A Home Away from Home: Skyway Ponders Loss of Community Bar

by Max Wasserman

Any other day, the boy smashing acrylic bins would have been turned away at the door. But this Tuesday, 10-year-old Xavier Fondale was part of a move-out team: a group of family members gutting The Beachcomber, a bar in Skyway that’s almost as old as the community itself.

The group packed most of the business into the back of a truck. Bert Harvey, the owner for the past 17 years, limped by overturned bar stools and beer signage priced with sticky notes as he cleared the space. The eviction notice posted on his door in May was as much a surprise to him as it was to others in the community who relied on the bar.

“It’s not the way he wanted to go,” Angela Fondale, Harvey’s daughter, said. “He wanted to work until retirement.”

The Beachcomber was a typical dive bar — old and worn, a homey neighborhood watering hole. Since 1947 the business has ridden economic ups and downs through the hands of multiple owners. Few other places in Skyway can claim the same longevity, the space served as an island of stability in a community rife with change.

Now the bar is scheduled to shift to new management. With that comes concern and hope as community members reflect on what The Beachcomber meant to Skyway.

“When we have so few spaces to begin with, to lose one is a pretty significant deal,” said Maggie Block, a librarian at the Skyway Public Library and contributor to the South Seattle Emerald. “Now Skyway is not even a place where you can grab a drink. It’s a real shame.”

Angela Fondale, right, and her son Xavier clean up smashed acrylic bins as part of moving out of The Beachcomber (Photo Credit: Max Wasserman)

The Beachcomber sits off Renton Avenue — Skyway’s main arterial — surrounded by churches, small businesses and vacant storefronts. There are other places nearby to grab drinks like the Skyway Park Bowl or the Veterans of Foreign Wars post. But few, if any, encapsulate the same sense of community The Beachcomber offered to long-timers like Pat Berland.

Berland, 79, has for the past four decades come to the bar for her usual: Irish Cream and coffee, or as she calls it, nectar of the gods. The bartender would often have her drink ready before she arrived, placed on the counter like a liquid nametag. She was known to leave her purse unattended, comfortable no one would riffle through her things while she went outside for a smoke.

“I’d like to sit down and cry,” Berland said about the management change. “That’s how I feel and I know a lot of other people feel the same. It was like a home away from home.”

Berland was one of the first people to notice the eviction sign on the bar’s door. As of last week, other residents passing by were surprised to learn the news as men carted appliances out the door.

Part of that comes from the suddenness with which Judy Pennini, the property owner, decided not to renew the monthly lease. Pennini said she plans on keeping the space and putting it under new management. She declined to comment on details.

Harvey, the bar’s former owner, declined several interview requests but confirmed details about the eviction. He said he expects to be out by Friday.

Some residents see within the change a chance to revitalize one of the oldest spaces in the community.

In a posting on Nextdoor, a social networking service for neighborhoods, a couple residents expressed enthusiasm about rumors that the bar will be turned into a bistro, a point Pennini denied. Another resident expressed hope that a new business could return Skyway to a prosperity it hasn’t known in decades, according to pictures of the forum shared with The South Seattle Emerald.

“It was so nice and clean and new back then,” Nadine White said in a comment, referring to Skyway in the 70s and 80s. “Here’s to finally seeing something similar back to those much cherished days.”

But for others, the uncertainty of what’s in store is a source of worry. Keeping businesses that serve the neighborhood has been a historical challenge in Skyway, according to Block. The Beachcomber was one of the few mixing places in the majority-minority neighborhood, and in its absence some business owners are concerned about what could take its place.

“The people who come there have been coming for 20 or 30 years,” Mohamed Hassan, owner of a nearby driving instruction school, said of the bar. “It’s the community. You don’t worry about them. But whoever comes next, you don’t know who they are or what they’re going to attract. Whoever comes next can change the energy.”

Beer signage, once wall decoration, now is priced to sell as The Beachcomber transitions to new management. Bert Harvey owned the bar in Skyway for the past 17 years, but his lease renewal fell through. (Photo Credit: Max Wasserman)

Gentrification in nearby neighborhoods may provide a clue for what’s around the corner.

Seattle’s red-hot housing market has pushed some residents farther from the city core and into neighborhoods that up until recently have been historically diverse. The Central District, now majority white, was once the center of Seattle’s black community due to discriminatory housing practices preventing African Americans from buying elsewhere.

Carlos Gavino has been bartending at The Beachcomber for about 17 years and said Skyway may be following in those footsteps. Several new apartment complexes dot the neighborhood. Some new businesses have opened, but the commercial area remains an uneven mix of churches, stores, and vacant space.

Changes at The Beachcomber, Gavino said, could represent the crossroads of things to come.

“We do things for so long that we get stuck in a rut and sometimes it takes a kick to wake up,” Gavino said. “Skyway is changing. It’s been changing. Whether it’s for better or for worse we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Bert Harvey takes a break while vacating his former bar, The Beachcomber. The turnover of one of Skyway’s gathering places has residents questioning what’s next for the community. (Photo Credit: Max Wasserman)

Featured image by Max Wasserman: Overturned barstools crowd tables that used to seat patrons at The Beachcomber, a bar that will soon change management in Skyway. 



One thought on “A Home Away from Home: Skyway Ponders Loss of Community Bar”

  1. The marijuana store that is trying to locate in Skyway has apparently lost their lease for a portable building across the parking lot from Grocery Outlet. Perhaps they’ve made an offer to rent the former Beachcomber space …