Some 40 years before the Pandemic, I climbed aboard my 21-foot wooden sloop in Seattle and groped north up fogbound Puget Sound, headed for Port Townsend’s Wooden Boat Festival.
As I rounded Marrowstone Point, I emerged from the fog and was bedazzled by the view of Port Townsend across the bay — the brick facades, aging piers, courthouse tower and bluffs bathed in orange afternoon sun. Over the next two days, I slept aboard the boat, lulled to sleep by the gentle thud-thud of braided lines flapping on wooden spars. I strolled Water Street, nursed a couple of ales at the Town Tavern, traded notes with fellow sailors, and dreamed of actually living here.
It took a quarter century to realize that dream. My wife and I drove up to visit a friend in Cape George, where we were introduced to the snug community marina and clubhouse on Discovery Bay. We bought the lot next door, built a little house and have now lived here 15 years.
I used to say that a good town needed three things – a good bookstore, a good brewpub and an ocean. PT has all three, and so much more.
The town’s heart continues to beat quietly among the brick Victorians and salty piers, somewhere in the vicinity of Sirens, William James Books and the Rose Theater. That the Water Street ambience has survived more than a century is partly due to good luck – no catastrophic fire or earthquake. But, more importantly, while other towns built box stores or soulless strip malls, Port Townsend has clung to and enhanced its Main Street character.
And added to it. The Northwest Maritime Center, which almost became a condo project, is instead a handsome waterfront complex whose mission is to celebrate the rich maritime culture of a town virtually surrounded by saltwater.
Fort Worden, once an obsolete Army base, is now home to an array of homegrown non-profits – Centrum and the Marine Science Center and, most recently, the public development authority – all now trying to survive Covid economics.
Then there’s Quimper Mercantile, the Jefferson Land Trust, the food co-op, the farmers market, the lunch counter at Don’s Pharmacy and so much more.
But our greatest asset is in the people who have built and sustained these landmarks, the volunteers who show up to staff the film festival or the Wooden Boat Festival or Centrum concerts. Port Townsend thrives in large part because of the people, many of them retirees, who donate the money and time to make things happen.
We do this in large part because we share important values – nature and arts and culture that enrich our lives year round.
There too lies our deepest fraility. A growing majority of us increasingly live and think alike. Port Townsend has become a demographic and cultural monoculture.
Most obviously, we are ridiculously white – some 94 percent, to be exact. Most of us would welcome more diversity, but it isn’t happening.
We’re also old, with a median age pushing 60, making us the oldest town in Washington and among the oldest in the nation. More than a third of us are over 65, and just 11 percent are under 18. That demographic creates serious challenges for health care, schools, housing and social services. It shrinks the job market and school enrollment while displacing families who can’t afford to rent or buy a home.
Many (but not all) of us retirees are financially secure, if not rich. Average household income is well over $50,000, much of it from Social Security, investments, and proceeds of previous home sales in Seattle or California.
We’re also politically liberal, voting more than 2-1 for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.
So we have a homogenous community made up largely of white, gray-haired, liberal, relatively affluent retirees. That’s good for cultural nonprofits like Centrum, but it is little help for our neighbors who find it next to impossible to find jobs that pay a living wage or buy a house.
Political echo chambers of any ilk may be comfortable, but they’re also hazardous. I vote increasingly Democrat, but I also understand that liberals sometimes get things wrong. A generation from now, we (or our grandkids) will look back and regret decisions that seem to make sense today. It may have something to do with climate change, tax policy, police, housing or whatever. But when we agree on most issues, we invite unintended consequences, because nobody is asking the tough questions that might help us avert those bad decisions.
We too easily overlook the fact that, while Clinton carried Jefferson County, Trump got more than 6,000 votes from our fellow citizens. I don’t know them, nor understand why they would support a presidential candidate utterly unfit for the office. But they do, and they are our neighbors and we should be listening to each other.
The failure to do that feeds not just the perception, but the reality of a polarized America, of a frustrated heartland filled with angry cultural conservatives who feel bracketed by liberal ideas they don’t share. We don’t know each other. We don’t listen to each other. And we all suffer for it.
So that’s what I would add to my list of criteria for a good place to live. We need a good bookstore, a good brewpub, an ocean, plus a few more folks who don’t necessarily look and think like me.
Painting of Port Townsend waterfront by Kathy Francis.