- Historic Sites
The strange saga of a town that bragged, burned, and bullied itself into existence—and then became one of the most civilized places on earth
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
Today Seattle is busy cultivating the Pacific Rim with almost unseemly assiduousness. The rest of the country howled recently when a Japanese businessman offered to buy our local baseball team, the Mariners, and anchor it forever under the marshmallow roof of the Kingdome, but Seattleites, including myself, rather piously invoked the city’s close and enduring relationship with the Orient.
In fact, it’s a relationship that has had more downs than ups, and at no fault to the Japanese and Chinese who moved here. Back in 1885 Seattle’s workingmen set a dismal standard for Asian-American relations by blaming their troubles on the local Chinese population that had limped into the city after completing the transcontinental railroad.
Impoverished, cowed, and exploitable, the Chinese had worked the proverbial jobs-no-one-else-would-do and had come to represent not only the the threat of permanently depressed wages but all the rapacious doubledealing of the bosses themselves. White workers, prodded by the Knights of Labor, formed anti-Asian leagues and declared that by November 1 every Chinese in the city must leave.
Many did, but on February 7, 1886, over the Denny brothers’ protests, those Chinese too invested in Seattle or too poor to pay their passage home were rounded up by a mob of Sinophobes and marched to the city docks to be loaded onto a designated ship. At first the mob tried to be nice about it all, assisting the Chinese with their belongings. But when it developed that there wasn’t enough room for all of them and the Home Guard began to escort the remainder back to their homes, a riot ensued, leaving one man dead and four wounded.
As the economy improved, Seattle displaced its xenophobia with an enduring respect for the riches of the East. Only a decade later tens of thousands of Seattleites would greet the Japanese immigrants on the first transpacific steamship voyage with church bells and brass bands.
All along Puget Sound Japanese families fished, lumbered, and farmed. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor they were among the first to be interned, and on their return few regained even a fraction of what they had left behind. Neither Vancouver, British Columbia, nor San Francisco treated their Asian populations any better than Seattle did. Nonetheless, it is their vast affinitive communities that are luring wealthy Hong Kong capitalists today, and not Seattle’s International District, a cultural hodgepodge that today includes Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Thai.
I have never seen a happy hooker, not even on “Oprah” or “Donahue.” So I don’t give much credence to the fond and rollicking accounts of Seattle’s era of sin and corruption.
Nonetheless its notoriety seems to have been well deserved. In an area known as the Lava Beds flourished bordellos, casinos, and box houses, the latter consisting of a bar, a stage, and a series of box seats capacious enough to accommodate discreetly not only spectators but their hostesses—many of them Native American—whom the Coast Magazine described as wearing “stained and sweaty tights … with blondined hair and some powdered wigs … [and] winkers smutted up and blackened.”
A correspondent for McClure’s declared one of Seattle’s twenty-four-hour casinos the largest in the country. But the scale of Seattle’s vice was best demonstrated by Mayor Hi Gill, who, in 1910, granted a thoroughfare to his cronies to erect a deluxe five-hundred-room bordello in the residential neighborhood of Beacon Hill.
One madam bequeathed her entire and considerable fortune to Seattle’s schools, and for a couple of years the city’s operating budget relied heavily on a “seamstress” tax. But as respectable women, armed at last with the right to vote, began finally to outnumber Seattle’s prostitutes, Hi Gill’s “Open City” gradually closed down.
The legacy of the Lava Beds is an enduring local appetite for the seedy that saved Seattle’s jumbled Pike Place Market from demolition and gentrification and cultivates a stubborn enthusiasm for the damnedest places. For longtime Seattleites the latte stands and gourmet restaurants that delight the visitor and the mock Riviera condos that shelter the newcomers are affronts to the salmon-gutting, tar-paper soul of their city.
I once took a native Northwesterner to a favorite Pike Place Market restaurant of mine called Place Pigalle. He liked the food all right, but as we dined, he wistfully recalled the bareknuckled barrelhouse Place Pigalle had displaced.
It was great, he told me, picking at his plate of mahi-mahi. The floor was sawdust, the proprietor fined you for cussing, and the band was caged in chicken wire to protect it from flying bottles.
“You want to see the real Seattle?” the long-timers may ask you if they’re feeling especially expansive. “You want to see a piece of the real Seattle the goddamn yuppies have destroyed?”