If you check into most hotels on First Avenue tonight, it'll run you at least $400. Not so in 1981, when low-income people found affordable rooms up and down "Skid Road" in single-room-occupancy hotels — for a night, or for the rest of their lives.
That was changing even then, as SROs shut down and high-rise condominiums sprang up throughout Downtown. Jim Simon wanted to capture that moment in time when working-class folks, many of whom had made their living on the waterfront as far back as the early 1900s, faced eviction, or at least an uncertain future.
Simon, a longtime Seattle Times reporter and editor (now managing editor at Honolulu Civil Beat), had been working at the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority at the time — and spending a lot of time on and around First Avenue. He won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Washington Commission for the Humanities to record oral histories of residents up and down that street.
Simon teamed up with Roz Barnett and photographer Nancy Walz for the project. Now a freelance photo editor in Maryland, at the time Walz was a staff photographer for the alternative newspaper the Seattle Sun. Walz's photo exhibit, "First Avenue, Seattle," showed at the Museum of History and Industry in 1982. Simon's oral history recordings aired on community radio station KRAB-FM.
"Photographs were simply everywhere you looked," Walz remembered. "It was still full of a wide, wide range of people." The gentrification Walz and Simon witnessed in the early 1980s reminds them both of what Seattle is experiencing today. "Over time, you lose a richness of diversity and these communities that we don't necessarily really think of as a community," Simon said. "They just sort of disappear."
What passed for a dirty movie in the 1950s was pretty mild. The first time Frank Ottersbach, a former beat cop, raided an arcade and checked out the machine, he saw a scene of two girls sitting on chairs, one in her underwear, the other in a housecoat that would flop partly open a few times. “None of the garbage you see today,” he said.
"A lot of the people who end up on Skid Road today are young," Evans said. "They tell me that they watch the six o’clock news back in Louisiana or wherever, and they hear that Boeing or one of the shipyards has a big contract. And they think, well, God, there must be work there. So they come."
"God, there must have been 22 steam schooners running up and down the coast hauling lumber," said a former captain.
"Outsiders see this neighborhood, right away they say 'all you’ve got downtown is a bunch of winos, a bunch of drunks and a bunch of derelicts,'" said Bob Grouse, a hotel desk clerk. "They don’t realize there is a good class of human beings that live downtown, that love to live downtown."
"In the '30s and '40s there were mostly working people in the housekeeping rooms," said Betty McCallister, a longtime First Avenue resident. "Your landlady considered you company. If you needed an extra potato because you had an unexpected guest, you thought nothing of going and asking her for a potato. People weren’t as secluded as they are now."
The dock workers had lots of options, since most also had experience on fishing boats or steamers. "At that time you didn’t give a particular damn if you got kicked off the waterfront," said Joe Wenzl, a former longshoreman. "You could go sailing or fishing. There were jobs for a man with a strong back then."
"I think the only safeguard for the senior citizens is for the community to become aware of keeping us here for the color and the down-to-earth feeling that even tourists like," said Robert Stewart, resident of the St. Regis Hotel.
"I have a pretty good idea where I’m headed. This life is just one miserable stepping stone," he said. "We all get hung up in these little snags, but you gotta hang tough."
"Hell, First Avenue used to be bouncing till two or three in the morning. There were bars and cathouses, every hotel had a red light over the entrance. Christmas!"
Many of those on First Avenue are cut off from family ties or friends. "The loneliness is the big thing here," said Richard Evans, assistant director of the First Avenue Service Center.
"I don’t really care for the condominiums and so," said Rosie Sumi (center). "I would have liked to see the neighborhood restored instead of torn down. Every window you look out now, there's a big building towering over you."
After it closed he lived in the La Salle Apartments, but always dreamed he could find a way to leave First Avenue. “I lived for the days when I could have had a permanent place,” he said.
"This area is like a small town," said Dizz Ward, the restaurant manager. "You can go five blocks down the street and start a rumor, and before you can get back here, the rumor’s already gonna beat you."
"This is their low-rent club," said Dizz Ward, the manager. "People come into the Turf at eight or nine in the morning and stay till eight or nine at night. Never walk out. They’ll have a snack or two, a bowl of soup, sometimes a meal. But this is where they’ll spend the rest of their lives."
"You sit up on the hillside here and look out across Puget Sound, and on and on, all the way to China," said Mac McCanlies, resident of the Livingston-Baker Apartments. "You have to look not only with your eyes but with your feelings, your smile, your atmosphere, your heart, even sometimes your touch."