Remembering Gritty Seattle

A lot has changed in the Evergreen City, but not everything.

Image courtesy of Olga

In the summer of 1988, my family moved from Los Angeles to the Seattle area to start a new business. As a twelve year old kid I knew very little about the city except that it was home to the Sonics, Seahawks and Mariners (sports trading cards were a big deal back then.)

We settled in comfortably and when I wasn’t figuring out how to adjust to life as an adolescent about to start the eighth grade in a new community, I started to explore my surroundings. The first thing I noticed, coming from the dry geography of Southern California, was the abundance of nature — forests, creeks, a lake. And green — and everything was so green. The contrast between the colors of the trees and the clear blue sky on a warm summer day that we Seattleites love so much affected me as much then as it does now.

Meanwhile, across the lake to the west (we rented a house on a little island in between Seattle and Bellevue), things were happening that I wouldn’t learn about for years to come. Around that time, a rock band that had formed a few months earlier was starting to make some pretty serious waves. Springing from the ashes of another popular band that had split in late 1987, Mother Love Bone, fronted by the charismatic singer Andrew Wood and featuring members of what would later become Pearl Jam, signed the first of a handful of “major label” deals for Seattle bands, reflecting a trend that would turn into a global movement in a few short years.

“Mother Love Bone” concert flier, 1989

All kinds of things were happening in Seattle at that time. Another musical act that had been kicking around since the mid-80s released their first full-length album, which would go on to be nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Metal Performance” category in 1990, putting on the map for the first time Soundgarden (currently a contender for the Rock Hall of Fame). Kurt Cobain was paying his dues along with a host of other upstart bands that would become household names in a few short years.

If you’d attended the Bumbershoot music festival that Labor Day Weekend you would have seen Bonnie Raitt, Chaka Khan, Etta James, Little Feat, Los Lobos, Richard Marx and a then unknown comic Jerry Seinfeld, all for free.

Courtesy of OneReel

In the sports world, the Sonics would go on to sweep the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs before being swept by the Lakers in the semi-finals (before being knocked off by the Kevin Johnson-led Phoenix Suns). The Mariners finished the 1988 season leaving much to be desired, with a record of 68–93. But for loyal fans who packed into games at the Kingdome they didn’t have to wait long, as the 1989 season would see the arrival of a prodigious 19-year old rookie and now Hall of Famer, Ken Griffey Jr.

The Seahawks would win their first AFC west division title that year despite only having a 9–7 record. Fans flocked to the Dome to see the likes of Dave Kreig, Steve Largent, Curt Warner, and the flamboyant linebacker Brian Bosworth.

Don James ruled the roost at UW and would make great strides in 1989, finishing that season #23 in the nation.

A little tech company in Redmond would finish the year with 2,793 employees and total sales of $590,827,000.

Seattleites didn’t know much from traffic. The city’s population was 2.1 million, up from 1.7 10 years earlier. The median home price in King County was a modest $97,500. Belltown was one of the least desirable neighborhoods in the city, South Lake Union a scattering of affordable plots of land, mostly used for industrial purposes.

Seattle as I remember it than was a city just beginning to discover its potential. It was a blue-color town made up of Boeing families and maritime workers, just starting to get a taste of the good life as tech money started to trickle. Many, like me, remember the grittiness of Seattle back then and harbor a romantic notion of a fiercely independent, grass-roots town, comfortable in the knowledge that others viewed our city as a gloomy, undesirable place to be. A great documentary film from 1984 called “Streetwise” gives the best glimpse of the gritty Seattle many, like me, hold close to our hearts.


That would all change, of course. But there are a few things that haven’t, and hopefully never will.

You can still dine at the Pink Door, a favorite local Italian restaurant in Post Alley that despite its expansion a few years ago maintains the same charm it had back in the day.

You can walk past the old Lusty Lady peep-show arcade on First Avenue that will soon be home to an upscale cocktail bar.

You can roam the streets of lower Queen Anne and imagine the larger-than-life Andy Wood, then 24 years old, representing the ambitions, hopes and dreams of the artists of the day, prancing around his stomping grounds with friends before a gig at the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square with his band.

You can visit the former site of Galleria Potatohead in Belltown, the art studio where Mookie Blaylock had its first rehearsals and evolved into Pearl Jam.

Galleria Potatohead (courtesty Seth Wickersham)

You can rent a pontoon boat and take a cruise on South Lake Union and imagine a much-less impressive skyline before you. Gasworks Park is still there and hasn’t changed all that much.

Yes, it’s with a great longing that I reflect on the old Seattle, but also with an admiration for the world-class city it has become.

After all, you can only keep a good secret for so long.

Wearer of many hats.