Seattle Isn’t Dead But it Is Vanishing: A Conversation With Vanishing Seattle Filmmakers

by Beverly Aarons

Rat City Records & Relics — gone. Cow Chip Cookies — gone. The famous downtown Elephant Car Wash — also gone. If you just arrived in the Emerald City, you can be forgiven for not noticing that Seattle’s cultural and business landscape has been … terraformed. Yes, I know the old saying: “The only constant in life is change.” But what happens to a city when the places where people gather, connect, and build community disappear? What happens to a city’s soul when locally owned and quirky is replaced by corporate-owned and … well, boring? Since 2018, Vanishing Seattle filmmakers Cynthia Brothers and Martin Tran have been documenting Seattle’s rapid transformation in a six-film series, so they’re intimately acquainted with the city’s metamorphosis. I had the opportunity to speak with them about how the city has changed, why they’re documenting disappearing places, and how they’ve been personally impacted by it all. 

“It’s complicated,” Brothers said of her connection to Seattle. “It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship, you know? I’ve definitely, over the last few years, been feeling a lot more grief and sadness and anger but also just feeling like I’m committed to it [Seattle].”

As a kid, Brothers and her family shared meals in the tatami rooms of Bush Garden located in the Chinatown-International District. She grew up in the city, North Seattle to be exact, but she went to school all over the place: Coleman (now Thurgood Marshall), B.F. Day, Orca, and Garfield. For Brothers, Seattle is home. And when home is disrupted — it’s personal. She isn’t just mourning some lost sense of nostalgia. She also grieves the loss of Seattle’s more welcoming spaces. Places like Bush Garden that welcomed Brothers as a child and places like Rebar that welcomed her as an adult, embracing her complexities and unconventionalities without judgment.

“I think that [Rebar] was perhaps a huge influence on me in terms of physical exposure to arts and theater and music and drag, and kind of outsider fringe ‘come as you are,’” Brothers said. “You know, a mix of queer and straight and house music and dance music and punk, and like everything in between. It felt like all of the world and all of Seattle was encapsulated in that kind of dumpy little club that understood and appreciated its own identity as a dumpy club … everyone was just welcome to come and let their freak flag fly. And they had longevity. I mean, they just closed after 30 years, mostly due to the pandemic and landlord issues and stuff. Not because they weren’t a value to the community.”

Cynthia Brothers (photo: Jeff Scott Shaw)

For Martin Tran, Seattle’s strong sense of community and welcoming spirit is what makes the city so seductive. Originally from Kirkland, Tran has spent the past 15–20 years living in Seattle. 

“When I was growing up, Kirkland was very monoculture,” Tran said. “It was mostly white. The closest Asian to me was like two grades down and it was my cousin. There [are] a lot of fast food chains and all that over there. But when you come over here, you see mom and pops or ‘ethnic restaurants.’ You see different colors. You hear different accents. You hear different languages. And it always just felt more comfortable to me. It always just felt more beautiful and exciting. And it was where I would have lived if my 10-year-old self had a choice.”

After Tran made the choice to live in Seattle as an adult, like Brothers he also found Bush Garden to be a space of acceptance and personal growth. 

“Bush Garden was one of the first community spaces that I really became invested in. Before, I always felt kind of at odds with where I was from. I think that comes from a lot of things. I wasn’t a big fan of the suburban culture. My parents are Vietnamese refugees. There was already that dichotomy growing up in America. But I also went to liberal arts colleges that didn’t have Vietnamese or Asian student unions. So not until my adulthood when I was living in Seattle, and I started getting involved in different community organizations, did I start feeling rooted. 

Tran and other participants in an API leadership program used to go to Bush Garden after their meetings. The first time Tran received an invitation, his cohort said “Let’s go to the Bush,” and Tran excitedly responded, “Yeah, for sure — what’s the Bush?” When he stepped through the doors of Bush Garden, he thought it was a dive bar. But over the weeks and months visiting the Bush, he discovered that Bush Garden wasn’t just a place to unwind and drink a few beers, it was a community hub. At Bush Garden, Tran met and learned from community builders like Uncle Bob Santos (it’s also where he heard some of the most talented Karaoke singers in Seattle). 

Bush Garden was a powerful force in shaping Tran as an adult and as a community and cultural activist. But Tran’s Seattle connection goes a lot further back. Even though he grew up in Kirkland, he spent many summers visiting his grandparents’ home in Yesler Terrace. 

“A lot of my childhood memories are of hanging out with my siblings and my cousins on those slopes, grassy backyards, playing unfair soccer — cause one team had to kick up and the other had to kick down. My grandparents were really rooted in the Vietnamese community here in Seattle. My grandpa was a lay minister in the Catholic Church that was down 12th, but that church doesn’t exist anymore. So that church closed down and the whole congregation moved out of Seattle. They moved to Tukwila. And Yesler Terrace doesn’t exist anymore, not in the way it was when I was a kid.”

Tran recounted how neighbors would visit each other and sit on the apartment stoops for hours talking about their lives, hopes, love, and future. Today’s Yesler Terrace doesn’t have stoops. There is no place for neighbors to meet each other and build community — another gathering place vanished. This transformation of Yesler Terrace is a double loss for Tran — the loss of his beloved grandparents but the space that held the memory of them. 

“So you have things in your memory, you have things in your heart, but you don’t actually have the physical space,” Tran said. “And I think physical spaces hold power, they hold energy. And when you demolish things, replace things, that energy dissipates.”

Vanishing Seattle is releasing all six of their films online. One film per week will be released until all six films are available online. You can visit the Vanishing Seattle website or Instagram to learn more. 

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.

Featured image: Cynthia Brothers (Photo: Jeff Scott Shaw)