Sax player at Left Bank Books - Pike Place

An old episode of Frasier, the television comedy set in Seattle, focuses on an impending strike at the fictional radio station where Frasier works as an on-air psychiatrist. Whether the script writers knew it or not, they were tapping into the radical history of a city that has the dubious or proud distinction of being the location of the first general strike in American history. And that’s not all.

In a recent visit to the compact west-coast city about two hours south of Vancouver as the Nexus card let’s you fly, er, drive, I uncovered numerous examples of Seattle’s connections to the labour movement, indigenous struggles for survival and the haunting licks of Jimi Hendrix’s weeping guitar. It was a visit full of eye-opening surprises.

Everyone remembers Battle in Seattle. The Hollywood film has recently come and gone without much fanfare despite starring big names like Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron and Ray Liotta. But when you walk through some of the downtown streets there are still reminders of the massive street protests that shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999. Free trade may not have been stopped, but it was definitely slowed in Seattle that year.

The anti-protesters are also in evidence. Driving along First Avenue, not far from busy Pike Place Market near where the very first Starbucks opened, I noticed a woman handing out leaflets. A placard sat on the sidewalk near her. It had a large black and white photo of U.S. President Barack Obama on it and on him was painted a Hitler moustache. The image shocked me. What could this protester possibly be saying to passersby? Isn’t Obama the most progressive-minded president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt? He may not have deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, but does anyone come closer to the promise of peace?

The woman was upset about the President’s health care reforms. She was convinced and was trying to convince others that Obama was trying to turn the United States into a communist country. Yes, it gets that stupid! Ask Michael Moore whose movie, Capitalism – A Love Story, was released that same weekend. He tries his darndest to come to terms with why people in Seattle and elsewhere still think that way.

After seeing the wrongheaded protester I needed to clear my head and what better place than the quiet of the Seattle Art Museum. To help me out, the museum boasted an exhibition of seven paintings by the famous American naturalist Andrew Wyeth. Nearby was a collection of Imogene Cunningham photographs and had I looked deeper into the museum I would have found numerous images of American Indians shot by Edward S. Curtis, another famed American photographer and Seattle native son.

From the museum, I headed straight for one of the finest independent book stores anywhere, the Elliott Bay Book Company in Pioneer Square, another great spot for browsing through the city’s history. En route I noticed a policewoman on horseback giving her steed a drink from a fountain at a tree-lined corner. The horse’s head bobbed in front of a bronze statue of Chief Seattle, the Suquamish aboriginal leader that Seattle is named after.

Twenty minutes drive from city centre, you can walk along Alki Beach where the chief greeted the early white settlers who hopped off the schooner Exact in 1851. A monument to the arrival of Captain Isaiah Folger and the settlers stands on the beachfront, but there is no mention of the indigenous people who helped them get established in the rugged Pacific coast wilderness. In historical time, they soon disappeared in the relentless drive to civilize the West. But at least the chief’s name survived the onslaught as a reminder that another people once lived here long before the white folks showed up.

Incidentally, one of Edward Curtis’s favourite subjects was Chief Seattle’s daughter, dubbed Princess Angeline by the whites. The resulting photos offer another reminder of the city’s aboriginal beginnings. Of course, Alki Beach is also prime tourist territory where you can stop for a healthy bowl of chowder at Duke’s Chowder House or eat at dozens of other cafes and restaurants as you watch the sailboats and ferries ply the waters of Elliott Bay.

As I toured the various neighbourhoods, I quickly learned that Seattle is a city of villages and each of the several districts has the feel of a separate place with a unique history. That’s true of all cities, I suppose, but in Seattle it seems to be more pronounced. Take my stop at Fremont. It has a multi-coloured sign sitting in the middle of a main intersection that sports a dozen wooden arrows pointing you in all directions, including distances to the Guggenheim art gallery in New York City, the Louvre in Paris and even the Milky Way. It’s a Haight-Ashbury kind of village. But what’s the left connection here? Well, it wasn’t far from that oddball sign that I found myself face to face with a familiar leftie.

I had been told there was a statue in Seattle that I should visit. What I thought I heard was that it was a larger-than-life image of Beatle leader John Lennon. Like Che, he seems ubiquitous, showing up in various ports of call. I had seen one life-size sculpture of him on a park bench in Havana not so long ago. But no, it wasn’t that Lennon that I saw on a street corner just in front of a pizza parlour.

There, as if we were standing proudly in Moscow’s Red Square, was a 16-foot-high seven-ton metal image of Vladimir Illych Lenin, the communist leader of the Russian Revolution! It seems the giant monument was once erected somewhere in Eastern Europe, but with the end of Soviet rule it was bought by a Seattle entrepreneur and eventually sold to the Fremont council.

Lenin statue

I asked the pizza guy for his version of the story and he said it was being thrown out with the trash one day when a local thought it would make a nice landmark for the community. It certainly has done so. Ironically, Lenin stands less than a block away from an old Masonic Temple, the arch-anti-communist secret society. A statue of a Cold War rocket and a pair of dinosaurs made of hedge shrubbery are also nearby.

Moving toward Seattle’s harbourfront, I remembered reading about the Wobblies’ free speech movements in these parts and the day members of the International Workers of the World set sail for Everett, Washington, not far north of Seattle, to confront authorities who were trying to break a lumber workers’ strike. I couldn’t find any evidence of where the boat was launched. Today, it is filled with sailboats, yachts and ferries carrying tourists and travellers to Whitby Island and other ports of call. But the tragedy that is known as the Everett Massacre started here.

Along the waterfront is another interesting village-within-the-city called Belltown with its condos, boutique hotels and a multitude of shops, pubs and café-bakeries. This is where the old Seattle Labor Temple still stands. Today, as in earlier times, it’s action central for food banks, labour conferences, education seminars and other social movement meetings. No doubt it was a rallying point during the Battle in Seattle.

A 10-minute walk away we are in Queen Anne, another village-like space that is bulging with trendy ethnic cafes, a movie theatre and various shops. Another irony of Seattle: the home of Starbucks sure has its fair share of independent coffee sellers. Queen Anne is also the closest neighbourhood to Seattle’s most imposing landmark, the Space Needle. The lasting reminder of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair towers over the city from the big park where Bumberfest, the multi-media festival, takes place every Labour Day weekend. This is also home to the Experience Music Project and that Hendrix guitar mentioned earlier.

Jimi is a Seattle native son and his version of the national anthem is probably the most memorable one for those who were protesting at the Battle of Seattle. Its bitter and twisted melody literally rips at the scabbed-over sores of America’s past as if to scream “Stop your wars.” But Jimi wasn’t the only native son with musical talent. Kurt Cobain, the leader of Nirvana, arguably the punk band that made punk internationally famous, also hailed from Seattle. He had a critical thing or two to say about America as well. Martial arts movie star Bruce Lee and cookbook writer Fannie Farmer also hailed from Seattle, rounding off the so-called “famous four,” but the latter two had less to say of any political interest.

From the Interstate 5, Seattle looks like a big city, but take almost any exit and you’ll find a small town that’s full of people’s history. A book titled Red Seattle is said to be in the works and it will hopefully tell us how it became a city that cares about people. I hope it stays that way.

Oh, I almost forgot. Frasier does manage to negotiate a four per cent raise for the underpaid technicians and clerical workers after they persuade him to go to bat for them. His massive ego doesn’t permit him to say NO and he manages to sleep with the boss in the process. We get to see a masterful portrayal of the differences between the lower-paid support staff members and the pretentious on-air talent. The classes clash, of course, as they so often have done in Seattle’s past.

Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer, historian and frequent traveller. He visited Seattle in September 2009.

Alex Samur

Alex Samur

Alexandra Samur was’s managing editor from 2010 to 2012, books and blogs editor from 2007 to 2012. Alex’s career in independent media spans more than a decade and includes stints...