Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: ‘Vanishing Seattle’ creator Cynthia Brothers on why town’s lack of ‘soul’ is about greater than nostalgia

Cynthia Brothers, the activist behind the social media project “Vanishing Seattle,” poses at a pop up exhibit and shop at Pike Place Market earlier this year where Post-Its were answering the prompt, “What Do You Miss About Seattle?” (Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brothers)

In celebrating the unique places that give Seattle its soul, Cynthia Brothers has taken on the painful task of documenting disappearing and displaced institutions, cultures and communities of the city. In a place that is rapidly being remade and reimagined, much of it driven by a sustained tech boom, Brothers says her “Vanishing Seattle” project is about much more than nostalgia and the loss of a neighborhood bar or the old house next door.

Vanishing Seattle, which launched 2 1/2 years ago, is driven mainly by an Instagram feed where photographs capture a mix of old Seattle and the mechanisms at work that are turning it into new Seattle. GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week, Brothers also works for an immigrant rights fund that supports field-building, policy advocacy and civic engagement to protect and advance the rights of migrants.

“I was born and raised in Seattle and will readily admit to local clichés like once playing in bands and making espresso for a living,” Brothers said. “I’m also a proud alumna of the high school where Bruce Lee first demonstrated his famous ‘1-inch punch.’”

Brothers’ own punch is directed at what she calls the injustice of displacement and how it is happening in Seattle because of a lack of affordability and real estate speculation and profit-seeking.

“Displacement leads to homogenization and sterility, the disappearance of what makes this city vibrant, diverse, unique — and sustainable,” Brothers said. “In the long term, displacement doesn’t just hurt those who are displaced, it hurts us all, it hurts us as a city.”

“YOU CANT KEEP UP.” Tagged in #LittleSaigon/#ChinatownInternationalDistrict, where the median household income is $27K a year. Old Acme Poultry Co. to be demolished for a 7-story market rate (non-affordable) apartment building by Intracorp & Tiscareno Associates. The upcoming construction also made the small Asian-owned & Asian-serving grocer behind it, Rising Produce, decide to shut down a year early because of the disruption this will cause to their business (that building & the nail supply shop next to #RisingProduce is also proposed to be torn down – for an 8-story hotel/apartment bldg). #youcantkeepup #youcantkeepupwiththejoneses #youcantkeepupwithcapitalism #gentrification #displacement #signothetimes #publiccomment #seattlegraffiti #seattletags #development #redevelopment #regionofboon #demolition #acmepoultryco #noticeofproposedlanduseaction #project3025755 #cid #humbowsnothotels #seattle #vanishingseattle

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Brothers doesn’t believe that gentrification and displacement are organic or inevitable, but rather a planned, systemic process with a blueprint that is used everywhere.

“Local governments, real estate investors, developers and corporations often share interests and work together as the architects of policies and practices that invest less in low- to middle-income and minority communities, in schools, in arts and culture, and in other public goods, in favor of efforts to attract higher income individuals/tax base, private capital and benefits like tax breaks for corporations,” she said. “This is just how hyper-capitalism works, and how it’s supposed to work, especially without interventions to ensure more equitable distribution of land and resources and making sure the public has a say in determining policy.”

Not all is lost — yet — in the city where Brothers grew up. While her first reaction to coming upon one of those blue land use development signs is a common one these days — “Oh $#*%, here’s yet another one” — Brothers believes there are still many cool spaces where you can find a sense of community and a “Seattle spirit” that nurtures relationships and art and culture.

“I find inspiration in the characters and passionate people still riding for and repping this city — whether it’s the organizers fighting to repurpose the new youth jail to meet community needs, to the owner of the indie comic book shop, to the host of a low power FM DIY radio show,” she said. “Talk to the person next to you next time you’re sitting at the bar; you’ll likely find some inspiration too.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Cynthia Brothers:

What do you do, and why do you do it? Through Vanishing Seattle, I document — primarily via social media — the disappearing and displaced institutions, cultures, and communities of Seattle. I also aim to cultivate an awareness and appreciation of the unique spaces, stories and histories that give the city its soul. Given the rapid changes, gentrification and displacement Seattle is experiencing, I feel its important for people to know why these spaces have significance to our local culture and social fabric, and also to fight for the places we love. I’ve also been involved in the effort to #SavetheShowbox, and Vanishing Seattle is a co-nominator on the application to make The Showbox a landmark. Vanishing Seattle is also side passion project — my day job (which I’m also passionate about) is consulting at a national immigrant rights fund … an area which obviously has had a lot going on.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? In terms of the issues raised around Vanishing Seattle, that it’s not just about nostalgia, it’s about equity.

Where do you find your inspiration? The people and histories of Seattle. I’ve learned so much over the course of researching and documenting the places of this city, which makes me fall more in love with it — and breaks my heart — every single day.

Spotted on 2nd Ave W in Lower Queen Anne. Repost @paulandroo @on4t5 @siobhantse #signothetimes #streettags #tags #seattlegraffiti #seattletags #seattlewriters #graffiti #seattlestreetart #demolition #gentrification #development #redevelopment #regionofboom #lowerqueenanne #Amazonia ・・・ Another building bites the dust. #vanishingseattle #seattle #queenanne #wa #pnw #byebyebuilding #hellooverpricedapartments

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Name a business or place of interest to you that has vanished that still stings when you think about it. Why? The Promenade Red Apple at 23rd and Jackson. It’s been described by Shelf Life Stories (you should check out their awesome site and podcast) as “a community center masquerading as a grocery store.” It was a local institution that served and was defined by the Central District — namely the historically black CD community. From the products they stocked that you couldn’t find anywhere else (pig ears, chicken skins), to the R&B  music played in the aisles, to their parking lot BBQs, coat drives and backpack giveaways, to the longstanding employees who were like family to many. Lots of folks also drove all the way from places like Federal Way and Tukwila to access Red Apple’s products and/or see former friends and neighbors. The Promenade was also home to several black and immigrant-owned small businesses and non-profits. Paul Allen’s Vulcan bought the Promenade (and the property on the north side of Jackson), and despite community pushback and calls for equitable development, Vulcan tore it all down a few months ago to build hundreds of apartments and retail that won’t be affordable to most of the CD’s longstanding residents and families — but catering mostly to more affluent, younger, white folks. Before it was demo’d, a lot of the narrative I saw being pushed about Red Apple was about devaluing and erasing its importance, saying it was “blighted,” “underutilized,” “just a parking lot,” etc. … the things that are typically said to justify “urban revitalization” and basically get people and places off land that is now considered too valuable for them. Many see the Red Apple as a classic and tragic example of gentrification and displacement happening today in Seattle’s communities of color.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My phone, since it’s what I use to take pictures and do the majority of my Vanishing Seattle posts (via Instagram). It’s a love/hate relationship — it’s also slow, the battery sucks, and I’m not a fan of Apple as a company. But I’d pretty much be screwed without my phone.

Cynthia Brothers works from home on a project about her hometown. (Cynthia Brothers Photo)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Basically a small table in my kitchen for my laptop and covered with papers, or out wandering the streets of Seattle. I like to reassure myself that there’s a method to the madness.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I need help too! I try to set some boundaries where I have a chunk of time everyday where I don’t look at my phone or social media. And to make sure to put some pants on and go out and interact with other human beings – those spontaneous interactions & conversations with folks outside of my “filter bubble” are especially important . Having a social media-based project & a job where I work remotely can be very isolating, so I have to remember to get my face out of my phone and go out and live like it’s 1999.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac, reluctantly. I think at this point I’m locked in, unfortunately.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Tom Servo.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine, so I could witness all the remarkable places and events in Seattle that happened before (or after) my time.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Leverage it as a match to raise funds to buy land/property for a community-owned trust or co-op. Unfortunately $1M won’t get you much in today’s real estate market … barely a boxy new townhouse!

I once waited in line for … My patience for waiting in line declines in inverse relation to my age, but the last time I waited in line was to see a drag tribute show to the Golden Girls. Worth it!

Your role models: My parents for being compassionate, generous, hilarious badasses — and for being a little kooky and not afraid to go against the grain.

The Gang of Four: Uncle Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas & Larry Gossett, Seattle’s legendary “Four Amigos” — radical organizers and friends who advanced social justice issues, organizations, & services in their respective communities — and for each others’ communities. Their legacy made history and their organizations persist to this day.

Shelly Bauman of Shelly’s Leg: Shelly led a colorful, unapologetic life — she was an exotic dancer and at the age of 22, her left leg was blown off by a wet ball of confetti shot out of a water cannon at Seattle’s Bastille Day parade. After the accident, which left her unable to walk and in a wheelchair, she used her settlement money to open Shelly’s Leg in 1973 in Pioneer Square, the first openly gay bar/disco in the city. Shelly was a legend in the local gay scene and kept on partying long after her bar closed. She later survived two fires, and passed away in Bremerton in 2010. You can view the famous sign that hung in Shelly’s Leg at the MOHAI, which reads: “Shelly’s Leg is a GAY BAR provided for Seattle’s gay community and their guests.”

Greatest game in history: “Street Fighter II.” Me and my cousins would always fight over who got to be Chun Li.

Best gadget ever: Wireless speakers?

First computer: I can’t even remember … some gigantic desktop PC I shared with my UW roommate.

Current phone: iPhone 6.

Favorite app: I definitely spend the most time/am addicted to Instagram, although whatever algorithm it’s now using to show me pictures from the same five accounts is definitely not my favorite. I do like Signal and its encrypted messaging.

Favorite cause: This is a tough one — I believe many “causes” are interconnected. With Vanishing Seattle, issues of displacement, affordability and equity come up — and I think what we’re seeing today in terms of people and places getting pushed out is intertwined with or a result of things like wealth inequality, regressive taxation, institutional racism, classism, homelessness, criminalization of poverty, privatization, money/corporations in politics, devaluing of arts & culture, etc. The Vanishing Seattle work also connects with my day job in immigrant rights. As one example, immigrants and refugees increasingly can’t afford to live in/are displaced from Seattle, where we have stronger “sanctuary policies” than many surrounding cities and suburbs — meaning they can be more susceptible to detention and deportation as a function of not being able to afford to live here. Or the increasing displacement of immigrant seniors from the Chinatown-International District (which made the front page of the Seattle Times last week). How can we be a pro-immigrant, “world-class” city if immigrants can’t even afford to be here?

Most important technology of 2018: I’m gonna go with Cat DJ scratching deck.

Most important technology of 2020: I would guess AI, automation, and VR. What I feel is most important is, will our ethics keep pace with our technological advancements?

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Passion, persistence, and consistency. I may not take the best pictures, I may not write the awesomest captions, but I keep doing what I love, and doing it every day. I like to think that’s contributed to my significant online following and the community of folks who support my work.

Website: Vanishing Seattle

Twitter: @Vanishing206

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