We in Seattle have the reputation of being a bit shut off and moody, and for several months out of the year the weather does not really help us break that stereotype. But in our picturesque summer, the streets come alive, and in recent years a number of block parties and festivals have arisen to bring people together in and around downtown. It’s so needed, so refreshing, and it’s worth reflecting on what happened at these parties and what they do for the wellbeing of the local culture.
Capitol Hill Block Party and the Caffe Vita Midnight Supper
The grandmamma of them all, CHBP has been around since 1997 and it has changed a lot in that period. It has gone from being a free event for locals (one day, one stage) to a three-day event with multiple stages, hundreds of performers both local and national, and an estimated attendance of 20000. Some lament the change; others embrace it. Whether or not the Capitol Hill Block Party is your cup of tea, it is one of those important events that shakes up the routine and—most importantly—reminds everyone that Seattle is a place where big things happen culturally and we shouldn’t hide out.
I’m not scolding; I myself am one of those people who runs the other way from crowds. (I mean, check out that Instagram above of the crowd during the Main Stage Chromeo performance. The more intrepid Juliana Pera was there to cover the looks and happenings that weekend.) However, I happily attended the Midnight Dinner hosted by Caffe Vita on Sunday night. Like the Block Party itself, the midnight supper started small a few years ago when Caffe Vita founder Mike McConnell and radical hospitality and food provocateur Michael Hebb were relaxing together and realized that such a grand weekend should not end “with a lukewarm puddle of beer.” A real celebration was in order, one that, as Hebb put it during the party, “celebrates why we make music, why we convene.”
From a few dozen guests breaking bread, the Midnight Supper now packs the Bean Room with a hundred-plus invitees, sharing food prepared by some of Seattle’s top kitchens, including Lark, Lampreia and Mistral. Of course, the facilities are limited and the chefs are preparing gigantic portions coming out in rapid succession, so the food is more straightforward than sumptuous. (My favorite dish was the first: a salad of thinly sliced potatoes lightly dressed with oil and chives.) It was there not to be the centerpiece but to be one of many parts of the greater fellowship of the evening.
What was really special about the night were the people themselves—a truly eclectic mix of society, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and nightlife luminaries, all the different walks of Seattle life in one room. Even the décor reflected the diversity; walking into the bean room, one passed a car covered with shirts specially made for the party, juice by Healeo, a wine station and a mojito station, and a cart of ice cream bars from Ballard-based creamery Six Strawberries, all among the stacks of bean sacks, smelling animalic and rustic. Between this and the stage on the far wall, the rest of the room was zig zagged by tight rows of tables, elegantly appointed with flowers and candles by the place settings, where people could grab whatever seat they pleased. Street and penthouse and the great outdoors all in one room—it was breathtaking.
The stage was taken by a number of local musicians and singers, including Alicia Amiri, Adra Boo and Nathan Quiroga (Iska Dhaaf, Mad Rad), who led the crowd in a sing along and sang covers. It was the sort of entertainment that was engaging without dominating attention, which was more importantly devoted to those around one. People circulated, trading seats and hopping up on the bean stacks to chat and clink their cups.
Among the attendees: one of the local art world’s great creative power couples, artist Piper O’Neill and Billy O’Neill of Chihuly Studio; Micaila Hopkins, whose underground parties are some of the most outrageous, creative and cool in town; curator and event planner Olivia McCausland; representatives of several important non-profits, including Ashley Miller of the Service Board and Savitha Pathi, a trustee at Wing Luke Museum and veteran of many non-profits addressing the environment and social justice; writer, communications expert and all around art advocate Jenise Silva.
I got to ask John Slatkin, production manager for the Block Party, what his favorite moment was of the weekend. He said he loved the performance by The Budos Band, but the grand entrance of Chromeo was the most striking, when searchlights were aimed directly up and formed pillars of light into the heavens. I also got to speak to chef and baker Enrico Ambrosetti of La Toscanella. Ambrosetti told me that he is planning to open a second paninoteca on Capitol Hill soon.
The most exciting news came from Leigh Stone, owner of Crybaby Studios. Stone—looking completely bad-ass as always—got to tell me about her next big project with Vita’s Mike McConnell and musician Alicia Amiri. The three are founding a new black box venue in Belltown at second and Blanchard, just a few doors down from The Crocodile. The new venue Black Mountain will be an event and concert space attached to a small Vita coffee bar and a by-the-slice pizzeria. Amiri will be the lead booker for the space, which will host national and local talent. This is great news for musicians and their fans, but it is great for the culture in general as it will continue to revitalize the nightlife of Belltown with genuine creative energy, which dissipated when the area gentrified and became ground zero for a lot of obnoxious meat-market bars. With nightlife institutions like Cyclops, the Rendezvous (and its Jewelbox Theatre), Tula’s and the Crocodile still going strong, while new and old boutiques like Sassafras, Kuhlman and Finerie CoLab and cafes like Bedlam Coffee and Macrina draw daytime visitors, Black Mountain is another welcome hotspot in a neighborhood that—like so many in Seattle, especially Capitol Hill—has had growing pains and become somewhat hostile to the creative minds and artists that made these areas compelling in the first place.
That was the magic of the Midnight Supper. People who might not often find themselves in the same room could convene and celebrate each other’s accomplishments. At a time when nationally we are all becoming more polarized along many lines, such meetings are essential to the health of the culture. It was definitely my favorite party of the summer so far, but there was so much more to come.
Vibrations 2014 presented by Cairo
Vintage shop Cairo in Capitol Hill is itself a study in merging disparate things from across time periods into a thoughtful space. The shop hosts small, underground performances and parties throughout the year, but not content with keeping it all indoors, last year the owners and their collaborators put together the music and arts festival, Vibrations. It was a success, and this year, Vibrations 2014 at Volunteer Park was bigger and more various.
Now that Capitol Hill Block Party is a major affair with corporate sponsorship and big acts, it is important for others to keep events going with a truly local focus, and Vibrations is a young, hip and beautifully green form. The main lawn near the reservoir was filled with attendees lounging and eating (and smoking plenty of weed) while a diverse lineup of DJs and bands played on the stage, including Wimps, Midday Veil (who had just played a multi-hour set at the Olympic Sculpture Park a few days before) and Naomi Wolf.
For me, the real joy was the art integrated into the park itself. Textiles abounded. An absolutely massive quilt was suspended over the southeast path, dipping over it so that one had to crouch and move under its soft weight; artists Adam Boehmer and Dan Linehan shrouded a condemned tree in beautiful white cloth as a shroud; the Seattle Free Movement society draped large white sheets in one grove, creating an elegant and pensive shrine, aglow with sunlight and the silhouettes of branches during the day, then a swirling mass of colored projections when night fell.
Meanwhile, the vendors created their own elegant pop-up shops underneath a line of white tents. Those included Blackbird, Rachel Ravitch and Debacle Records. Analog coffee is known for offering some of the best cold brew in the city, and they were on hand to sell it alongside food stalls from High Five Pie and Patty Pan Grill. Six Strawberries creamery was there again, and not surprisingly sold out of their frozen treats—all non-dairy bars whose creamy texture comes from a blend of coconut and tofu and whose flavors include chocolate, Vita coffee and, of course, fresh, local strawberries.
Other art included a tower of old Blockbuster VHS tapes playing clips on an old TV at the top (an installation my Max Kraushaar and Graham Downing), two-sided paintings by Daniel Michael Viox suspended from trees around the space, and the most ingenious activity of all—a group choose-your-own-adventure game called Street Life by William Statler. The whole, surreal, humorous story was recorded on cassettes which were changed and played out of a mixer in a tent as the crowd determined what actions they would take. It was a complex, engrossing activity that no one would ever expect to see outdoors, even at a creative gathering like Vibrations.
The crowd was indeed full of creative young minds: Duh Cripe of youryoungbody looked darling and dreamy in a vintage outfit and deep teal hair; fine art photographer Megumi Shauna Arai was buzzinga round documenting the event; dancer and choreographer Molly Sides was lounging about with artist Alexa Anderson (who is also staff at The Henry Art gallery) and frolicking with curator Sierra Stinson. (Anderson has her debut show at Prism later this month.) Poet Chelsea Werner-Jatzke was there with artist Shaun Kardinal, both of whom are also staff at the Frye. (And if you haven’t seen what they have been doing with their #SocialMedium campaign, you really ought to. It’s pretty hysterical.)
In short, the event was ambitious, but extremely chill—another way of describing Seattle. The young, hip crowd and selection of vendors was another slice of life here, and away from the street in the greenery that we so appreciate. It goes to show that there are many ways to throw a beautiful summer party and we are just getting started.
Summit Block Party
Speaking of just getting started, the scrappy and small Summit Block Party looks a lot like what the original Capitol Hill Block Party did in 1997, and that is refreshing, too. This was the third annual SBP, and unfortunately I didn’t actually get to this one; I had to look at the images after the fact, but I would feel remiss not mentioning it because it’s another street-level, all ages, free and open event that attempts to capture the bohemian spirit that has defined Capitol Hill for so long.
Summit is chopped up a bit by the lay of the blocks, and doesn’t have nearly as much going on as the parallel thoroughfares of Broadway and 12th, but it runs through the heart of the Hill. The Summit Block Party took place on the 1700 block, a quiet spot between Olive Way and the Pike/Pine corridor, an area of older apartments a stone’s throw from delightful dives like the Crescent Lounge and the Redwood and other cafe culture hubs like Arabica Lounge and Bauhaus. The mix of over a dozen musical performances this year included The Pharmacy and Kleine. The DIY, gritty vibe of the event has its own appeal and is a bit of a tonic in the face of uniform new construction that is displacing a lot of older neighborhood fixtures at the moment. For those who wish to criticize the Capitol Hill Block Party for being too corporate, there is this, but as for me I am glad we have both and I hope that there will be more to come.
South Lake Union Block Party
Also a young fest, but with lots of corporate polish, the South Lake Union Block Party is most focused on activities and vendors with performances thrown in. Thanks to tours from artists who have work hanging in storefronts around the area, there is also a fair amount of emphasis on visual arts, which is nice to have as a balance in the city’s hub of Amazon and biotech facilities.
What I really love is that the Wayzgoose event from the School of Visual Concepts got such a wide audience. The annual Wayzgoose press uses a small, specially prepared steamroller to print unique posters, and it has been cause for celebration at the SVC for some time. They ran the Wayzgoose to delight the all-ages crowd at the SLU Block Party, which—for print nerds like me—is a major coup. I love knowing that a wider audience got a little spectacle in the art of printmaking.
And it was very well-attended, indeed, which was good news for Cornish College of the Arts, which was the benefactor of the event’s proceeds. It’s all around a great thing for the arts, and probably saw the widest range of age-groups of all the summer parties. It was centered at the South Lake Union Discovery Center—for the last time, as the Discovery Center will be demolished by next summer for a new tower. The festival will therefore have to move and evolve, probably moving closer to the lake. Like all the others, I don’t want to see it go away. It’s an important injection of activities and art into a neighborhood that tends toward sterility thanks to its corporate vibes and blocks of new construction.
And that about covers it. Seattle is growing and changing, and the more diverse our ways of socializing and celebrating the local culture, the better off we are.
That brings me back to one of the last conversations I had at the Midnight Supper: a gruff, young fellow was sitting near me and we struck up a conversation about the food and the culture. I had the distinct impression that though he was not unfriendly, we would have under no other circumstances been able to chat with such candor and ease. He was not self-conscious or ill-at-ease about the fact that he was a blue collar worker in the fishing industry; the room was a bit fancier than his accustomed environments, which—he did not fail to mention—would not treat me kindly (as I am gay), though he assured me he was not homophobic (and I agree). In essence, no one was in their typical element there, but everyone was free to be at ease. THAT is what defines a good party to my mind.
He and I discussed a little the culture of Seattle, and what has made it so notoriously averse to casual interaction among strangers. We settled on the usual theories: a lasting pioneer town spirit; influences from insular Asian and Scandinavian cultures; its foundation in logging and fishing industries, which are in themselves somewhat reserved and laconic; socially awkward techies. But in the end, we decided it didn’t so much matter, because where we were at that moment those expectations were shattered. For all the interactions of the night, it was probably my favorite because it encapsulated what living in a city should be like (the meeting of minds, cultures and ideas through density) and was so distinctly Seattle (the wry academic and the grizzled mariner). So cheers to the party planners and the partygoers. This summer is not yet over, but I already have cause to look forward to the next one.
For the month of August, Vanguard Seattle has partnered with Caffe Vita to offer our first sweepstakes. Make sure to subscribe for your chance to win a Road Travel Pack by BLK Pine Workshop or $5 gift card to Caffe Vita on our Facebook page!