The Death of Northgate

Bon Marche at Northgate, 1950 (Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)])

Looks like Northgate mall in Seattle is quickly winding down. The JC Penney already closed, and the Macy’s and Nordstrom are in the process of shutting their doors. The plan is to demolish the main stretch of the mall, leave some of the external “village” buildings that were tacked onto the front in the mid-00s, and then build an NHL practice facility and some housing. I hate being nostalgic about this place or any mall in general, and I have mixed feelings for a few reasons.

When I lived in Seattle from 1995 to 1999, Northgate was sort of my default mall. It wasn’t my favorite mall, and it wasn’t the best one in the area, but it was the closest to my house, and I ended up there at least once a week. When I first moved to Seattle, I stayed at my friend Bill’s place in Mountlake Terrace for a month, and took the bus down I-5 every day for work. And every day, we’d pass this sprawling shopping center, just off the highway. One thing I remember clearly is it had a giant two-screen movie theater on the north side, with a changing-letter marquee where the words were taller than me, advertising the movies Clueless and Apollo 13. So when I got a car and had some time on a weekend, it’s the first mall in Seattle I visited.

After I moved to First Hill, this mall was a straight shot up the highway for me. Hop on I-5, drive a hundred blocks, exit, done. Even though I worked next to the much smaller Factoria mall across the lake, I ended up driving to Northgate pretty much constantly. Between the Denny’s and a smaller local pancake place, I always had a default diner there too, so every Saturday was spent at this mall, more or less.

Northgate is arguably the first mall in America. There are like a half-dozen different malls that claim this, and I’m too lazy to research which one is right. But they built two strips of stores in 1950, then covered it with a “sky shield” and eventually sealed off the whole thing in the early 70s, making it an enclosed mall. They later built one of the first Nordstrom stores, the big two-screen theater, and the other anchors. Later additions while I was there in the late Nineties included a Toys R Us, a food court, and a general remodel. In the 00s, Simon did their usual “lifestyle addition” thing with a Potemkin village of outward-facing smaller anchors on the west side of the mall (one of them always being an Ulta Beauty), and removal of the theater (and the giant totem pole that was in front of it.) A Target and Best Buy went in across the street, and the surrounding landscape of the area has completely changed five times since I left. There were also various anchor and store flips in the last twenty years. I wasn’t there, you can look it up.

I honestly found the architecture and layout of Northgate to be a bit boring, and deceiving. It looks small, but it’s gigantic. When I lived there, they had four anchors, all of them softlines, which bored me. (JCP, Nordstrom, Lamonts, Bon Marche.) And the entire mall was a single hallway, a straight 1,500-foot shot with stores on either side. It didn’t have a winding floor plan, so it seemed smaller, but if you walked from anchor to anchor twice, that’s over a mile. It had no vintage charm, just high ceilings and faded white everywhere, like an airport concourse. It also had few stores where I really shopped. But I still ended up there a lot, and spent an insane amount of time walking up and down that long hallway, looking for… I don’t know what. The drab non-decor was replaced during the 97-98 remodel with fake-ass timber accents on the high ceilings that made it look like a ski lodge, which was all the vogue in the time in the PNW.

What attracted me, other than the proximity to my house, was that Simon malls all had this universal emotional antiseptic feeling to me. Wandering that place felt very similar to walking through College Mall in Bloomington, or University Park Mall in South Bend, even if they layout and the stores were different. Especially in my first year there, I was extraordinarily depressed, missed Bloomington a lot, knew almost nobody, didn’t know where anything was, didn’t have a TV, and was always broke. I later found other malls further out, and other stores to buy music and books and food. But it became a default place to mope around, walk a few laps, and then go home and try to write.

I didn’t buy stuff in that mall much. I only went to that movie theater a few times (I remember seeing Event Horizon there) and I used to pop in the B. Dalton every time I visited. Bon Marche had a Vans shoes section, and I’d buy a pair each year like clockwork. A Wizards of the Coast store was always worth a browse, even though I didn’t play D&D or Magic at the time. An office supply/craft store provided me with a lot of fancy pens I’d later lose. The mall had an attached drug store where I’d frequently load up on cold medicine, and a QFC grocery was good for a frozen dinner or two. After Toys R Us arrived, I’d pop in there for Nintendo 64 games. But more of my shopping was around the area, like the Silver Platter records just south of there.

Aside from the strange nostalgia for the place, and the fact that it will all be gone soon, is the fact that the coverage around the remodel sort of pisses me off. People in Seattle have always hated malls, it seems. They’ve always talked about how horrible Northgate was, even when it was a top-grossing mall. Now, the YIMBY crowd is super excited about the death of the mall, mostly because we’re all supposed to ride bicycles and something with a parking lot somehow triggers them. I don’t follow Seattle redevelopment news much, but we have our own vocal YIMBY contingent here, so I imagine the more-housing-at-any-cost crowd is celebrating the mall’s death enthusiastically. Seattle has 100% changed since I left, and I get it — cities change. Since I left, Amazon has hired more people than my home town has, period. So, housing crunch, people hate malls, yada yada, you already know the rest.

It’s been over twenty years since I saw that place, or any of Seattle. I still miss it, because it was such a key time in my life, my first four years out of college, which felt more like a decade. But it’s an extreme case of “you can never go back,” because so much of the city has changed.

Wish I had some old pictures of the place, but that was in the film era. I do have some pictures of my VW in the parking lot, and you can almost sort of see the east entrance of the mall in the background of one shot. I used one of the pictures for the third edition cover of Summer Rain, but you can’t see anything but the pavement in the zoomed-in shot. (And fun fact: the license plate in the pic is a photoshop job. And Indiana didn’t had front license plates in 1992, so that’s wrong, too.) Anyway…

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iPhone grenade; Sundays; the life and death of long reads, etc

This week’s excitement was that my iPhone 8 blew up after about a year and a half of service. I’d noticed a bit ago that the 3D touch feature wasn’t consistently working, especially on the left side of the screen, but chalked it off to the fact that iOS has far too many tricky gestures and oddities where if you don’t click exactly at the right thing in the right direction for the right fraction of a millisecond, instead of fast-opening two apps, you delete one, or open the camera, or start playing music, or whatever. And the battery did slowly lose its mojo, but that’s every product with a battery these days, and I have a battery case, so it didn’t bother me.

Well, suddenly the other night, the phone doubled in thickness, like a double-stuff oreo, and the screen split from the rest of the case. The phone still worked, but my immediate fear was that it would catch fire or grenade. I was out when it happened, so I powered down, drove home, carefully fired it up, and then backed it up to my machine. I went to the Apple store (with a paperback book to kill time) and within an hour, they replaced it with an identical model. The swap and restore seems to get less and less painful each time I upgrade, and the only pain was copying over 120 gigs of music, which took a few hours, along with other sync and backup activity.

A few takeaways: before I drove to the mall, it was impossible to get ahold of anyone at the store on the phone. You have to go through a ridiculous phone tree for support; you can’t make an appointment online, at least within fifty clicks. I put the phone on speaker, and after saying “manager” a dozen times, the phone rang for five minutes straight. Once a human answered, mentioning the battery situation got me in fast, though.

The other takeaway is that it seems that as Apple products are in this war to get as thin as molecularly possible, they have developed some serious reliability issues. It’s all anecdotal, and I’m sure Apple’s annual reports to investors show that 99.9% of people have no problems. But I had a brand spanking new MacBook Pro fail, and my iPhone 6s had a slow battery death, and now this. This is timely with the departure of Jony Ive, who was apparently the one responsibility for this thinness race. I honestly wouldn’t mind a phone or laptop a few millimeters thicker, if it meant it would not bend in half under minor use.

(And yeah, “BUY A REAL COMPUTER SHEEPLE.” Whatever, grow up, etc.)

* * *

It’s Sunday, which is always depressing. I’m not sure why half of my weekend is always spent in a dour mood over why I’ve wasted half of my weekend. I also get into this bad cycle of thinking I need to majorly course-correct everything, usually on Sunday night. I need to get off my ass and devote my life to learning (guitar | some programming thing | a writer’s works | obscure history of film | electronics | how to fly a jumbo jet | whatever). I wish instead of Sunday, I could have two Saturdays. There must be some mindfulness technique to fix this. Maybe lobotomy. (Do they still do those? Great, I’m going to fall down a k-hole researching this.)

I was thinking about this, because my Sunday routine used to be much different when I was in college, or just after. I used to make a lot of phone calls on Sunday nights after dinner, usually because that was when people were around the most. And I used to love the phone, to a fault. My long distance bill, back in the pre-cell days when that was still a thing, would end up being a colossal amount, catching up with people across the country.

I also have this strange little gap between maybe three and five, when I’ve already written in the morning and finished my errands in the early afternoon, and I feel some overwhelming need to do something in that time period, but I’m never motivated to do anything. The answer is that I should write more then, but I never can. And doing anything else — taking a nap, playing video games — makes me feel completely unproductive and horrible. I’m not sure if it’s my anxiety of the upcoming work week, or the fact that I never use the phone any more and my only human interaction is clicking a screen that causes my current dread routine. Or maybe I need to eat probiotics. Whatever.

* * *

Not much else here. I fell down a Chuck Klosterman rabbit hole in anticipation of his next book, and ended up re-reading almost all of his output. It sort of amazes me how it feels like Grandland was around forever, but it only lived between 2011 and 2015. Much shorter than The Awl‘s almost-ten year run, but same thing — they came out of nowhere, got huge, and died. Meanwhile, I’ve been plugging away here for decades, with no ideas, no traction, etc. Anyway, I read like four or five of the Klosterman books, which led me to reading music critic Robert Christgau’s memoir, which is… interesting. I guess he sums it up himself at the start of the book by saying most biographies are about astounding people or people who have some trick to sell or some story of overcoming adversity, and he doesn’t, but here you go, let’s get into 200 pages of his unremarkable childhood. It’s still interesting to me, but holy shit, people on Amazon hated it. Anyway, we’ll see if I can finish this one up without coming up with the stupid idea that I need to start writing record reviews again.

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Various Long Reads 7/19

Been a few months since I did one of these, so let’s empty out the backlog:

  • The Story Behind The Song: Slow Ride by Foghat – (Fun fact: Foghat’s first two albums were both self-titled. This was long before Peter Gabriel pulled that shit for three albums, so I think it’s unrelated.)
  • Chicago’s World Fair 1934 – A great short (half of it in color) which is neat if you like Art Deco architecture. I’m curious if any of this remains, or where exactly it took place on a modern map. Dubai is having a world expo in 2020 – maybe I’ll save my pennies and check that out.
  • Why ‘ambient computing’ is just a marketing buzzword (for now) – I haven’t heard the term “ambient computing” (nothing to do with Brian Eno) but it’s a possible direction I’ve already thought about, so it’s interesting to see someone sum it up like this.
  • Out of the Dungeon: In Conversation with Mortiis – The whole dungeon synth thing is polarizing among extreme metal fans, but every five years or so, I fall down a k-hole of Havard Ellefsen’s weird releases. Here’s a good video interview of him without the mask and ears and rest of his persona.
  • The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia’s Mortality Crisis – I never realized the Soviet Union had a large anti-alcohol campaign in the late Eighties. (We only learned about them being an evil empire in school.) Interesting theory that the moral crisis and increased death rate post-USSR may have less to do with evil capitalism and more to do with post-prohibition ‘catch-up’ blackout drinking.
  • How the SuperPET came to be – The Commodore PET was before my time, and I don’t think I ever saw one in the wild; my history starts with the C-64/Vic-20. Here’s a history of a rare variant with two CPUs developed with the University of Waterloo to run mainframe programming languages. Here’s another link.
  • Robert Christgau, ‘dean of rock critics,’ still obsesses over music – Every few years, I waste about three days reading every review he’s written of every album I’ve ever bought, and we disagree on about 90% of them but he’s still somewhat genius.
  • First Blood Filming Locations – I don’t even know how I got on this tangent, except maybe I thought it was shot somewhere in Southwest Washington, because it sure looks it, but of course it was shot in Canada.
  • Tales of a BeOS Refugee – This is more about early OS X, but any time I see something related to Be, I bookmark it, because good luck doing a google search on it. Fun fact: I remember applying for a job at Be in 1996 when I thought it was the coolest thing in the universe. Glad I didn’t relocate for that one.
  • The Real Story Behind Danzig’s Mother Video – I like listening to the first three Danzig albums just as much as I like making fun of Danzig, which is a lot, so I’m a bit conflicted here. I like the bit about the model later insisting it was an actual Satanic ritual and Glenn had cursed her. (Her name is Jill Kethel if you want to look up her workout videos on youtube.)
  • The End of the Waffle House – If you went to Bloomington back when I did and you ever needed caffeine and grease at three in the morning, you probably remember this place, which unfortunately closed in 2013 and is probably now a bunch of condos.
  • Halcyon Days – A series of interviews from 20-some years ago with many classic game programmers. I got pulled into this because of an interview with Ed Averett, who wrote the bulk of the Odyssey 2 games for Magnavox, a system which most people have completely forgotten.
  • Star Raiders reverse engineering – I first read about this in POC | GTFO and I don’t know what’s more amazing: all the weird hacks the original programmers used to fit this game into 8K, or how someone meticulously reverse-engineered the source code.

As always, here’s another plug for you to go get my latest book if you haven’t already.

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