Driving through downtown Spokane, I often pass a large mural of the Clock Tower. It's an accurate reproduction, no cubist rearrangement or modern representin' -- just a painting of, well, the Riverfront Park Clock Tower. I found myself both fascinated and disturbed that there was a painting of something you could see in the original just a few blocks away. If there had been a sign beneath the mural saying "Four blocks north and two to the right," that might have made more sense. I pondered this phenomenon until I came to a conclusion: Spokane loves itself.
Regardless of how often I may have bashed Spokane in the past, when I moved away, I was surprised to find myself longing for holiday visits and even defending it at times like a significant other. While my relationship with Spokane will forever be a love-hate thing, it's definitely a thing.
When I decided to move back to my hometown a couple of months ago, a lot of people asked me why. In their view, I had successfully escaped years ago, had seen the light beyond the darkness that is The 'Kan. But then I love the Clock Tower, too. I imagined the long descent down I-90 to behold that welcoming view of downtown, the off-ramp to Division and a quick right into Dick's. Mmmm... Whammies.
Nonetheless, it is an important question: Why would I return to Spokane after spending six years living in California, studying in Europe and teaching English in Asia? Why, being an educated and worldly 24-year-old, would I choose to live in Spokane and not, say, Portland or Seattle?
I had a very difficult time trying to answer this question. Invariably, I would find myself comparing Spokane to these other cities. What I finally had to admit is that Spokane is not like Portland or Seattle and never will be. We're not surrounded by oceans and craggy peaks, we don't have the numbers to support a professional sports team, and we're never going to connect -- even as a very long off-ramp -- to the I-5 corridor. I have therefore decided to pose a different question: What is there in Spokane to keep someone like me here?
I thought about the reasons I had left Spokane to go to school in Los Angeles. The answer was simple: options. There was simply more to do there. One summer, my girlfriend and I came up with a plan to try a different ethnic cuisine every week. The idea turned out to be a good one, as I tried many new foods and, in the process of finding the restaurants, stumbled upon many cool spots in L.A.
I decided to apply this same plan to Spokane and see what I discovered. I was not expecting to find Ethiopian and Argentinean restaurants in Spokane, but I did hope to find at least some range of culinary delights outside of Chinese and Mexican. Crossing my fingers, I opened the Yellow Pages to the "Restaurants" section. To my surprise, I found listings for Japanese, German, East Indian and even Moroccan restaurants, just to name a few. Even more surprising was the prevalence of the word "authentic" in the restaurant ads. Apparently the owners are experiencing or expecting competition, and I, for one, believe that is a wonderfully optimistic sign.
The next step in my search for an answer involved the actual consumption of the food. One day, while my buddies waited in line at Zip's on Division, I took a 22-second walk south to Kim's "Authentic Korean Food" Restaurant. While I wouldn't necessarily label it the "adventure" their ad proclaims, it was good food served by a friendly owner who had to look twice before believing she truly did have a customer on a Tuesday afternoon.
Alas, my fellow X/Y-generationers, I can now tell my friends in L.A. that Spokane has Korean food! Granted, I could have eaten five Papa Joes for the price of my Bul Go Gi, but it was still cheaper than I would have paid for the same in Seattle. Most important, though, was the fact I had the option to try something different. Don't get me wrong, I love Papa Joes almost as much as Whammies. But for that half-hour, eating with chopsticks and trying to remember how to say "Thank You" in Korean, the strangest thing happened -- I felt satisfied.
Art galleries, theater, actual vinyl record stores, head shops, live music, independent film festivals, rocker chicks and hip-hop heads -- all of these cultural amenities and types of people can be found in Spokane, yet they don't seem as prevalent as they are in other cities -- even some that are smaller than Spokane. For instance, I recently visited a friend of mine living in Bellingham. She is a relatively educated, slightly worldly 24-year old, and I asked her, "Why? Why don't you live in Seattle or Portland or -- oh my gosh -- Spokane?"
We spent most of the weekend hanging out in downtown Bellingham, and I was amazed by what I saw in this little town that is roughly one-fifth the size of Spokane. Everywhere we went, there were restaurants with art-plastered walls, tattoo shops, used bookstores, record shops, vintage clothing and other niche stores. Most notable, though, was the abundance of people like my friend, i.e., people my age. It made me wonder what was attracting young people in their twenties to Bellingham and pushing them away from Spokane.
After I left, I came to the conclusion that it was the open-minded, laid-back attitude of the town itself. It held an appreciation of different people and lifestyles, a support for a community that reveled in its many cultural perks. Essentially, Bellingham is a place with options.
There it is, the most important qualities for young twentysomething go-getters like me: options. That is the single most important criterion when looking at places to spend these energetic years. What options do I have in terms of living here? Are there cool neighborhoods? Can I find a job, and not just any job, but one that I really enjoy? What's the dating scene like? The music, the art? When people come to visit me, where can we go? Will they have a good time in Spokane? Will I have a good time in Spokane?
Like I said, I love that grand old Clock Tower of ours, and I intend to give this city a chance. Luckily for me (and for you), I'm only working 12 hours a week, so I have plenty of time to get down and dirty with it. And a head's-up to all those who look like they may be in their twenties and trying to find an answer to this question: What is there to keep me in Spokane?
I'll be the one in the fake Kangol cap with a pen and paper looking for an answer.
Read the adventures of Jacob Albert over the next few months in The Inlander. His column, "Jake's Take," will appear every other week on the page facing the beginning of the Arts & amp; Culture section. Coming on March 18: Getting a job.
Publication date: 03/04/04