OVER AN IRISH BREW on a sleepy Tuesday night on historic Ballard Avenue, local architect and activist Scott Clark holds forth on his neighborhood's renaissance, saying, "Two years ago, people would have said, 'Ballard? No fucking way.'"
While mainstream developers were neglecting Ballard in favor of younger, more flexible and centrally located neighborhoods, such as Belltown and Fremont, their older, weaker cousin was attracting (by virtue of its perceived warts: depressed retail market, run-down industrial properties, cheap rents) a maverick band of artists and entrepreneurs that gave the community a wholly independent identity.
Now, Clark and a host of others see Ballard as a sleeping giant awakening to the alarm clock of prosperity and popularity—something that should have the rest of the city shaking in its boots. Not everyone is as enthusiastic about change as Clark. But while the old and new Ballard are still battling it out every day, the forces of change seem to have the upper hand.
WHEN I THINK of the term "neighborhood," I think of Wedgwood, the lily-white, upper-middle-class Northeast Seattle community with tall firs and small children where I grew up. Wedgwood proper spanned roughly 20 square blocks, containing lots of four-bedroom houses as well as a couple of taverns, Matthew's Supermarket, Dahl Field, Wedgwood Cycle, the Wedgwood Broiler, and Hunter's Tree Farm. If you wanted clothing, records, or an ice cream cone, you had to schlep to the U District.
By contrast, Ballard blows the traditional definition of "neighborhood" right out of the water. With seven "suburbs"—Sunset Hill, North Beach, Olympic Manor, Blue Ridge, Crown Hill, Loyal Heights, and Whittier Heights—Ballard and its estimated 50,000 residents make neighborhoods like Wedgwood seem puny. While 'hoods like Phinney Ridge or the Central District might have a hardware store and decent restaurant, Ballard makes its own nails and catches its own fish, thank you very much.
Ballard's blue-collar muscles partly come from its incorporation as a city just one year after Washington achieved statehood in 1889. But by 1905, pressure to consolidate with the burgeoning city of Seattle had grown strong, mainly because of Ballard's inadequate water supply.
Anxious to acquire the prosperous mill town that blocked expansion to the north, Seattle used its surplus of water as a bargaining chip. When Seattle gained exclusive rights to Cedar River water in 1906, Ballard bit the bullet. On November 6, 1906, its citizens voted to approve annexation by a narrow margin, 996 to 874.
Dejected, Ballard's City Council met for the last time on May 29, 1907. To amplify their fallen empire's demise in grandiose fashion, locals draped City Hall with black crepe and hung the city flag at half-mast. Neighborhood historian and Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beth Williamson Miller feels that dark day should be commemorated each year by "raising the Ballard Bridge and leaving it up all day, again expressing our separation."
Ballard never realized its potential. Instead, it became Seattle's remote northwestern frontier, far from the economic opportunities afforded by close proximity to Interstate 5 and the floating bridges.
WHILE BALLARD SERVED Seattle as a vital industrial, maritime, and junkyard hub, proud residents literally cried in their beers for decades, and the area developed a reputation as a rough neighborhood where "you used to have to call the cops to stop drunk sailors from fighting in your entryway," according to Dionne Haroutunian, proprietor of the Sev Shoon Art Center.
Stories of such reckless inebriation ring very true to Kay Ogren, co-owner (with her husband) of the Cajun-themed Burke's Caf頯n Ballard Avenue's north end. Back in the early '80s when Ogren opened her doors, the north end of the street housed what came to be known as the "meat trio" of Ballard Avenue watering holes—the Smoke Shop, Vasa Grill, and the old Sunset Tavern—where hard-core lushes would stumble out of the bars, throw up, and destroy property.
"Do I lament the current lack of people sitting on one of my bar stools and vomiting?" says Ogren of days past. "Not a bit!"
Smoke Shop owner Tommy Conomo refused to comment on the allegedly unruly behavior of the meat trio's patrons, abruptly hanging up the phone upon learning that he was talking to a member of the media. These days, only the reticent Conomo's neighborhood institution is the same as ever. The Vasa is being transformed into a German pub by a Microsoft alum, and the Sunset Tavern has found new life as a white-hot live music venue under former Hattie's Hat bartender Max Genereaux.
But some longtime locals, such as Rob Mattson, a blind, gregarious city employee who has run the Ballard Neighborhood Service Center since 1973, express a mischievous affection for the days when "every bar stool was filled by 6:30am." Known by most as "the Earl of Ballard" for his passionate representation of the neighborhood on civic matters, Mattson and his guide dog, Peso, occupy the "Reserved" corner table at the Smoke Shop each and every morning. Unlike the legendary Smoke Shop patrons, he takes his coffee sans Bailey's.
THE BURKE'S OGREN says it wasn't only the drunks that made life difficult in Ballard at first: When she opened her restaurant, she was quickly labeled a "hippie" for no better reason than that neither she nor her restaurant was Scandinavian. Despite this schoolyard bullying and some lean retail times, Ogren stuck it out and now finds herself in the unlikely position of old kid on the block. It gives her a unique perspective on Ballard—somewhere between people who want lots of change and the neighborhood's traditionalists. "We're not like Fremont—we don't think of ourselves as the center of the universe. We're a parallel universe," says Ogren.
Ballard's Scandinavian rabble-rousers may be the neigh- borhood's most conservative force. The Scandies, despite wanting to be perceived as the kings of Sunset Hill, have never actually comprised more than one-third of Ballard's population—and that was way back in 1910. In fact, while most its residents express a polite level of reverence for the area's Scandinavian heritage, they chuckle at the notion that the neighborhood has an inherent obligation to devote a significant portion of its retail space to Nordic trinkets. As a tourist attraction, the overhyped "Scandimania" of Market Street serves as little more than window fodder for a Sunday afternoon drive to the Ballard Locks, which are universally acknowledged as the main reason for outsiders to make the hellacious trip from the faraway freeway. Especially demoralizing for the Nordic lobby was the recent closure of the Scandie's Restaurant on 22nd and Market. As if to highlight the neighborhood's transformation, a new, wildly popular Indian restaurant, India Bistro, opened in the same space.
But tandoori cooking is not the only harbinger of culinary change. Coming out of the Market Street Kinko's in early fall, I saw something I'd never seen before in Ballard: an upscale, contemporary restaurant, the Market Street Grill. While Ballard is definitely the greasy spoon capital of Seattle—boasting Vera's, Hattie's, Johnny's, the Salm-on Bay Cafe, and the only Denny's with a pool table in its lounge, to name a few—the neighborhood somehow has never attracted the type of cuisine you see in spades downtown.
The Grill, which has opened to rave reviews, is owned by four Ballardites—the Chin and Sillers couples—who had grown weary of driving downtown every day to marinate their steaks. Co-owner Ellie Chin makes no bones about her enthusiasm for the new blood that's about to be pumped into the neighborhood, citing the influx of new upscale apartments as a reason she and her partners chose to pounce when they did.
BUT AS CRUCIAL as the housing explosion has been to spawning retail development in the neighborhood, the 800-pound gorilla of downtown Ballard's renaissance is the recent reopening of the Bay Theater by real-estate-magnate-cum-neighborhood-philanthropist Kenny Alhadeff.
While Alhadeff's energetic, over-the-top emotional style draws decidedly mixed reviews among the city's power elite, he is regarded as nothing short of a local savior in Ballard. According to general manager Brent Siewert, when Alhadeff bought the Bay in February 1998, he figured all the place needed was a thorough renovation. In actuality, the Bay—which opened in 1914 and was the longest continually running movie house in the nation—was dilapidated past the point of no return, compelling Alhadeff and company to tear it down and start from scratch.
A walk across the Bay's marble floors reveals that Alhadeff spared no expense to create a perfect blend of the old (the bricks and waterfall curtains) and the new (the technical whizbangs of modern movie houses).
For his part, the quintessential local Mattson is excited about the Bay because it fills the last gaping hole in the neighborhood's decades-long struggle to keep Market Street hopping past 5pm. "I couldn't pick a better philanthropist [than Alhadeff]," he gushes. "They did everything right. They really got to know the community on a first-name basis."
BALLARD'S BOOM looks different when you leave the Majestic Bay and head toward the high seas. Warren Aakervik Jr. and his family have owned and operated Ballard Oil, a gas pumping and slip rental business on the industrial waterfront, for 63 years. He has seen the value of his property more than double since 1998, from an average of $32 to roughly $70 per square foot, according to Hawley Realty.
A walrus of a man with tinted bifocals and a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache, Aakervik is the type of blue-collar conversationalist who seems to relish putting white-collar professionals in their place by quoting factoids about the maritime industry, for which Seattle is, in his opinion, "the capitol of the world." Container ships aside, Ballard's waterfront accounts for "75 percent" of Seattle's maritime industry, claims Aakervik, something that was not lost on the Ballard of yesteryear. "In the old days, people could tell you who caught what fish and what they got paid per pound," he says. He does not want to see a single foot of the neighborhood's maritime shorefront lost to high-rise condos.
"If I put condos up, you and I could travel the world," says Aakervik. But he points out that fishermen bring "billions" of dollars into Ballard every year. "Bedroom communities don't attract capital. You leave your capital development alone."
But not everyone is content to leave the waterfront as is. Developer Scott Surdyke of Simpson Housing is currently building the condo part of Ballard's largest single multifamily project—435 new pads on Leary Way—since the community was first settled. Surdyke expresses a genuine desire to act as a steward of its maritime industry but, in the same breath, says matter-of-factly, "You can't close the door to development."
Surdyke considers Ballard to be Seattle's version of San Francisco's revitalized former warehouse district, SoMa (South of Market area), and criticizes the careless, meteoric erection of Belltown's mismatched hodgepodge of condos, asserting that Ballard's historic, working-class fabric need not be sacrificed to the emergence of the new. A Baltimore native who lives in Magnolia, Surdyke says Ballard is "a place that appeals to people who've experienced the context of an older city."
WHILE AAKERVIK'S protectionist tactics are revered by many in Ballard, activist/ architect Clark has no stomach for such stall-ball neighborhood planning.
"It's a romantic thought that our waterfront will remain industrial," laughs Clark. "It's not. Industrial jobs will turn to digital."
Clark and Aakervik are not ideologically opposed on all fronts, however. Aakervik is perfectly fine with high-tech jobs coming to the area as long as they "don't displace the maritime community." And when Clark says "industrial," he isn't talking so much about Aakervik's maritime turf as he is about Ballard's surplus of junkyards and metal refineries.
Clark and Aakervik are also on the same page in terms of their vision of Ballard as a self-contained unit. Aakervik even goes so far as to suggest the city should find a way to knock a couple hundred dollars a month off Ballard residents' rents if they work within two miles of their homes.
Clark, who resides in an apartment above his design firm next door to the Smoke Shop, is already living that reality; he says he gets in his car only to drive people to the airport. Also, he isn't shy about blasting the City Council—the members of which, he feels, should be required to "pass an IQ test" before entering office—for its failure to get Ballard on the Sound Transit's light-rail line. "We've done our part with planning, but the city has to come up with infrastructure," he says.
As if a neighborhood with seven suburbs somehow getting left out of the rail lottery isn't perplexing enough, no Ballardite has been elected to the City Council in over 30 years. Not to worry: Critically acclaimed chef, syndicated columnist, and Ballard business owner Kathy Casey is up to the task. "I want to run for mayor, but I'd rather be mayor of Ballard than Seattle," proclaims Casey, who misses the distinction of calling herself a Ballard native by about seven blocks (she grew up on 117th and Phinney).
Formerly head chef at Fuller's, Casey was looking for a space to open Kathy Casey Food Studios—a sort of playground for chefs who want to experiment with offbeat culinary techniques—when a mutual friend introduced her to Ginny Ruffner, who had just completed a sparkling renovation of her unmarked Ballard Avenue art studio. The pair hit it off, and Casey moved in next door.
Ruffner, a world-renowned glass sculptor who had to relearn her craft after a life-altering traffic accident in 1991, came to Ballard from Belltown in 1996 because she was "collecting too much shit." Exhibiting all the passion of the converted, Ruffner doesn't waste any time taking a potshot at her old neighborhood. "It got to the point where Belltown had too many yuppies and tourists. I liked it better when it was all street people and winos."
The arrivals of luminaries like Casey and Ruffner are what compels city worker Mattson to call downtown Ballard "a little SoHo." While Ruffner, who lived in SoHo in the early '90s and thus takes Mattson's characterization more literally than most, is not too fond of this branding, the symbolism resonates nicely with folks like Black Lab Gallery owner Saundra Valencia and Pat Wickline of BendyThing, a microgallery housed in Sev Shoon that shows Wickline's copper-wire creations.
Black Lab and BendyThing are among a growing consortium of galleries that host ArtWalk on the second Saturday of each month. According to Valencia, ArtWalk really began taking off a year and a half ago and has seen its attendance double since. Valencia, who achieved a considerable amount of notoriety for starting Seattle's Street Smart Art program for graffiti artists several years ago, points to not only the neighborhood's growing popularity but also Ballard's tradition of embracing displaced artists. The most recent example, Valencia says, was the migration of a large group of artists from Pioneer Square's Shoe Building.
ONE THING PROTECTING Ballard Avenue from aesthetically undesirable development, such as Adobe's headquarters in Fremont, is that you can't change any of the property without jumping through a series of hoops. Ballard Avenue was designated a "landmarks district" in 1976, according to city worker Mattson. Any proposed redevelopment has to be approved by a seven-member board, he explains, five of whom are elected in the 'hood. It is not a ban on new construction, he emphasizes, but a requirement that development has to be in keeping with the character of the surroundings—which makes it a pretty safe bet that you won't see any Golden Arches on Ballard Avenue in the near future. Furthermore, there's no easy way to get to the freeway from Ballard.
"Things that hold you back in the beginning save your ass at the end," says Valencia, who believes the lack of interstate access is actually an attraction for people weary of our freeway's propensity to turn surrounding neighborhoods into strip malls. She feels there's currently "no snobbery" in Ballard and sees possible rent increases as the only potential threat to the neighborhood's character.
But while retail rents have steadily risen on Market Street at a rate similar to property values (residential rates have gone up, as well, but not as sharply as commercial), Ballard Avenue is the closest thing Seattle has to rent control—in no small part because virtually all of the street's buildings are owned by, in Clark's words, "a couple 60-year-old guys who went to Ballard High School and whose idea of a vacation is to go to Alaska on a Carnival [Cruise]."
One of these men is Al Mycon, whom Clark describes as "a couple sandwiches short of a picnic" and whose properties Clark says are "going to shit." But one animal's feces are another's manure. Since the Al Mycons of Ballard don't place a high priority on building maintenance, they can keep the rents down for artists. As Sev Shoon's Haroutunian puts it, "Slumlords, yeah, but in a good way."
Contrary to Clark's generalization, Mycon is in his 70s, quite lucid, was reared in Spokane, and insists that his properties "are maintained as good as any of them on Ballard Avenue." Ironically, the owner of five turn-of-the-century Ballard Avenue buildings is currently staying with his son in a Belltown high-rise. Mycon began buying buildings as soon as he arrived in Seattle in 1941, on the advice of a friend who said, "Move in where people aren't and wait for them to come."
Mycon barks good-naturedly at the newbies, singling out Alhadeff's Bay Theater. "The Bay Theater up there must be a $5 million project, with no parking. Ballard Avenue will be a driveway for 400 cars; that's not what people want to wake up to."
DESPITE MYCON's grousing, what's striking about Ballard's renaissance is that while some opinions of neighborhood stalwarts are as different as night and day, few (if any) harbor real ill will toward newcomers.
However, as the Chamber's Miller puts it, there's a certain ethic of community involvement that business owners must abide by: Those interested in making a fast buck and leaving need not apply. If you come to Ballard, you'd best be in it for the long haul.
Ballardites feel they never really have to leave the neighborhood; any wishes for better clothing stores are drowned out by Aakervik's playful assertion that if Ballard wanted to, it could easily secede.
While city officials can wax enthusiastic over Ballard's uprising, they would be wise to watch their backs. Taken over and mindlessly digested nearly a century ago by its bigger, younger rival, there remains a pervasive antidowntown attitude among Ballard merchants and residents that can be summed up by the phrase: "Come one, come all. . . . And remember, we have everything right here for ya, so there's no real reason for you to leave."
Be afraid, Seattle, be very afraid, for the city of Ballard is rising again.