I recently spent some time in Spokane on my trip. What follows are some thoughts. Hold me to none of them.
First, the name: it’s pronounced Spo-can. Imagine ordering a can of Spo at your favorite watering hole. It is not pronounced Spo-cain, like the bad brother from the book of Genesis.
As a nod to my childhood—a paragraph of Encyclopedia stuff. With over 210,000 residents Spokane is Washington State’s second largest city. At over 1,800 feet above sea level it sits in a high desert climate, which makes for hot days and cold nights. Spokane receives 16.5 inches of precipitation annually. The city is just over 60 square miles large, was incorporated in 1881, and its nickname is the Lilac City. Other things, too.
Bridges. The town has more bridges than I have digits. I’m not making this up and I currently have all 20 of my fingers and toes. There are bridges everywhere: over rivers, over side streets, over the interstate, over the railroad. It’s entirely possible there are bridges over bridges simply because these people are clearly bridge crazy. I note this because a) it’s an impressive display of bridges they’ve got going on out there, and b) I’m not good with bridges.
I realize bridges are built to span one lateral plane with another, but when I am on a bridge I think perpendicularly, and usually such thoughts occur right about in the middle of the bridge. Before you dial the cuckoo-control let me say that I am not suicidal. I do not want to die, although I do seem to think about it more frequently than others I’ve polled. However, when I’m on a bridge, especially one with any elevation, I cannot help wondering where I will land should I leap from it. I don’t know why: it just is. Go figure. Point being: I stay away from bridges. Which made traversing Spokane a real challenge.
Bricks. The downtown is composed largely of bricks. They’re even more prevalent than the bridges and also induce less dire images in me. The architecture downtown is a fun and funky mix—art deco, renaissance revival, romanesque revival. There are some neat buildings down there, cobblestone streets, etc. It’s a nice area to walk around, if you can stomach the inevitable bridges.
The city is cut east-to-west by all of the following: a huge river (The Spokane), the Interstate (I-90), and the railroad. So it goes.
As far as the people of Spokane go, sadly God’s multi-colored rainbow doesn’t shine brightly out that way. White is the color palette to imagine—white, white, and then more white—but then that’s how it goes for most of the NW, especially the inland portions. We’re talking just under 90% white in Spokane, which, let me assure you, is actually far more diverse than some of the surrounding areas. To wit: Sandpoint, ID, 70 miles to the north, is 95% white, though if you went out there searching for those 5% of non-whites by the end of the day you’d have some seriously sore eyes.
There are several colleges nearby and as such there’s a younger population milling about. You’ll find plenty of older folks shopping the grocery stores whose aisles are still labeled “Oriental foods” (…) as well as the ubiquitous Wal-Marts. There’s a small percentage of what used to be called yuppies drinking at fancy-ish downtown bars, where the taps have been reclaimed from old railroad tracks or other hipstery development nonsense—you fill in the blank.
The neighborhood I stayed in is called Browne’s Addition. It’s one of the older parts of town and is being revitalized, which is a fancy euphemism for gentrified, itself a fancy euphemism for displacing lower income people, the latter phrase also serving as a euphemism for the poor, who, Jesus once noted, will always be among us. He wasn’t wrong about that.
Walking around Browne’s reminded of a lot of walking around Detroit or many other beat up, down-on-their-luck Midwestern towns. The houses are grand, sprawling estates, but with few exceptions in disrepair. There’s a lot of homeless folks scuttering about, dirty-faced and absent-eyed, shadows having replaced their teeth. I’m not a chemical-abuse expert but then you don’t need to have much experience with the world to see that a lot of folks around that area are well behind the eight ball.
The curious thing is that almost everything in Spokane costs the same as it does in Seattle. A burger in Spokane costs the same as it does in Seattle, as does a head of lettuce or a case of Coors. I paid more for a cruddy burrito in Spokane than the taco truck down the hill from my apartment charges. The drinks were a little less—a beer can be had for $5 and a margarita’s $8, $9 if you want to get fancy with a splash of Grand Marnier. The big exception is housing.
Currently, the average one-bedroom apartment in Seattle will run you just about $1,600 a month (friends in the Midwest—no, that is not a typo.) The apartment in Spokane where I stayed—one-bedroom, hardwood floors, very spacious, access to a nice yard, off-street parking—costs less than $600/month. Do the math and you realize why young folks from the inland NW are flocking to Spokane and why, as a result, it has an increasingly vibrant art scene—because unlike Seattle or Portland or, let’s not kid ourselves, San Francisco, you can actually afford to live there.
If you’re young and artistic—say you want to be in a band, or write a novel (God why???) or paint triceratops on pine cones or do crazy video art installations with old Pee-wee Herman clips—in Spokane you can work a couple nights at a bar or coffee shop, pursue your art and still afford to live. The earlier comparison to Detroit holds true here—it’s affordable.
The obvious downside to rents that are pushing $2,000 a month is that only a very specific sub-sector of the population can afford them. In Seattle these are generally folks who work in or around the technology industry. This isn’t to bash them—in certain ways they lift the standards and the city needs them. It’s simply to acknowledge that Seattle’s about to end up with a city full of techies and little else.
Twenty-some years ago the Grunge sound came smashing out of the Seattle area. Say what you want about the sound, but it’s almost impossible today to imagine that happening again because what struggling-to-make-it musician could ever afford to live in the city?? I’m not a prognosticator and I won’t pretend to follow the art scene in Spokane or any other comparable city; but if I had to guess where the next next will come from, it’ll be from a community where artists can afford to live (to say nothing about mechanics, or bakers, or those who repair bicycles and read power meters, etc.).
The long and short of all this is that I had a real nice time in Spokane—it’s a pretty place, the people were kind, and the weather held up even nicer than I could’ve asked. If ever you’re out that way stop in—you won’t be disappointed.