Finding ‘Seattle’s Shifting Queer Geographies’ in the more recent history of Capitol Hill

The heart of the heart of gay Seattle (Images courtesy David Albright)

It is easier to find 80-year-old photos of auto row-era dealerships on Capitol Hill than images from the 1980s of queer-owned businesses on Broadway. Undaunted, Seattle documentary and video producer David Albright and writer, photographer, and video maker Matt Baume set out to tell the LGBTQ+ story of the neighborhood and to sort out its place as Seattle’s gay center in a new documentary for KCTS.

Seattle’s Shifting Queer Geographies is a short documentary tracing Capitol Hill’s queer-story from the ’70s when bars first started moving here, through the ’80s-90s heyday, and then through the changes in the neighborhood that started around the early 2000s and continue today.

“We initially wanted to answer a couple of questions; Is Capitol Hill still the heart of gay Seattle? And is a gayborhood still necessary in 2017?,” Albright writes. “And I think we found that the answer to both of those questions is yes.”

CHS asked Albright and Baume what they learned and about the challenges of trying to dredge up near history.

The history of Capitol Hill in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s is more of a mystery than the auto row days. Why is that? Where did you find sources that documented it the best?

Albright: Yes absolutely – I almost think we need to steal a phrase from housing policy and say that we have a “missing middle” problem when it comes to Capitol Hill’s history. It’s not even particularly difficult to find photos of Capitol Hill in the auto row days but there’s a big gap from around the 60s-90s where it’s really hard to find anything.

David Neth at home sorting through his photo collection — a few of his photos will be included in the documentary (Image: CHS)

In terms of where to find sources – the best ones I’ve found have been the people who lived through it. This is not ancient history so the people who lived it are still around, and they seem eager to share their stories. I met with David Neth a few days ago, one of the founders of Seattle’s first Pride Week in 1974, he had some great old photos and first hand stories of what the hill was like. It’s all stuff you can’t find today without going straight to people like him and some of the other folks we interviewed for this piece.

Baume: It’s particularly challenging to find documentation of queer life prior to the 90s. Even in enclaves like Capitol Hill, it was risky for some people to be publicly out. Queer culture has always had a somewhat ephemeral quality, since for so much of its history it had to remain hidden; so it’s not surprising that as a neighborhood attracts more LGBTQ residents, there would be a turning away from the camera.

What was the historical moment Capitol Hill became the gayborhood? Any moments in Hill history you wish you’d been there to see?

Albright: The 70s to early 80s is when Capitol Hill as a gayborhood really took shape. Before that the bars were mostly in Pioneer Square, but it was being redeveloped in that time so they had go to elsewhere.

If I could go back I’d love to see the old Broadway Market. Today it’s a QFC, a gym, some banks and T-Mobile store. In the 80s-90s it was basically a gay mall, with a bunch of indie vendors and shops, cafes and a movie theater. Back then it sounds like there was a much more cohesive gay community on the hill as compared to what exists today, and it sounds like Broadway Market was kind of the physical embodiment of it.

Baume: I agree that I’d like to have known the old Broadway Market! In general, cities have seen a decline in the number of intensely-focused queer spaces, and I miss the solidarity of meeting up with each other in real life rather than online. That having been said, I certainly don’t miss the legal and social exclusion that necessitated those spaces.

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What are we going to see in your film? Interviews? Archival footage? Badly copied VHS tapes?

Albright: Yes! All those things. We interviewed a number of long-time Capitol Hill residents who remember the glory days, like Jeff Henness one of the founders of The Cuff, and the long time owners of the Wildrose; Shelley Brothers and Martha Manning. We also talked to Danni Askini of Gender Justice League who had some really insightful commentary on why a queer neighborhood is still so vitally important, even today. We talked to a Capitol Hill ex-pat Nathan Adams who wanted to open a gay bar on the Hill but ended up with a location off the Hill once he realized the kind of rents being charged up here. We tried to get a good cross section of the community to get a sense of what the hill to means to people today — and where it could be headed in the future.

You said you set out to answer two questions. Is Capitol Hill still the heart of gay Seattle? And is a gayborhood still necessary in 2017? If the answer really is yes, what’s that mean for the future of Capitol Hill? I suppose we should probably be doing something to protect what we have.

Baume: I think Capitol Hill will always be the “rainbow crosswalk” neighborhood — that is, the grid of streets where people go for a drag show and leathers. But I would expect the queerness to diffuse outward, and for the attitude of openness and acceptance to spread through other neighborhoods. I think of Capitol Hill as the healthy heart that’s pumping queer blood throughout Seattle. As far as protecting what we have: It’s useless to try to stand against change, but I would love to see some measures to ensure that our queer past isn’t forgotten. Capitol Hill needs LGBTQ plaques, signs, trails, statues, murals — whatever it takes to capture the past and preserve it for the future.

Albright: Agree with everything Matt says – I think Capitol Hill is less gay today than it was 10 years ago, and it’ll probably be even less gay ten years from now. This is still where the gay bars are — but the sense of there being a cohesive gay community is much less than it used to be, and I think that at this point it’s inevitable that the trend will continue.

To protect what we have, people should patronize the gay businesses that are still hanging on! That’s how it works.

Also more should be done to make sure the “missing middle” of Capitol Hill’s history is preserved in some way. Ours is only a 6 minute piece – so we are just barely beginning to scratch the surface here. There were so many threads we could have followed — and so many more people I wish we could have included.

Seattle’s Shifting Queer Geographies is slated to run as part of the KCTS series IN Close. Check out listings for the upcoming schedule. You can view Albright’s KCTS work here.


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14 thoughts on “Finding ‘Seattle’s Shifting Queer Geographies’ in the more recent history of Capitol Hill

  1. Broadway Market stalls, chatting with gay cart vendors or stopping at Gravity Bar for a shot of organic wheat grass juice.
    Maybe window shop or stop at Bailey Coy Books, choosing a movie at one of at least four screens on or within blocks of ,two at Broadway Market , Harvard Exit, The Egyptian,gay square dancing in the basement of Pilgrims Church.The Gayborhood in the 90’s.

  2. It’s great to see this conversation happening! I write fiction set on the Hill in the 90s and have spent hours researching where businesses were in certain years just to try and get the geography right. End up relying on my memory and those of friends and family which often ends up contradictory. But the best I can find is old issues of Seattle Gay News, The Rocket, and the Weekly because they had addresses with events and ads for local businesses. Pictures of that era have been really hard to come by.

    • Don’t forget old issues of The Stranger! As someone who lived on Capitol Hill for most of the 1990s and spent a lot of time on Broadway and 15th Ave East, I feel like my memories of those businesses of those years are seared into my brain. There should be some forum for you to hit people like me up for information!

    • Yep, Betty I used the Stranger too. UW Archives has great resources covering just about every LGBT and mainstream publication in Seattle. I made maps of business locations for certain years, wish I had more time to make them more comprehensive, cover more time and get more people involved. I lived the on the Hill mid-70s through the mid-90s and again now and it’s amazing to see how much people have forgotten. My own memory is pretty spotty, I can often remember where a business was but not specifically when. So much lost history on Capitol Hill, I would love centralized community space for rediscovering it.

  3. In the Broadway marker when it first opened, there used to be a great kitchen store, similar to Crate & Barrel and Storables in the SW corner, now where QFC has milk, butter and eggs.

    • From the kitchen store and others, I don’t remember needing to go elsewhere to run a small household — you could buy nice dishes and even a rug and small couch at a store across the street… which I have completely forgotten the name of.

  4. I landed at the old Villa Hotel on Pike and Boren back in 1986. Those were some crazy times. The Hill was more nitty gritty and down to earth than it is now. The Comet was one of my main hang out joints. Ernie Steel’s was a fun place. I’m still on the Hill. Much more trendy and characterless now. There are a few good places around. I’m not going to name them }:>

  5. Not sure how to remember how Capitol Hill was back then (been here since ’94) without feeling sad. Though sometimes i think those feelings for the past are as much about the environment as remembering who we were then and just, unfortunately, growing up.

  6. You might be thinking of Basic which was locating inside the Broadway Market. Sidenote: The sign from Basic was re-purposed inside Basic Plumbing. –Jeff Henness