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What You Need To Know To Save Seattle’s Showbox Market

Home / What You Need To Know To Save Seattle’s Showbox Market

Showbox Market was saved from demolition temporarily on Monday, August 13th. The Seattle City Council unanimously voted in an ordinance to make the Showbox a historical landmark under the Pike Place Historical Society, all be it on an interim basis, Seattle PI reports. In July it was reported that Canadian developer, the Onni Group, was negotiating with the landowner to tear down the Showbox Market and replace it with 44-story luxury apartment towers. The battle to save Seattle’s culture isn’t a new one. It’s a struggle that’s been raging between culture-conscious citizens and land developers since the 1960’s.

Pike Place Market History Repeats Itself

During WWII Pike Place Market’s business was in severe decline and developers wanted to move in and change the entire landscape of Pike Place. Donald Mason wanted to turn Pike Place into Pike Plaza; a modernized office space with apartment buildings. The public was outraged and urged for the market’s preservation. Friends Of The Market was a citizen organization lead by Victor Steinbrueck that was vital in getting a Pike Place Historical measure on the 1971 ballot. Over 73,000 people voted to save Pike Place. This vote created the National Register of Historic Places and the local Market Historical District, per Seattle.gov. Over the next 10 years, $150 million was invested into the Pike Place Market restoration and transformed it into the cultural centerpiece of downtown Seattle it is today.

47 years after Pike Place Market was preserved as a historical monument, Seattle’s landscape is changing faster than ever. That change is being fueled by burgeoning tech giants like Amazon, and citizens are once again forced to fight for an important piece of the city’s cultural and musical identity. The city council’s vote only saved the Showbox Market for the next 10 months, during which time a long-term solution under the Pike Place Historical Society needs to be settled.

Champions For Showbox

Kshama Sawant is Seattle City Councilwoman for the city’s Third District. She’s a people’s champion of Seattle’s working class and keeping cultural and artistic spaces intact. Sawant has been the most vocal council member in the fight to save the Showbox, and the only one to respond to public outcry, according to her. Sawant’s office drew up the ordinance to make the Showbox an interim-historical landmark.

Sawant credits her office’s swift response to the efforts made by Jay Middleton and the rest of the public response. Middleton who started the Change.org petition that got the ball rolling for the #savetheshowbox campaign. The petition garnered well over 70,000 signatures, which spurred Sawant to start the ordinance to include Showbox Market into Pike Place’s Historic District. The petition now has over 94,000 signatures.

Many of Seattle’s leading musicians, like Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Duff McKagan of Guns n’ Roses, Macklemore, and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam wrote a letter to the city of Seattle urging the importance of the Showbox, according to HistoricSeattle.org.

“A large section of Seattle collectively view the Showbox as a cultural icon, not just for Seattle, but for music lovers everywhere. It’s a national treasure,” Sawant said. “The Showbox issue so clearly highlighted that ordinary people in Seattle and in the entire region for that matter are losing not only affordable housing but cultural spaces and artistic spaces as well,” Sawant said; “as one of the people who gave a public testimony on this issue last Monday said, ‘this is really emblematic of the struggle for the soul of Seattle itself.”

Political Opposition & Public Outcry

Although the vote to save Showbox was unanimous, Sawant reports there was staunch political opposition to saving the Showbox at first. Sawant claims that the mayor and other council members are hostile towards the interests of Seattle’s working class and outright said— “these people are not on our side.”

However, the city council did vote to save the Showbox temporarily in the end, and it was the power of citizen organization and public voice that made it possible. Among that public are many artists, club owners, Showbox employees, etc, the very people that run and influence Seattle music scene. Steve Severin is one of the owners of  Neumos, a staple music venue residing in Capitol Hill.

“I was truly amazed at the response of the City Council too. I loved that they kept talking about how integral the art scene was for the soul of Seattle. That’s right, S.C.C. talking about how important the arts are over money from a giant building,” Severin wrote in an email.

Severin came to the city in 1992 purely because he wanted to go to more live shows. Now he co-owns Neumos, Barboza, Moe Bar, and other businesses. Seattle’s art drew him to the city and because of that, Severin is now a substantial influencer in the music scene and helps provide artistic and musical spaces, jobs for the community, and revenue for the city.

Many aspiring artists grow-up and visualize their name up on the Showbox marquee, and Nick Weaver was one of those who grew up going to concerts at the Showbox. So the initial news of Showbox’s demolition was not only heartbreaking but a sobering realization of where the city could be headed. Weaver is a local that grew into a Seattle hip-hop artist and was present at city hall the day of the vote.  Growing up in Seattle’s music scene caused him to appreciate music enough to pursue and obtain a career in it.

Weaver says there were around 300 people that showed up and it was an emotional and vibrant scene. Around 20 people gave public testimonials at the hearing. Everyone there shared personal stories of what the Showbox meant to them and lamented at the idea of it not being around anymore. People from all over the region, young and old, all expressed their love for the venue.

“I really hope Jenny Durkan responds to this soon, and I hope she doesn’t overlook the city council unanimously voting this step through. And that even though the city has its hands tied through the tech world, you can’t erase culture.” Weaver added, “it’d be tough to lose that one, I don’t know how else to put it.”

Pushing Culture Forward At Showbox Market

Stories like Severin’s, Weaver’s and the people who spoke at city hall, and the rest of the outward opponents to Showbox’s demise is a rejection to the claim that people who want to save the Showbox are simply nostalgic or fear change. Sawant and the rest adamantly reject these ideas, the same ideas that were used against the fight for Pike Place Market 47 years ago. Corporate and political influencers accused Pike Place Market proponents as sentimental and change-fearing, but Pike Place Market isn’t frozen in time—it’s a dynamic and growing part of the city.

“That’s what the Showbox also is: a meeting ground, a community fostering environment, it creates memories for generation after generation,” Sawant said; “this is a place where music and culture have developed from generation to generation, so this is anything but anti-change.”

The Showbox has given a stage to people like Duke Ellington, Buffalo Springfield, The Police, The Ramones, James Brown, Heart, Ellen DeGeneres, Eminem, Soundgarden, Robin Williams, and Prince. These people weren’t just entertainers; they’re legends that drove culture forward, forced change, inspired millions of people and continue to do so to this day. Artistic spaces like the Showbox allow artists, musicians and comedians to hone their crafts. This not only entertains people and gives them a much-needed escape from daily life, but provides a space for culture to evolve.

Seattle’s Music Economy By The Numbers

Making Seattle affordable, profitable and keeping artistic spaces are not mutually exclusive ideas. Saving the Showbox isn’t just about art, it’s about money too. Numbers don’t lie, and Pike Place Market is the 33rd largest tourist attraction in the world, according to Sawant. It brings 10 million visitors a year, and generating $150 million dollars in sales every year, per pikeplacemarket.org.

Severin says that the Showbox is one of the most profitable music venues we have. Pollstar Magazine is a music industry publication that Severin cites his information from. Pollstar bases their statistics on venue reported ticket sales.

“Last year we had eight venues in the top 100. I believe the venues were based on a capacity of 2500. Showbox showed up at 18. When you look at venues same size or smaller,  they sold the third most tickets for a venue based on it’s capacity or smaller,” Severin wrote in an email; “that’s what the Showbox means to Seattle. People vote and speak with their dollars.”

Keeping music venues like the Showbox intact is integral for sustaining a thriving music economy. An economy that generated $1.2 billion in 2008, per Seattle.gov and $1.8 billion in 2016, according to TheLastStand.org. The nightlife and music industries make up two of the 10 largest economies of Seattle, according to Severin. People may be coming here in droves because of the tech industry, but it’s what the city offers them after their shifts are over. That’s what’s also driving them here in record numbers. The food, music, art, and nightlife are huge mitigating factors for one’s decision to relocate.

 Moving Forward To Save The Showbox

The Pike Place Historical Commission will handle the technical and legal details that will make Showbox a permanent live music venue. They welcome the opportunity to make the Showbox a permanent part of the Pike Place Historical District because it was originally supposed to be included, but corporate forces at the time forced smaller boundaries. “This campaign is actually renewing the inaugural fight for the Market Historical District,” Sawant said.

The remaining fight isn’t just about handling legalities. This won’t be an easy task over the next 10 months. Colliding with political and corporate giants will take organizing and movement building in the form of rallies, protests, events, and concerts. Citizen organizations, city commissioners, and the regulatory bodies will have to work together for these measures to be effective and retain public interest until it’s resolved. Sawant’s office has speculated at the idea of a victory/next steps concert at the Showbox after the Seattle City Council returns from its two-week recess.

There will always be powerful political and economic forces that drive change. But to what degree will that damage Seattle’s history and culture? It’s up to us to help dictate the terms in which Seattle changes. Monday’s vote was historic because it proved that every day, people as writers, musicians,  fans, art lovers, and activists alike, can fight and keep the places we love. The war for the Showbox isn’t over, but the first battle has been won.

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