What We Lost

Spring Street, Friday Harbor WA

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

It was the only time I ever remember dreading going into town, Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. County seat to San Juan County, and a major commercial center of the San Juan Island archipelago. Still, it’s a small town. Centered on Spring Street, steps up from the waterfront, the ferry terminal, the Marina, and Fairweather Park where carvings honor the island’s Northwest Coast Indian heritage. And where musicians play in summer.

There was no music now. On April 7th a fire blazed in the night, and although the fire had been extinguished for a couple of days, that block on Spring Street was still sectioned off with emergency vehicles and yellow tape. The fire had caused extensive damage to six iconic historic buildings—some a total loss–two buildings dating back to the 1880’s.

Standing across the street and up a block, I hated to look. It hurt to look then and it hurts to think about it now. The agony of seeing what isn’t there anymore. I hadn’t yet fathomed the interior loss and the loss of livelihoods: a popular tavern, a coffee shop, a real estate office, and a kayaking tour company. Furthermore all of these buildings had had other incarnations through the ages: hotels, grocers, saloon, barbershop, and a silent movie house among them. 

Standing there, I was feeling it architecturally in that moment. My first thought was how can this ever be rebuilt without looking like Disneyland? Like Whistler? As Sandy Strehlou, Historic Preservation Coordinator for the town of Friday Harbor said, “The impact on the historical district is irreplaceable.” 

Later I determined that the fire in Friday Harbor was causing something not unlike PTSD in me, triggering memories of the town where I had grown up. A small town in northern Connecticut, Suffield prided itself on its Historic District running the 2 ½ mile length through the center of town. 18th and 19th century homes lined North and South Main Street, with the town center and a village green. A Town Hall, Masonic Lodge, bank, fire station, a grocer, pharmacy, luncheonette, and various shops comprised the old town center. I always thought the center comfortable with itself. Everything much as you would expect if this were a predictable story, or a stage set for a play. Every bit as archetypal then as Friday Harbor, my western town now. 

The old town center on Main Street, Suffield CT

And then the most incongruous thing happened—entirely off-plot. These were going away to school years for me, so I wasn’t paying close attention. It seemed to me that on one visit home the town center was there, as always, and on the next visit it was not. It was almost like the center disappeared.

In Friday Harbor a rogue arsonist torched the town on April 7th. In Suffield Connecticut, the town center was demolished by committee in the 1960’s. Bulldozers and wrecking balls right through the heart of the town. I will never understand how it happened.

A suburban shopping center was then constructed in its stead, off the site–not in The Historical District. “Suffield Village” is how they refer to it. Some entries are from the outside, some inside, like a small mall. Initially it tried to hold the businesses from town, but now it’s mostly offices and a lot of empty spaces. As a friend in Suffield notes, “Businesses failed and the building went into some disrepair. It’s just not anything special.” All the parking in the world, and no one wants to go there. (Name a nice town that doesn’t have a parking problem). 

The original Suffield Town Center had good bones and charm. It was nothing that fresh paint, new awnings, parking meters, and love wouldn’t fix.  

Islanders know this with every ounce of their being. Love for Friday Harbor has been overwhelming. It’s been shared a lot lately but I cannot think of a better way to close than with this ode to Herb’s Tavern, lost in the fire. It was written by Greg Hertel, a retired science teacher on San Juan Island:

It was just an old tavern in an old building…

But it was where I had my first meal when I arrived on island on a late August afternoon to take a job teaching here in 1974

It was where my wife and I went to many dances and shared many a beer with friends

It was where we listened to The Ducks when they would come over here to play

It was the blue-collar meeting place for the construction crews, the boat crews

It was where many college papers were written by students who had rowed over from the (UW) Marine Labs. We met a woman in Zion Park one summer and when we said that we were from Friday Harbor she said that she wrote most of her master’s thesis at Herbs

It was the first place where many kids would have their first adult drink on their 21st birthday

It was where boaters who weren’t yacht club members would meet

It was never high class… and proud of it

It was my image of what a workingman’s bar should be like. The staff was down to earth, friendly

It was where the food was not gourmet but always OK and the portions were real

It was where the commercial fishermen would meet and eat before heading out to the Salmon Banks on those summers when drunken gill netters ruled the streets

It was the place that Realtors would rush by with their customers on their way to more upscale restaurants

It was the place where kids working multiple jobs could afford to meet and eat out

It was the location of many hookups, meetups and even some breakups

It was never on anyone’s 4-star list but always on everyone’s “meet you there” list

It was an old bar in an old building… and it was the heart of the town. 

21 Comments

Filed under Arson, Fire, redevelopment

21 responses to “What We Lost

  1. Val Gauthier

    This piece signifies so much of the heartfelt loss when where our memories were formed are turned into rubble. By man made decisions to demolish or by man made fire, the loss remains the same and it is still grief to those who loved and lost. Beautifully written Kim. I feel your pain.💔

  2. Kim, what a sad story. The many of us who have visited and loved Friday Harbor are grieving with you. And I grieve with you what happened to Suffield. It makes me think of how close we came in Seattle to losing both Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square to developers. I learned a lot, as a kid, following the story of how they were saved and beginning to understand how important old, unglamorous places can be.

    • Interesting, isn’t it, how historic preservation falls on the Democrats.
      That we’re the conservatives in historic preservation trust!
      Remember Jackie O and the effort to save Grand Central Terminal in NYC? I think that’s why so many of us broke out in hives when a developer was elected president–and I’m only talking architecture.

  3. Kim, really nice connection between our old town and your new one. I have only the briefest memories of the old Suffield center, the old drug store, the bank and the library, but i do remember the look of it. I also remember it being gone. So sorry about your Fire in Friday Harbor. How sad.

  4. Kim, so poignant. You invoke the immense loss to the community from the arson so well. My heart goes out to you, Paul and all your neighbors and friends.

  5. Beth Ahrens Yourgrau

    Your Island’s loss is big and it’s even more painful knowing that Friday Harbor was ignited by a rogue arsonist. Like you, I had a lot of childhood memories in Suffield’s old center. My friends and I slide down fire poles at the fire station, twirled around on the stools of a soda fountain and curled up reading comic books at the old drugstore until we were kicked out by the owner. I recall you being one of the few voices of outrage when we learned that the historic downtown would be demolished. Guessing others viewed it as modernizing the downtown. You were right, as you often are.

  6. Maureen

    So moving! Beautiful.

    Thank you.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  7. Katie Birchenough

    I cried after reading this. I actually feel devastated. The old places, the old ways, the old times and timers…they’re going out with the ice each year, never to return. Especially when an arsonist hurries the leaving. It’s not fair. I am so sad about the fate of Suffield and I, too, will never understand it. Oddly, I was looking at a place there on Zillow recently and of course thought of you. The description did not say anything about the parking at the small mall.

  8. You were on Zillow looking at Suffield properties too?!
    Do you go back to your old stomping grounds too, looking?
    Amazing.

  9. Ruth

    So sorry for your loss. It won’t be the same. It won’t be better. It will be different with only the memories

  10. Jane

    Coming from the parched Southwest, the idea of an arsonist terrifies me! A troubled soul or a member of our burgeoning community of mentally ill or disenfranchised? Loss due to deliberation. I remember so well the ‘committee’ of wealthy townspeople who wanted to forsake our perhaps plain downtown for a more prosperous and modern ‘village.’ As far as downtowns went perhaps it wasn’t the quaint beauty of some New England towns but as you said it was fully functional. Like the bar in Friday Harbor it was never high class but it t was a town for all the people. There was Alfano’s shoe store where my mother outfitted me with corrective oxfords (I would have preferred the saddle shoes) so I would never become knock-kneed. I too slid down the fireman’s pole and felt a sense of pride every town parade as our fireman who we knew by name marched Main Street. And, of course, I was told to be home by the 5 o’clock whistle! Then my brother’s would take me into Nate’s so they could play pinball while I was seated in a swivel chair with a shake or ice cream. But what I really remember or have been reminded of by your wonderful, wonderful post, is how we used to stop and talk to people as we walked the length of downtown. Particularly, I remember Benny, who would often stand outside Nate’s a bit down on his luck and perhaps hanging near the package store. My mom would give him clothes and food and often on a Monday morning he would be standing on the curbside on the southern end of town waiting to catch a bus to Hartford to dry out for a few days. There were others, hobos, who used to ride the rails back in the old days, down on their luck They called everyone Mrs. or Mr. so and so and we never tried to hide them from the fabric of our town. They would wander the back of the shops or be in the cemetery behind the Congregational Church (of course, one of my favorite play areas). Somehow after the downtown was demolished, they all disappeared as well. Small events can serve as catalysts that act on starting conditions. To me, our town like so many lost a sense of community and that old feel of taking care of our own and not turning our eyes from the dark side. The ‘committee’ pushed the new village through and a lot of money and friendships were lost on the failure of the new downtown that did not turn out to be the thriving downtown it was envisioned to be. Our greatest limitation is not that of imagination but that of perspective — our lens is too easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present. I too go back to Suffield to capture something that is so deep in my neural fiber. .Lisel Mueller in her beautiful poem “Immortality” wrote, “What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” If I stand on the village green and look out over what the town is now, it seems to quiet my memories and I don’t see myself (and just to say, the new library was nothing like our old Kent Memorial Library where we used to wander the stacks but I won’t go on). I am also reminded of Alan Lightman, the poetic physicist, who talks of our hunger for absolutes in a relative world, our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change. I am so so sorry about the loss of so much history in Friday Harbor and the fear of such a heinous act. Perhaps the Buddha had it right: pretty much all of our struggles, from frustrations to anxiety, from anger to sadness, from grief to worry, all stem from the same thing …being too tightly attached to something. You have reminded me of the past that lives inside me and the fear that I keep at bay. . I can see my hand on my writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the sun through the window. And looking out, I can see a pine-needled path that goes down to the arroyo….Did I ever tell you how amazing you are and how you encircle my heart like soft moss along with all our old childhood memories. j

    • Wow Jane! What a beautiful reply and so fitting to accentuate Kim’s feeling of loss. I too share many of those same memories and love the “walk down memory lane” that you describe. So many walks to the downtown to pick up an item from Martinez’s Grocery Store. The Martinez family lived on our street and since it was a dead end the street was like family. So yes, you are accurate in “taking care of our own”. Loved reading your reply.❤️

      • Jane

        Val, I so remember your dead end street…and how you were the most popular girl in our class…and how we used to walk to school all together in middle school…and my brothers were friends of your brother. Hope you are very well. xo

    • Jane, your memory is so delightfully sharp, and I was just fortunate to have been by your side all those formative years in Suffield. And to have known your marvelous mother so well. You’ve become her, you know.
      I love that line, “What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious.” Little did we know then.
      We continue to never know, don’t we?
      Everyone is asking themselves this question now in Friday Harbor. I’m sure the Buddha is right, it all stems from being too attached to something. Again and again.

  11. Pingback: When a Writing Piece Becomes a Painting | a little elbow room

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