Bleary eyed, riding the greyhound, cresting the hill leading into Spokane, Washington on I-5 and it feels like you’re heading into a major metropolis. Because you’ve spent the last few stops at gas stations and truck stops, and surrounding area has largely been scrub brush and brittle, brown grass. The skyline rises in banks and old churches and Steamplant Square, a gorgeous bit of post-industrial architecture. Getting off the bus and wandering around downtown, you see lots of brick, concrete, turn of the century era architecture.
If the idea of Spokane as a major metropolis has you laughing– or scratching your head, you probably aren’t alone. It’s a mid-size city, at roughly 200,000 people and pushing close to a million in it’s larger metro area but often gets spoken of like a cow town by folks west of the Cascades and sometimes its own residents. There’s an underdog identity bordering on embarrassment that Spokane is still overcoming. Local art/novelty store Boo Radley’s sells t-shirts that drily proclaim “Spokane Doesn’t Suck.”
IT IS DESPERATELY IMPORTANT THAT WE COMPARE THINGS TO EACH OTHER
Still, it’s the largest thing between Seattle and Minneapolis, and boasts a number of cultural attractions worth your time. It wouldn’t be true to say you could get anything you wanted in terms of culture or cuisine there, but you could get a lot, especially if you’re willing to invest yourself, look hard, and help build things.
I was out for a poetry reading, and in the hours before it started my travel partner and I wandered about downtown and the excellent Riverfront Park. “This feels like a really clean Pioneer Square,” he said. “I really like this.” So do I. Then we started doing the thing that people from Seattle do when visiting other places in Washington– comparing and contrasting everything there to the Gold Seattle Standard. Sometimes Spokane came out in favor– by virtue of down-to-earthness, authenticity, or cheapness– and sometimes not, but that was the lens.
Which led me to think. . . why? Why is that the lens? it’s a completely natural thing to compare new places to the locations you’re already familiar with. But there tends to be a habitual comparing of spots in Washington to Seattle, as if that’s the ultimate aspiration. But. . . and don’t spill your coffee here– what if other places don’t want to be like Seattle?
NO REALLY WHAT IF THEY DON’T
I mean, come on. People in Seattle complain about Seattle all the time. Sometimes it’s for legit reasons, sometimes it is because it isn’t enough like New York, San Francisco or some other big city.
When people have the Moving to Tacoma (or Everett) conversation, you often hear comments along the lines of “It’s like Seattle _____ years ago!” The implication (intentional or no) being “We can make it MORE like Seattle! It doesn’t need to be icky Tacoma any more, it can be chill, affordable* Seattle! ALL PLACES WILL EVENTUALLY BE MIRROR IMAGES OF THE NEIGHBORHOODS WE LEFT AND NOW ENDLESSLY ROMANTICIZE!!”
There are ways that the residents of these Other Cities In Washington may, in fact, want things Seattle has. But most of these things are infrastructural amenities; saying that yes, you’d like more walkable neighborhoods and better public transit does not need to read as an admission of cultural envy. As one non-Seattle friend drily commented, Seattle is actually a terrible example of good infrastructure.
I LOVE YOU, GARLAND DISTRICT
Outside of Riverfront Park, my favorite part of Spokane is the Garland District. Nestled in the cheaper area of North Spokane, Garland boasts all the things a neighborhood needs and then some. Describing it could easily read like town-boosting ad-copy. You’ve got an independent movie theater attached to a bar. A community theater, bookstore, record store, a few different bars, groceries, tanning salons, and Coolectibles, which may, in fact, be one of my favorite antique/oddity shops in the world. I got another very necessary snap-down shirt there and almost bought a bunch of low-key raunchy bar napkins.
So what I just described, these are all neighborhood amenities available at different spots here on the west side of the mountains, but nothing about Garland felt like Seattle. It felt like Spokane, like a neighborhood that grew up and filled in organically, and belongs to the people who live there. I finally had to stop making comparisons or parallells, and simply enjoy where I was.
EVERYBODY LOVES OUR TOWN OR NOT
Puzzlingly enough, there seems to be more ascendant hype around South Perry, a charming, if too-self-aware– but tiny– area near South Hill that I think they’re calling an “arts district” (sound familiar?) Oh well. Perhaps that’s for the best.
Don’t get me wrong; if I lived in Spokane (or Tacoma, or Ellensburg, or wherever) there’d be things about Seattle I missed, but most would be elemental– the sound, the weather, the unchosen nostalgia of where you grew up. But the challenges facing cities and towns around Washington isn’t “How can they be more like Seattle.” It’s how they can best serve themselves and their residents, Seattle be damned.