Exploring Seattle's most interesting intersections
Coordinates on the city's urban grid that have a magnetism uniquely their own, places we drive, bike or walk by all the time without stopping to appreciate the people whose paths and lives cross there.
Pacific NW magazine staff writer
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Friday night at 2 a.m., East Pike Street and 10th Avenue, Capitol Hill.
The steam rising from the Monster Dog grill in front of Neumos nightclub produces clouds of caramelized-onion that commandeer the olfactory nerves and prove impossible — I repeat impossible — to resist.
People flock to it from all directions as the bars and clubs at the heart of the Pike-Pine corridor disgorge their patrons into the intersection on this cold, wet night. The line just gets longer and longer.
But it doesn't matter how long you have to wait for a Monster Dog — you will come.
It doesn't matter that every single person in line is a leaning tower of drunkenness who will use you as an emergency crutch if equilibrium fails them.
You will come and you will order cream cheese on your dog and you will pay your five dollars cash and you will smother your order with mustard and relish and you will unselfconsciously feast in the street like it's Thanksgiving at Grandma's house.
The Broadway-theater brightness of the lights under the stand's rain-deflecting picnic umbrella bathes everyone in a weirdly revealing glow. Bloodshot eyes, smudged makeup and smartphone screens with Grindr profiles on them come into high-def view as we take shelter from the midnight drizzle.
Monster Dog and hot spots like Neumos, Comet Tavern, Havana, Poquitos and Lobby Bar make Pike and 10th, smack in the center of gay, hipster, rocker Seattle, one of the city's liveliest and most diverse intersections on weekend nights.
It's an obvious starting point for an exploration of Seattle's most interesting street corners and intersections, coordinates on the city's urban grid that have a magnetism uniquely their own, places we drive, bike or walk by all the time without stopping to appreciate the people whose paths and lives cross there.
Take the string of authentic dive bars at North 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue North, with their lurid lighting, throwback interiors and clientele split between gin-and-tonic-swilling old-timers and 20-somethings out for cheap pints, craft cocktails and earsplitting karaoke.
A sign above the bar at the venerable Baranof pokes fun at the fantastically multigenerational crew here: "You look like our grandchildren. Get out your I.D."
You can visit at three in the afternoon and find the semicircular bar in back crowded with hardworking regulars looking to unwind and catch up, but come 8 at night, the blue-collar crowd that's been coming here for decades starts to thin and the Baranof becomes hipster heaven.
There's something exclusive and clubby about the Baranof, but it feels inclusive, too.
The entire city has street-side centers of gravity like Pike and 10th, and 85th and Greenwood that may not teem with humanity at odd hours but that still beam with an allure that can be hard to put into words. These places pull us in — and keep us coming back.
FLOATING LIKE A desert island in the middle of the intersection of Westlake Avenue and Denny Way is a triangular park with sculptures of scruffy wooden boats that appear to have washed ashore during a phenomenally high tide. The park is a rain-or-shine smoker's paradise, mainly because it is illegal in Seattle to smoke within 25 feet of a business' doorway.
An Amazon worker named Dana lights up and says the park is an essential break-time retreat for the smokers in the nearby office tower. If smokers try to sneak shelter under the awning of the building, the security guard will come out and chase them away.
"He will come out like Grandpa and protect his territory," Dana says with a smile. "He gives you a stern look and giggles."
If the guard's block is a strict republic, the corner on the other side of the park, anchored by a Whole Foods that buzzes at lunchtime, is a more laid-back domain.
On the sidewalk outside the store, a Turkish man and his friend have set up a long table to sell their luxuriously smooth, $15 "cashmere" scarves imported from Scotland.
Not far from the scarf table are canvassers for the international relief organization Save the Children, who have what must be the hardest job of anyone at this bustling intersection: Persuading complete strangers to listen to a pitch for charitable contributions.
But one of the canvassers, Casey Dorsey, a 26-year-old musician and graphic designer among other things, seems to relish the challenge. As people brush past him, seemingly annoyed by his presence, he just keeps going.
"A good portion of people love us — some hate us," Dorsey says. "But they all know who we are. And I get to meet a lot of good people, too. I've met most of my band members canvassing."
He's figured out how to catch a stranger's gaze and overcome the "Seattle Chill": "If I use less words and smile, people have a harder time rejecting me ... It's a bit like flirting."
Of course, the constant rejection can wear at his good cheer.
He tries not to take it personally. He just remembers why he's out here in the first place.
"I've dedicated my life to saving these kids," Dorsey says. "I sleep better now than I ever have in my life."
Downtown Seattle has its own young people who need saving, kids who've fled abusive homes and fallen in with the wrong crowds, who need not only a few dollars for bus fare to a decent shelter but also a pathway out of hardship.
If you happen to be standing at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street by Westlake Park on a weekday afternoon, scan the fast-walking crowds and roving clusters of homeless teens (along with young people who have homes but seek community in the streets anyway) for a short woman in a furry hat with rabbit ears on it who goes by the name "Mama Love."
Her real name, she tells me, is Angela Maria Seven Thunders Favré. She's 47, lives in subsidized housing nearby, hails from Louisiana ("Brett Favre is my first cousin.") and swears she has extrasensory powers. As we chat, people of all stripes approach to give her hugs and catch up. They orbit her like planets in a solar system.
Whether or not she's psychic, Mama Love lives up to her nickname.
Her phone rings and she excuses herself to ask the caller whether she's made it home safely.
She says she is a provider, spiritual adviser, relationship counselor and life coach to kids on the street. It is her "calling."
Mama Love is a survivor, too. She removes her furry hat to reveal a bald head. She says she has lupus, and also suffers from diabetes and epilepsy. But she hangs out at the intersection just about every day and at night. If these kids didn't have her, they'd have no one.
Actually, you don't need to have a sixth sense to see the need and suffering and longing for community she witnesses from her hangout at Fourth and Pine. You just need to be willing to notice the Seattle you normally ignore.
AT VICTOR STEINBRUECK Park, a tourist-laden perch overlooking Elliott Bay at Western Avenue and Virginia Street north of Pike Place Market, I meet a dreadlocked man named Magic who spends most days at a picnic table carving pot-smoking pipes out of wood and horn. He sells the weed smoked with those pipes, too. He keeps a little glass jar full of it under his coat, and openly weighs it out on a portable scale.
Magic, 63, grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. He says he got that nickname because of his way with tools.
"I can make things out of nothing," he boasts. "You can find peace if you find something that makes you happy."
Right now Magic is making cash, because as we chat one person after another walks up to inquire about buying drugs. He waves most of them away so can he talk about the pull of Western and Virginia and the park.
"We call it 'Native Park,' " he says.
It's one spot where Native Americans can come to exchange messages from the reservations, gossip, just be together.
"It's a safe spot," says Magic, whose mother is Native American and father is Jamaican. "We feed each other. We look out for each other's kids."
Most around here are homeless, he says. "Or I should say 'houseless,' because in Native American culture, Earth is our home. We can be comfortable wherever we're at."
It's a strange spot to build a community.
A wedding party dressed in gowns and tuxedos unloads from a long, black limousine to pose for pictures by the park's totem pole overlooking the bay. Visitors spill out of the market with their wares, and downtown workers stroll by with their mochas.
An older man with a question in his gaze approaches and hovers close to Magic. The carver knows just what he's after.
He stops the conversation, reaches into his coat pocket, makes the deal and picks up where he left off as if nothing happened.
IN THE SOMALI language, the expression "dur dur" means waterfall.
It's an apt name for the little tea room at 23rd Avenue South and East Union Street in Seattle's Central District, hub for Somali taxi and private car-hire drivers.
Walk in for one of Dur Dur Café's creamy, chai-like teas, and stories about the Somali-immigrant experience spill out.
"We come here and we play, we eat, we pray," driver Abdul Yusuf says during a break in a loud game of dominoes in the front of the cafe. Yusuf and three other men sit at a small table and play in teams of two.
The topic that comes up over and over at these games is the struggle to be a cabbie in a city that tightly restricts the number of licenses issued to car owners.
Yusuf, chairman of the local African Business Association, says most Somali cabdrivers work for someone else, turning over lofty fees to their bosses.
The problem is that more than two-thirds of the wealth flowing through the local Somali community comes from driving. Those fees drivers pay to do their jobs could go back into the community.
"This is our bread and butter," Yusuf says, growing visibly irritated.
Yusuf and other cabdrivers have been lobbying city leaders to open up the licensing rules and allow more people to operate their own cars independently.
"That's the only way to get out of that life — to own our own cars," Yusuf says.
Yusuf's got big plans. He's also organizing Somalis into a viable political faction by registering more people to vote. He estimates that only 20 or 30 percent of the Somali community is registered today.
Back in the early 1990s, when the first wave of Somali immigrants fleeing civil strife in their own country settled in Seattle, Dur Dur was the only place they could come and enjoy food from their homeland, Yusuf says. But by the late '90s, many Somali establishments had popped up in the surrounding neighborhood. The Nisqually earthquake in 2001 damaged some of the businesses a few blocks north on 23rd at East Union Street, though.
Through it all Dur Dur has remained a hub of social activity. In the hour or two before and after the evening rush hour, the cafe springs to life.
At 4:30 p.m. Yusuf cuts off the conversation. It's time for prayers, one of the five required of Muslims daily.
The room goes silent. A man puts his fork down in a plate of half-eaten lentils. Another man's phone starts to ring but he doesn't touch it. The players who've been brashly slapping dominoes on the table up front get up and file back to a corner of the cafe where a poster of Mecca hangs on a wall. They take off their shoes and face the poster in tight rows, about a dozen men in all. They kneel on a tattered rug, heads pressed to the floor, then stand and continue praying aloud, repeating the action several times in the space of 10 minutes. Then it's over.
Yusuf comes back and immediately shifts into advocacy mode.
"We don't want to get into anybody's turf" as drivers, he insists. "We just want to live peacefully."
YOU CAN VISIT the busiest intersection of any immigrant community and hear similar stories about people who've braved deserts and oceans to get here and scratched their way into the working- and then middle-class, carving new lives out of little more than dreams.
Just off the teeming intersection of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, at the center of what's become known as Little Saigon, the owner of Hau Hau Market says she and her husband came to Seattle from Vietnam in 1979. "Boat people," she says, declining to give her name.
The couple started with a little grocery store 18 years ago but today they own a popular, full-scale supermarket with boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables stacked up outside under tarps that wafted precariously one recent windy, rainy day.
Vietnamese restaurant owners come from as far away as Tacoma and Bellingham to buy traditional foods in bulk at what everyone (owner included) says are the lowest prices around.
You won't find beef feet for $1.39 a pound or periwinkle meat for $11.99 a pound at QFC or Safeway. You're not likely to find them at all.
The selection is enough to make a shopper say, "Here, Here" or better yet, "Hau, Hau," which, according to the owner, means "Good, Good" in Vietnamese.
LET US PRAY.
I've come to Holy Family Roman Catholic Parish, at 20th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Roxbury Street, in South Seattle's White Center neighborhood, to experience a quieter but no less magnetic street corner. The church, Parroquia de la Sagrada Familia in Spanish, is a haven for the area's large Hispanic community.
Sunday services, officiated by the Rev. Horacio Yanez, regularly see more than a thousand people.
I visit on a weekday at lunchtime.
In contrast to other focal points in the city, the only chatter here is between the dozen or so silently praying visitors and the Lord.
Just off the main sanctuary is a tiny side chamber dominated by a statue of St. Michael. On a shelf there's a guest book filled with handwritten "intentions" to God. Most pleas are scribbled in English, but many are in Spanish.
"Protect us from evil."
"Cure for cancer."
"For Peace and justice in our world."
"For my mom to get the job she wants. Plese, please let my mom get that job."
The church is a fortress of solitude, yet just as busy, in its own quiet way, as the heart of the city.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Bettina Hansen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.