaking of crossroads, perhaps it is useless to protest the “interstatization” of blue highways and its attendant bypassing of central business districts. It seems to be The Way Of Things.However, I hope that the road through Aberdeen, which takes Pugetopolitans to the ocean beaches, remains a road through Aberdeen, rather than around it, for a lengthy time into the future. Nothing will further perpetuate the myth of many current and future passers-through that Aberdeen is some hole-in-the-wall than a bypass. If mere passing through some town is bad enough, bypassing it entirely is orders of magnitude worse.

Should the conversation arise, please don’t do it, Aberdeen, no matter how many big-box retailers promise to build on the bypass’s new frontage! Only a road through Aberdeen’s core will allow thoughtful people, people who can readily recognize a given town’s uniqueness and potential, to intersect with local folk of the same inclination. Bypasses showcase depressing, big-box homogeneity; as a result, towns become soulless shells… nothing more than cleared lots for the next incarnation of BedApplebeesHomeDespotandBeyond.

the friendliest politics: Hoquiam, Washington?

banner proclaiming hoquiam as the friendliest city

Hoquiam, Wash.: A banner proclaiming it The Friendliest City.

Upon crossing into Aberdeen’s next-door-neighbor, Hoquiam, there is a noticeable change in the landscape. Whereas we saw very little electioneering signage in Aberdeen, there was a bumper crop in Hoquiam. We don’t know whether there is some ordinance in Aberdeen or whether Hoquiamites are just greater believers in representative democracy. Of course, part of the charged atmosphere had something to do with the festivities surrounding Loggers’ Play Day. The town was preparing for a parade as we were driving through and there were a large number of people decked out for their candidates, both Republicrat and Dempublican. A parade was forming and so were floats for the various candidates.

Even more curiously, aside from a swollen dose of big-D-Democracy and the presence of little-d-democrats, the area also seems to turn out well for big-D-Democrats. This we judged from the maddening amount of signage we saw for Democrat pols. We have never seen so many Democrats outside of Seattle… or Olympia… or Bellingham. Let me rephrase: to see the Democratic party so visible outside the “urban archipelago” these days, especially here where the Peninsula attaches itself to the mainland, is particularly noteworthy these days.

Relatedly, from what I’ve been told, some partisanship abates when it comes to Norm Dicks, the area’s representative in Congress. A lot of electorate seems to like Norm, certainly enough to re-elect him 15 times since 1977. And Norm repays his constituents and the state in kind, which is certainly something we would expect from a protege of the late and great Warren Magnuson. Suffice to say: people here like Dicks… cuz he brings home the pork –if you know what I mean.

welcome Olympians!

Posted 14th October 2006 by tom

I just wanted to write a little note to say hello (Howdy!) and thank you for your comments to my recent post. I hope to think and write more about Olympia in the immediate future and I hope that I will be able to get aquainted with some Olympian happenings and news. Also, perhaps I will start posting some photographic impressions and misc.thoughts of your fine burg to Olyblog.

Cheers!

extreeeme olympia washington

Posted 19th September 2006 by tom

I have been spending more time in Olympia as of late, which is something that I have wanted to do since I landed in Cascadia. Perhaps it is due to my first impressions of Olympia from that grey December of 1998 that have influenced me so positively. I have always liked the entrance to Olympia coming off of I-5. The off-ramp takes one past a back end of the Capitol Campus and under a plaza before putting one across Capitol Way from the Legislative Building’s front lawn. All the while, one is surrounded by lush (ever)greenery. The capitol dome’s drum is one of the most impressive of any state capital, perhaps even more so than the Federal Capitol given that the Leg. Building’s dome is so disproportionately large. I never tire of driving into Olympia.

My Hot Research Associate has recently begun working in the area and so has moved to Oly to be closer to her job. She rents a quaint little studio in a small complex on Capitol Way just in the shadow of the capitol. It seems rather European, what with its modest, two-story, old framing, its walk-up nature, and the pots and hanging baskets full of colorful flowers all around. It is also somewhat like a motor court except with much less court. There is an alleyway splitting the two buildings of the complex; garages are below and apartments are on the second floor. Best of all, the complex is a few blocks beyond the capitol and a few block before downtown.

The city is such a green state capital, too. In fact, the colder, wetter, and grayer the weather, the greener the scenery. Like most everything and everybody in western Washington, the crappier the weather, the happier the citizenry and the shrubbery. This is what struck me in 1998. Even the maps reflect this–paper maps, not the flim-flam scribblings that pass for populist cartography on the web these days. Open any decent road map and one will find the blotted green pattern, indicative of large swaths of public forest land, surrounding Olympia. And where this is not forest, there is water, the Sound. Despite the odd timbre of the word moist, it is entirely apropos in describing Olympia: moist, misty, mossy, and earthy. But aside from the climate, though, the city is also a rather Green state capital, too.

Olympia is an odd mix of old Hippies, college kids (many of whom are hippies… or some other organic, crunchy-in-soy-milk variant), state government workers, and the real people (that get shit done) that one would expect to find in a town this size. Thanks to the presence of The Evergreen State College, Olympia has become known partially for being a college town. In the U.S., state capitals generally do not double as meaningful college towns since major schools, especially if they are land-grant, public institutions, are located in other towns–certain pesky Big Ten towns notwithstanding. Sometimes, this was a case of deliberate negotiation and machination. This was certainly the case in Washington state, where Seattle got the university, Oly got the capital, lucky Walla Walla got the state penitentiary, and Tacoma got no respect. In any case, Olympia has the value-added benefit of college-town relations to make things even more interesting. Undoubtedly, Evergreen attracts people who under other conditions would not have gravitated toward Olympia.

My Hot Research Associate and I play a game whenever we are out wandering the streets. We make gross and stereotypical spot assessments of people as (blue-collar) townies, Evergreen kids, townie hippies (frequently post-Evergreentonians), or legislative aids based on outward appearances. It’s all in fun, of course; however, this game has elicited a compelling observation about Olympia: the various social archetypes are denser here than anywhere else in the state.

The city’s relatively small size has a lot to do with it. Whereas in Seattle various sub-cultures are more diluted and dispersed, cliques and subcultures in Olympia visually aggregate more readily. One sees more examples of each major subculture; it is a concentration bordering on the point of saturation. It is a little like browsing the section of essential oils in some homeopathic/herbal shop. Overwhelming.

At the risk of sounding inanely reductionist, it sometimes seems like Olympia is a condensed Seattle. But the thinking part of me believes there is something more going on here, more complex and more nuanced. A given city can’t just be compared strictly relative to another; they exist independently and have unique factors acting upon and within them. Thus, although it is near–arguably part of–the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma megalopolis, Olympia feels a bit detached. They may get The Stranger down here, but there’s a distinct Olympiaverse that exists apart from Seattle. I suspect that it is a little like Canadian culture living in the shadow of U.S. culture.

Physically, it was very tangibly demonstrated to me these past few weekends when I could not travel directly here from Seattle. Whether by commuter train or bus, I had to transfer in Tacoma. Though familiar with Sound Transit, of course, I stepped aboard a wholly foreign bus system recently, the Intercity Transit. And therein lies a conceptual boundary: whereas Seattle and Tacoma are both part of the Sound and, thus, a unified Sound Transit, travel to Olympia is an intercity endeavor.

Like many U.S. capitals, Olympia is not the largest or most prominent city in the state. This is as it should be for it sets up a nice division of influence–and tugs of war– between the state capital, the large metropolis, and the rest of the state. It makes for interesting politics. Lacking a true urban grit, this sort of tension–political clout despite lack of size, mixed in, perhaps, with a little inferiority complex–gives small capitals their own kind of feisty grit. I’ve always liked this about places like Springfield (versus Chicago in Illinois), Lansing (versus Detroit in Michigan), and Albany (versus NYC in New York).

For all these reasons, Olympia is a fairly intense place although it is well-steeped in the general chill of the Pacific Northwest. This is certainly not a passive town by any stretch.