I have been spending more time in Olympia as of late, which is something that I have wanted to do since I landed in Cascadia. Perhaps it is due to my first impressions of Olympia from that grey December of 1998 that have influenced me so positively. I have always liked the entrance to Olympia coming off of I-5. The off-ramp takes one past a back end of the Capitol Campus and under a plaza before putting one across Capitol Way from the Legislative Building’s front lawn. All the while, one is surrounded by lush (ever)greenery. The capitol dome’s drum is one of the most impressive of any state capital, perhaps even more so than the Federal Capitol given that the Leg. Building’s dome is so disproportionately large. I never tire of driving into Olympia.
My Hot Research Associate has recently begun working in the area and so has moved to Oly to be closer to her job. She rents a quaint little studio in a small complex on Capitol Way just in the shadow of the capitol. It seems rather European, what with its modest, two-story, old framing, its walk-up nature, and the pots and hanging baskets full of colorful flowers all around. It is also somewhat like a motor court except with much less court. There is an alleyway splitting the two buildings of the complex; garages are below and apartments are on the second floor. Best of all, the complex is a few blocks beyond the capitol and a few block before downtown.
The city is such a green state capital, too. In fact, the colder, wetter, and grayer the weather, the greener the scenery. Like most everything and everybody in western Washington, the crappier the weather, the happier the citizenry and the shrubbery. This is what struck me in 1998. Even the maps reflect this–paper maps, not the flim-flam scribblings that pass for populist cartography on the web these days. Open any decent road map and one will find the blotted green pattern, indicative of large swaths of public forest land, surrounding Olympia. And where this is not forest, there is water, the Sound. Despite the odd timbre of the word moist, it is entirely apropos in describing Olympia: moist, misty, mossy, and earthy. But aside from the climate, though, the city is also a rather Green state capital, too.
Olympia is an odd mix of old Hippies, college kids (many of whom are hippies… or some other organic, crunchy-in-soy-milk variant), state government workers, and the real people (that get shit done) that one would expect to find in a town this size. Thanks to the presence of The Evergreen State College, Olympia has become known partially for being a college town. In the U.S., state capitals generally do not double as meaningful college towns since major schools, especially if they are land-grant, public institutions, are located in other towns–certain pesky Big Ten towns notwithstanding. Sometimes, this was a case of deliberate negotiation and machination. This was certainly the case in Washington state, where Seattle got the university, Oly got the capital, lucky Walla Walla got the state penitentiary, and Tacoma got no respect. In any case, Olympia has the value-added benefit of college-town relations to make things even more interesting. Undoubtedly, Evergreen attracts people who under other conditions would not have gravitated toward Olympia.
My Hot Research Associate and I play a game whenever we are out wandering the streets. We make gross and stereotypical spot assessments of people as (blue-collar) townies, Evergreen kids, townie hippies (frequently post-Evergreentonians), or legislative aids based on outward appearances. It’s all in fun, of course; however, this game has elicited a compelling observation about Olympia: the various social archetypes are denser here than anywhere else in the state.
The city’s relatively small size has a lot to do with it. Whereas in Seattle various sub-cultures are more diluted and dispersed, cliques and subcultures in Olympia visually aggregate more readily. One sees more examples of each major subculture; it is a concentration bordering on the point of saturation. It is a little like browsing the section of essential oils in some homeopathic/herbal shop. Overwhelming.
At the risk of sounding inanely reductionist, it sometimes seems like Olympia is a condensed Seattle. But the thinking part of me believes there is something more going on here, more complex and more nuanced. A given city can’t just be compared strictly relative to another; they exist independently and have unique factors acting upon and within them. Thus, although it is near–arguably part of–the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma megalopolis, Olympia feels a bit detached. They may get The Stranger down here, but there’s a distinct Olympiaverse that exists apart from Seattle. I suspect that it is a little like Canadian culture living in the shadow of U.S. culture.
Physically, it was very tangibly demonstrated to me these past few weekends when I could not travel directly here from Seattle. Whether by commuter train or bus, I had to transfer in Tacoma. Though familiar with Sound Transit, of course, I stepped aboard a wholly foreign bus system recently, the Intercity Transit. And therein lies a conceptual boundary: whereas Seattle and Tacoma are both part of the Sound and, thus, a unified Sound Transit, travel to Olympia is an intercity endeavor.
Like many U.S. capitals, Olympia is not the largest or most prominent city in the state. This is as it should be for it sets up a nice division of influence–and tugs of war– between the state capital, the large metropolis, and the rest of the state. It makes for interesting politics. Lacking a true urban grit, this sort of tension–political clout despite lack of size, mixed in, perhaps, with a little inferiority complex–gives small capitals their own kind of feisty grit. I’ve always liked this about places like Springfield (versus Chicago in Illinois), Lansing (versus Detroit in Michigan), and Albany (versus NYC in New York).
For all these reasons, Olympia is a fairly intense place although it is well-steeped in the general chill of the Pacific Northwest. This is certainly not a passive town by any stretch.