When I was growing up in northwest Washington, my hometown would find its self-image sullied each spring when the Bellingham Herald asked local girls vying to become Blossom Time festival queen to describe their ambitions in life. Inevitably, one or more candidates would respond: “To get out of Bellingham.”
The memory came to mind on the last day of May. I was back in town visiting a sparkling waterfront, transformed with a park created at site of the pulp mill that once caused waters of Bellingham Bay to look like tobacco spit. A mile or so north, old high school friend Drew Pettus took me to the harborside office complex where he practices law, to show off the path where he takes a midday run with views out to Lummi Island and the San Juans.
I capped the day dining on black cod at Carnal, one of several topnotch restaurants in town. Cheap food once meant Bunk’s drive-in north of the high school. My friends now rave about the tacos at Black Sheep. My Bellingham High School class gathered for one recent reunion at the elegant bayfront Bellwether Hotel.
“Bellywash,” my mother’s nickname for the town, has begun to pop up on lists of America’s best places to live, learn, work, and retire. Activities from its summer music festival to a hot (now closed) Lummi Island restaurant to the Ski to Sea race have attracted national attention. Western Washington University has gained the reputation as a topnotch public college.
The population of Bellingham was stagnant when I was a kid. But in recent years, Bellywash has become a retirement haven for Northwest journalists, as well as one of the region’s top young photographers. Seattle Times alumnus Ron Judd has Cascadia Daily News breaking stories. A talented member of my family, with her choice of colleges, has picked Western. Wealthy folk are finding scenic spots to settle: Two friends of mine live just outside the entrance to a gated community just off Chuckanut Drive.
Small city bigshots of yesteryear had big dreams, in Bellingham and elsewhere. Bad dreams. Glenn Lee, nuclear boosting publisher of the Tri-City Herald, touted Phoenix as a model for his mid-Columbia River metropolis. Visiting our home in Bellingham, the head of Whatcom County’s economic development council would tell my folks: “This town has the potential of becoming a Pittsburgh.”
Slowly at first, folks began to conjure different dreams. Topping the list was keeping our environment from being wrecked. The “fourth corner” of America became site of preservation struggles of national consequence.
Grassroots activists fought the timber industry to create a North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness. An aluminum smelter, planned for Guemes Island, was turned back with aide of two lawyers who later served as Nixon’s enablers, John Ehrlichman and Egil “Bud” Krogh. Gov. Dixy Lee Ray was hot to locate a tanker port and pipeline terminus that would receive for transshipment oil from the North Slope of Alaska. Sen. Magnuson kept out the supertankers.
I carry memories from those battles. There was the U.S. Forest Service hearing at Happy Valley School. A pulp mill guy derided park and wilderness advocates as “birdwatchers,” to which the local Explorer Scout leader shot back: “You’re the birdwatcher. The bird you’re watching is the eagle on the dollar bill.” A Bellingham Chamber of Commerce nabob was forced to acknowledge that his statement was drafted by the Puget Sound Pulp & Timber Co.
In more recent times, developers of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham, lined up support from local business leaders and construction unions. They were overwhelmed, however, by the crowd of opponents who showed up when the Bellingham City Club hosted a debate on the coal port. Opposition from the Lummi Indian Nation would ultimately kill the project.
The coal terminal battle followed a pattern. It pitted liberal, “green” Bellingham against the pro-development surrounding county. The conflict has shaped politics in the fourth corner of the “lower 48” states. In 2016, Donald Trump brought his presidential campaign to the Northwest Washington fairgrounds in Lynden. On the picket lines outside were Alex Ramel, a Bellingham housing and environmental activist. Ramel has since been elected to the Legislature from the 40th District. In the 42nd District, part county and part city, a swing district has swung to the Democrats. They have flipped all three legislative seats.
Downtown Bellingham is very different from the town in which I grew up. The department stores decamped to the big Bellis Fair Mall north of the city. Downtown has storefronts vacant in what was the heart of local commerce. But on the south side, in Fairhaven’s historic buildings, grungy taverns have been supplanted by specialty shops and trendy restaurants. Fairhaven has what downtown Seattle no longer has, a quality bookstore.
I settled in the Emerald City after college, not looking back at Bellywash. Seattle was embarking on its lengthy most-livable-city phase: People magazine profiled a trendy young architect and family at the Pike Place Market. Transplanted Washington, D.C., media bigfoot Michael Kinsley would grace the cover of Newsweek, clutching a salmon. Asia-Pacific leaders convened a summit in the city and dined on salmon in the longhouse on Blake Island.
Such heady times are behind us. Seattle is pricey and short of housing, fumbling with the crisis of homelessness, seeing its cops quit, and watching Amazon employees demonstrate against being required to come back to work downtown. Small cities, such as my birthplace, are becoming desirable places to settle.
Who would have thought myself and schoolmates would live to witness the prime of Bellingham, Washington?