Local Art News
Seattle is a city where one of our librarians, Nancy Pearl, has become a national celebrity, worthy of an action figure and a best-selling book series documenting her “book lust.” Pearl is influential in guiding us toward what to read, but she was not the first Seattle librarian to compile a book list.
That credit goes to Sarah Yesler, wife of city founder Henry Yesler who launched Seattle’s first industry (a sawmill), served as mayor and became our first locally made millionaire. Sarah was influential in her own right: a civic activist who pushed for women’s rights, who practiced spiritualism, and who founded the city’s first library. She is often called Seattle’s first librarian.
On July 30, 1868, a year before the city saw its first plumbed bathtub, a small group a group called the Seattle Literary Association gathered at Yesler Hall to organize the first library. This was not a public library like the ones we know today. It was private. Annual dues were $1.50; 50 cents for “Ladies.” In a city with about 1,000 inhabitants, the association had a starting membership of 50 individuals.Mrs. Henry Yesler, a.k.a. “Seattle’s first librarian,” ca. 1865
The association’s purpose was to promote “mental culture and social intercourse.” It sponsored lectures and concerts on a harmonium. And on April 1, 1869, the group purchased its first books by placing a $60 order with A.L. Bancroft & Co. of San Francisco, publishers, stationers and booksellers. Seattle was embarked on its path to being a “City of Literature” carved out of the frontier.
So, what did the Nancy Pearls of Seattle read back in the day?
The records are sketchy, but we have a hint. In the Seattle Public Library collection today there is a narrow ledger for the Seattle Library Association dated 1889. The books therein are numbered from #1 on up. The list suggests to me that some of the books from Sarah Yesler’s original Seattle Literary Association or from her private library might have been incorporated in this collection. Nine of the first 10 books listed in the ledger were popular titles in print at the time of that first library order in 1869.
Could this be indicative of the original order placed that year? If so, here’s what Seattle was reading:
Book # 1 Bitter Sweet by J. G Holland
#2 Lessons in Life by J.G. Holland
#3 Timothy Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married by J.G. Holland
Josiah Gilbert Holland was the editor of the Scribner’s magazine. A bestselling author, he was an apostle of white, Protestant American values and the expanding middle class with enormous popular appeal. Bitter Sweet, an epic poem of religious revelation, sold more than 100,000 copies in its day. A contemporary of Walt Whitman—he once roughly rejected a poem Whitman submitted to Scribner’s—Holland was widely influential. One associate, Edward Eggleston, wrote that Holland was “the most popular and effective preacher of social and domestic moralities in his age, the oracle of the active and ambitious young man; of the susceptible and enthusiastic young woman; the guide, the philosopher, and school-master of humanity at large, touching all questions of life and character.”
#4 Autocrat at the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes
#5 Professor at the Breakfast Table by O.W.Holmes
These two popular collections of essays by the Boston physician, poet, essayist and inventor a widely used model of the stereoscope contained such popular pearls of wisdom as “Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable,” an observation that explains reality TV, selfies and Donald Trump.
#6 Hearth & Home Papers by Harriet Beecher Stowe
#7 Little Foxes by H.B. Stowe
#8 Old Town Folks by H.B. Stowe
Stowe, famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was one of the original editors of Hearth & Home Illustrated magazine and wrote a series of essays and stories on domestic life and the changing nature of home, including musings on carpets, table settings, servants and the change landscape of Victorian domesticity. She was a bit like a literary Martha Stewart.
#9 Mountaineering by Clarence King
This is the one book outside that 1869 time frame (published in 1872). It is about the Sierras by explorer King who was head of the U.S. Geodetic Survey—a classic on understanding the geography of the West.
#10 Gates Ajar by Elizabeth S. Phelps
This novel was a bestselling book on the afterlife that appealed to spiritualists (like the Yeslers) and post-Civil war families who had lost loved ones, portraying heaven as a kind of idealized life on earth with friends and family reunited—a view considered by many to be blasphemous at the time.
These authors at the top of Seattle’s book lists were the 19th century rough equivalents of Robert Fulghum, Martha Stewart, Dan Savage, Jon Krakauer and J.Z. Knight. We’re taking more baths now, but our popular reading habits don’t seem to have changed a lot.Seattle Public Library, Seattle, housed in the Yesler Mansion, ca. 1899
And what became of that first library, you ask? The library plugged along, but didn’t flourish. It sputtered, but was resuscitated in 1872 when membership swelled to 80 and the shelves groaned with 278 volumes. Still, it didn’t take off, even when located above a liquor store. The first library died in 1881 and its books were donated to the Territorial University. There was no other city library until the Ladies Library Association revived the idea in 1888. Sarah Yesler had died in 1887, but her widow Henry donated books to the new private library. A few years later, the city established its first true public library, which was located for some years in the old Yesler family’s mansion.
Our libraries have become treasured institutions since that time. The main branch of the Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, is a major tourist attraction. Mini-libraries are popping up like literary birdfeeders in every neighborhood. And the private library like Sarah Yesler’s is making a comeback: Crosscut founder David Brewster is opening the Seattle Athenaeum at the downtown YMCA in January, 2016, reviving a concept that started with Benjamin Franklin (I am a member and book donor).
Perhaps it can open its doors with an evening featuring the Nancy Pearl (living) and Sarah Yesler, called from the spirit world by a medium, to discuss their favorite books. I think they’d have a lot in common.
This article was adapted for a talk given to the members of Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum of which the author is a member and donor of books. A story about the Athenaeum previously ran on Crosscut.
This is the second of a two-part series about color, chemistry, and how global commerce and weak federal regulations have led to the poisoning of the Spokane River. Read Part 1 here.
A Seattle-based artist, I’ve been delving into the world of Indian-made blues, colors manufactured in the subcontinent, for a couple of years, research for an upcoming art installation at the Clark House Institute in Mumbai. I was shocked to find that the blues made in India, and yellows made in China, were in part responsible for the high levels of cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) the Spokane River. The chemicals, contained in ink on paper being recycled at Spokane’s Inland Empire Paper mill, were seeping into the river.
There is, it turns out, a connection in this case between India, the Spokane River, and the first peoples of the Northwest.
The Spokane Indian Reservation was created in 1881 by executive order of President Rutherford B. Hayes. At just under 160,000 acres, it is a fraction of the 3 million acres the natives inhabited before the reservation was created, but is still fed by the Spokane River, which has traditionally fed the Spokanes with salmon.
Salmon represent 80 percent of the diet of the Spokanes, but in 1995 the Spokane Tribe unequivocally demonstrated that the Spokane River salmon had dangerous PCB concentration in their tissue. As a 2014 letter to the EPA from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, co-signed by the Spokanes, states:
Water and salmon are among our tribal First Foods. They are first in serving order during our longhouse ceremonies. Our people eat up to nine times as much fish as the ‘average’ non-Indian. Fish consumption is part of our religion, culture and way of life. The risks to tribal peoples, other fish consumers, and the environment from PCBs far outweighs any possible ‘economic considerations.’
The centrality of salmon to the life and livelihood of the Spokane Tribe moved the Washington Department of Ecology to adopt the country’s strictest permissible amount of allowable PCBs for the Spokane River. The standards, measured in parts per quadrillion, are so strict that it is technically impossible to measure for such a minute level of contamination, let alone attain that level of purity. One of my interviewees likened finding errant chemicals at that level to finding one leaf in the entire landmass of the United States.
But the state’s water quality standard has been trumped by, of all things, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
I’ve asked the EPA directly: if PCBs are leaching into the Spokane River from pigments that contain PCBs, why aren’t they banned? PCBs are, after all, one of the most widely studied contaminants in the world. They have long been known as potent carcinogens. They accumulate in ecosystems and in the bodies of animals (like fish) and humans. Children are particularly at risk because they get exposed to higher concentrations relative to their body weight, and they metabolize the chemicals more quickly. Such accumulation in kids has been shown to create serious physical disease as well as very troubling cognitive dysfunction
The agency’s reply to me included the statement that, “an exception is made for inadvertently generated PCBs that are unintentional impurities of many common commercial chemical or manufacturing processes. EPA has concluded that allowing such inadvertent generation has important economic benefits and does not pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.”
In July, Judge Barbara Rothstein ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State Department of Ecology to set limits on the discharge of PCBs into the Spokane River. In its required response to the judge, the agency says that the PCBs are not being manufactured in the pigments, but are present as an unintended consequence (which somehow makes them less to be feared than those ‘intentionally’ put there), and that besides, banning their use in pigments would create problems in the marketplace. What paint would we put down for yellow stripes on highways? What ink would we use in our home printers for cyan?
What the EPA actually seems to be telling us all is that a great deal of political pressure has been put on the agency by the chemical industry to allow PCBs in pigments, because to disallow their inclusion would add manufacturing expense.
In a 2010 letter to the EPA, the Color Pigments Manufacturing Association stated that taking CuPc or phthalo pigments off the market would jeopardize color printing, the vast majority of blue and green paint, as well as many plastic formulations. According to industry spokespeople, we’d be left with a discolored, or even uncolored world. They go as far as to insist that we would all be transported back to the black and white days of my childhood and the presentation of the world in print without color. They also say that it is infeasible to alter manufacturing processes to exclude PCBs from the phthalo colors.
It isn’t. As I explained in the first story in this series, phthalo pigments contain PCBs because using chlorine-based solvents was the easiest and the cheapest way to manufacture the color. When the trichloro benzene solvent reacts with the other chemicals in the color manufacturing process it creates a chemical reaction and PCBs are produced.
But I have spoken with, and examined the product specs of, major pigment manufacturers based in Mumbai that no longer use chlorine-based solvent to produce the color. They produce and export PCB-free CuPc blue. Just a few years ago the cost of replacing the trichloro benzene solvent with alkyl benzene (which produces no PCBs) increased the final production cost of the pigment by 5 percent. But enough companies are now using the alkyl-based solvent that the price has dropped precipitously. Producing CuPc without PCBs is no longer a cost issue.
Interestingly, in 1989, a similar drama played out on the shores of the Spokane River. The residents of the tiny Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, which drains into the Spokane River, were chagrined by the large amount of algae blooming in the river. Research established a major culprit to be phosphates in laundry detergents. People in the community began boycotting such detergents, which in turn led to bans of phosphates around the country. By 1993, all laundry detergents sold in the United Sates were required to be phosphate-free.
A decade ago, a new battle heated up around Liberty Lake: The Sewer and Water Commission was considering banning phosphates in automatic dishwasher detergent, just as it had in laundry detergent. In 2005, well aware of what had happened with washing machine detergents, mighty Proctor and Gamble sent representatives from Cincinnati to Liberty Lake to testify before the commission. The company claimed that without phosphates, dishes wouldn’t come clean, and anyway, they’d be covered with spots.
Liberty Lake banned phosphate-containing dishwasher detergents anyway. The State of Washington followed and, again, so did most of the rest of the country. Just last year, P&G announced that it will no longer put phosphates in any of its laundry detergents, wherever they’re sold. Proctor and Gamble cited company research in developing phosphate substitutes for the new and improved laundry detergent.
Could something similar happen with PCBs in pigments?
Judge Rothstein ruled in March that the EPA and Washington Department of Ecology erred in allowing the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force to be set up to address the issue of reducing PCBs in the Spokane River, instead of simply mandating a clear time-table for their removal. The ruling is yet another strange irony in the story of colors polluting the river. In fact, by far the most lasting legacy of the 1974 Spokane Expo has been the public-private collaboration that it established around cleaning-up the river. Sixty years on, the task force is the latest promising iteration of a cooperative effort to save the river.
Decades of regulatory effort have shown that neither the EPA nor Department of Ecology can clean out the PCBs getting into the Spokane River fish gills, because there is no science yet available to accomplish such a task. Gov. Inslee said as much in his speech on the matter last week. What must be done instead is to find ways to keep the PCBs from getting into the river in the first place. This will apparently require a groundswell, not unlike those initiated by Liberty Lake, to swamp the vested interests that guide public policy in our region, and in our country.
In the case of inexpensively produced pigments, patterns of consumption will have to change: We are going to have to live without the cheapest colors, and demand that they be banned from commerce.
The chemical industry is going to have to modify pigment formulas, and experience in the Pacific Northwest has shown that collaborative cooperative efforts can make the change happen. It is obvious that it will take such effort to move the EPA to do the right thing.
The Inland Empire Recycling Paper Mill wants to continue in operation, which, if the EPA pushes its water quality standards, it will not be able to do. The production of paper with 60 percent recycled fiber is the green thing to do. But it is not, nor has it ever been, enough. We consumers need to rethink our responsibility to such things as clean water beyond the act of tossing our used paper in the recycle bin.
Color is by nature, design, and use, distracting. Dressing up goods or walls or embellishing printed matter, it can make everything look and even feel like class acts, even when they aren’t. The application of color is the easiest, and usually the cheapest way to get us to buy. But cheap doesn’t mean not costly; pollution and disease are very expensive.
Blue is in fact the color of water and the sky, a universal sign of their purity, and one of the reasons that the color has long been a favorite of artists, and polling shows, everyone else as well. But because blue never appears ready-to-use in nature (even the indigo plant required a great amount of very messy and polluting processing to render the color useable), it has always been costly, one way or the other. For centuries its cost was synonymous with its special value, and the color was reserved for such treasured roles as the depiction of the Virgin Mary’s cloak in Medieval paintings. At that time, color-fast blue was only obtainable from Afghanistan, in the form of lapis lazuli, a rare mineral that once processed became ultramarine blue. The fact that the blue we most use now comes to us from equally far away in India disappears in the rotation of our global marketplace.
But as the cost of a poisoned Spokane River illustrates, its still ultimately extremely expensive stuff. To my mind, the problem of PCBs moving from pigment colors into fish is not one of unintended consequences at all, but rather one of un-tended consequences. It is known how and why this is happening. For the practice to stop, people with responsibility will have to tend directly to the problem. That would be us.
In researching this story the author is very grateful for generous help provided by: Adriane Borgias, Spokane Water Quality Lead, WA State Dept of Ecology, Brian Crossley, Water Program Manager, Spokane Tribe, Elizabeth Grossman, science writer, Mark MacIntyre, Senior Communications Officer, EPA-Region 10, Priyam Jhaveri, CEO, NaNavati Group, Mumbai, Doug Krapas, Environmental Manager, Inland Empire Paper Company, Michael LaScuola, Technical Advisor, Environmental Health, Spokane Regional Health District, Chris Page, Ruckelshaus Center, facilitator for the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force, Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, Chair, United States EPA Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. They are of course not responsible for any factual errors in the story.
In March, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State Department of Ecology to set limits on the discharge of PCBs, well known carcinogens, into the Spokane River. In July, the EPA responded with a revised river clean-up plan. Then, last week, Gov. Jay Inslee released new state water quality standards that allow for the continued discharge of PCBs into the river.
This is the first of a two-part series about color, chemistry, and how global commerce and weak federal regulations continue to sicken the Spokane River.
I became a visual artist because I’ve never been able to resist color’s pull. I was a kid in the ’50s. My family got a TV when I was in 5th grade. Life magazine came to the house weekly, and the LA Times daily. All were unquestionably in black and white, as if there were no other way of portraying reality. Yet outside and all around, the world was brightly colored. I found those colors outrageously appealing, and have ever since.
Today, pretty much everything arrives everywhere in glowing color. But centuries before color came to electronic devices, publications and everyday objects, producing it was one of the world’s largest trades, as it continues to be. In centuries past, to get a hold of color meant mounting a fleet of sailing ships and sending them around the world, where strains of natural colors (animal, mineral and vegetable) resided in far-flung, usually tropical places — a massive undertaking that often set in motion large-scale death and destruction. Most of the world’s largest chemical companies began as color manufacturers.
Color is essential to today’s manufacturing, and to the marketing of that which is made. It can be incredibly sublime or outrageously in-your-face. Either way, color continues to come with a price, from places usually hidden far from view.
But artists work to make the invisible visible, and I became fascinated by the notion of making art about the world of global trade, finding ways to uncover the layers, trajectories and overlaps inherent in such networks. That has meant immersing myself in what are called commodity chains — the global linkages that deliver resources from far afield into our personal lives.
That’s how I came to realize how colors’ production today has created a complex set of troubles for people living and working in Spokane and Eastern Washington that has seemingly tied well-meaning business, state, federal and tribal leaders in knots.Cyanometer — designed in 1789 by Horace-Benedict de Saussure and used by Alexander Von Humboldt on his expedition to South America to measure the blueness of the sky.
When I stumbled on the connection between colors and pollution in the Spokane River, I was knee-deep in research for an art installation in Mumbai.
India is without doubt one of the most brightly colored places in the world. The streets are covered with all manner and scale of signage ablaze with color, buildings painted incredible colors. Even the tiniest object for sale is packaged in the brightest colors obtainable. And Indians love very colorful clothing. Color offers people in India and everywhere else, regardless of their economic status, a way to shine, a way to project their sense of power and wellbeing out into the world.
Perhaps not surprisingly, India has led the world in producing the most used and desired color — blue. For several centuries, India was the primary source of indigo, which in fact is named for the country. The color blue, occurring very rarely in nature, has always been highly in demand throughout the world, not the least for uniforms, military and otherwise — blue jeans being the ‘uniform’ with which we are most familiar. The British, having colonized India, withdrew huge profits from the subcontinent for a long period by shipping dried indigo cakes, made with great, very difficult labor from the processed indigo plants, to Europe for fabric dyeing and printing.
In the middle of the 19th century, with the British Empire at its zenith, the Germans, with no colonies and therefore little access to exotic natural resources, began imagining replacements for what they couldn’t get in Northern Europe. In the 1880s, after a decade of expensive experimentation, the German chemical company BASF patented synthetic indigo, using nascent organic chemistry (then based on coal-tar) to produce a color that was chemically identical to that which came from the indigo plant, at a fraction of the cost. Slowly but surely, the Germans put the British/Indian plant-based indigo trade out of business.
A century after the crash in the trade of natural indigo, color is no longer bound to place by what grows or is sourced where. Ironically, however, it is still very much geographically bound by other factors. Phthalo (pronounced thay-low) blue, also known as copper phthalocyanine or CuPc, the world’s most-used color, is produced almost entirely in India, from petroleum-based chemicals. The azos, another set of synthetic colors — reds, oranges and yellows — come predominately from China. Thus, India and China now control the primary colors.
One of the many factors that led to the world’s color being produced in Asia was weaker environmental control there. Making colors often released nasty chemicals into the air and water. Though colors are not, and have never been, manufactured along the Spokane River, they have been found to be befouling the river in a dangerous way.From the book, Code des Couleurs, 1910
The falls of the Spokane River, the site of the founding of the city of Spokane, was once also the site of an enormously rich fishery, where natives easily caught all the salmon that they needed to sustain themselves. By the 1960s, however, the fishery was barely existent, the river having long before become an open sewer, into which drained the city’s toilets, industrial waste from large upstream mines in Idaho, and from nearer plants like the Inland Empire Paper Company and Kaiser Aluminum.
Then Spokane was chosen as the site of the 1974 World’s Fair, thanks in large part to Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, often called the progenitor of the Environmental Protection Agency. Spokane Expo ’74, billed itself as “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment.” The World’s Fair was held in the smallest city to have ever hosted the fair, seemingly because it was the first to take on the theme of environmentalism.
The eco-fair didn’t result in a cleaned up river for Spokane, but it did create momentum to rid the area around the falls of a huge unsightly tangle of railroad tracks, to create a large park making the river and the falls once again the jewel of downtown, and to set in motion the creation of a state-of-the-art sewage treatment facility. Perhaps most importantly, the Expo inspired the creation of the Spokane River Drainage Basin Depollution Policy Committee, a working partnership of civic, municipal and private entities that met regularly to work up solutions to the river’s impurity.
Four decades after the fair, however, the fish in the Spokane River are laced with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), commercial production of which was banned in the U.S. decades ago, shortly after the fair closed.
The pollution of the river is of course not due to a single factor. But one of the contributing causes is now known: In 1991, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, the Inland Empire Paper Company, located on the banks of the Spokane River, completely modernized, thus becoming the sixth mill in the country that produced recycled paper. Company owners were doing what they saw as the right thing, for greening the environment and for their growth as a company: In the late 1980s, California, one of the company’s primary markets, had begun legislating that paper would need to contain a high percentage of recycled content.
Not long before the mill began producing recycled paper, its effluent was thoroughly tested, and found to be PCB-free. Some years later, when PCBs turned up in the tissue of the river’s fish, the mill’s waste-stream was tested again, as was the outflow from all the city’s treatment plants and other ‘legacy’ industrial sites on the river. IEP was shocked to find that by operating its brand-new, seemingly exceedingly ‘green,’ high-tech facility, it was discharging PCBs into the Spokane River.
The plant was not making PCBs, but it was passing them through to the river; they were hiding in the (recycled) material it used to make paper. Specifically, they were in the colors.From the book, Code des Couleurs, 1910
Phthalo blue, discovered in Scotland in the mid-1930s, is among the newest of the colors available on the world market, and was hailed almost immediately as an ‘ideal’ even ‘perfect’ blue. It is bright, clear, with unbeatable color strength, it’s terrifically color-fast, heat and chemical resistant, non-toxic to users, works very well as a dye with all substrates and all manner of cloth, and also works excellently as a pigment for ink.
The cyan that we all know from refilling our color printers, is phthalo blue. Phthalo blue is also frequently used as a colorant in plastics (the ubiquitous blue tarps, though made in China, are colored with the Indian-made pigment) and paints.
But phthalo blue can contain PCBs, as can the azo yellows, oranges and reds. Most ironically for this particular story, sales of phthalo green pigments continue to increase each year because a great deal of consumer packaging now proclaims (in the same color ink) that the product enclosed therein is “green.” Phthalo green pigments can contain even more PCBs than the blue.
The IEP plant recycles publications printed with phthalo blue and green, and azo yellows, oranges and reds. As part of turning printed matter into clean white paper, those inks, and their pigments, get washed away. After the wastewater is thoroughly treated, it is flushed into the river, taking the PCBs with them. And it is perfectly legal.
This is happening because, athough the EPA banned PCBs that “could have unintended consequences in humans” (i.e. cancer), the agency allows the importation of products that contain PCBs as an unintended consequence of their manufacture — that is, when the PCBs are not themselves the chemical for sale.
Since the discovery of PCBs issuing from the mill, the mill owners, who themselves also publish a printed newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, have installed the best available post-production waste-treatment equipment in an effort to remove the PCBs from the flow. But it’s simply not enough; the PCBs resist the treatment, and continue to be stored in the river’s fish.
As Portland-based science writer Elizabeth Grossman succinctly puts it, “PCBs do not occur naturally, and once they are in the environment, they can last for decades.” The persistence of PCBs has long been known to industry, a quality that once made them highly desirable. PCBs were sought after because they added tenacious chemical stability to products, protecting them from breaking down.
In essence, what made PCBs seem very good, ultimately makes them very bad: they are persistent in the environment, and are, as a result, an intransigent problem to remove. They don’t easily go away. The PCBs from recycled paper aren’t the only ones showing up in the Spokane River fish, but very troublesomely, despite seemingly best practices, they continue to do so.Blue Discs, by Don Fels, 2012, casein on wood, 36″x 41″x3″
To an artist, the fact that bio-accumulating poisons are being delivered via color was enough to plunge me into research.
I’ve interviewed a number of stakeholders in the state, federal and regional efforts to clean up the Spokane River. I’ve also talked with manufacturers of phthalo blue in India.
I’ve learned, among other things, that phthalo pigments, besides inks and paints, are found in paper, textiles, cosmetics, leather products, foods and a multitude of other “household” goods. But the PCBs that are in phthalo pigments are not responsible for the dazzling hues, nor for their fine coloring capacity. Phthalo pigments contain PCBs because using chlorine-based solvents was always the easiest and the cheapest way to manufacture the color. When the trichloro benzene solvent reacts with the other chemicals in the color manufacturing process it creates a chemical reaction and PCBs are produced.
The PCB-containing azo colors present the same story. For example, the yellow stripes used on roads — the ones mandated by state highway departments — have for many years been specified to be of a particular azo yellow, because that yellow sticks very well to asphalt, and looks bright for years. But it turns out that, over time, bits of pigment get broken off by the wear of vehicular traffic, and wash off the roadway with rain. Sooner or later that rainwater makes its way to the river, and with it come the PCBs.
The world of color has always everywhere involved an element of danger. In the Middle Ages, those who formulated colors for such important industries as textile dyeing were considered alchemists who often worked with ‘black’ magic. Later, during Hitler’s reign, several German chemical companies (then and now the largest in the world) under the cover of producing color, made such things as mustard gas and Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide) gas used to kill millions in concentration camps.
Today we assume that those dark days are over, but colored threads attach themselves, even unwittingly, to our lives in many unseen ways. And sometimes those beautiful threads are extremely dangerous.
There is hope in this story, however. Solvents have long been available that produce phthalo blue with no traces of PCBs, though they were, for a long time, more expensive. Scientists have also identified several promising avenues for azo pigment formulations that are PCB-free.
And on the Spokane River, the collaboration that began after ’74 Expo is, remarkably still alive. That spirit of collaboration promises the best, and perhaps the only way, to keep PCBs out of the water — and it has made the river and the resolution of its difficulties, of national, even international interest.
Tomorrow: What will it take to clean up a poisoned river?
Seattle has tried all kinds of civic symbols: Chief Seattle’s profile, salmon, Mt. Rainier. Author David B. Williams’ new book, Too High and Too Steep, suggests another: the pile driver.
If cranes are the ubiquitous sign of change in the modern city, the under-appreciated pile driver is the tool that was, and is, deployed to do the dirty work. In my Madison Park home, I have often worked to the song of the pile-driver—as Walt Whitman might have phrased it—as the new 520 bridge works its way toward Montlake from Medina.
Come to think of it, my home is ground zero of an area that’s witnessed the massive terra-forming that literally makes up Seattle’s foundations: the building of the ship canal that connected Puget Sound with our urban lakes, the landfill at Union Bay and the Arboretum, the bridging of the waters with a highway on concrete pontoons, the lowering of Lake Washington in 1916 that rerouted a river and dramatically changed our urban shoreline. Fitting then that I should need an occasional Advil to alleviate the irritation of the work that continues, as the pile drivers pound on in the never-ending effort to make Seattle navigable, habitable, prosperous.
Williams is a brilliant writer who combines an intense and scholarly curiosity with in-the-field research, and has a gift for explaining—a talent he once honed as a tour guide at Arches National Park. He has explored geology for years, in books whose topics range from the stones of urban architecture to the meaning of rock cairns. His new history, as the book’s subtitle states, is the “Reshaping Seattle’s Topography.” Imagine if Murray Morgan’s Skid Road had been written by a geologist. Williams offers a detailed yet sweeping overview of the way Seattle’s landscape has literally been reshaped. Too High and Too Steep covers Seattle’s European settlement forward, but also includes an excellent account of Puget Sound in the Ice Age, and how vast glacial forces left us with such a complex geographic counterpane of gouged and scoured terrain.
It’s good background, but the real drive of the book begins with the settlers, who envisioned a major metropolis on Elliott Bay—New York Alki—and went about constructing that in a land that seemed designed to defy it. The Denny party and others had staked their claim on the best southern port as relates to the outlet of Puget Sound and the Pacific. The real issue, Williams writes, was how to take advantage of it?SoDo, on the eve of being filled in with earth.
Williams’ title refers to the burden of building a big city on Seattle’s hills, but the early problem wasn’t just “too high and too steep” but also too wet. The water and shorelines were tantalizing—deep port, tempting timber, nearby mineral wealth—but removing resources to match the scale of their abundance was a huge issue. So was expanding the working space so that industry had the room it needed to grow. Rail access was crucial, and even before Seattle was finally connected to the transcontinental railroad, the city built is own local rail line to speed the extraction of coal from the Cascades, turning Seattle into the West Coast’s major supplier of energy to cities like San Francisco. To get that coal required pile-driving for wharves and trestles to take shortcuts across the great Duwamish tide flats (you know them today as SoDo or the Industrial District). These allowed Seattle to send and receive goods and raw materials regionally, then nationally. The pile driver connected land and sea and hooked us to the world.A conveyor belt for taking dirt to the water, down Battery St.
The expanding railroad network transformed the original waterfront, which is still an ongoing project even today. Railroad lines were built out onto the tide flats, which were then filled in and fortified with a seawall. While we tend to think of Seattle being an early timber town, and we exported plenty of lumber, but the forests also gave us access to the trees which we pounded into the soft, deep mud of the waterfront and tide flats to support warehouses, whorehouses, and plain old houses. Many of Pioneer Square’s old buildings still rely on old Doug fir pilings for their foundations. As the city expanded on stilts the space between was filled in to create new and more stable property. Demolition debris, sawdust, garbage, sewage, ballast, junk of all kinds created new “land.” Eventually, the remaking of the shoreline connected with the idea of flattening the hills to make getting around and developing the city easier. It seemed like a win-win.Denny Hill, on its way down.
Industrial scale landfill began in the 1890s with an attempt to dig a canal through Beacon Hill to Lake Washington. That project dumped more uniform soil into what became SoDo. Regrading and landfilling expanded into multi-year regrades around town, most notable the washing away of Denny Hill in what is now Belltown and the Denny Triangle which created a vast, flat area supposedly ripe for redevelopment. It took awhile for that to happen—completed by the 1930s, it saw development bursts in the 1960s, then the ‘80s, and is only now fulfilling its urban promise by transforming into an extension of downtown connecting to South Lake Union and South Queen Anne.
From the standpoint of urban development in the early 1900s, it made sense. While it took longer than expected to come to fruition, the scale of change would likely be a source of wonder and satisfaction to the engineers and business barons who wanted it.
On the other hand, much of what Seattle builders did would now be considered environmental depravity. Our shorelines, rivers, lakes and tidelands were devastated. The scale is mind-boggling. Williams reports that by 1931, an estimated “75 million cubic yards of material had been moved by dredging, regrading and filling.” That works out to something like 3.6 million train carloads of stuff.A ship built to dump earth into the harbor does its job.
The Duwamish River—straightened and poisoned—is the poster child for eco-wrecking, but the damage everywhere was significant. We gained parks, but lost ecosystems. Our attempts now to “restore” areas are expensive, and we’re often fighting an uphill battle against time, budget, regulations, necessity, greed, and apathy. Today, we would not dump entire hills into Elliott Bay, but oil from our cars still flows there. Today we have turned former garbage dumps like Union Bay into natural areas, or industrial zones into parks, like Gas Works, but the ecosystems now require much management by man to keep the salmon alive, to prevent toxic seepage. The water quality of the once natural Lake Washington is largely controlled now by the Army Corps of Engineers, Metro and Seattle Public Utilities, public entities that manage water quality, sewage, salinity, salmon and the lake’s water level.Regrading Seattle.
Williams enriches his book with personal observation. He walks around Seattle’s landscape and describes its history—what you would have seen in the past, what is there now. That cut you drive through on Columbian Way? Part of the failed Beacon Hill canal. The site of the onetime Sears and now Starbucks headquarters? There were mud geysers there after an earthquake.
He goes up the Space Needle and describes the geography, the excavations, the challenges our city’s builders faced, and still face. Much of what we’re doing today we have done before and, he says, we must do again. Seattle’s topography is still imprinting itself on both us and the built environment. We dug a downtown tunnel along the waterfront, and are doing it again. We built a seawall, and we’re building a new one. We’ve built bridges across the lake, and we’re building another. We require rail lines to keep people and good flowing, and regional rail is expanding.
“Seattle,” Williams writes, “is a city of hills and valleys, ridges and bluffs, creeks and lakes, faults and landslides. It is a city governed by its geology.” The engineers will always have work. Our geography is more stubborn than Seattle process.Sixth Ave and Marion.
The trick now, he says, is that we no longer have the ability to simply assert our will upon the landscape. Unlike our 19th- and early 20th century builders, we have more rules and regulations. We know we have to protect the environment from the consequences of our vision, and repair the damage done. We have challenges that cannot be wished away—climate change, sea level rise, seismic faults—that were previously unknown. We also have a more settled landscape, with powerful industrial and civic interests that can push back harder than the trees and soil once did.
The future landscape, Williams concludes, will be transformed, but the difference now is that “change will not be about what we want to do but about what we have to do.” We came, we saw, we conquered, but in the future, we’ll have to adapt to forces beyond our control, and to a landscape that continues to challenge our ideas of what a city should be.The “last shovel” of dirt is removed from Denny Hill, attracting a crowd.
David B. Williams will be reading from his new book, “Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography” (University of Washington Press) at the Seattle Public Library. Oct. 10 at 2pm.
All photos courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archive.
Sherman Alexie’s favorite poems, Patricia Barker’s return, and the girl who gets gifts from crows: your Weekend List
A View from the Bridge
In 1950s Brooklyn, a longshoreman takes in a pair of undocumented Italian brothers and when one of them takes up with his niece, his world begins to fall apart. Seattle Rep offers up an exceptional production of this Arthur Miller play—its cast is first-rate, its set is a must-see and even the jazzy interludes serve the story well. The story, mind you, is one you’ll keep talking about long after the show: So what exactly was the extent of longshoreman Eddie’s affection for his grown niece?
Most shows will be at the Rep itself, but on Oct. 13, the Rep presents a night of immersive theater at the Wing Luke Museum, where an entirely Asian American cast will read from the play in the rooms of the Wing’s historic tenement hotel.
If you go: A View from the Bridge, Seattle Rep, through Oct. 18 (Tickets start at $41)—F.D.
Best American Poetry Launch Party *
Novelist and poet Sherman Alexie has selected 75 contemporary poems for this year’s Best American Poetry. The always-candid Alexie, whose poetry (like all of his writing) is deeply emotionally affecting, will also host the event. To celebrate the release of the anthology, Alexie will call to the stage poets featured in the collection, including local celebrity Ed Skoog, Natalie Diaz, and Joan Kane. An evening of poetry reading and celebration — it will be the perfect way to kick off the weekend.
If you go: Best American Poetry Launch Party, Huge House, 7 p.m. Oct. 9 (Free)—N.C.
Birds at the Burke *
Remember that story that went viral on social media earlier this year — the one about the local girl who feeds crows and receives “gifts” in return? She’s 8-year-old Gabi Mann and she’ll be on hand for Birds at the Burke, an all-day event for aficionados of our feathered friends. Other featured attractions include photographer Paul Bannick, a game called “Birding Jeopardy,” bird-themed haiku and actual live birds. Free with museum admission.
If you go: Birds at the Burke, Burke Museum, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct 10 ($10)—F.D.
Grand Rapids Ballet
Local dance fans can celebrate a homecoming of sorts this week for Patricia Barker, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer. Barker is now artistic director for Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet and she brings her 30-plus dancers to Seattle for a 5-day run. The company will perform Olivier Wevers’ full-length “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Wevers, also a former PNB dancer is artistic director of Whim W’him) as well as a mixed bill of works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, David Parsons, Penny Saunders and Mario Radacovsky.
If you go: Grand Rapids Ballet, Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, through Oct. 11 ($52)—F.D.
Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival *
This marks the 20th year of this Seattle film festival, celebrating queer talent, from local to international, all throughout town. The film everyone is sure to be talking about is Nasty Baby, a 2015 Sundance stunner starring Kristen Wiig and director Sebastián Silva. It’s about a “modern family” trying to have a baby, and the character examinations and insanity that ensues (7 p.m. Oct.16). Don’t miss Drag Becomes Him, the documentary about the life and rise of loveable and talented RuPaul’s Drag Race winner and local theater legend Jinkx Monsoon (7 p.m. Oct. 9). The festival also features a program of animated shorts program, which never fail to be fun and eye-opening (9:15 p.m Oct. 14).
If you go: Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, various theaters, Through Oct. 18 ($12)—N.C.
* events that are under $15
You don’t miss someone like Harry Belafonte, 88, walking into a room — a long cane, svelte brown suit, bald head, kind eyes and sturdy handshake. Then you hear his deep raspy voice, and you never forget him.
Belafonte has led an extraordinary life. Once dubbed the “King of Calypso” for his Caribbean musical style, he was the first African American to win an Emmy, in 1959. Since then, he has picked up four Grammy’s (including a lifetime achievement award), a Tony and an honorary Oscar in 2014.
But more than his music, Belafonte is known for his activism. A confidant to Martin Luther King Jr., he financed the 1961 Freedom Rides and helped orchestrate the March on Washington. Today, Belafonte focuses on activism around youth incarceration and race in America.
I met him at Seattle’s Hotel Deca before he spoke to a sold-out crowd at the University of Washington. We discussed emerging African American leaders, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the value of getting people out of their comfort zone. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said that in order to make progress on racial equity, we need to “unleash radical thought.” Is that what we’re seeing with the Black Lives Matter movement?
Yes. I think for a long time radical thinking, especially in terms of movement and social upheaval, has been treated not just with indifference, but I think there has been a consciousness among the press and others to say, “Those are values that came from the past, they have no application and no space in today’s modern expression.” I think quite the contrary; I think radical thought is more on the table now than ever before.
I think what drives that fact is … social media, technology and the globalization we are experiencing. A lot of the young people I’ve been dealing with have gone to Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, met with Israelis and Palestinians, discussing common interests and how to reset policy. There is a new wave of consciousness being raised in the United Nations, and the human rights divisions and agencies are all beginning to talk more passionately about how we turn things around.
In August, two Black Lives Matter activists interrupted a Bernie Sanders rally and caused a big stir here. How do you balance it — turning people away versus bringing more people into the movement?
I think the fact [is] that you lose some in the process of rebellion against injustice. … Mostly, the people who turn away from radical thought are people who don’t like to be uncomfortable. And radical thought at its best is supposed to make people feel uncomfortable. We talk about the uprisings in communities like in St. Louis and Baltimore, and it is what protests are supposed to do. The fact that some niceties are inconvenienced and people can’t get to work on time because there are protests in the streets, well, hello, that is what we do. That is what we are supposed to do. That is what Dr. King did.
I pointed out in a strategy session we had in Baltimore, when the state teargassed, machines of oppression showed up, and then applied a curfew. Everyone kind of bemoaned that fact. I said, “Those of you who are caught up in protest, this is a golden opportunity. If the state says you go to bed by 10 o’clock, then you should make sure that by 11, the streets of our cities are filled with human protest and bodies!” The fact that some might have a restless night with the noise downstairs or find it inconvenient because people blocked traffic, well that’s the point — to snap you out of your indifference! So those who are turned off by radical thinking, or radical behavior, well, as a matter of fact, in many ways, you are our target.
We talked about radicalism — there isn’t a central leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement. Is there an advantage or disadvantage there?
The fact that Dr. King was the spokesperson was important to our movement, but he wasn’t the only one… [There was] a large number of organizations that had leaders all over the place. You had Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, SNCC, and so many others. Today, I look around the country and there are any number of groups who have emerged, and Black Lives Matter is only one.
Do you think that, with the Black Lives Matter movement, it will really lead to change? Or will it be like the Occupy movement, which amounted to a lot of sound and fury, but not a lot in the way of real change?
You’ve got me there, because I don’t see the Wall Street movement in the definition that you’ve just given: a leaderless, mindless thing that came and went. It did what it was supposed to do. … Wall Street and the voices of Wall Street, that was an attempt on the body of the people to protest against the fact that there was this greed factor in our midst that caused the collapse of financial institutions and the poor and seeking to get justice and the bigger machine that the state shut down on the justice process.
To treat that somehow as if it failed is to charge it with a responsibility it never set for itself. It’s like saying the black movement failed because we are in Afghanistan. What the young people did in Wall Street did made a difference. It is an ingredient in a wave of ingredients that have to come together, because the problem is not winning one moment, it is a series of moments this nation has to deal with.
Who do you see as emerging African American leaders in the country right now?
They are all over the place. Phillip Agnew, Bryan Stevenson — now there is a young man who deserves watching. I’m excited that artists have responded to recent criticisms I’ve made about the lack of social justice. I made a statement when I was given the Oscar earlier this year. I made a statement about Hollywood and racism and the absence of artists having an extensive consciousness and responsibility and using that platform and their art to say things that could inspire and stimulate.
Today, you have some incredible expressions coming from a number of artists. Usher, John Legend, Alicia Keys are artists that I’ve spoken with recently who have said, “We are on board. We will make songs that have more social sensitivity.” Usher has a campaign he is now charging, unleashed in a week called Chains. He has written a song and is releasing an album with a huge mission.
I’m going to turn the tables a bit. I’d like to know, what have you learned from the Black Lives Matter activists?
What I’ve learned from the activists and what is going on today is, those of us who have lived almost a century, have no right to cynicism. There is always something in motion, there is always people out there making a difference. One of the big problems with America and its smothering of radical thought and behavior, is people don’t know what’s going on. There is a lot of noise, but it doesn’t make the headlines of the New York Times or get on CNN with great regularity.
For a long time I said, “What has happened to the young? What was all of that about, all my friends who were murdered: Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Dr. King, etc, etc. etc.?” Well, it sits there. It’s there. A lot of kids are studying it, learning it. … For me, I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to have it pushed right into my face. They’re saying, “We’re here, chief. We’re happening. We’re making noise.”
The UW Public Lectures Equity and Difference series continues with Ralina L. Joseph on January 14.
Political pressure is mounting to get the federal government to change the name of a lake in the North Cascades that is likely a racist slur.
The lake and connecting creek, which lie in the Stehekin River Valley in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, are labeled Coon Lake and Coon Creek on federal maps. But a south Seattle man with ties to the area, Jonathan Rosenblum, convinced state officials that those names were likely racist references to a black prospector who worked claims there in the late 19th century. The state’s board of geographic names agreed, and officially changed the names to Howard Lake and Howard Creek after the prospector, Wilson Howard.
But the National Park Service opposed the name change, so on federal maps, databases and mapping software, Coon Lake lives.
“That’s shocking,” African American activist Eddie Rye, Jr. says about the Park Service’s decision. Rye played a key role in the hard-fought battle to change the name of Empire Way to Martin Luther King Way back in the 1980s. How does he feel about this issue? “To be honest, pissed off.”
Rye has met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., to spur action. He’s frustrated that the feds didn’t make the switch years ago.
He is not alone. Fifty members of both houses and both parties of the Washington State legislature have now written to Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell asking them to intervene to “right this wrong.” The letter, sent on September 23, reads, in part:
“We are very disappointed to learn that the federal government has to date refused to ratify the state’s decision – normally a pro-forma matter. Howard Lake lies within the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service (NPS). Since 2007, the NPS has steadfastly opposed the change from Coon Lake to Howard Lake, and has effectively blocked action within the U.S. Department of the Interior. … Today the NPS trail signs and maps in the North Cascades National Park point to ‘Coon Lake.’ In continuing to oppose the name change, the Park Service is failing to recognize Mr. Howard’s historical contribution to the area and is perpetuating a geographic name that is widely seen as pejorative given its specific origin in this case.”
The letter cites a recent Crosscut article that covered the name controversy.
Thirty-seventh District state Rep. Pramila Jayapal coordinated the letter, and got sign-off from her legislative colleagues, who represent both sides of the state. Interestingly, the only Republican state senator to sign is Auburn’s Pam Roach, a staunch conservative.
Rosenblum and others argue that the time is ripe for change. One reason is the Obama administration’s action this summer to switch the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali to match the wishes of the state of Alaska, a move long-blocked in Congress by representatives from Ohio who preferred the name McKinley. Denali is the widely accepted Native American name for the peak and the almost universally preferred name by Alaskans.
Another is that the Park Service, which is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016, has been criticized for the low percentage of minority visitors to parks. Rosenblum, in a recent Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, says “our nation’s most treasured vistas and parklands are not seen as inviting places for many. People of color comprise 37 percent of the nation’s population, but only 22 percent of park visitors.”
This is a major issue in a country that is predicted to have a non-white majority by 2044. Appealing to a broader constituency is likely critical to the system’s long-term survival.
Seattle writer Glenn Nelson has launched a website called the Trail Posse, aimed at introducing and promoting the outdoors and parks to a more diverse population. He gained national attention with a New York Times editorial last July titled, “Why Are Our Parks so White?” He tracks the Park Service’s diversity efforts and says that there “is a lot of talk, but there’s not continuing dialog at the top.”
Nelson worries that stonewalling a name change like Coon Lake will create unnecessary ill will. “It feeds into the fear of going to national parks that people of color experience,” he says. “It’s shocking that you learn about something like that today, 50 years after the Civil Rights movement.”
In his New York Times piece, Nelson argued that “We need to demolish the notion that the national parks and the rest of nature are an exclusive club where minorities are unwelcome…” and that the National Park Service “is the logical leader to blaze a trail to racial diversity in the natural world. It has a high public profile, and its approaching centennial can serve as a platform for redefinition.”
Fixing the map would be one small step in that direction.
World-renowned ballerina Patricia Barker, a Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer for 20 years, is now making her mark offstage, just as she did onstage. Next week, she will be using her PNB experience, both as a dancer and as an instructor at PNB’s school, as she brings a Michigan dance troupe to Seattle for performances that reflect her roots and her ambitions to contribute to ballet’s future.
After her celebrated career as a performer here ended in 2007, Barker worked internationally staging George Balanchine’s works before becoming Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet in 2011, a position she had held on an interim basis for a year. She was instrumental in preventing the regional company, which is Michigan’s only professional ballet company, from shutting its doors. And, under her direction, both the size of the company and the breadth of the works it performs have grown.
Next week, the Eastern Washington native is reaching another milestone. She’s bringing Grand Rapids Ballet’s 33 dancers to the Pacific Northwest for a five day run of performances. “I’m going home and bringing my dancers to Seattle,” she says. While the company is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Barker and husband, Michael Auer, have kept their Seattle home and return a few times a year.
Although Barker brought the company to Bellevue for performances at the Meydenbauer Center in 2014, this will be Grand Rapids Ballet first Seattle appearance in its 44 years. Getting here took a lot of hard work.Patricia Barker Credit: Grand Rapids Ballet
One of the biggest challenges Barker faced in her new position was rebuilding Grand Rapid Ballet’s repertory, the collection of works it performs. GRB’s previous artistic director, also a choreographer, had taken the rights to his works with him. For Barker, this meant putting together a whole season in a matter of weeks. When asked how she managed to do this, she says, “You call your friends. You ask for favors and help.”
Twyla Tharp gave her rights to Nine Sinatra Songs. Internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer Mario Radacovsky choreographed a new, full-length Romeo and Juliet. The George Balanchine Trust, for which Barker still serves as a stager setting Balanchine’s works on companies around the world, gave her Who Cares?
While she was dancing with PNB, Barker had the fortunate experience of learning many of Balanchine’s works from Francia Russell, PNB’s former artistic director. Russell had been both a dancer and a ballet mistress – learning all of the roles in a ballet in order to be able to teach them to the dancers – with New York City Ballet under the great Balanchine. Barker considers herself “a grandchild of the group.”
Russell had recommended and promoted Barker to Balanchine’s trust to stage his works. Russell says, “Patricia truly knows and understands the ballets we worked on together.” Today, the Grand Rapids Ballet has four Balanchine works.
Yet, Barker has gone beyond yesterday’s choreographers in creating her new company’s repertory. She is committed to having her dancers work with contemporary choreographers and to giving today’s dance-makers opportunities to bring their ideas to life.
Seattle’s Olivier Wevers, also a former PNB principal dancer and dancing partner of Barker, is one such choreographer. Today, Wevers is the artistic director of his own contemporary dance company, Whim W’him.
Next week, GRB will give three performances of Wevers’ full-length ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he made specifically for the company. While Seattleites may be familiar with Balanchine’s ballet of the same name, Barker says, “This [Wevers’] is nothing like it.” Wevers tells a new tale using the characters of Shakespeare’s play. The central character of Wevers’ ballet is Nick Bottom, a young boy who dreams of being President of the United States. Wevers uses events from his own childhood to develop this character. The ballet also includes the ingenious use of sets.
The other program that GRB will present next Saturday and Sunday, is a mixed bill of four choreographers, called MOVEMEDIA. Two of these choreographers, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Penny Saunders, have had other works presented in Seattle last year. The others are Mario Radacovsky and well-known contemporary American choreographer David Parsons.
While Barker credits many people with helping her to succeed in her new role, her mentor, Francia Russell, provided her with a role model for being an artistic director. Barker says of her experience, “It was inspiring. I wanted to be like her one day.”
Of course, the mentor-mentee relationship goes two ways, and Russell is proud of the director Barker has become. She said via e-mail, “Both her artistic values and her strong, personal management of her employees are true to the principles Kent and I had wanted to instill in her all those years she was with us at PNB. Nothing could make us more proud than that.”
Barker has given herself another big challenge – to expand GRB’s reputation beyond its region. She told Pointe magazine earlier this year, “What continues to drive me is not only helping this organization to thrive and be noticed, but for us to become Michigan’s number-one arts export.” Touring is now an important priority. Given her demonstrated perseverance and determination, it won’t be surprising if she manages to bring the Grand Rapids Ballet to the ranks of the top ballets nationally. First stop, Seattle.
Genius | 21 Century | Seattle *
The Frye, Seattle’s gem of a museum, presents arguably its most ambitious show ever: more than 60 artists from all disciplines who have been deemed “geniuses” by The Stranger and other creative folk. I love this kind of a show: packed, different, boldly spotlighting all kinds of perspectives.
The show will continually change but what’s up now (and what I’m eager to go back to and take in some more) includes Victoria Haven’s Studio X video installation about a changing South Lake Union; zoe|juniper’s dance performance projected onto floor-to-ceiling circular “curtains;” the massive weavings and macramé of Nep Sidhu that hang to a soundscape created by Shabazz Palaces; the giant red neon arrows that violently erupt from the floor by SuttonBeresCuller and an especially poignant short story about death, the memory of one’s father and a Wendy’s hamburger by Sherman Alexie. There are scores of special events and performances—durational dance, live music, theater—making the Frye a not-to-be-missed-or-you’ll-be-kicking-yourself venue this winter.
If you go: Genius|21 Century|Seattle, Frye Art Museum, through Jan. 10 (Free)—F.D.
The Great Pumpkin Beer Fest
This week, Hillary Clinton took a firm stand on Starbucks’ pumpkin lattes. Correctly, she’s not into them. Their calorie content was her explanation, which is fair. But in a pretty glaring omission, she failed to mention they’re good for about five sips, after which their temperature drops a bit and you realize they taste like a syrupy approximation of Thanksgiving’s premier dessert: pumpkin pie. And that’s sacrilege, people.
But if there’s a pumpkin beverage that’s worthy of the seasonal hype, it is pumpkin beer. Some prefer just a hint of the flavor, like in a mellow pumpkin porter. Others prefer a full-on onslaught, as found in Elysian Night Owl. But whatever one’s palette, the 11th Annual Great Pumpkin Beer Fest is a must-visit this weekend. Over 80 pumpkin beers will be offered – 8-0! – and potential rewards await those who dress in orange, and particularly orange costumes. So find yourself a decorative gourd costume, and don’t miss out on one of Seattle’s best fall traditions. While sold out online, there are typically some extra tickets at the door for the truly dedicated.
If you go: The Great Pumpkin Beer Fest, Elsyian Airport Way Brewery, Oct. 2-3 ($28) — D.A.
Pop-up: Harvest Moon Ramen
Chef Jason Harris brings his love of and experience with Japanese cuisine to Pike Place Market in this one night celebration of the flavors of autumn. It’s a set menu, but kick-off autumn with a lazy deviled egg, delicate salads or Japanese style pickles. The ramen is next to come, and it includes roasted Scarlet Kabocha squash, black garlic oil, and a sake-cured egg (among other additions). For dessert, Harris serves up Moonstone Plum Sake jelly, Calpico cream, orange zest, and five spice. Harris is the former chef and owner of the Ballard restaurant Bloom. Look for more regular Japanese pop-ups by checking out his blog Taste and Vision.
If you go: Pop-up: Harvest Moon Ramen, Pike Place Atrium Kitchen, 7 p.m. Oct. 1., ($22) —N.C.
My introduction to Todd Barry came via the inimitably brilliant show Louie, on which Barry plays himself, a wry comedian friend taking his time through life and jokes. Last year, Barry embarked on a seven-show tour, which can be enjoyed on Netflix as the totally worthwhile, fun documentary The Crowd Work Tour. The shows are sans jokes, but more representative of his strengths as a comedian: slow paced with quick wit. Barry returns to Seattle with a few jokes (and hopefully some crowd work?) this Friday.
If you go: Todd Barry, El Corazon, 8 p.m. Oct. 2, (Tickets start at $18)—N.C.
Orchestra Seattle| Seattle Chamber Singers
The new season kicks off with Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, sung in English and commemorating the 25th anniversary of Germany’s reunification. “War and Peace” is the title of this concert, which also includes Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. A free “Behind the Music” discussion at 6:30 p.m. precedes the performance.
If you go: Orchestra Seattle | Seattle Chamber Singers, First Free Methodist Church, 7:30 p.m. Oct 3 ($25)—F.D.
Local Sightings Closing Night: Ahamefule Oluo Presents Police Beat
Ahamefule Oluo is a local gem – trumpeter in jazz quartet Industrial Revelation, writer, comedian, and husband of beloved writer Lindy West. In the finale of this year’s Local Sightings Film Festival, Oluo creates a live soundtrack to the 2005 Police Beat, written by Charles Mudede. He says he chose this film for the Puget Soundtrack series because, “Charles Mudede and director/co-writer Robinson Devor take these real universes built out of a few words and translate them into such beautiful imagery that is lush while never seeming quite healthy, never letting us become aware of the mortality of all, the ridiculous futility of everything.”
If you go: Puget Soundtrack series: Ahamefule Oluo Presents Police Beat, Northwest Film Forum, 8 p.m. Oct. 3 ($20)—N.C.PNB pianist Allan Dameron and soloist Elizabeth Murphy in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert. Photo by Angela Sterling.
Pacific Northwest Ballet
If you’ve never thought ballet could make you laugh then you’re in for a treat watching “The Concert,” a Jerome Robbins’ work about a group of people who take in a piano concert in plein air. Both piano and pianist are on stage (playing Chopin). Then one by one, the audience members arrive: a woman who oh-so-dramatically embraces the actual piano; a man with his nagging wife (the man then starts falling in love with someone else); a group of dancers overcome by the music, but they can’t seem to fall in step with one another. Who hasn’t daydreamed when hearing beautiful music played live? It’s part of a triple bill that includes Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Tide Harmonic.”
If you go: Pacific Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall, Through Oct. 4 (Tickets start at $30)—F.D.
* events that are under $15
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Many were the intriguing topics covered Tuesday during the introductory press conference of new Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, also attended by the man who chose Dipoto, club president Kevin Mather. Believe it or not, most answers were reasonable, even enlightened. I know, I know: I see your eyes rolling from here.
The community skepticism surrounding the Mariners is already at least as dense as a cubic mile of lead. Deservedly. But I choose today not to dig into it. My pick long ago broke.
Instead, I pass along answers to two questions that helped me in deciding whether to take this latest leadership change seriously.
I asked Mather whether he asked Dipoto if he knew the current Mariners roster was ill-suited to the home ballpark.
“I didn’t have to,” Mather said. “He told me.”
This news represents a breakthrough. For seven years, Dipoto’s predecessor, Jack Zduriencik, kept building a roster of home-run hitters for a stadium than played slightly smaller than Belgium.
The result this season was a team fifth in the American League in home runs, yet out of playoff consideration by the Fourth of July. After weak drafts and mediocre player development, the thick, square pegs in Safeco’s round hole were a critical reason that Zduriencik’s teams missed the postseason in all seven seasons of his tenure.
The Mariners roster should look a lot more like the 2014-15 Royals than the 1965 Yankees. Saving runs via pitching and defense are nearly as important as making runs. In running down a ball in the massive Safeco outfield, there’s not enough time to hitch up the Conestoga wagons to the oxen.
The second question was directed to Dipoto. I asked why he failed to convince his former boss, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno, that he should NOT sign addiction-plagued outfielder Josh Hamilton to mega-contract in the winter of 2013 — unless Dipoto thought it was a good idea.
The reason is relevant to the Mariners because Zduriencik was in the middle of the same free-agent foolishness, waving his checkbook at Hamilton, who failed miserably in Anaheim despite the red flags that were seen from the International Space Station.
Dipoto explained that the owner screwed up. He didn’t use that phrase, but I caught his drift.
“Every decision you make is a collaboration. Josh was a free agent. I met with his wife and family. Obviously, Arte and upper management were heavily involved in what we were doing. Rightly so. That decision was the owner’s decision to make.
“As I understand it here, my position here is to manage what I’ve been given. That’s what I do. With the Angels, we did our best to put a team as good as we could around the core players. As Arte told me at the time, ‘My decision [on Hamilton] is mine.'”
Whew. One of the worst free-agent signings in recent major league history apparently was not Dipoto’s idea.
Now, some will say he’s lying, or that he’s dodging responsibility. I’m going with the idea that anyone operating off more than his medulla oblongata understood that Hamilton was a great talent but unworthy of a $125 million risk.
Where that puts Zduriencik, who was the driver on Seattle’s pursuit of Hamilton, I don’t know. But he’s under the bus now, so nobody cares.
Asked about the Hamilton episode, Mather said, “I would suggest that [Dipoto’s] previous employer was much heavier-handed than our ownership. We defer to our general manager.”
Then he cringed: “I’ve probably said too much.”
It’s our secret, Kevin.
But the episode reveals that Dipoto is experienced in ownerships that don’t know baseball. The skill won’t show up in his bio, but might be as important as any other asset in Seattle because of the other key news Tuesday, this from much-criticized CEO Howard Lincoln.
“I don’t have any plans to retire,” said, Lincoln, who showed up to the presser and took numerous questions. “I’d sure like to retire after we win the World Series … or make the playoffs.”
That’s a fairly wide target, but the lower end of Lincoln’s spectrum offers some optimism to the legions who hold him chiefly responsible for the Mariners’ 14-year absence from the playoffs, baseball’s longest drought.
As well as experience managing up to lightly informed owners, Dipoto has experience managing down to lightly informed managers. The Mariners manager, Lloyd McClendon, is a lot closer to the Angels’ field boss, Mike Scioscia, in terms of acceptance of advanced statistical analytics. As in, almost no acceptance.
The issue was said to be the reason Dipoto unexpectedly resigned the Angels GM job in July. Scioscia was said to have resisted deploying the information inDipoto’s reports. The argument was won when Moreno sided with his 16-year manager.
But Mather claims that was not the issue.
“It’s really ironic that that media thinks Mike and Jerry got sideways on analytics,” he said. “Jerry’s not an analytics guy. He has people who show him stuff that he uses.”
Whatever happened in Anaheim, Dipoto is here now, experienced in dealing with oddball owners and stubborn managers. He’s also a former major league pitcher, a scout, and a personnel director. He’s a polished personality and talker who delivers perfect sound bites to please TV, such as:
“My baseball philosophy is to build flexibility, build versatility, create balance, and that will lead to sustainability,” he said. “I believe that starts today.”
So, yes, he gets how the job works. Dipoto and this change are worth taking seriously. But will Mather, Lincoln and ownership persist in compromising their help?
Mather, Dipoto’s new boss, recalled being part of the pre-game ceremony in August celebrating Jamie Moyer’s entry into the club’s Hall of Fame that drew 39,000 to Safeco. He said he leaned over to Lincoln and said, “‘Think of what would happen if we put a winning product on the field.’ We once drew 3.5 million people [2002, leading baseball].
“This sounds crass, but there’s money in this town. People buy tickets, food and beverage and merchandise. We just need to put a winning product out there. Our ownership is tired of losing. They look at me and say, ‘You gotta treat the fans better,’ and then they kick me under the table and say, ‘Don’t forget ownership. You gotta treat us better.’
“I’m going to put more resources to Jerry’s end of the table than maybe Jerry’s used to.”
There you have it: Spend money to make money, and hire the right people and get out of the way. Two axioms to which anyone with a lick of business sense would stand up and say, “Duh!”
This organization has been breathtakingly slow on the uptake. Change comes when they know how long they’ve been wrong. Sounds as if they know.
During a recent afternoon rehearsal with her five dancers, choreographer Pat Graney was discussing timing, dresses, and poultry–specifically where one might procure a Cornish game hen.
This was Graney, one of Seattle’s most admired and respected dance makers, finessing her first full-length work in seven years. Girl Gods premieres this week at On The Boards and if a peek at the work in progress is a good indicator, it promises to be both aesthetically memorable and emotionally challenging. In other words: classic Graney.
The work focuses on a favorite Graney subject—women—but this time it’s women and the idea of rage. (The poultry, for example, serves as a prop in a segment about the ritual of domestic work but it’s slated to be anything but cutesy).
Graney, 59, has received some of the highest accolades locally and nationally for her work. Her contemporary dance pieces have included large-scale installations as well as performance workshops for incarcerated women and girls. In conversations after rehearsal one recent Saturday at On The Boards and then over the phone, Graney weighed in on stuffing one’s emotions, the radical act of unleashing rage, and the insecurity she still feels even though she’s in her 36th year of creating work:
On how one unexpected act of rage set off an inquiry into the subject:
Years ago, I was in the basement storing things. And I was trying to pull out one of these chairs, a family heirloom out from a cramped area. I pulled and pulled and I got so enraged I threw it against the wall and I saw it splinter all over the place. And I wrote about it, taking apart that moment, slowing it down, going back. The explosiveness of anger, uncontrolled anger; that dark side we’re not allowed to show. There’s so much material that’s unformed, that’s beautiful, in rage.
On collaborating with her dancers:
My experience growing up was a solitary one, a world of fantasy, of books and dreams. That’s where I lived. To share the world (of creating) is terrifying. It’s a great challenge for me artistically. … [But] including people in the process means they have authorship and ownership; having ownership makes the performance very different. It’s a great experience as a director to make people feel like they’re on board.
On the recordings that comprise some of the soundscape (by Amy Denio) for the piece:
The dancers all interviewed their moms about power and being able to get angry or not—what was allowed and acceptable and what was not. It’s really interesting to hear women talk about feminism; the younger moms felt much more empowered—they feel like they were born into it compared to some of the older moms who felt like they didn’t have that same opportunity.
We created a place to share. We created our own family in making this work and we’re mining all these different experiences. It’s a rich palate. Some of the material is really awful and some of it is so awful it’s actually funny.
On the importance of looking back at history, specifically women’s history:
As a group, we really identified female icons and your mother is an icon, whether you want her to be or not. It’s important that we look at and address the shoulders of the women that we stand on—all these women who have done so much amazing work.
On stage, I really wanted to have a sense of generations. So I have an older woman and a girl. We pay homage to what’s come before and what will come after in this work.
On how becoming a mom in her 50s (her daughter is 6 years old) now informs her work:
It makes one more conscious, more acutely aware of generational things. It changes up the game and the way you perceive yourself and the way you perceive others and families.
On the influence of her Keeping the Faith/The Prison Project program that she started in 1992 and remains one of the longest-running prison arts programs in the country:
It’s been a huge influence on my work. I’m not the same person I was when I started working on it. Keeping the Faith is about looking at women and facilitating their voices so they can be heard, which is so important to me.
Pat Graney’s Girl Gods plays at On the Boards from Oct. 1 – 4. Tickets are $25. Find more info here.