The Frontier on Grays Harbor

This is guest post by the esteemed John T. Glover

The road through Aberdeen is strewn with psychic graffiti left in the wake of passing Puget Sounders on their way to surf in Westport or stay in a cabin at Ocean Shores. It’s a kind of pall born from indifference, vapid hostility, and eyes that can easily overlook what’s right in front of them.

“Only one more hour to the beach, kids!”

“What the hell do people do around here?”

“God, no wonder Kurt left.”

“This is such a dead little place.”

These sentiments and worse litter Highway 12 as it melts into downtown Aberdeen and vacationers peel off toward Ocean Shores or take 105 to Westport (…and the rest of the Cranberry Coast), leaving the city behind and thinking about it little, if at all, for the rest of their journeys. Why is that? In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, why doesn’t Aberdeen get any respect?

The prosaic answers are many, and easy. Logging and fishing have both declined in Washington in recent decades, with ill effects for the economy and for the people. Aberdeen is an hour away from the I-5 corridor, and what some people think of as the only part of the state that really matters. Nirvana came out of Aberdeen, and whether Kurt Cobain or Krist Novoselic actually hated the city or not, many people were left with that impression.

Every year as a child, I used to go to the coast with the family–once, twice, three times or more a year. We passed through Aberdeen and enjoyed it every time. Whether stopping at Duffy’s for lunch, browsing through junk shops, or stopping at the grocery store for kitchen supplies for the beach, it felt like home. That familiarity, ultimately, is why Seattle and the rest of so-called “enlightened” Washington tends to look down its nose at Aberdeen.

There was a time when Seattle was a working-class town – the kind of place where parades and hydroplane races were the height of summer fun. Seattle had dreams of being a bigger city and those dreams have largely come true, despite endless debate about its troubles. These debates reflect a persistent, unabated insecurity about Seattle’s status as a big city, and those who are insecure are right to be so. Some days it seems that for every step Seattle takes toward growth, it takes two steps away from it, usually at the behest of forces wanting a time capsule of Seattle, not a living, breathing city.

“Where,” you may be asking yourself, “does Aberdeen enter the equation?” Aberdeen represents Seattle’s fears of what it might become, what could lie just down the road if the pro sports teams go away, Boeing truly closes up shop, or Microsoft starts looking for someplace more congenial. What if Boeing had never set up shop in Seattle? What if Grays Harbor had become the center of PNW shipping? These fears are mostly unfounded, of course, if for no other reason than that Seattle (and the rest of the greater Seattle area – Everett and Tacoma, I’m looking at you) would have rather a tough time contracting to Aberdeen size.

And yet… the fear is still there. You can almost smell it in the snidely bemused tone folks sometimes take when it comes to happenings in Aberdeen. Both Seattle and Aberdeen grew up as lumber and fishing towns, with active rivers and harbors, plenty of business, and lively trades in vice. Could Aberdeen have become the metropolis that Seattle did? Could Seattle have run its course with the decline of logging and fishing? We’ll never know, but it’s hard not to wonder. Aberdeen will remain the place that it is – at least for now – but there’s no telling what changes the future may bring.

Next time you’re on your way to the beach, take a look around the city. Stop and look for ghost signs, visit the history museum, check out the library. Heck, take a look at the local newspaper. Aberdeen is closer than you think.

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5 Responses to The Frontier on Grays Harbor

  1. MartyMcFly says:

    Aberdeen’s time has come! Had it not been for the unfortunate happenstance of the railroad heading north instead of west (as originally intended), Seattle would have been like Aberdeen is now. And, for those snobbish tourists who have nothing else better to do, stop in and get a little REAL culture!

  2. Having lived in several ‘so called’ METROPOLITAN areas Aberdeen is a refreshing change. There is beauty and worth in its’ faded glory. There is a sense of history and mystery that permeates this settlement on Grays Harbor. Inhabitants here are more sincere and earthbound than those living in or near the Emerald City. For the most part the populace of Fair Seattle and it’s environs have delusions of becoming or being what others expect them to be when living in robust, affluent surroundings. Inhabitants of Aberdeen and Grays Harbor have a much clearer sense of self and true worth…..there is less polish and more substance. I choose to live in Aberdeen and work in downtown Seattle because it makes me all the more thankful that I’ve finally found a community that I can call HOME. Thank you Aberdeen for not being anything more than what you are by embracing your past and tolerating the future with honesty.

  3. Lara34 says:

    I have lived in Aberdeen for over 11 years now. The downtown area continues to decline, with one of the latest demises being the permanent closing of Godfather’s Pizza in May or June 2006, which leaves yet another vacant and dark window in downtown Aberdeen, since as I’m writing this in late November 2006, the store is still unoccupied although it has a forlorn “For Lease” sign on it, like other empty Aberdeen buildings.

    I think one of downtown Aberdeen’s MAJOR problems is that the City of Aberdeen has not taken any effective steps to prevent downtown FLOODING which happens nearly every winter. I would imagine that business owners (the few that are left) get tired of having their stores flooded, like in the Becker Building (search The Daily World newspaper site for more info) where sewer water backs up into the building itself particularly at high tide. I believe that Aberdeen city officials could rescue the downtown area if they were sufficiently motivated, but that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. As to the flooding, they claim it would cost more than it’s worth to fix. I guess the handful of remaining downtown businesses, don’t represent sufficient voting power to get the City of Aberdeen to listen up and pay attention, or something.

    The 2005/2006 addition of “art” is, as I’ve heard from quite a few other local Aberdeen residents, just “putting lipstick on a pig” to quote a Grays Harbor Transit bus driver who gets more than an eyeful of Aberdeen on a daily basis. Some of it’s okay though.

    On a more positive note, some investors have bought the old Morck hotel (across from Safeway) and they claim they’re going to renovate it into some high-class tourist destination… hmmm, it would have to be tourists who were hard of hearing, given that the truck route roars right past it…. although personally that sort of racket doesn’t bother _me_ at all since I used to drive truck :) It would be interesting if they could turn the Morck into something destination-worthy, though. I read in The Daily World that the Morck’s new owners actually helped some of the former residents find new housing, in some cases, before booting them out, which is somewhat stereotypically UNcharacteristic of developers, so maybe they can turn it into something good for the town.

    Aberdeen has already torn down so many of the old buildings, with more scheduled to meet their maker soon through the new “abatement” process, that you can’t even really tell that it used to be a sizable, substantial town. It’s nice to see something being restored for a change, if they actually go through with their plans, that is, instead of just left to rot and ruin like the Finch building (it was ugly anyway) and other old Aberdeen buildings.

    I would like to see some sort of positive changes, that’s for sure. I hate to see the poor little town decay and dwindle into nothingness… except for Wal-Mart, that is, which seems to be doing a booming business (but that’s another topic which I won’t get into).


  4. Blissninny says:

    Are there protesters at the port yet?


  5. greenerndn3 says:

    i grew up in Aberdeen, and raised my son there. i left there when he did, 15 years ago. i’ve recently decided to return and found your site when i was researching the old buildings in north aberdeen. thinking of converting what i believe used to be a brothel into a hostel. it’s the “on the way to the beach” thing.

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