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.
I had no clue how old, white, and liberal Jefferson County was when I arrived. It’s so comfortable, yet surreal, to have all these people around who think mostly like me. I surely don’t have a remedy for the bubble. My attempts to befriend alternate thinkers have failed. Just admitting you think differently can end a budding relationship. What to do.
So true so true. You hit the nail on the head Ross. What to do to change this reality? i keep cpmplaining about the same stuff. Let’s talk.
Thanks for the fabulous Kathy Francis painting too. Miss her so….
Thanks Ross, thoughtful and well said. Marie and I give thanks every day for our bubble…it’s kind of crazy out there on the other side.
I agree, Jefferson County needs more diversity and there is more in communities out of the Port Townsend Area. It’s where the service people live and raise their families, the farmers raise their crops, artists find space they can afford.
Growing up downtown Port Townsend was like most small towns, grocery stores were on Water Street along with Penney’s, Peninsula Foods, a really great meat market. Don’s pharmacy, when it was on the corner of Water & Taylor with another drug store on the other corner. A couple of Hardware stores. A lot of restaurants, taverns, theaters. I lived in an apartment across from the Town Tavern which later became the Salal Cafe. There were lots of apartments downtown, not condominiums.
Today I shop at Safeway (been here since 1927) I suppose it came here when the paper mill showed up, along with Penney’s, Sears, Montgomery Ward Catalog Stores. I worked downtown, I shopped downtown and walked almost everywhere.
My granddaughter who is 16, hangs out in PT with friends, mostly where they can find a beach to hang out at. No skating rink, no bowling alley, limited recreation. When we discuss what young people are talking about, it’s about equality for everyone. They talk of a revolution which will change the world. I understand what she is talking about.
Excellent article, thanks for sharing.
My thoughts exactly, put into words far better than I ever could! Thank you Ross 😁