Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Sin of Omission - 1

There are plenty of ugly things around Belltown. They're the reason I started this blog. The fact that intelligent, rational people designed and built glaring eyesores around this neighborhood is something I find very interesting. But there are also things that contribute to Belltown's unsightliness: things that aren't there. Please join me for some recent history.

The Speakeasy opened up in 1995 in an old two-story brick building at the corner of 2nd & Bell. Upstairs was the gloriously dingy 211 Club, the only place in Seattle to play serious pool, and occupying the storefront on the Bell side was a construction salvage company. It was much more than a cafe with lots of space, it also offered computers and instruction on how to use them. Back in 1995, there really was no such thing as an "internet cafe." The Speakeasy was the first of its kind almost anywhere. Behind its retail operation was the company's main business as an internet service provider. It was a pretty brilliant idea; people could come into the cafe, have a coffee and a bagel, use a computer to figure out what this newfangled internet-thing was all about and if they found it sufficiently intriguing, they could choose Speakeasy as their ISP and keep coming in, checking email and getting net literate, all for a reasonable price. There was no need to invest a substantial sum into buying a computer. There were lots of them just down the street.

Over the next few years, the Speakeasy became the social hub of the neighborhood. Even I, antisocial as I am, found myself hanging out there several times a week. I'd see everybody there: friends, neighbors, minor celebrities and a whole range of seemingly interesting people. There were three main groups of people who showed up regularly at the cafe: art people, advocacy people and computer geeks. Me, I was unaffiliated, so I just watched everybody come and go. Besides computers and computer classes, the place also had art shows and featured a wide variety of performances in the back room. If nothing was going on at the Speakeasy, then you could always head upstairs and play pool at the 211. All the while Speakeasy ISP was growing by leaps and bounds while the tech bubble inflated.

By 2000, Speakeasy had grown into a major operation, but it occupied three or four smaller places around the neighborhood. This is because Belltown lacked the kind of major office space to house mid-sized thriving concerns. In a bold move, the Speakeasy powers bought out the 211 Club and made plans to put their customer service call center in that space. True, it was a sad day for me when the 211 closed its doors and auctioned off all their tables, but their hearts weren't in it any more. They told me as much. Through early 2001, there was a lot of work done to transform the upstairs from pool hall to call center. By May, it was done. I didn't see the space, but I was told that it was very cool.

Well, on May 18th, 2001, mere days from the beginning of call center operations, the Speakeasy caught fire:


The official cause was faulty wiring on the second floor, though arson rumors persist to this day. After the fire, we were treated to this burned-out hulk for the next few years:

(Note: all three previous photos were taken by the lovely Clark Humphrey)

While the gutted building was still standing, there was always a question of whether it would ever be rebuilt. Some weeks I heard yes, other weeks no. This seemed a legitimate topic of speculation until heavy equipment showed up and tore the ruins down in 2004.

What remains is this:

It's just an empty lot with a fence around it.

About a year ago, some dumbass thought it was really important to leave that "Jeans" mega-tag.

More emptiness...

This is about where the front entrance used to be.

This bit of improvised Space Needle isn't really comforting, given what the Speakeasy had to offer. One thing's for sure, Belltown hasn't been the same since then.

Now it's 2009. The Speakeasy has been dead (8 years) longer that than it was originally alive (6 years). Its regular patrons, with few exceptions, have scattered to other environs. The Speakeasy ISP continued on, though, taking offices down on Western Avenue and weathering the tech crash. In 2007, they sold out to Best Buy. The price tag was $97 million.

Given the choice, I'd rather have the Speakeasy rebuilt and running. Barring that, the charred ruins are a distant second. I don't think anyone likes the ugly vacant lot. It's like a missing tooth in an otherwise passable smile. It really is one of the least attractive parts of Belltown. Every time I walk by it, I think: "Bring on the ugly condos! Just put something there!"

1 comment:

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