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Originally published October 19, 2013 at 8:04 PM | Page modified October 21, 2013 at 12:19 PM

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My Main Street signs: a barometer of the local economy

Fourth Avenue, which runs through the core of downtown Seattle, a good barometer of changes in the local economy.


Special to The Seattle Times

Avenue of change

Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times

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I suspect that everyone who falls in love with Seattle adopts a neighborhood, gathering place, park or street as the object of particular affection.

For me, it is Fourth Avenue. It’s a great place to live. It also turned out to be a useful barometer of the economic change.

I arrived in Seattle in late summer 2007, having left the gathering storm of recession behind me in Phoenix. Seattle was still booming and downtown was everything I wanted: A walkable feast of shops, attractions and cultural assets. Flowers bloomed from hanging baskets. Neon blinked at night. Cranes presided over a growing skyline. People on the streets were smiling, happy to be here.

Before I began this column, I wrote a novel at the Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince Ramas. At the end of the day, I would walk or take the bus to my apartment on Fourth and Blanchard, past skyscrapers, the dignified Fairmont Olympic Hotel, lively Westlake Park and scores of restaurants and retailers.

Fourth Avenue hosted not one but two piano stores. The imposing Macy’s, with its magical star at Christmas, faced Fourth. So did a host of charming, small commercial buildings. At the head of the street stood the Space Needle. No wonder Fourth Avenue hosted so many parades.

It was amazingly convenient, with grocery stores, Tom Douglas restaurants, sidewalk cafes, a drugstore, banks, shoe shops, bakery, hair salon, bookstore, office supplies, cooking implements and auto care, including at the workaday Dean Transmissions. Many were locally owned.

Fourth Avenue held the Cinerama theater lovingly restored by Paul Allen. Close to the library, it was big city with dense towers. Farther northwest, it was covered with a canopy of shade trees. Everywhere it was a human-scaled, fine-textured streetscape worth caring about, so different from the look-alike, car-centric America built over the past six decades.

I had lived in some good or reviving downtowns, in San Diego, Denver, Cincinnati and Charlotte, but nothing like Seattle. This was a downtown, full of energy, life and commerce — and it all came together on Fourth.

Living in Phoenix, which had let its downtown nearly die although it was the nation’s sixth-largest city, I felt obliged to adopt every center city restaurant and shop, desperate to keep it alive. In Seattle, I didn’t have to worry.

A year later, the Great Recession hit. Washington Mutual, the largest downtown headquarters, imploded in the nation’s biggest banking failure. More than 3,400 well-paying jobs were killed. As salt on the wound, the Sonics decamped for Oklahoma City.

That fall of 2008 was the scariest time in the living memory of most people. Credit froze up. Banks didn’t trust each other. Shipping companies couldn’t move goods. The world economy stood on the edge of another Great Depression.

We pulled back from the worst, but it was only the beginning of the pain.

Downtown lost more than 10,000 jobs from 2008 through 2010. Street-level retail and service businesses in the central city fell by 247, according to data from the Downtown Seattle Association.

Empty storefronts popped up all over, including on Fourth. One of the piano stores was an early casualty. Another was the delightful Kaufmann’s Streamborn. How many cities had classy fly-fishing stores downtown? Now, not even Seattle. The collapse of the Borders chain took away the bookstore.

By 2009, I started worrying again, as in Phoenix, over each establishment, wishing I were rich enough to keep them, and their siblings all over town, afloat.

I asked the association to customize its data to one block on either side of Fourth between Madison and Bell streets to get a sense of what happened to “my Fourth Avenue.”

In this corridor, 41 businesses closed during those recessionary years. Twenty-seven retailers shut down.

Nationwide, about 230,000 small businesses were victims of the downturn.

Joe Cohen, owner of Ralph’s, a sumptuous grocery, deli and neighborhood gathering place he named after his late father, recalls the time as filled with anxiety.

”They called it the Great Recession and called it that for a reason,” he said. “It was different from anything I experienced in my business career. The depth and the length.”

Downtown and Fourth Avenue bent but did not break. The Great Recession did not mark the beginning of the end. Indeed, changing tastes, the search for convenience and sustainability concerns are among the drivers propelling center-city comebacks across the nation. It was especially helpful that Seattle had both the good bones of a real downtown, and an affluent urbanite population.

Most of downtown’s retail prizes survived, including the flagship Nordstrom, Macy’s and Pacific Place. New ones opened on the Pike-Pine corridor. Cinerama was refurbished.

A big turning point began when Russell Investments announced in 2009 that it would move from Tacoma to the former WaMu headquarters. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation buildings rose across from Seattle Center. The turnaround was sealed when Jeff Bezos established Amazon’s headquarters in an urban campus in South Lake Union, spurring development into Belltown and downtown. By 2010, I could see five cranes from my window overlooking Fourth Avenue.

The avenue’s tree canopy is turning orange now. New businesses have arrived, such as Hero Hardware, next to survivor Bed Bath and Beyond. Westlake Center is being refurbished to accommodate Zara, the world’s largest clothing retailer. The street retains almost all of its magic and allure in a newly booming downtown.

Alas, Sherman Clay Pianos didn’t make it, closing in late summer. Tom Austin, president of the retail division of the San Francisco-based company, said the Steinway dealer had weathered the recession but the controlling family decided to leave the piano business. This was an icon, on Fourth since 1926, where the Beatles had rehearsed on the second floor and nearly every week people could stop in for recitals.

Americans bought 350,000 pianos a year at the turn of the 20th century. That has fallen to about 30,000. ”Sherman Clay did thrive in a declining market,” Austin said. ”We were a profitable and successful company.”

But it is lost to Fourth Avenue. So is Cameras West, presided over by that huge sign.

And even many survivors aren’t whole. Cohen said Ralph’s has yet to reach its 2007 sales levels.

Still, “Fourth Avenue is a wonderful street to do business on,” Cohen said.

And to live on. To watch and appreciate. Seattle is blessed with many such places whose value transcends simple economics.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com



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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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