Technically, the nearly $1 billion worth of sports stadiums at its very northern hem are part of the neighborhood, but they hardly fit in. Starbucks' headquarters stands like a brick beacon in front of the giant orange Port of Seattle cranes to the west, and the green Tully's "T" marks the east. Several sets of rails slice the core.
Other than that, there is little for your eyes or mind to focus on. So I grasp for shortcut metaphors. Maybe Sodo and all its low-slung plants, warehouses and industrial-supply stores are akin to a football team's offensive line. You know, a chugging engine made up of anonymous, sweaty, crouching, underappreciated parts. Or maybe it's that awkward uncle the one who embarrasses you at a dinner party but is the first one you call when your car needs fixing.
Certainly it has long been Seattle's workshop, garage, closet and an important link to Alaska industry. Even its shape, a rectangle, says utilitarian.
Still, Sodo, which used to stand for south of the Kingdome but now is an acronym for south of downtown, defies lazy definitions from on high. It begs for context. In fact, Sodo is the northern half of the Duwamish Industrial District, the most productive blue-collar area in the Northwest. But Sodo is not as industrial as it used to be. Now it teeters, in its own idiosyncratic fashion, between tradition and transition.
So how can you pick up the rhythm of a place that has been building, storing, repairing, receiving, organizing and shipping pieces of the city and region for a solid century? I wondered, scanning from my downtown perch, if anybody had taken the time to peer through the grimy windows or walk the creaky floors to see what and who is there today.
When I told Mike Peringer, the 10-year-old Sodo Business Association's first and only president, that I was trying to figure out the place, the first thing he said was, "It's about time someone took us seriously!"
SODO IS, IN FACT, a dynamic place. Not pretty, but dynamic, with a kinetic, disorienting kind of energy.
Several north-south streets, like First Avenue South, are so wide and free-flowing that motorcycle cops lie in wait. Third Avenue looks like an alley. Fourth has fast food on one side and stocky, vault-like buildings on the other. The eastern streets are more intensively industrial, so trucks fill up Sixth Avenue and Airport Way. And rail some of it bustling, some an artifact of the past seems everywhere. About 60 passenger and freight trains pass right through the district daily, bound for Southern California or perhaps Chicago.
All day, you hear the sound of motion the rumbling of trains, the whoosh of trucks rushing toward the port or freeway and the pathetic blump, blump, blump of sedans jostling across the tracks.
Moving goods is both a principal occupation and a preoccupation in Sodo. Businesses come to be near the port's terminals, the rail lines and the freeway. The business association helps them navigate it all by sending out daily alerts on construction work and tapping into traffic cameras via a special Web site.
Early one Monday morning, as the sun rises over Beacon Hill and paints a sheen on the city's high-rises, Gary Weber punches the time clock at MacMillan-Piper. He is one of the movers. A compact man of 61 who keeps his gray hair short and in place, he favors his right leg because his left was crushed in a forklift accident years ago. He wears three rings on his left hand, one belonging to his deceased father on his right, and a small flag pendant around his neck to honor victims of 9/11.
"I began driving truck at 16," he says over the diesel growl. "I rode with my dad a lot when I was 7 or 8. He used to drive a hay truck up in Monroe and later with A.R. Smith Co. I remember suggesting once that he leave it in a gear longer, and boy did he get hot. He said 'OK, you little son of a so-and-so, if you're so smart, let's see you do it.' I did it, and I think that made him madder. But I know he was proud of me. He eventually told me so before he died. That meant a lot."
By now, Weber is onto Spokane Street, what many business owners consider the southern border of Sodo. Traffic is still light, so he's at the terminal weighing station in less than 10 minutes. He pulls the rig to the back of one of several lines of trucks until it's his turn. The truck is weighed and he is assigned a parking stall. The vast terminal is filled with containers parked in double-deep rows. He finds his spot and the container to take back.
By 8:30, he's at the plant again, calling for his next assignment. This one is hazardous material bound for the Philippines.
Hundreds of runs like Weber's also begin at the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe International Gateway Terminal between First Avenue South and East Marginal Way.
INDUSTRY SET ROOTS here in the late 1800s. Serviced by rail lines and the port and spurred by Alaska opportunity, warehousing and wholesale trade grew alongside manufacturing. By the 1920s, much of Seattle's heavy industry was laboring in Sodo.
Plans called for the ship canal to run through it and Beacon Hill to link Elliott Bay with Lake Washington. Despite widespread interest, support shifted to using Lake Union to link Lake Washington and Puget Sound instead. As part of the abandoned canal project, though, soil from Beacon Hill filled in tidelands and created an industrial district and nearly 1,500 acres of new land in the Duwamish Valley. Factories hummed.
Alexander's Western Steel Casting was so productive during the war that it received government permission to block Occidental Avenue and take over part of another street on the foundry's southern edge.
The Space Needle restaurant rotates on Western Steel castings. It produced gate-seal castings for the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, moorings for Trident submarines and aircraft carriers, castings for cranes that helped build Grand Coulee Dam.
In 1956, Bob Alexander joined his father, who worked right up until he died at age 90. A few years ago, Bob closed the company's doors, found jobs for his three dozen employees and auctioned off the machinery. He could no longer compete against the foundries of low-wage countries and what he considered unreasonable state restrictions.
"China is now the world's workshop," he says. "They have such an advantage that there was no margin left. It's a catastrophe for our country. If the Third World had to operate with the same economic and social issues we do, then the U.S. foundry industry would still be alive and well."
Alexander sold the plant complex to developer Mike Slattery, who is reconstructing it into a mixed-use commercial development, retaining the structure and touches of the old days within the new.
Foreign competition and zoning rules at home have also defined the debate for the Rosen brothers at Alaskan Copper Works and its sister distribution company, Alaskan Copper & Brass. Production as it is for most of America's heavy industrial manufacturers is down while distribution is doing well enough.
Doug wants to see the city relax the strict zoning, making it flexible enough that the area works for newer, perhaps more knowledge-based industries, too. This one issue dominates all others in Sodo, and opinions seem as varied as the industries and circumstances.
"The current zoning envisions what you're looking at," he says, "a single-level gray mass. The notion that heavy manufacturing can prosper on and jobs will come back by keeping the status quo strikes me, frankly, as Pollyanna-esque."
The city has relaxed zoning around the stadiums, but has no immediate plans to do so in the core of Sodo. It wants to preserve heavy industry, but is studying the job trends in the area, and advocates of change hope the results will change minds. Peringer of the business association says roughly 2,000 businesses and 45,000 workers are in Sodo now.
Still, he says softly, "If you were going to start a business like this, you wouldn't do it here."
I HEAD OUT for a walk in the neighborhood and tail a guy in overalls. He stops inside a gas-station convenience store for a mid-morning snack of nachos and golden goo, and walks back to the plant, nibbling as he waits for a train to pass. I wander awhile and see a derelict using the street for a bathroom; others are sharing a bottle.
I veer off and tour the Ederer Cranes plant, which has operated where it sits for a century and has produced equipment that helps move the Safeco Field roof, launch space shuttles and handle nuclear waste. One version of the Monorail plan has a line splitting the property on which the company sits.
Next to Ederer, in an old garage, 15 seamstresses fill dress orders for Tres Bonne. Owner Virginia Walton used to employ 42, but the North American Free Trade Agreement squeezed her ability to compete. Because of shoplifting, she has to lock her small retail area.
I search the multiplying entrepreneurial nooks. In one unmarked building, I find Creature, a small advertising agency that counts the Professional Bowlers Association as a client, and then an artist named Fred Mullett who translates Gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish painting, into rubber stamps. In another building, I visit a world-class tea company, Barnes & Watson, which has a view of rail containers stacked like Legos.
A hulking red barn holds the prime corner spot on First Avenue South and South Lander Street. It sells old, unusual and vintage appliances, steam radiators, doors, even an electroshock machine. Things people throw away or leave behind. Somehow, the toilet for sale on the sidewalk blends in. This old building will be razed to make way for the Monorail.
Next door, I find a guy who may be Sodo's elder statesman, Marvin Federman. He began working here at his uncle's business, a fixture store, in 1945, right after coming home from World War II. "I cleaned up his warehouse back then," he says as his eyes take on a far-off look, "in the dirt and muck."
He's got a shock of snow-white hair, looks frail and uses a cane, but he has no plans to retire. His son works for him now, and they still get good traffic, mostly from contractors.
I pass stores offering teriyaki lunches, tasteful island décor, tile and carpet remnants before stopping at Pecos Pit, a barbecue place where white shirts and overalls alike are smeared with the remains of goopy lunches shared at picnic tables. The Seattle School District cooks up meals, too, from its headquarters in the heart of Sodo making 4,000 student breakfasts and 13,800 lunches each day. It's just across Lander from an antique mall, which neighbors the Rabanco recycling plant and its swarming seagulls.
Retail and commercial, encouraged by cheaper land prices, have been filling some of the subdivided industrial voids, but zoning limits the scope of any major project. The Starbucks Building, the largest office building in the Northwest, was the mother of all zoning exceptions.
I come upon the Vertigo Building, fronted by a neon Jimmy Stewart looking dizzy, and its neighbor, the K.R. Trigger Building, complete with three leaping cutouts of old-time baseball players. Across the street, above a courtyard between upscale shops, a giant Superman poster soars above a wood rendering of The Daily Planet where the fictional Clark Kent worked as a reporter. A faux billboard affixed to the south side of Herban Pottery Barn features a well-scrubbed young couple and three happy sons riding in a 1949 Plymouth convertible.
It's all the work of Dr. Scott Andrews, a dentist and developer who has imprinted his personality, hobbies and memories on his own swath of Sodo. In fact, the couple in the billboard is his parents, the boys are his three sons, and he still owns that old family car.
Andrews, 51, bought the Trigger Building, a dormant warehouse, in 1996 with an idea of building a basketball court inside. He envisioned his own Boston Garden arena. Then he realized he could subdivide the place into various workspaces and make some money. Now it's crammed with neon signs, local kitsch like the sign from Beth's Cafe in Green Lake, and pop-culture memorabilia. It is also home to graphic artists, an architectural firm, a salon and more.
Andrews still practices dentistry, but keeps an office in the building. He pushes a bookcase door to reveal his private theater, with eight double-wide leather seats. His party room on the same floor is adorned with movie posters and worn stadium seats, representing old Sicks Stadium. Soon, he hopes to have an old-time hotdog stand on a nearby street corner.
"Everything here relates in some way to my childhood," Andrews explains.
I leave the neighborhood of Andrews' buildings thinking I've just experienced the Sodo alternative universe. Then I turn a corner and find Studio 7, a dark rock club, gearing up for Seattle Metal Fest 2003.
AMID THE multimillion-dollar decisions, the smoldering zoning debate, worldwide economic shifts, transportation issues, hundreds of little businesses and artisans straining to make a buck, there also is government's need for space.
Carol Tover's little deli, Il Vero, is tucked away on Spokane Avenue. You'd never spot it, even with binoculars, from a downtown skyscraper. But it has loyal customers who come in for French dip sandwiches and large coffee that costs 75 cents. She seems to know all of them, and they seem to know her.
She almost went out of business awhile ago when lengthy construction on the Spokane Street overpass made her eatery an island. Then, last month, the state Department of Social and Health Services decided that the building her deli is in should be the place to put the halfway house for sex predators. She stewed while the business association surveyed members and lobbied city leaders, who agreed to oppose the site.
The state decided to put the house there anyway, saying it offered the best combination of being away from residential areas but near jobs. Peringer testified at a DSHS hearing that Tover was an example of a hard-working small proprietor on the verge of getting shoved aside. When the decision came down, he was disappointed for her, for Sodo and for having lost another fight to save a business. Tover, though, is prepared to move on.
"I was sad; I was angry," she says. "But I may get relocated. The people being disrespected are those businesses on both sides of this thing. If the state can spend millions a year on criminals, they can spend money on the good people who work hard every day and are helping build this city."
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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