The Ruining Element

Posted on | January 26, 2010 | Comments Off on The Ruining Element

A couple of Fridays ago, my sweetie and I headed out to the Ballard neighborhood here in Seattle. To get there, we had to traverse the western edge of the Fremont neighborhood.

As we turned the corner and headed west down Leary away from Fremont, I noticed a group of four women on the corner of 39th and Leary headed east towards Fremont. They were dressed up like they were getting ready to hit a dance club of some sort.

Perhaps you are familiar with the look: high heels, tight low slung jeans, and a sheer top that shows off what I’ve heard referred to as “the Muffin Top.” I guess it might be considered an urban look, in the hip hop sense. But I associate it more with a bridge and tunnel, Jersey Shore, suburban archetype.

When I saw those folks, the following thought immediately popped into my head: “the Ruining Element.” For Fremont did not used to be a place where urban styled, Jersey Shore wannabes hung out. It had more of a funky hippie feeling to it, the last vestiges of which still survive in the a large statue of Vladimir Lenin by the Taco Del Mar and the annual Solstice Parade, with its crazy floats and naked bike riders. But little by little over the last 15 years, that aesthetic has been developed out of Fremont, replaced by one that is more popular with people like the ladies above.

After passing the ladies, we continued on towards Ballard, and I starting reflecting a little bit on that neighborhood. Located on the waterfront, Ballard spent most of its history as a quiet Norwegian neighborhood filled with fisherman who worked hard and spent their off hours drinking at places like Hattie’s Hat, the Sunset, the Copper Gate, the Sloop, the Viking Tavern, and the Salmon Bay Eagles Club.

When I moved to Seattle in 1992, a lot of that old Ballard was still evident. But the working class fisherman feeling had also been diluted by a mix of hippies, bikers, polar fleece wearing outdoor enthusiasts, and maybe a few grad students from the University of Washington. It wasn’t really my scene at the time. So the first few years I lived in town, I didn’t go there very much, except maybe to shop at Ballard Computer or to see a show at the Backstage, a club that booked roots leaning artists like Uncle Tupelo.

But starting around 1996 or 1997, Ballard became the center of my social universe (although I have never actually lived there). After the Backstage closed, many of the acts that traditionally had played there moved over to the Tractor Tavern, which opened in 1994 (if memory serves). And a few years later the owner of the Tractor, the former owner of the Backstage, and a couple of their friends bought Hattie’s Hat, just down the street.

The new owners had a preservationist bent, and aside from cleaning things up a bit and putting in a better food menu, they pretty much left Hattie’s the way it was, which at least for people like me, made it seem that much more like a cool place to hang out.

Together, Hattie’s and the Tractor became the hub of what some of us started calling the Senior Circuit, to distinguish it from the younger hipster scene in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. If you were over 30 and you still loved seeing live music and going out to bars, Ballard evolved into a nice place to go do that with similarly situated people.

The glory days of the Ballard Senior Circuit persisted for a good long run as these things go (almost a decade). Indeed, in many respects, it’s still going strong. But the last few years have also brought some pretty major changes in the nieghborhood. Rents are going up. More and more condos, expensive shops, and restaurants are going in, and you see a lot more Lexus, BMW, and, Mercedes driving down Ballard Ave.

So amongst my peers, there’s been a fair amount of kvetching about the negative effect of all this and how the Ruining Element seems to be more and more present.

And I would be lying if I said that I had never thought that thought or said it out loud. But if I’m honest, I also have to acknowledge that the Ruining Element is always in the eye of the beholder.

My friends didn’t have ill intent when they bought Hattie’s Hat. Indeed, they probably saved it from being stripped of its charm and turned into something more generic. They also did their best to make the existing regulars comfortable. But over time, as more and more people like me started frequenting the bar, less and less of those folks came in. And I’m sure in the minds of the folks who went away, people like me were the Ruining Element.

So I guess I shouldn’t get too bent out of shape about the people who drive their fancy cars onto Ballard Ave to go to new places like Matador, Balmar, and Bastille. For in a different time and place, the effect of my arrival on the incumbent community probably wasn’t too much different than the effect these new folks are having on my community now.

I guess that’s just what happens when you live in a city for 18 years (the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere). You become more aware of the ephemeral nature of things like neighborhood character and community feeling, and how certain things can seem immutable for long stretches of time and then seemingly overnight transform into something else.

It really is like Marx said about life in the modern world: “All that is solid melts into air.”

Ten years into the 21st century, I know there’s nothing particularly profound in that observation. But it still seems like something worth remembering, especially if fate finds you in that intolerant place, muttering about the Ruining Element.

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