The Showbox and Historical Memory in Seattle

The above photograph courtesy of Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3268357.

Hello, all!

I suppose I should briefly introduce myself before jumping into business. My name is Payton Howard, and I am the student intern for Centre Trail this semester! I am a junior at Centre with a History major and Creative Writing minor—I’m fascinated with writing, reading, and storytelling, and I find both disciplines allow for fulfilling explorations. Though I find US history to be my favorite region within which to study (obviously, I keep a statue of John Adams in my dorm room and consider myself quite a fan), I am eager to read and ponder just about anything in the discipline. There are always new stories and perspectives to learn from and new niches to find.

Lately, my attention has been drawn to Save the Showbox efforts in Seattle, Washington, because of the complex historical questions it raises. The Showbox is a Seattle music venue that has evolved and entertained since 1939. In its storied history, it has served as a concert venue, a Jewish bingo house, a comedy supper house, a Happening Teenage Nite Club, and more, hosting a brilliant cast of musicians and entertainers over the years. The venue, therefore, serves as a sort of storybook of the evolution of music and culture, both specifically Seattle and beyond, over the decades. It is a landmark that some would call integral to Seattle’s cultural history in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Lately, however, a Canadian-based development group—Omni Group—has announced its intention to tear down the Showbox and replace it with a forty-four story luxury residential complex, irrevocably altering this piece of Seattle history. Though the destruction of the Showbox would provide housing, certainly, many argue that the housing ought to be built in a less contested location.

There are a bevy of articles (primarily from news sources from the area) that tackle the happenings of this summer, as community members fight to preserve the historical site. I invite you to read these links, understanding that we can use their context to think about the relevancy of thinking historically in these events.

As would be expected, the outcry and debates have been passionate this summer, and artists from around the country have signed their support for Save the Showbox activism. The Showbox case study is fascinating, because it provides a vital opportunity to sharpen the way we question memory and historical preservation in the face of our rapidly evolving communities. It points to the value of thinking historically as we critically assess the happenings in our world today.

In particular, how do physical historical places play into memories about communities and their creativity? How important are they? If the Showbox is ultimately replaced with expensive housing, would its memory continue to live on? Why, then, is the prospect of the loss of this building (or the loss of a particular historical landmark more generally) so heartbreaking to so many? Death Cab for Cutie frontman, Ben Gibbard, said of the matter (pulled from article three, linked): “There are three things that people know about Seattle when you say that you live in Seattle — rain, coffee, music. You can’t attract people to a city by using its cultural touchstones … and then remove those things when they become inconvenient.” It is a powerful idea to consider: communities can maintain a particular appeal and aura, despite the rapid changes and modernizations of our world, by clinging to what their history is. It seems to make complex the notion that the new and improved is always better—and that is worth our consideration, I would argue.

Other articles have referred to individuals in support of preservation efforts talking about the shows they have attended at the Showbox over the years. The Showbox has been a part of their lives, a part of their own history. A Seattle Weekly article I encountered in my research wrote about the line of community members speaking up at a City Hall meeting, one of whom brought along his guitar and sang a song in the venue’s defense: “You gotta save the Showbox / It’s been very good to me.” Certainly, we can only imagine the stories of generations of Seattle citizens that have viewed its evolving presence in the arts and culture of the city. Perhaps it played a small or significant part in improving their lives or shaping their creative interests.

Furthermore, we ought to ask: what is worth saving when we think about historical preservation and memory? Certainly, our communities and society will continue to grow and to innovate, so how are we to know when we should speak up to preserve historical landmarks? Presumably, most if not all of us are not Seattle citizens, so should we care about the history of this venue and the threat it is under? Certainly, these questions are complicated and variable. As we unpack historical figures and events and ideas throughout the term through blogs, I hope we can work to ask the difficult questions, knowing that perfect or objective answers are difficult to come by. Just like the gentleman at the Seattle City Hall meeting that sang his defense of the Showbox— “It’s been very good to me”—we are all made up of unique histories and stories, and none are too small for our evaluation.

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