leaving a psychic wake in Grays Harbor County

A recent post by Urban Archivist John’ has drawn some attention from Aberdeenians. Welcome Aberdeenians! We’re glad you’ve stumbled upon our fledgling blog. As the administrator, I’ve had to approve the comments (due to the current rise in abuse by comment spammers.) Anyway, these comments have reminded me that I’ve had a small essay cooling on the back burner. As a result, I have finally finished it. It represents some thoughts I had when passing through Aberdeen and Hoquiam on the weekend of September 10.

the road through Aberdeen, Washington

Aberdeen reminds me a little bit of Escanaba, da UP, Michigan. Both towns are situated in lucrative timber country. Both possess desirable, coastal locations and access to water-borne commerce and transport. And both towns have seen their economic hey-days and are perhaps waiting for the nadir of the cycle to swing upward. They have the enduring and historic architecture to prove it, relics of a more boosterist, speculatist, and skyward-looking time.

Currently, they are afflicted with some of the remnants, or ruins, of busted, downsized, or relocated industries. The industries, mostly timber related, that have remained are a fraction of their former size and import; yet they still push onward and do what they can to keep themselves and the town economies spinning. And despite the loss of jobs and prestige, the remaining residents seem determined to weather the long-haul with a certain personal tenacity mixed with acceptance, civic pride to counter the criticisms of outsiders, and a subtle glimmer of hope in the future.

I have been in Aberdeen on a handful of occasions, unfortunately all of which involved passing through on the way to somewhere else. At most, I have done a loop on the main drag or stopped in the decrepit Top Foods (has it been replaced? I have not been able to find it.) to pick up some supplies before venturing back into the hinterlands. I suppose that I, too, have left a bit of what fellow Urban Archivist, John, so eloquently called “psychic graffiti left in the wake of passing Puget Sounders on their way to” somewhere else.

In my defense, I hope that it wasn’t too much the result of “indifference, vapid hostility, and eyes that can easily overlook whats right in front of them.” On the one hand, it is easy to fall prey to such pratfalls when making quick judgements about a locale based on “windshield surveys” rather than by doing some social research legwork. On the other hand, I do fancy myself empathic to people and place and, as a result, I tend to feel social environments and built environments. Also, I’m a sucker for a good urban story; despite my sometimes brazen comments, I’m wholly willing to give towns, and their citizens, a patient ear and a sporting chance.

To those ends, I have always harbored some curiosity toward Aberdeen and its surrounding area. After all, there is something charming about the sound of Grays Harbor County. Gray –very Washingtonian– and Grays Harbor sounds distant, haunting, very hinterlands-like. Some day –and I hope soon– I will be able to delve into some of Aberdeen’s mystique.

Aberdeen, like its UP counterpart, has always given me a melancholy feeling –more bittersweet rather than depressing. Perhaps it was something I read in the rusting physical infrastructure or perhaps it was in the collective average of what I saw on peoples’ faces. And, no doubt, it was also partly due to what I have heard in outsiders’ comments about Aberdeen. So, all of this points to the fact that there is some foundation there, some established historical basis for the story that is Aberdeen. Certaily, much of it involves the past rather than the present. However, the lovely thing about history is that it tends to revolve around itself cyclically –and non-linearly– with something new and novel emerging on each revolution, given a keen eye and the “landscape literacy” to recognize it, that is. As a result, even though Aberdeen may have had a brighter past than it is having a present, it has something solid to build on for the future.

southbay college of TOM

Image courtesy of Laura Passin.

Of course, my personal inclination would be to institute and provide a strong (higher) educational foundation. In the silliest narratives of my pantheon of personal fantasies, I have grand delusions of amassing a fortune, a la the greedy industrial barons of the nineteenth century, and subsequently spending it on pedagogic philanthropy. In essence, I would like to become the Andrew Carnegie of colleges. I have in the past pontificated on the establishment of Port Townsend (or Admiralty) College centered in the beautiful Jefferson County Courthouse overlooking Admiralty Inlet, say, or Forks College in Forks, Washington. The former would specialise in oceanography, maritime trade and business, and perhaps boatbuilding while the latter would have a solid writing programme and a Melancholy Studies department.

Thus, as we drove through Aberdeen the other day, I thought that a college in or near Aberdeen would be in a spanking location for an institution specialising in forestry, forest resource management, silviculture, and other forms of dendrologic study. Upon further research, it seems that something already exists with the charmingly-named Grays Harbor College. Perhaps they should think about adding a Seaside Town Studies department; I am available to cobble a program together, GHC.

My other inclination would be to facilitate investment of The Gay Dollar in the area. The power of The Gay Dollar is certainly nothing to be trifled with. It is something that can bring stunning new life into shuddered old hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, and the like. Certainly, a modest tourist influx could add smashingly to the town economy. Aberdeen is, after all, at a strategic crossroads for traffic headed to Ocean Shores, on the hand, and Westport, on the other. Admittedly, this is part of my greater personal agenda to build cross-cultural tolerance, at least, and acceptance, ideally. In the end, my utopian goal would be to have events like neighboring Hoquiam’s Logger’s Play Day happily co-exist with Pride. It is a project that would take some time, of course, and wouldn’t work overnight… but think about it, Aberdeen.

Speaking of crossroads, perhaps it is useless to protest the “interstatization” of blue highways and its attendant bypassing of central business districts. It seems to be The Way Of Things.However, I hope that the road through Aberdeen, which takes Pugetopolitans to the ocean beaches, remains a road through Aberdeen, rather than around it, for a lengthy time into the future. Nothing will further perpetuate the myth of many current and future passers-through that Aberdeen is some hole-in-the-wall than a bypass. If mere passing through some town is bad enough, bypassing it entirely is orders of magnitude worse.

Should the conversation arise, please don’t do it, Aberdeen, no matter how many big-box retailers promise to build on the bypass’s new frontage! Only a road through Aberdeen’s core will allow thoughtful people, people who can readily recognize a given town’s uniqueness and potential, to intersect with local folk of the same inclination. Bypasses showcase depressing, big-box homogeneity; as a result, towns become soulless shells… nothing more than cleared lots for the next incarnation of BedApplebeesHomeDespotandBeyond.

the friendliest politics: Hoquiam, Washington?

banner proclaiming hoquiam as the friendliest city

Hoquiam, Wash.: A banner proclaiming it The Friendliest City.

Upon crossing into Aberdeen’s next-door-neighbor, Hoquiam, there is a noticeable change in the landscape. Whereas we saw very little electioneering signage in Aberdeen, there was a bumper crop in Hoquiam. We don’t know whether there is some ordinance in Aberdeen or whether Hoquiamites are just greater believers in representative democracy. Of course, part of the charged atmosphere had something to do with the festivities surrounding Loggers’ Play Day. The town was preparing for a parade as we were driving through and there were a large number of people decked out for their candidates, both Republicrat and Dempublican. A parade was forming and so were floats for the various candidates.

Even more curiously, aside from a swollen dose of big-D-Democracy and the presence of little-d-democrats, the area also seems to turn out well for big-D-Democrats. This we judged from the maddening amount of signage we saw for Democrat pols. We have never seen so many Democrats outside of Seattle… or Olympia… or Bellingham. Let me rephrase: to see the Democratic party so visible outside the “urban archipelago” these days, especially here where the Peninsula attaches itself to the mainland, is particularly noteworthy these days.

Relatedly, from what I’ve been told, some partisanship abates when it comes to Norm Dicks, the area’s representative in Congress. A lot of electorate seems to like Norm, certainly enough to re-elect him 15 times since 1977. And Norm repays his constituents and the state in kind, which is certainly something we would expect from a protege of the late and great Warren Magnuson. Suffice to say: people here like Dicks… cuz he brings home the pork –if you know what I mean.

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One Response to leaving a psychic wake in Grays Harbor County

  1. Lara34 says:


    You wrote, “Upon crossing into Aberdeen’s next-door-neighbor, Hoquiam, there is a noticeable change in the landscape. Whereas we saw very little electioneering signage in Aberdeen, there was a bumper crop in Hoquiam. We don’t know whether there is some ordinance in Aberdeen or whether Hoquiamites are just greater believers in representative democracy.” There’s a reason for that:

    I’ve lived in Aberdeen for over 11 years, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in that the Democrat’s signs usually get torn down almost as fast as they’re put up. You don’t notice the vandalized and broken signs when driving, but if you’re walking or on a bicycle you get a better view of the roadsides and the broken signs laying there. There will often be a whole row of Republican signs that remain untouched/intact, but the Democrat signs get twisted off at the base, or tipped over so you can’t read them when driving by. I don’t know who exactly is responsible for such malicious vandalism, it could just be one person with a grudge or something, but it’s happened for a number of years now, too much to be coincidence.

    I seldom go to Hoquiam so I can’t speak for what happens in Hoquiam.

    By the way, I like your “Melancholy Studies” idea :) As a Northwest native I’d never really noticed it much, but I suppose it’s probably true… clouds are like the Blues, though – if you don’t have the blues, they might bring you down, but if you’re already feeling blue, they cheer you up… and good for creativity, too. Must be the beneficial “negative ions” or something :)

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