Bremerton grew up next to a Navy base.
The town used to be the economic center of the Kitsap Peninsula. But then, in the 1970s and 80s, development shifted to the suburbs around Bremerton. Now the city wants to get some of that mojo back.
Every day in Bremerton, at 4:02 exactly, over 7,000 shipyard workers get off work; 3,000 board buses or vanpools. But the majority speed walk to their cars, which are parked on the streets and in massive parking garages in Bremerton.
They’re trying to beat traffic out of town. But they’re too late. Bremerton’s afternoon traffic jam has already begun.
On the sidewalk, a woman tries to catch their attention as they walk by. “I know you want some,” she says.
“Yeah, no, thanks… I’m good,” says the man.
The woman trying to slow him down is Betty Walker. She offers the fleeing shipyard workers slices of sausage on little toothpicks. “Did you have a hard day?" she says. "Would you like a sample?”
Some take her up on her offer, and offer praise of the barbecue and sausages she makes at her restaurant, the Sweet and Smokey Diner. But many turn her down. “Oh no thank you, not tonight," they say.
Walker doesn't let that bother her. “They’re just in such a hurry to get out of here. They’ve had their time, and they just want to go home.”
Home, for many of these workers, is in the suburban neighborhoods in Silverdale and Poulsbo. The businesses moved out there, too.
In Silverdale, you have to have a car to get around. That wasn’t the case in old Bremerton.
John Powers is with the Kitsap Economic Development Alliance. He said Bremerton built up around the shipyard before the age of the automobile arrived on the Kitsap Peninsula.
“Workers in the shipyard — that lived here in [the neighborhood of] Mannette or over in East Bremerton — they were carrying their lunch buckets and walking to the shipyard. They weren’t driving to work,” Powers said.
KUOW's Region of Boom team has been spending the month reporting from Bremerton. It's part of our larger effort to understand how people are experiencing growth outside of Seattle.
But the second time the Navy built up a base on the Kitsap Peninsula, it didn’t build around pedestrians. It built around cars.
Bangor is about 15 miles north of Bremerton. It’s home to the Navy’s Pacific submarine fleet. It’s huge at 8,800 acres — more than 10 times the size of Disneyland Resort.
"It’s tough to place an 8,800 acre installation anywhere,” Powers said.
You had to go far from Bremerton to find that kind of space. And the development that sprang up around Bangor in places like Silverdale is more suburban: Chain restaurants and culs-de-sac where there had once been only farms and forests.
What finally sealed downtown Bremerton’s doom was the Kitsap Mall in Silverdale, where business is going just great.
Michael Young is the manager of Potbelly, a sandwich shop in the mall. He hands out samples of oatmeal chocolate chip brownies to the folks working at the Sprint Kiosk.
I think he might have asked them to ham it up, because they’re a little too enthusiastic. “Oh yeah, so this is mine? Cool beans, I’m digging that!"
But Young didn’t need to fake anything because Silverdale is winning. Potbelly has a dinner rush, not long after the Bremerton and Bangor bases end their shifts. That's something Walker doesn't have in Bremerton, at the Sweet and Smokey Diner.
But Bremerton has a plan to win back some of that commerce. It involves returning to Bremerton’s past for inspiration, when cities were designed around pedestrians, not cars.
Bremerton developer Wes Larson, who grew up in Bremerton long enough ago to see the tail end of that era, is all in.
“I just see the move back to the cities," Larson said. "You see it in Seattle, all the companies want to locate in the cities. People want to live there. And there’s just a lifestyle that I think has been rediscovered.”
He saw it in Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He saw it in Seattle's South Lake Union. He's convinced: Bremerton's pedestrian-oriented layout is back in style.
That’s why he's turning old department stores into loft-style apartments and restoring an old movie theater called The Roxy. He's also helping build a public square named after Quincy Jones, who played his first keyboard in Bremerton. There are even restaurants in Bremerton starting to do good business after the work day is over.
Back at Walker’s barbecue restaurant, the renewed interest in downtown Bremerton has given her a fresh perspective on Bremerton. “I saw that Bremerton could be what it was.”
She had been thinking about selling her restaurant. Now, she says she’s here to stay.
After Bremerton, KUOW's Region of Boom team returns to Seattle for awhile. Have a story idea, or a big question about growth you want answered? Joshua McNichols can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also use our story pitch form.