by Luke Baumgarten & r & The city is currently taking suggestions for a time capsule, which they'll bury somewhere in the vicinity of the Monroe Street Bridge. That will be great for Spokane's future sentimentalists. For those of us still in 2005, though, the bridge reopening has already unearthed a much larger and more culturally significant time capsule: North Monroe Street.

Between the bridge and the hill is an oddball neighborhood that has managed to keep a sense of individuality and community amid the new-millennium pressure of chain retailers and big business. The street has a blithely ageless small-town feel, as if you've accidentally driven off a major Spokane thoroughfare and into 1950s-era community planning. Everything here (except for the McDonalds) reeks of local-ownership. The architecture is quirky and varied, looking nothing like the concrete-block sameness we see throughout most of the rest of America. There are even a few attorneys' offices and funeral parlors that could pass for town halls and chambers of commerce. You just don't see this kind of thing anymore.

Yeah, there's a Skipper's, but it's the last of the old kind -- the ones that looked more like crab boats than buildings and had signs made out of anchors. Just down the street, Azar's sign has what looks like a technical drawing of a massive hunk of lamb, roasting vertically on a spit. Now that I think about it, really, it's the signage, more than anything, that makes North Monroe stand out. The signs are all old and uniquely shaped, revealing something about their businesses and owners. Barber shop signs are shaped like scissors. Crescent Machine Shop has crescent-shaped cogs and machinery. The signs of bail bondsmen are adorned with pictures of their leaders.

At most other places, marquee signs bear a business's daily specials or details of some promotional event. On North Monroe, they offer parables at Golden Rule Brake and populist rancor at Tunetech.

Each sign has a different feel, but they're all wonderfully contrarian, as if the entire street were thumbing its nose at corporate culture, expressing its discontent with faceless bureaucracy or just reveling in its kitsch. Of course, the bridge had been closed for nearly three years, during which time traffic was rerouted and the area took a big hit. A few places had to close because of the lost revenue. Maybe everyone has crank signs because they can't afford new ones.

You should ponder the whys and wherefores next time you're driving north on the newly refurbished bridge and admiring the eccentricities of the place. Then get your head out of the clouds and buy something, for God's sake -- these people have businesses to run.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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