Ode to the Littlest Big City

The town of Olympia, WA is considered by insurance companies to be one of the safest communities in the United States of America. Not only is it safe, it is a pleasant and unique place.
Downtown Olympia is a treasure, home to the highest concentration of local businesses in the region. City planners visit Olympia to learn from our model of a vibrant downtown.
Our locally-run stores vary from funky thrift shops to antique stores to upscale boutiques. We have the Olympia Farmer's Market known throughout our region as being one of the best. We have the Hands-On Children's Museum, a creative and educational place to take the littles when the rainy season hits. We have Fish Tale Brew Pub, where you can bring a jug to be filled with good local ale. Good local-roasted coffee is available almost everywhere (except Starbucks).
But Olympia also has something very special and unique. It is not a store, its a spirit. Olympia's spirit is very unique and creative, which is why we are internationally known for our DIY music and arts scene.
Tourists often comment that Olympia is a small town with an urban feel. I would call Olympia the littlest big city around. (Population: 42,000)
Like all big cities, Olympia has many different types of activities and events going on all the time.
Downtown Olympia is a wonderfully spontaneous place. In addition to our local shops, you will see many underground enterprises in downtown.
You might see the musician in the "will sing for cookies" hat, or Viola, who sells temporary tattoos. Sometimes local farmers will peddle their produce downtown out of the back of a truck or a bicycle basket. You will see creative enterpreneurs doing many unexpected things downtown. You will see the Manium, the black-painted concert venue, owned by Duane, the landlord of over 30 black-painted properties in Olympia. There are even two restaurants that share a space: New Moon Cafe operates for breakfast and lunch, and Quality Burrito uses the same restaurant at night for late-night burritos.
Olympia's economy is far from conventional.
Downtown Olympia is also characterized by generosity. Generosity is expected-its part of our way of life.
Almost every successful business is heavily involved in sharing its prosperity with the community, and citizens in our town donate their time and art prolifically.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Procession of the Species a completely non-commercial parade, where 3000 local residents dance or march as animals and plants in elaborate home-made costumes through downtown, attracting 35,000 spectators. (Pretty good turn-out for a town of 42,000.)
Throughout the year, rain or shine, you will see black-clad punks riding around on bicycles with heavy baggage every evening. This group of community members, called Done and Done (or EGYHOP), collects donations of socks, jackets, sleeping bags, food, and first aid supplies and are on the streets every night distributing them to folks in need. No one funds this organization, and no one "runs" it. It has been operating for five years without funding or formality.
On Columbia Street, across from Olympia Supply hardware store is the Olympia Free School, another volunteer-run organization where community members offer free classes and workshops to anyone who wants to learn a new skill. Classes include cooking, music lessons, foreign language, reading, arts, and more. The Evergreen State College may be our most well-known alternative education institution, but the Free School is the most generous.
Anyway, already I have written a long post trying to describe a little of the flavor of our precious downtown community. I should just begin regularly profiling the great projects and businesses and people who I see around town, as one post could never contain them all.
The reason I want to write this is because recently there has been a lot of local talk about improving downtown, and making it more economically viable. I could not agree more with this plan. We need more flourishing businesses here, and more entry-level jobs, especially living-wage jobs. I think there is much we could do to creatively bring more vibrance to our community.
But sadly, some people (including several of our city council members) have been perpetuating a bad image of downtown, calling it dirty, unsightly, decrepit, and even unsafe.
Politicians have been saying these things, though they are not true, as justification to make expensive deals with out-of-town developers and big business.
If history is any teacher, we know that these kinds of deals will NOT bring economic viability to downtown, though they may line the pockets of developers like Steve Cooper and politicians like Doug Mah.
There is a poster in the window of many retailer windows in Olympia that says: a dollar spent locally generates $5-$15 in the local economy, but when a dollar is spent at a chain store, 80% of it leaves the community immediately.
When I think of flashy corporate business deals being touted as good for our economy, I remember the Olympia Brewery being bought by Miller in 1999. This was supposed to be great for "our" economy, and the cities gave Miller a great deal. They immediately removed the Oly Beer sign, and replaced it with theirs. Three years later the plant closed and every one of its union workers were laid off. Miller said the brewery was too small to generate profit, but it is more likely that the deal was a way to stomp out a union-dominated competitor. Miller made a deal that disallows any company from brewing beer there ever again. Who's economy is that good for?
When it comes to downtown being strong, healthy place where small businesses are successful, no one is a greater advocate for that than the local people who love this place. But one thing we will not accept in regards to our town is slander, especially if that slander is part of a campaign to sell Olympia's spirit right out from under her.
Start telling the truth, Olympia City Council. Downtown is safe, beautiful, inclusive, vibrant, and viable, and thousands of people already know it. Denying it will not bring more dollars into downtown, but declaring it will.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful post. I am always amazed that two people can see the same thing and yet see it as total opposites. Downtown Olympia is as you described. Why is it that people seem to see it as being less and worse than it is? To me it is the fact that there are those that resent that our downtown exists at all. It seems to represent something terribly wrong to them. To them it would be made right by having a McDonalds, more starbucks, an appleby's and other franchise operations instead of the local businesses. It would be made right by them to eliminate the population diversity of downtown. For some reason people think the "right" kind of people are not running the businesses or inhabiting downtown. In essence they are seeing problems where there are none and I guess that is the problem. Why are they seeing downtown as a problem. I can speculate that the real reason is that the corporate world would like to take over downtown. The quest to build condos and trendy franchise shops and eateries seems to be looming over downtown. I think the public that complains about the downtown are actually being brainwashed about our downtown. Their expectations of a downtown are in line with those of the corporate world because it makes sense to them and because they have been conditioned to expect it. All over America we are seeing downtowns go corporate. Disneyland main street is a reality all over the place. People are willing to accept the illusion of reality over reality. People are being conditioned to want a disneyland experience of a downtown, one that is controlled, predictable, and most importantly, safe. You and I know that this is a crock, but if you complain long enough about something being wrong, or unsafe, it will be replaced. I'm just sad that so many are willing to be brainwashed into thinking this way.

Crenshaw Sepulveda

9:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Web whatthistownneeds.blogspot.com