An Interview with Jaimee Garbacik, Curator of Ghosts of Seattle Past Project

Ghosts of Seattle Past - web

The Hurricane Cafe. Longshoreman’s Daughter. Green Cat Cafe. Brad’s Swingside Cafe. Higo Variety Store. Nettletown. Still Life in Fremont.

How do we map what is lost?

Jaimee Garbacik, an author, editor, and daughter of a cartographer, is planning her own answer to that question this month. Her project, Ghosts of Seattle Past, is an ambitious multimedia undertaking to map the lost places of Seattle. She and her collaborator, Josh Powell, are seeking contributors to their anthology, an atlas that promises “to bring into focus the memories Seattleites have of places they have lost to development, and to create a communal art piece that houses our nostalgia, our stories, our home as we once knew it.”  Contributors can submit relevant photos, drawings, memorabilia, or writing from a few lines to an essay. They are accepting contributions through the end of August 2015.

(Disclosure: I’m submitting a piece to the anthology, but I’m not accepting any compensation or expecting any promise of publication for the interview below.–TN)

Seattle Star (SS): Tell us more about your own connections to Seattle. Are you a Seattle native, a Seattle transplant?

JG: I’m a Seattle transplant circa 2008. In 2006, I took a road trip that went through Seattle, which was the first time I’d ever seen my now beloved home city. Growing up in rural Maine in the 90s, I always had a romance with the Seattle music scene, but seeing it in person, I was astonished by how the city struck me as a larger Portland, ME, with its incredible seafood, and, to me, the perfect urban nature aesthetic: a mix of giant trees, water everywhere you look, cranes, boatyards, and overpasses. The first night after arriving, I walked Capitol Hill in a daze, music pouring out of venues on every block; I wanted nothing more than to be one of the regulars, nodding at the bouncers and bartenders on their way to the pit. But it was Left Bank Books that ultimately sold me on moving here.

More than literally anything else I do in my life, I read. So I honestly feel I learn the most about a city by how they stock their bookshelves. Wandering Left Bank’s aisles, I had this sense that I would “come into my own” here (as corny as that may sound)—that if I lived in Seattle, I would become the author, activist, and person I’d always wanted to be.

I left Brooklyn for Seattle. I taught myself to paint on glass and figured out how to bike in the city. After a year, I stopped telecommuting from a literary agency back in New York and launched my own book editorial business. Most importantly, I got involved at The Vera Project, where I met my partner [Joshua Powell, collaborating artist on this project] and made dozens of lifelong friends; I learned how to curate a gallery, and became more deeply invested in youth advocacy. Being openly queer, young people at Vera asked me frequent questions that led to my research on the evolution of gender roles. Then in 2013, my book, Gender & Sexuality For Beginners, was published. And one day, I saw it displayed in Left Bank’s storefront window. I can’t really tell you what that felt like to me. Things coming truly full circle, I guess. I have never felt more honored, grateful, or more sure that I had arrived home.

SS: Where and when did you get the idea for Ghosts of Seattle Past? Are there similar projects that inspired this one?

JG: The idea for the Ghosts of Seattle Past evolved out of a series of discussions I had a few months ago with Eroyn Franklin (Creative Director of Short Run Seattle Comix and Arts Festival). She and I have a bit of a mutual artistic admiration society, and when she asked me if I had any ideas for programming for Short Run this year, I went on this rant about how fast Seattle was changing and about my desire to preserve the memories of the places all our friends were mourning.

Originally, I envisioned it as a digital audio installation of short interviews with Seattleites about spaces they miss that would be linked to a large-scale map of Seattle, such that you could click on a spot on the map and hear memories about that location. But it was a logistical nightmare, and Eroyn wanted the project to be even more interactive on site. I started thinking about how much better it would be if there were two things: a digital map that could keep growing and traveling even after Short Run, and a separate archive that had more weight and permanence. I wanted to curate something that involved lots of voices from the community, but for it to be a physical object, something that people could take with them, and which would preserve memories longer than a website or installation. Place and memory are themes that run through all of my art and writing. And I’m a book editor with a cartographer for a father, so that object kind of naturally evolved into an atlas-anthology. (We are also making hand-drawn maps of the places people commemorate, which will travel with the exhibit and be added into the anthology later.)

When Josh and I finalized Ghosts’ scope with Short Run, we weren’t aware of any other projects like it, but almost immediately afterward, I heard about the #LoveTheHill installation and then about Seattle Globalist’s SEAchange map of development in Rainier Valley. It turns out there are a ton of great projects in the works, some documenting the evolution of the city and others grieving the passing of beloved spaces. I think it’s fantastic—it seems we tapped into something that people are really feeling right now; it’s just in the ether, what everyone’s talking about. We’re in terrific company, and I aim to do everything I can to promote related efforts (for starters, we’re listing similar projects on the “Others Sightings” section of the Ghosts site). The thing that I hope makes Ghosts stand out is that, more than documenting physical locations or ephemera, it’s about our stories. And it will ultimately result in something you can hold in your hands, an atlas-anthology of memories.

SS: What are your hopes for the project, for contributors/participants, and for readers/audience members?

JG: For the project, I hope that a stellar publishing house will pick up the anthology and print and distribute the finished product in a format that our community’s memories, art, and history deserve. I hope that our hand-drawn maps will be playful and appealing and help to bring to life the places we all miss. I hope that the digital map explodes with memories and locations, that it becomes a living archive of change, nostalgia, and the character of my favorite city in the world.

I am not intrinsically against development, and I believe Seattle has always been a boom town. It’s in the fabric of the place to constantly look forward, in its nature to remake the city over and over again. But that doesn’t mean that we should forget the spaces that made Seattle great at each of its previous intervals: the places we gathered, shared, made art, ate food, felt at home. The combination of quirk and grit at the heart of this city is something none of us wants to lose, and it is definitely in flux right now. So I guess what I hope for the contributors and participants is that they will feel heard. That their memories will have heft and permanence. And that readers and audience members will take those memories with them and continue to weave them into the fabric of the city going forward. Who knows? Maybe some of them will be elected officials or developers, recent transplants, or visitors who don’t know what makes Seattle so special. It’s about context. I hope that after reading the atlas-anthology, seeing the maps, and taking in the talent and humor and idiosyncratic memories that could only have happened here, they will know who we have been. That they will consider what this place has been when envisioning and creating the next incarnation of our city.