April 1, 2015

STart and Capitol Hill: In the beginning

The first time I really walked around Broadway was to meet Ellen Forney with Barbara Luecke in 2008.  We were there to do research in advance of our search for an artist for Capitol Hill Station.  Although I’d lived in Seattle since the late 90s, Capitol Hill had never really been on my radar.  Don’t get me wrong: I’d been on the hill before, but usually for very specific reasons – Christmas at St. Mark’s, up to Volunteer Park and SAAM – but always passing through Broadway in a car to somewhere else.  You don’t get to know a place in a blink-and-miss-it car trip.  Once I did get out and walk around, it was a bit like a homecoming.

Ellen Forney and Barbara Luecke on Broadway Capitol Hill
Ellen Forney and Barbara Luecke discuss the character of Capitol Hill. Photo © 2008 J.Babuca/Sound Transit. 
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona two blocks from 4th Avenue, an eclectic district just north of downtown and west of the University of Arizona campus.  4th Avenue is a great stretch of small shops, restaurants, a vibrant arts scene and a gathering spot for a mix of artists, college students, tourists and the homeless.  There is no place else like it in Tucson, where the norm is usually six lane roadways and huge parking lots in front of big boxes. (Hey, when you have room to spread, you spread.)

Notice sign at Twice Sold Tales
This sign, posted at Twice Sold Tales, conjures up memories of my beloved high school stomping grounds. Photo © 2008 J.Babuca/Sound Transit.

Walking down Broadway, I was reminded of my days spent walking up and down 4th Ave, headed to school, the library or just wandering.  It has the same pedestrian-scale feel, intimate enough that you can feel the energy of everyone else there, bouncing off the storefronts for you to soak up. There wasn’t anywhere else along the light rail lines thus far that compared to it, so it was clear that the impact of construction here was going to be very different from the experiences Sound Transit had had before.  Barbara and I immediately agreed we needed to preserve that energy somehow.  We began to formulate how we could take out a major stretch of Broadway without damaging the intimate, electric vibe of the neighborhood, and thus STart on Broadway was born.

There was a lull between Sound Transit purchasing the buildings and when the actual demolition would begin.  The plan was to board up the windows, put a fence around the spaces and pepper it with “No Trespassing” signs.  The result would have been a dead zone for two blocks from John to Howell streets.  Definitely this was not a formula for preserving community vibrancy.

While Barbara started selling the idea of storefront installations, I set to work on looking for artwork that could be used to cover up the plywood that was inevitably coming.  Banner covers were an easy sell, of course, but the storefronts were another story.  Once a site officially gets turned into a “construction zone,” the rules of who/what/when/where/how become very controlled.  Liability is at the heart of most of those requirements, so opening up the buildings to artists who may or may not have construction experience was going to take a leap of faith from the owner’s side.  We were worried as well – will the artwork be safe? What if someone breaks in and steals or destroys something? We’d only done one other storefront installation before, and it was on a much smaller scale than this.  But in the end we decided any risks would be far outweighed by the benefits STart on Broadway would provide, and we soldiered through.

Photo: Eileen Court Apts, Before and After
Banners like these at Eileen Court are de rigueur at constructions sites, though they normally are used on walls and fences, and not as window camouflage. Artwork by Jennifer Babuca.  Photo © 2008 J.Babuca/Sound Transit
One day, in the middle of planning and discussing, we got a call: Jack in the Box had been boarded up.  It wasn’t the contractor who had done it, but rather Jack in the Box themselves, their final act of moving out.  Soon, the houses along Denny were also covered in plywood.  We had to mobilize, and fast.

We had already talked to a group that Ellen was a member of, The Friends of the Nib.  They had given us some artwork to use, and that quickly went up on Jack in the Box.  It didn’t go off without a hitch.  As a worker was installing the sections of banner, someone grabbed one off of his truck.  He had to chase the guy down the street to try and recover it.  I still shake my head at it – swiped as it was being installed!  After it went up, someone cut out a section to take and hang on their wall at home.  Despite it being screwed into the wall behind a chain-linked barrier, somebody figured it was free and up for grabs.  Then we invested in industrial glue and put up a sign, courtesy of Friends of the Nib.  That ended that.

Image: Notice Sign, Please do not remove art
Sometimes you just have to spell things out for people. Sign created by Jim Woodring/Friends of the Nib.

We also quickly covered up those houses on Denny.  First, I ran out to Cal Anderson Park and photographed anything and everything that caught my eye.  With an assist from Tom Long in our graphics department, a couple hours later we had banners printed up and screwed in – starting with photos of Kay Rood’s cat on her former home, and happy clouds on the house next door.  The other houses and Eileen Court apartments were soon given the same treatment – mostly abstract photos of details from the park – moss on the trees, water cascading along the texture pool, et al.  As Tom and I were hanging banners on what would become known as “The Cloud House,” a passing car stopped and honked at us.  “Thank you for doing this!” the driver called out with a smile and wave.

Operation: Art Intervention had begun.

Flickr member Fecki gives a shout out for Sound Transit's "added creativity" for The Cloud House. Photo © 2008 Fecki

-Jennifer Babuca


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