An Interview with Cynthia Brothers, Founder of Vanishing Seattle
October 1, 2020
Interviewed by Bretty Rawson, TSW staff
Four years ago when Inay’s — a Filipino restaurant on Beacon Hill known for “its storied recipes, sense of community and beyond-friendly chef, Uncle Ernie,” and described as “one of the city’s most magical outposts” — vanished from Seattle, it was a last straw for Cynthia Brothers, who was there that final night, watching her friend, Atasha Manila, perform one last night of drag, celebrating the community this restaurant had created. The next day, and every day since, Cynthia Brothers has been documenting the disappearing and displaced spaces of Seattle through Vanishing Seattle, her Instagram handle and hashtag, which now has over 40k followers and 2,000+ posts.
While the purpose of the platform is to track displaced businesses, spaces, and buildings, for Cynthia, “it’s inextricably linked to the people who went there, who lived there, who gathered, and who built community” in these neighborhoods. So while there is certainly a physical sense of loss, it’s not just about nostalgia. “The point of it is not for people to feel hopeless,” Cynthia said during our talk last week. “It’s about preserving places so they can continue to be dynamic, lively places that foster community,” and celebrating the places that give the city its soul. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to capture, and convey, especially with the constraints of Instagram, but as of this month, Vanishing Seattle has added a new medium that helps unlock its message: film.
The Vanishing Seattle Film Series, a six-episode journey through the strength, culture, and character of Seattle, was officially released at the Northwest Film Forum Festival in September 2020 (you can watch two of the videos at their website, www.vanishingseattle.org, but stay tuned as they’ll be making all six of them available to the public soon). Co-produced with Martin Tran, filmmaker and former co-director of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, the films are not so much about a before or an after — though it is interesting to note they were all shot pre-pandemic, pre-uprisings for Black lives, pre-losing 30+ restaurants and counting due to COVID — but about the longstanding conditions, policies, and forces of, as well as resistances to, displacement. Perhaps what these projects do best is make the case that none of this is new — Seattle was founded on displacement — and that none of this is inevitable. “They want us to forget,” Cynthia explains. But as Jessica Rycheal, friend and Seattle photographer (and curator of Everyday Blackness) reminded Cynthia and an audience, “If you document it, they can’t say it didn’t exist.”
Take a look below to get a glimpse behind the scenes, and screen, to Vanishing Seattle, the social media project and now film series. And get to know this voice: Cynthia Brothers, artist, activist, advocate, and executive producer.
Bretty Rawson: Let’s start with the films. What did this medium allow you to do that the Instagram handle and hashtag couldn’t do?
Cynthia Brothers: I feel really fortunate that I was able to work with some awesome folx and have the opportunity to take this to the next level through film. There are some things about film that are just a lot more dynamic than Instagram posts.
My primary originator of content is on Instagram, which is a series of up to 10 pictures and a caption, that I find quite limiting, of 2,200 characters, and that’s just a set of constraints that you don’t have working in film, which is much more freeing and nuanced: you have people telling a visual story, telling their story to the camera, and people interacting with each other. For social media posts, there is some storytelling, research of history, and interaction that goes on in the comments that layers those stories and storytelling, but with film, we’re able to explore the sub-themes or the related themes around vanishing, because it’s not really all about vanishing. A lot of it is about: How is Wa Na Wari resisting displacement through art? Or, The Four Seas building is closed, but how did it get activcated in the interim, and how is it being turned into a community-controlled non-profit, low-income development?
It’s not as if each film is about a place that’s vanishing. The Hardwick’s episode is the one that most closely hues to what you might first think of with the Vanishing Seattle tagline, but the others are about responses to it, resistance, and alternate models to your typical demolition, speculative development pattern. We’ve had more room to tell those stories, those models, and examples through film. It’s harder to tell that story through an Instagram post. Film frees me up to talk about the alternatives to vanishing.
The process of collaboration with each set of filmmakers, with my co-executive producer, with the subjects of the films themselves, and trying to tell the story in the best way we could within the set of constraints that film has was a different way of working than I am typically used to, which can be pretty solitary: when I am just writing and producing the content that’s coming out of social media. There are some things in films that are just more compelling and engaging. A bit more of longevity and posterity in documenting things through film.
Bretty: How did COVID, if it all, impact the plan for the film series?
Cynthia: The original plan was to release each one every month or two over 2020. I’m a big believer in pairing the online with the offline. In my mind, everything is about real life, even if it lives online, so launching each film in person with a public event. We were able to do that with Wa Na Wari, because that was in January. So, being able to co-create an event with whoever is in the film, interact with the audience, and make connections between a place like Wa Na Wari and folks who learned about it through the film, and also ways that people can support or get engaged in their work, and then have it available publicly online. We obviously got waylaid by COVID.
We did do an online streaming with the Ballard episode in partnership with the Nordic Museum and filmmakers for that, and Bjorn, who owns Scandinavian Specialties who was featured in the Ballard Film. We were hoping to do that with the in-person thing later on, but that later-on hasn’t happened yet. We don’t want to wait too long, so we’re just going to take this opportunity to release them all together. We were going to do that eventually, so doing it with the Northwest Film Forum has been special. After the festival is over, we’ll make them available online publicly and for free, and also explore possibilities to do a second series or continue it in some way, shape, or form. People are excited about the films, so we’ll just need to think about our lessons learned, and if and how we want to continue.
Bretty: What I find interesting is that the more time you spend with Vanishing Seattle, the more you realize that you’re documenting far more than the present, or things that are about to become absent. You’re re-documenting history.
Cynthia: Right. I’m not trying to be fatalistic about it. I know people get bummed out when they look at my posts. I know there’s grief. I know there’s sadness. There’s a feeling of loss, which people should feel. I feel that. But I don’t want it to stop there. The point of it is not for people to feel hopeless, and I hope that they don’t, and it’s not for people to think, Oh, Seattle’s done, it’s over. Some people feel that, but some of it is continually sounding the alarm. It certainly could be over, it could be totally vanished. If we don’t like the way this is going and what’s being reflected here, then what are we going to do about it? Are we asking ourselves the right questions about what the alternatives are to this? Is this the way it has to be or can we envision something better? I don’t think vanishing should be the end of the story. This is the beginning and the continuation of what I hope.
Bretty: One message I think Vanishing Seattle tells is: nothing ends, it just continues to change. And in that sense, nothing really “began” either. As you’ve talked about elsewhere, for example, the City of Seattle began with dispossession. It all comes back to language.
Cynthia: Right, what’s the legacy that this city was founded upon? Displacement. The assumptions or the belief that we have around what progress is, or what a city should look like, how is that still influencing and shaping the future of the city? How do we intervene? How do we break those patterns? It’s not like stuff started vanishing around the time that I started documenting it. It’s a continual pattern of boom and bust, and manifest destiny, and colonialism, and all that wonderful stuff. How have people resisted that and have they imagined something different? Do we have the creative and collective will to manifest what we want?
Bretty: You mentioned working with filmmakers of the communities you filmed. Did this happen across the board for all six films?
Cynthia: We definitely set out at the beginning of the project — me and Martin Tran, my co-producer — to come up with a set of guiding principles that we shared with filmmakers.
How do we try to make this film project something that we can be proud of, that has integrity, and how do we share these stories in a way that is honorable, so we’re not falling into these same traps and being extractive or co-opting? Just because we’re doing this doesn’t mean we are the right ones telling all these stories.
Some similar principles that both of us have learned by working in community or organizing was to, as much as possible, work with filmmakers that were from the community, or have a strong personal relationship or tie to the story, the community, the place, or the neighborhood that we’re focusing on.
One of the filmmakers grew up in the Central District and was displaced from the CD. Another filmmaker was a years-long customer at Hardwicks and knew the family. Other ones may have had a small business and worked in the International District and were very tied in with the folks there. Or, both of the filmmakers grew up in Ballard and knew a lot of the [small business] owners. It looks a little bit different for each, but we wanted to have a grounding there and a relationship, and I think that ultimately helps with the filmmaking, the interview, and the understanding of the narrative and telling the story.
Bretty: As Executive Producer, you’re obviously in the background, but with the Instagram handle, even though you’re in the background in a way, you are the voice of the stories. How do you make choices about how you voice things?
Cynthia: I play with the spectrum of editorializing. There are some posts where I definitely do editorialize, where I bring in my own feelings or my own experience with the place, or why I found it to be a particularly awesome joint, or my understanding of why it was important to other folks, and why it’s honestly a damn shame that it’s being displaced or closing. But with other ones, it might be a more straightforward synopsis, journalistic post of here is what’s here and here is what’s coming next. So there are times when I bring my other voice into it, but when other people send me stuff, I also include their voices, because it shouldn’t just be what I think all the time.
With the films, you have a lot of voices and influences in there from the people being interviewed to the people filming, and then to myself and Martin. I was pretty involved. It wasn’t like I just fundraised and then I was hands-off after that. Maybe I don’t totally understand what the typical Executive Producer’s role is, but I was pretty involved, because you want the films individually to feel like they’re aligned with the Vanishing Seattle ethos, and also that they hang together cohesively.
Bretty: How did, if at all, the two mediums influence each other?
Cynthia: I think to the extent that I can, I try to have some element of collaboration on both, even with the Instagram posts. As it’s gotten more followers, it happens more naturally, where people will send me heads’ up on stuff, or information and pictures or their own memories and stories.
I haven’t been able to do this as much with COVID, but for the Small Business Saturdays or places that were closing, it was almost another excuse for me to go to those places and hang out in Seattle. Like go hang out at the bar or the comic shop and get a better sense of the vibe. Talk to the staff, talk to the small business owners. In some ways, [these posts] felt like mini-journalistic pieces.
It’s a little bit limited because I don’t have the capacity to do that amount of research in every place. I did a radio thing with KBCS, where we got to go out and do field interviews with Kusak Cut Glass, or come in and talk about places in the studio. That stuff I really love, and I also feel like it takes the pressure off me that I sometimes feel about having to make the hard choices in what I put in the post. Am I doing this place justice? Am I being fair? Am I getting across the stuff that makes each place special? I’m trying to be as accurate as possible. If there’s something people can do, action-oriented, like GoFundMe campaigns that people are already running, that’s something I try to include, but also having a balance of not being pedantic or prescriptive of what people should do.
People ask me that all the time. What can we do? I don’t have the answers. These people who are out doing this work and organizing, they’re the ones who are the super brilliant ones you should ask. I try to share about who those folks are, but I’m not sitting up here trying to tell people what the solution is because it’s a lot of different things. There’s no silver bullet.
Bretty: Right, the work is different for everyone. For example, for some, it involves unpowering themselves. So how do you answer those questions?
Cynthia: Sometimes, it’s helpful to amplify what other people are doing, so pointing people to groups or organizations. But in general, encouraging people to keep challenging this narrative of, what does progress mean? and get people to think about: Who is this for? Who is this benefiting? Who’s being left out of it? I’m not necessarily talking about policies, even though I have my own opinions about that, but in terms of the public-facing content, it’s more about the narrative and cultures. I just want to document places.
I would like to do throwback posts or more historical posts, and these could be very iconic clubs or bars or places that people will know about. But if they’re 10 or 15 years old, there’s virtually no information about them. So sometimes it’s my being driven by this obsession to document this stuff. Otherwise, there might not be a whole lot.
Bretty: In the Hardwick’s video, Dana Casara talked about the experience of discovery, and how the digital world has changed that, which made me think about the experience of loss. What have you seen about the larger patterns or public experience of loss?
Cynthia: I’ve had a lot of commenters who say, I just moved here and it makes me sad I can’t go to this place, and that was unexpected, but really awesome to hear, because sometimes, I get a reaction that’s mad that I am recording this stuff. That I keep bringing it up. There’s this attitude of get over it, or why do you keep bringing this up, or why are you blaming this on gentrification, this is progress, or this is just what happens, or it’s just an old bar, who cares.
Part of it is wanting to convey the value of these places, even if it’s not something that is valuable to me or you. It was there because it served a purpose and a function and some sense of community to somebody. We should care about it as part of a healthy ecosystem of the city, whether it’s an herb shop or a barber shop. If these places are being pushed out, not because it’s going through its natural life cycle as a business, or business owners and tenants making self-determined choices, but rather by a lack of choice or options, then there’s something we should be taking a deeper look at. There’s something that’s not right if it comes down to being forced out or not being able to afford to stay in a place anymore, despite the fact that people still value or need that place, or want to be close to their neighbors and family. Part of it is not just about loss or stuff that’s past, but what are we losing in the future?
Places like the Showbox, there were so many people were like, this place was so transformative in my life or this is where I saw my first show, and this kills me that my kids might not be able to experience it. It sucks because the future people can’t have this experience, and Seattle then becomes a place that’s not welcoming.
Bretty: What’s a question you think we don’t ask ourselves enough, or ever?
Cynthia: Who’s being shut out of the future of Seattle? The International District has been a place that’s been very welcoming to immigrants, refugees, low income, working class people, elders. It’s not just, oh all these new people are coming here and pushing out the people who built these neighborhoods. It’s, is this still going to be a place where a newly arrived refugee can afford to be here? Or are they going to get pushed out to SeaTac, or have to live in a place where the local government is collaborating with ICE?
You have to look at things more than just, “Oh, we’re a welcoming city.” Are you welcoming, if people can’t afford to materially exist here? It’s not an “old versus new” thing, which is the way it gets categorized a lot. It gets chalked up to nostalgia, or that we just like old stuff, or want to freeze stuff in amber. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about preserving places so they can continue to be dynamic, lively places that foster community. It’s not just a pretty thing to look at. Most of the things that are first to go are not pretty anyway.
Bretty: It almost feels like when we lose these places, we also lose what some of these words — welcoming or otherwise — used to mean progress. Development. World-class.
Cynthia: Right, it becomes just meaningless. They’re coded words, and sending a signal. Depending on what side of this you’re on, whether winner or loser, it’s going to mean something very different to you. But we know what they mean.
Bretty: People have described Vanishing Seattle as an idea, a movement, a series, a space, love letters, a celebration. How do you define it, if at all?
Cynthia: It’s always interesting to see how other people describe it. It’s revealing and surprising to me. I’ve been reluctant to put a label on it. I also don’t want to be like, “This is a movement!” It just feels weird to me. It’s cool if someone says that or that’s what they feel or interpret about it, because it feels like it means something meaningful, hopefully, to them, and is making a difference somewhere to somebody.
I’m learning as time goes on what this is, what it means, and maybe what I’m trying to do with it. At the same time, on a day-by-day basis, it’s trying to get through this huge list that I have to post about, and then cool opportunities like the film series or collaborating in an exhibit with an artist, or stuff that comes my way that I try to participate in. None of this stuff I ever anticipated when I first started it. There was never a grand plan.
I even struggle with the name Vanishing Seattle. I don’t want that to be overly fatalistic or reductive. It’s just a convenient first thing I thought of, and was like, yeah that kind of sums it up [laughs]. I guess what I’m trying to do is convey love, and grief, and hope for Seattle and Her people, and the culture of Seattle. And that is something that is not static. It is contested, it’s dynamic, as it should be.
What are the different kinds of ways I can try to do that or share that experience or create a space where people can do that with each other? It’s hard for me to put a neat label or even wrap my own head around it sometimes. It’s part cautionary tale, but I’m hoping it’s also a space for people to reflect and think about collectively making this a better city. And just keep questioning shit, you know? Question the direction we’re heading. I don’t think that answered your question at all.
Bretty: It totally did, and that also makes me think, perhaps that’s the hashtag essence: questioning Seattle. It’s also a question I had: how did you, and how could we, possibly distill this, the vanishing and all of its layers, down into a single word, verb, or phrase? You’re tackling the System of systems.
Cynthia: I’m always learning about this. I had my own slice I thought I knew about based upon my own experience, but there’s no end to it and I think there’s so much about our history that can teach us about right now and about the future.
Even the CHOP stuff, it seemed like an opportune opportunity for a Throwback Thursday to talk about historic occupations here in Seattle: Daybreak Star, Northwest African American Museum, Centro de la Raza, and the Gang of Four. It didn’t happen all that long ago, but we still have the legacy of these nonprofits and cultural centers being physically and aggressively occupied.
It felt very resonant, especially because a lot of the discussion around it was, “Oh my god, this is so crazy,” but in some ways, it feels like back in the day, we were a lot more radical than we like to acknowledge, admit, or know about. There were people, too, who were like, Oh I grew up in Seattle or I’ve been here for a long time and didn’t even know about this. Or they may know about Daybreak Star but they didn’t know how it became Daybreak Star. It’s not like Seattle was just put on the map with tech, coffee, or grunge music. It goes back way deeper than that. You couldn’t have Kurt Cobain without Jimi, you know? There’s a lot of layers, and that’s been fun to learn and uncover. And also to just learn about some of these really quirky businesses, the characters behind them, some of these places have been around for 40 years, and all the memories and stories people have about them.
Bretty: You mentioned earlier that this as an “obsession” to document, which is great, because this question is about obsessions: I am obsessed with unwords, or words that begin with un. A lot of unwords are real words — unforgettable — but some we had to make to create the right direction of meaning for something. For example, undoppelganger. I totally understand if you hang up right now, but if you don’t, how would you describe Vanishing Seattle or what you’re doing in an unword?
Cynthia: Maybe unerasing or uninvisibilizing. Sometimes I feel like just by documenting this stuff, it is my small way of giving an unrelenting middle finger to power. Because I feel like they don’t want us to notice.
You have the physical erasure of stuff — the bulldozer, the wrecking balls — that just seem so fucked up and violent, which is very jarring sometimes. But when you do that, it’s so easy to forget what was even there, and forget its importance and meaning. It’s an erasure on multiple levels, to the point where people can totally rewrite history and have a revisionist narrative of what happened to entire neighborhoods and communities.
For example, South Lake Union. The whole understanding and narrative of that, which is just one example, is that, Oh this was just a bunch of empty warehouses and a dilapidated no man’s land, so Paul Allen and Amazon got together and saved it. There are documentaries about this, the people who lived there, and who lived there since before that time. Sure, there were warehouses, but you know who lived in those warehouses? Artists, families. It used to be one of the most artistically rich neighborhoods in Seattle.
There were music venues. It was a neighborhood. It was a community, and it wasn’t South Lake Union: it was Cascade. It was one of the most long-standing, older neighborhoods. But because it’s been physically erased, the narrative about it has been erased and rewritten, and people don’t know that. And now, they just think of it as Amazonia, which it is. But all the culture that was there is gone. Where are the people? Even those temporary art galleries that Paul Allen had there for a bit, he shut them down whenever he wanted to. There’s no Art Walk anymore. Where is the culture of South Lake Union? You can’t build a corporate campus and just manufacture culture. Especially if people are just working and going home, or going to happy hour and then going home.
They want us to forget. We see this in the language of developers, growth boosters, and elected officials all the time. When they tore down the Red Apple, one of the people who worked for Vulcan called it just a parking lot. But you know what happens in that parking lot? They had free backpack giveaways for kids, they had haircuts, they had block parties. This is the Red Apple you’re talking about, not just a parking lot. But that’s the story they want to tell, and then they will rename parts of the Central District East Capitol Hill.
Each of these things can feel like not much, but I’ve done thousands of these posts by now, and when we look at them in aggregate, you see just how big, intentional, and planned it all is. It is a massive exodus, a massive displacement. There’s a blueprint for this. It’s not by accident. Each one is another stroke in the painting of the history of Seattle that’s resisting this erasure of Seattle, like we’re a whiteboard you can just erase and make over with money. Or with your shiny idea.
One of my friends, Jessica Rycheal, helped me wrap my head around this. She’s a photographer and did this exhibit called “Everyday Blackness” at the Northwest African American Museum. I think I said something during our panel about how I just take pictures of stuff and want to document stuff, and I’m paraphrasing here, but she said, Don’t underestimate the power of documentation, because when you document something, you can’t say that it didn’t exist. I was like yeah, shit, that clicks for me, because I feel like a lot of what’s happening at the essence is trying to erase or build on top of what’s been here and the people who have been here, and the people participating in resistance and resilience against erasure. I’ve had friends from the CD who have said to me, I’m tired of feeling like my childhood didn’t exist. They’re coming back to the neighborhood and feeling like a stranger. An unwelcome stranger.
For me, I have that tension between a lot of what I show is pictures of businesses, spaces, and buildings, and it is about that, but to me it’s inextricably linked to the people who went there, who lived there, who gathered, and who built community there. Those things go hand in hand. If you tear down a music venue or a bar or a center or small business, it’s not that it can just go somewhere else. First of all, it usually can’t. It’s not just this utilitarian thing. It’s not just a building. Who now no longer has a place to go? After HaNa [sushi restaurant] closes, what’s going to happen to Henry, the elder who sits there every day and has a meal and drinks tea? Where’s he going to go?