Call me provincial, but I still get excited when I see anything about my hometown in the New York Times. Last Saturday, there we were, on the cover page of the Arts section, under the headline: “A Place Comfortable With Boeing, Anarchists and ‘Frasier.’” What an oddball trio of references, I thought. Then I saw it was a story about Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, better known as MOHAI, which has just reopened in the grandly re-imagined Naval Armory at the south end of Lake Union.
The hometown booster in me was excited. Proud: the nation’s newspaper of record was covering the museum that, more than any other, I think of as our museum. I love the Seattle Art Museum too, but MOHAI? It’s about us.
When I walked in for the first time, there was the Lincoln Toe Truck and the giant, neon Rainier Beer “R.” Even so, I felt disoriented, though in a mostly good way: the way I feel when I see one of my children’s preschool friends, now all grown up. This was not the museum I visited when I chaperoned those preschool field trips. No. This new MOHAI is a grown-up museum about a grown-up city.
Fresh evidence that while I may still be provincial, Seattle is not.
And like any newly minted grown-up, MOHAI had all kinds of things to teach me. For example, New York Times writer Edward Rothstein’s reference to Seattle’s pioneering Denny Party, arriving via the Oregon Trail, which I smugly thought he got wrong? I was wrong. The Dennys did travel overland to Portland before they boarded a schooner for the last leg and made their famous water-landing at Alki Beach.
But unlike other Oregon Trail pioneers, the Denny group did not want to stake a claim and start farming. They wanted to build a city. They really did think Seattle might be the next New York. And their gee-whiz, provincial spirit has shaped the city ever since. To the point where we might finally be transcending it.
My children, in their early 20s, think this is an interesting—maybe even exciting—time to be living here. We have a music scene, a filmmaking scene, a bar and restaurant scene, a critical mass of artists and writers instead of a lonely few. We’re a center for technology, medicine, global health and philanthropy. We finally have a light rail system. We just voted for gay marriage and legal marijuana. Meanwhile, we still build airplanes and run North America’s seventh biggest port.
When I moved back to Seattle in the early 1980s, we had none of the above, except for the planes and ships. “Interesting” and “exciting” were not words I would have used to explain why I came back. I returned because I missed mountains, Puget Sound, evergreen trees and my family. Because it was home.
Seattle was then in the very earliest stage of recovery from our last major recession, and it was, well, a mess. The heart of downtown–Pine Street and Westlake—was a ripped-up, stalled-out construction site, through which I walked every day to work, a Monorail Espresso cup in my hand, feeling grateful that I had a job and that my city had something as quaintly innovative as a “coffee cart.”
As I became my grown-up self, so did Seattle. But—sort of like with brothers and sisters—it’s so easy to keep viewing the city you’ve always known in the exact way you’ve always viewed it. Visiting the new MOHAI was my wake-up call: it’s time for me to get over my provincial-vision problem. Time to get to know this new grown-up city.
Local history geeks: make sure to check out History Link, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history. The best!
And… I’m proud to have an essay in the winter issue of the wonderful new literary journal, Minerva Rising. Subscribe online or, if you’re in Seattle, pick up a copy at Elliott Bay Books.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.