Let Us Count Them

This started out as a conversation about Queen Anne’s commercial districts and how they are peppered with historic one- and two-story buildings hosting locally owned businesses representative of our neighborhood’s cultural heritage.  Probing more deeply, the conversation morphed as the idea of ‘cultural heritage’ loomed problematic.

West side QA Ave. in 1937 north of Galer. Photo: Puget Sound Regional Archives

Following Jan Hadley and Alicia Arter’s lead, I began looking for Queen Anne’s cultural heritage today.  I considered the commercial zones from Denny to McGraw on Queen Anne Ave., along Galer Street from Queen Anne to 4th West, along Boston east and west of Queen Anne, and even on Nickerson from 4th North to 3rd W. To my surprise, both old and new buildings of different sizes host a great variety of small shops and restaurants, and those small businesses mark the life of this community.

North to Boston on west side Q.A. Ave

On upper Queen Anne Ave. alone, I count over 94 individual businesses, and what seems to make our neighborhood special is that all but a few of them are locally owned.  These businesses may not be stand-alone shops with no other branches, but nearly all of them are owned by people living in Seattle and King County who value the look and feel of Queen Anne.  Examples abound: Wag-N-Wash, Eden Hill, Uptown Espresso, Café Ladro, Grappa, How to Cook a Wolf, Paragon, HomeStreet Bank, Mailstop, El Diablo, Queen Anne Book Company, Homegrown, Laundry Room, Storyville Coffee, MarQueen Hotel, MarQueen Garage, Metropolitan Market, or Pagliacci.

I noted in my mental survey just about as many small locally-owned businesses in new buildings as in old, and in multi-story as well as in one- and two- story ones.  Indeed, the type of building may not be shaping our cultural heritage.  Astoundingly, land use codes allowing taller, high-density buildings may have protected the traditional walkable quality of urban villages and recreated the environment of small stores that brought neighbors together prior to World War II.  It could be that the neighborhood has rediscovered its cultural heritage and tradition of small friendly shops.

The idea of cultural heritage is apparently the next frontier for historic preservation movement.  Some preservationists suggest it as an alternative to architectural distinction as a reason for landmarking a building or a district.  If we can agree to its meaning, it could be useful.  Unfortunately, ‘culture’ is a word with an incredible variety of definitions.  Libraries, for example, are certainly passive warehouses of culture, but in an eerily similar way so is Google.  Concert halls, art galleries and museums of every stripe (children’s, history, art, automobile, etc.) also belong to the category of institutions that preserve cultural heritage.  The current controversy over The Showbox comes quickly to mind.  Its ‘cultural heritage’ lies in nostalgia for great times listening to top-drawer popular musicians and their bands and which now seems to be the reason for landmark designation.  The Showbox surely ranks as one of those community magnets we don’t cherish for their architectural distinction, but for what the urbanist Jane Jacobs called the “enormous collection of small elements,” including local shops, that ensure “a lively city.”

Seattle’s landmark ordinance (#106348), written and adopted in 1977, already embraces the idea of cultural heritage, calling out any improvement, site, or object “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, City, state or nation.”   In other words, architectural distinction is not required for landmark status, but in the 40-odd years since passage of the ordinance and out of 450 landmarks, only four places have been designated that meet standard C alone.[1]

A few years ago, the Preservation Green Lab, a Seattle-based arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, did a study entitled Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality.[2]  This report tracked every census block of Seattle (and a few other cities) and concluded that the buildings that met their ‘smaller and older’ standard contributed significantly to urban economic vitality while maintaining cultural heritage.  It made the case for these smaller older buildings as the places for startup businesses and for locally owned businesses.  I loved this report, but while lacking the Green Lab’s statistical rigor, my review of what has happened in Queen Anne suggests otherwise.

Today, our neighborhood’s cultural heritage resonates in the locally-owned businesses that occupy both old and new spaces. Much as I want to find that heritage particularly present in the one-story brick veneer buildings or the converted houses along upper and lower Queen Anne Avenue, it seems simplistic.  Protecting the cultural heritage of our commercial zones probably doesn’t mean defending only old one-story buildings.  Heretical as it may turn out, the best way to protect neighborhood quality is to replace them with well-designed buildings that retain small shops along pedestrian and bike safe streets.  Even more surprising, the preservation of cultural heritage may turn out to be more market-driven than we expected.

Looking up can disappoint on Queen Anne Ave.

‘Look Up’ is one of the mantras of architectural history, but if you want to understand Queen Anne’s cultural heritage, you’ll do well to look down.  The pulse of the neighborhood, both new and old, is best felt by looking straight ahead.

[1] Empire Laundry Building; St. Nicholas (Lakeside School); Lake Washington Bicycle Path (Interlaken Blvd); First African Methodist Episcopal Church

[2] https://savingplaces.org/stories/preservation-tips-tools-older-smaller-better-new-findings-preservation-green-lab.