AT SOME POINT you ask yourself, "If there aren't many galleries, and you can't walk it, is it still an art walk?"
For years, Pioneer Square owned the idea of "art walk" with its quirky combination of gallery personalities and funky environment. Now almost every neighborhood in Seattle, from Ballard to Columbia City, hosts some kind of evening-out event, sending us wandering through hair salons and coffee shops, as well as more traditional venues, in search of art and entertainment but also, more elusively, a sense of community. And community is something that has been in pretty short supply in the University District, so it's no surprise that it has joined the parade of art walkers.
But with 23 venues stretched out over 21 blocks, and only three hours to see them all, a walk isn't really the right image—it's more like a hike, and a brisk one at that. It starts up at Cafe Racer at Northeast 59th Street and zigzags between Roosevelt Way Northeast and 15th Avenue Northeast until you get down to the Scooter Gallery on Boat Street (or to save the wear and tear on your shoes, you can start at the end, rent a scooter, and work your way back). You don't have much time to mull over the artwork, but you do get a series of views of the changing terrain that fronts the UW.
With its combination of auto-body garages and cafes in converted gas stations, the north end of the trail is an awkward buffer between the more settled residential streets in Roosevelt and the increasing development adjacent to the school. The stops on the walk there are widely spaced, with the Kirsten Gallery the most traditional venue, showing a mixed bag of Northwest views, and the Asian-influenced work of father and son Kirsten. It's still early for dinner at the vegan Wayward Cafe, but tucked away on Northeast 55th Street off the main street, it wants to be part of the neighborhood. Proprietors up here ask if you're with the art walk, wondering if it really works.
The farther south of Northeast 50th Street you go, the closer together everything is—the new crop of apartment buildings, the jostle of people hanging out on the streets, and the couple you have to lean over at the Star Life cafe at the Grand Illusion Cinema so you can see the photos. Among the plethora of Thai restaurants and used- clothing stores on the Ave, there are line drawings in bookstores, Photoshopped images at coffeehouses, and a series of landscapes at the Trabant Chai Lounge on Northeast 45th Street. Down here, there are other art-walkers on the street, clutching the maps and peering inside the shop Gargoyles, where it's hard to see the exhibit among the rest of the works for sale. If you skip a handful of venues up by the Historic University Theater, you can make it down to the Scooter Gallery before the end of the evening, to see mysterious encaustic pieces hung amongst the Schwinns, looking like fractal images built up out of beeswax, as well as the owner's pet rabbit.
You don't have to be a marketing genius to understand that the venues are on display just as much as the art is, and that shop owners and cafe managers hope you remember them as well as the paintings and prints. And that you'll forget about the guys playing craps and selling drugs on the sidewalk between stops on the art-walk map. And yes, the $5-per-glass wine-tasting menu at World Cup Espresso was interesting, as were the anime-influenced T-shirts at Moksha. But even with these cheerful participants, you can still see the holes in the landscape, empty storefronts and shops on their way there. La Tienda, which at any other time in its 20-plus year history on University Way would have been a banner stop on the tour, closed this location at the beginning of the month in favor of its newer Ballard address. The U District art walk can't be expected to solve all these ills, but it does help unite a neighborhood that's a bit spread out, even if you do rent the scooter.