Culture clash on Capitol Hill
Weekend nights on Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine corridor, now the epicenter of Seattle nightlife, have become a source of tension for longtime residents, who are seeing quaint buildings and inexpensive restaurants replaced by gleaming condos, posh eateries and big dance clubs.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It was 3 in the morning last March when Adé Cônnére was attacked. Cônnére had been performing at the gay bar Pony on Capitol Hill and was wearing a shiny black coat over a dress.
Cônnére, 36, is tall and lean and exudes a certain elegance, even without makeup or skirts. Two men were walking down the street and — thinking he was a woman — catcalled him.
But when they got closer, they realized they were wrong. “Oh, no. That’s a dude!” one of them yelled. The other called after him, “Where you going?” followed by a common slur for gay men.
They pushed him to the ground and scuffled. He kicked them and managed to run away, escaping with a few cuts and bruises. The Stranger covered the attack, and though Cônnére initially declined to file a police report, he eventually did after the mayor’s office contacted him. The assault was classified as a hate crime.
Incidents like Cônnére’s illustrate a growing culture clash on Capitol Hill, a formerly blue-collar neighborhood that became a home for artists and the gay community decades ago and is now in the throes of yet another transformation.
Gleaming new condo buildings and posh eateries, big dance clubs and craft cocktail lounges have replaced quaint auto-row buildings and inexpensive restaurants.
Weekend nights on Pike and Pine, now the epicenter of Seattle’s nightlife, have become a source of tension for longtime residents. Throngs of young, preppy partyers descend on the clubs, overtaking the drag queens and tattooed rockers. If Capitol Hill were a high school, it'd be a classic showdown of jocks and prom queens versus freaks and geeks. Not everyone — including Cônnére — would call it progress.
“There are certain areas that I have started to avoid,” he said. “I can deal with crackheads, but some of these frat boys that come into town ... they behave so badly.”
In the fall, he’d also been sent into the wild frontier of the Capitol Hill rental market, seeing rundown studio apartments renting for $1,100 — $325 more than he’d been paying.
He couch-surfed for four months before he found a room in a two-bedroom for $750.
But Cônnére seemed somewhat resigned. “Change is inevitable, and what are we going to do? I mean, chain ourselves to bulldozers?”
And Capitol Hill is changing. Luxury apartment buildings such as the Sunset Electric on 11th and Pine, with one-bedrooms that rent for nearly $5,000, seem to open weekly, filling up with more affluent residents, many of them tech workers. Once the province of the starving artist, a fifth of the neighborhood’s households now make more than $100,000 a year. In 2000, only one in 17 crossed that six-figure threshold.
Gentrification has already turned Ballard and Belltown into upscale playgrounds. But for some, the eradication of Capitol Hill’s iconoclastic identity invokes the most sadness and anger.
Dense with night spots
The evolution is most apparent on weekend nights in the Pike/Pine corridor.
“Gay bars are no longer the predominant bars in that neighborhood,” said Mayor Ed Murray. “If you are out there on a Saturday night, it’s lots of young straight people lined up outside clubs and bars and restaurants.”
There are more than 200 restaurants and bars on the Hill below 15th Avenue East, with many of the large new nightspots like Q and Rhein Haus opening within a few blocks of each other. Together, Capitol Hill’s bars and restaurants can hold more than 17,000 people — as many as KeyArena during a concert — most of that concentrated around Pike/Pine.
With the influx of hard-partying crowds, crime spiked, particularly during the summer when muggings at knifepoint (and a few at gunpoint) happened around Cal Anderson Park. Anti-gay crime has been on the rise; 2014 had 55 reported bias incidents in the police precinct covering Capitol Hill — a 28 percent increase from the year before — and just after midnight on New Year’s Day 2014 an arsonist set fire to the gay nightclub Neighbours.
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said that although the uptick is relatively small, “Sometimes perception of crime is as damaging as crime itself. Fear of crime can really undermine a community.”
Tensions peaked last September, when police held a public meeting and promised to increase foot patrols.
“I don’t think we’ve adjusted to how we police a dense, active nightlife neighborhood that we’ve never had before,” Murray said. “I don’t believe that we’ve asked enough questions around the number of liquor licenses being issued in a concentrated area.”
Liz Dunn, a developer who lives and works on the Hill, says she loves her neighborhood from Sunday to Thursday. But, “on Friday and Saturday night it’s become very young, very drunk nightclub goers — it takes on a totally different feel.”
As a gay man, Murray is particularly sensitive to the Hill’s shifting demographics. It reminds him — not warmly — of his youth. He’s lived on the Hill for 29 years and remembers when it was a necessary gay enclave. But between 2000 and 2012, the number of Capitol Hill’s same-sex households dropped 23 percent.
“Young gay men are experiencing some of the same things we saw in the late ’80s and late ’90s. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, as a young person I actually experienced it,” Murray said. “I remember being shoved off the sidewalks up in that very area in the early 1990s. It’s come back.”
Shelley Brothers, one of the owners of the Wildrose, the city’s sole lesbian bar, has watched the change over 15 years.
“The thing that took us all by surprise was the degree of homophobia and misogyny that started all of a sudden with this influx of crowds. I got used to not being called a dyke or a bitch, or names at night,” she said. “Now, it seems we’re back to that.”
A petite woman with a short, graying bob and a smoker’s rasp, Brothers is often on the steps of the bar, surveying the packs of men roving from Sam’s Tavern to the Rhino Room, and the gaggles of girls trailing behind them.
“People have walked out onto the sidewalk and say to each other, ‘Why are there so many frickin’ gay bars up here?’ ” she said. “The first time I heard it was just like, ‘Are you kidding me? You have no clue where you are.’ ”
The anger in the community is palpable.
A recent art show at the art bar Vermillion, dubbed #CapHillPSA, addressed the conflict, with posters poking fun at the so-called “bros.” Bars like the Pony and the Comet Tavern have posted anti-homophobia signs out front. Local artist John Criscitello’s drawings, plastered around town, depict the friction. One shows a leather-studded fist emblazoned with the words “We Bash Back.” Another sums up longtime residents’ feelings: “We came here to get away from you.”
“With the dance clubs came more of a Belltown crowd,” said David Meinert, an owner of four Hill businesses, including The Comet Tavern. “There’s a lot of douchebag, fratboy, dudebro mentality. It’s an alternative neighborhood, and it’s an alternative to those people.”
It’s a sea change from the ’90s, when Broadway was filled with gay-friendly businesses like the now-defunct Bailey Coy bookstore. Michael Wells, the executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce who owned the bookstore, said, “It felt like a significantly LGBT visible presence that didn’t exist anywhere in the city at that time. We were also mixed in with punks and skateboarders. It was a nice mix.”
Conversely, Pike/Pine “was sort of a no man’s land,” said restaurateur Linda Derschang, who opened Linda’s Tavern on Pine in 1994, around the same time as others including Bauhaus Books and Coffee and Rudy’s Barbershop.
“We were all young and creative and we were taking a risk opening businesses in this neighborhood,” she said, explaining that low rents — she initially paid less than $1,000 a month for over 2,400 square feet — made it possible.
In the current market, tony eateries and high-volume bars are the businesses able to afford rents, which run as high as $44 a square foot — twice the average rent of a decade ago, according to national real-estate research firm CoStar Group.
Though she’s a restaurateur herself, Derschang still worries the Hill is “only going to become more of a nightlife destination. I truly hope that we see a lot more retail. I hope we see art galleries.”
When Derschang recently renegotiated Linda’s lease — one that includes a “demolition clause,” meaning the landlord has to give her a year’s notice if he plans to sell it — the rent doubled, she said.
Some legacy businesses, including the 20-year old Platinum Records, have closed or are relocating. Others have cashed in: The Piecora family sold the building containing its 33-year-old pizza shop to Chicago-based developers for $10.3 million.
New construction, it seems, is sprouting at breakneck pace; according to the city planning department, since 2010, approximately 89 new buildings have opened with more than 4,600 residential units. At times, it can seem like someone has taken a giant Magic Eraser to the streets, redrawing them in a totally different image.
“We have five projects within three blocks? Active at one time? That’s ridiculous,” said Brothers of her corner. “There’s no planning on that. How can you do that to a neighborhood?”
Gentrification is filled with ironies.
Many of those who lament the Hill’s changes helped instigate them. Derschang was one of the first to open a business there in the ’90s; now she has five restaurants. Meinert booked shows there in the ’90s; now he owns four hot spots. Dunn, the developer, serves on the board of the affordable-housing organization Capitol Hill Housing; but she also built the Agnes Lofts, where units rent for up to $2,700.
As Cônnére groused, what is there to do but accept the changes?
“Urban change is a natural function,” said Branden Born, an associate professor of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington. “But when we talk about gentrification we generally mean something else. We mean a rate of change that is not natural — most likely we would consider it to be too fast, in that it pushes long-term residents from their neighborhoods.”
Seattle landlords can legally increase rents more than 10 percent in a 12-month period if they give 60 days’ notice. On month-to-month leases, they can do so as often as they want.
Many argue it’s a matter of building more housing to meet the demand. But Born says skyrocketing rents will continue regardless.
“I’m not blaming the developers,” he said. “This is just the way the system works.”
Murray, who considers rent control politically unrealistic, has formed a committee to explore solutions like workforce housing, similar to Capitol Hill Housing’s 12th Avenue Arts building. That project, built on a former police parking lot, now rents to people who meet certain income thresholds. But it took four mayors and 17 years of groundwork before the 88-unit building finally opened in November.
And open units are scarce. Capitol Hill Housing has 25 buildings with 747 units on the Hill. There are no current vacancies.
Costume designer Jamie Von Stratton spent a year on a waiting list for a similar live/work loft, where units rent for $650 to $950, before landing a spot. The rent on her prewar one-bedroom, which she shared with a roommate, had increased from $1,455 to $1,860 over four years.
As in any gentrifying city, it’s not just artists who are susceptible to rising rents, but teachers, firefighters, public employees.
“We need people who work in the city to be able to afford to live in the city so they don’t have to commute for two hours every day,” said Dunn.
In San Francisco, where Capitol Hill’s problems are writ large, Born said, “There is actually a shortage of blue-collar skilled workers like a carpenter to work on your house.”
Increasingly, tech workers are the ones who can afford $2,000 rents. According to Dice Holdings, a technology recruiting company, Seattle is the second-highest-paying city in tech, with an average salary of $99,400.
And tech workers make for easy scapegoats. One man posted on Reddit, the social network, that his car was vandalized because it had an Amazon sticker and out-of-state plates. At the #CapHillPSA art show, Criscitello’s controversial poster read: “Tech money kills queer culture dead.”
Still, Comet Tavern’s Meinert said, “There’s a lot of musicians who work at Amazon, a lot of artists that work at Amazon. Just because you work in tech doesn’t mean you are a douchebag.”
Keeping it colorful
In many ways, Tyler Larson is exactly who people talk about when they talk about the new Capitol Hill resident. He’s 25, he moved from Gig Harbor two-and-a-half years ago, and he works as a sales engineer for a new tech company in Belltown.
Tall and polite, with a trim, dark beard, he moved into the Sunset Electric last July. Larson makes “close” to six figures, and pays up to $2,000 a month (depending on utilities) for a one-bedroom with a view of the downtown skyline. He has few expenses, keeps his Pontiac Grand Prix on the street, and spends most of his cash on alcohol, so his friends can drink before going out.
Even before living on the Hill, he often hung out there, including his favorite bar, Capitol Cider. The neighborhood’s gay profile is a nonissue for Larson, who is straight; it is even a benefit. He loves events like Dykes vs. Drag Queens kickball at Cal Anderson Park.
“There’s always something going on that will make you laugh or say, ‘What is happening?’ ” he said, sitting outside Oddfellows Cafe.
As if on cue, a few minutes later, a man walked by wearing a dog-shaped leather muzzle on his face.
Larson, who put himself through college for computer science with his own affiliate marketing business, admitted that he is the gentrifier.
“I’m definitely a hypocrite, you know?” he said. “I would love to pay $600, $700 less, but I wouldn’t get what I wanted.” And he wanted all those amenities: fast condo Internet, new appliances and a rooftop deck, from which a half-dozen cranes erecting yet more upscale condos can be seen on the horizon.
But it bothers him to think that he and his tech friends are pushing out the guys in the leather face masks, the people playing kickball in drag, the Adé Cônnéres. A Capitol Hill without them wouldn’t be a Capitol Hill he wanted to live in.
“I hope it stays how it is now. I don’t really want it to change,” he said. “That’s why I moved here in the first place,” he said. “Don’t change.”
All around him, the cranes and the construction continued unabated.
Research contributed by Gene Balk and Thuc Nhi.