Every good story gets the timing right. In the case of the brand-new Encyclopedia Greenwoodia — a collection of prose, poetry, and images by, for, and about Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood — timing is the story.
For more than a decade, the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas (BFI; formerly 826 Seattle), a Greenwood-based youth writing and tutoring center, has produced annual volumes written by students, occasionally together with adult mentors and author friends of the nonprofit. This year’s anthology was slated for release in late March. But, as seven-year-old Anub Zekaryas so presciently writes in “Mr. Chocolate Pudding,” his fictional contribution to the volume inspired by the co-owners of G&O Family Cyclery, “[e]verything was really good until one day something strange happened.”
On March 9, a natural gas leak ignited across the street from BFI headquarters. The explosion shook foundations, knocked down buildings, and blew in windows for blocks around. BFI’s storefront, Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co., was not to be spared. In all, the blast damaged more than fifty establishments, flattening Neptune Coffee, Mr. Gyros and Greenwood Quick Stop grocery and destroying much of the aforementioned cyclery. It was a complete disaster: shuttered businesses and displaced residents meant — still mean — livelihoods on the line.
And yet, the timing. It happened in the wee hours on a quiet, rainy Wednesday. Doctors quickly released nine firefighters from the hospital, reporting their injuries as minor. Police dogs sniffed through the rubble for signs of the worst, but not a single fatality or serious injury resulted.
Encyclopedia Greenwoodia arrives smack in the middle of cleanup and recovery, just as the reeling neighborhood reaches for a collective expression.
With similar remarkable timing, rare in the slow-paced book world, Encyclopedia Greenwoodia arrives smack in the middle of cleanup and recovery, just as the reeling neighborhood reaches for a collective expression. It’s a compassionate collection with uncanny foresight filled with moving pieces from accomplished adult authors and fresh, funny, admirable work from student writers ages six to thirteen. Questions of identity and impermanence sit at the heart of the collection: What is Greenwood? Who are Greenwoodians? Can any of it last?
Conceived over a year ago, Encyclopedia Greenwoodia was meant to be an extra special volume: a tribute to BFI’s original stomping grounds as the organization seeks to add a second tutoring location in White Center. Now, the collection takes on additional meaning and new purpose. In the days following the explosion, 4Culture, King County’s cultural services agency, extended additional funding to the anthology. BFI doubled the planned print run to 1,000 copies, pushed the book release party to Saturday, April 9 and pledged to donate all sales proceeds to the Greenwood Relief Fund. (Under normal circumstances, the proceeds would directly support BFI.)
“It definitely is a giving-back to the community and a big group hug from the kids and the adults at BFI to a community that has supported us for over a decade,” said Bill Thorness, who edited the anthology in cooperation with BFI founder and executive director Teri Hein. BFI will be adding to a community pot that has reached over $240,000 in donations from individuals and more than forty other grassroots collection efforts.
The clutch timing of the anthology’s release for fundraising and community-bolstering is just one way in which time — its passing, its twists, and its endless possibilities — sits at the heart of the publication. Like a needle pulled up through Seattle’s map at approximately the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and North 85th Street, Encyclopedia Greenwoodia draws a thread through geologic time, modern history, the slippery present moment, and imagined futures.
Filled with surprising historic images and fascinating tidbits of local lore, the book is both intentionally retrospective, and unwittingly so. It includes art with a much-needed long-live-the-neighborhood vibe, a cheeky fold-out map that’s both brand-new and eloquently outdated, and photos just a few months old of buildings never to be seen again. The first kid-penned piece in the volume is a sensory guide to Mr. Gyros, bringing back the music, aromas, and flavors of an obliterated neighborhood hole-in-the-wall where hungry citizens tended to cluster around the doorway before 11 a.m. opening time. Where that door stood, only gravel and open air remain.
“As always,” poet Kevin Craft writes in his haunting contribution to the volume, “the problem is what to do next.”
Shifting further back in time, David B. Williams’ geologic and historical scavenger hunt around Greenwood teaches readers where to spot fossils, how to read the local sandstone comprising the Bank of America building on North 85th Street, and what’s hidden beneath an unusual stretch of sidewalk on Phinney Avenue North near the zoo. Editor Thorness revives snapshots of Greenwood entertainments gone by. As a relative newcomer to Greenwood, I loved reimagining the towering Ferris wheel that once spun near Woodland Park Zoo, and as a rabid cineaste, I felt sore that the Ridgemont Theatre had gone.
In an effort to inspire truly Greenwood-centric writing for the volume, Seattle novelist Jennie Shortridge, who teaches workshops for BFI, escorted a group of students into the historic photo archives held by the Phinney Neighborhood Association.
“They sat in a room at the old school and they came up with stories that were about time travel,” said Thorness, who intended the volume to be something of a historical time capsule but hadn’t anticipated the crystal ball aspect. “We thought [the pieces] would be about Greenwood from the past, inspired by these photos. But they’re kids. A lot of them were five hundred years into the future.”
The student contributions, along with prose from Thorness, Shortridge, and naturalist Williams, are the best portions of the book for young readers.
For her part, Shortridge offers a brief history of the past thirteen thousand years in Greenwood, homing in on human perseverance:
Perhaps it’s that tenacity of its citizenry — vegans, carnivores, and gluten-free alike — that explains the Greenwood state of mind: one of feisty survival, reinvention, and solidarity. They’ve withstood muddy feet, flooding streets, and slumping buildings, yet they’ve established a neighborhood in which the arts are celebrated, children are well regarded, parades are festively mounted, the library is popular, businesses thrive (and die and thrive, booming and busting with the rest of the city), and even space travel supplies are available for sale.
Or were for sale, until the explosion across the avenue rendered the merchandise inside the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. — BFI’s storefront — unsellable. Now, according to the nonprofit’s web site, “the nearest alternative is Gus's Space Travel Emporium in the Andromeda Galaxy.”
Such good humor is no small thing, coming as it does after the building’s flat roof gave way under January rains, ruining the tutoring area inside. For the second time in as many months, Hein finds her organization housed in a temporary space (it was Couth Buzzard Books after the flood; it’s been at the Phinney Neighborhood Association since the explosion). A tongue-in-cheek pluck persists not only through the website, social media communiqués and posters pinned to plywood on BFI’s blasted storefront, but also through the anthology itself, which rings simultaneously wise and wacky, serious and happy-go-lucky, down-to-earth and out of this world. A reader might have fun scouring the collection forensically for clues that the future is knowable: One finds fires, unsavory characters, and even, in a story by thriller writer Boyd Morrison, a water-heater explosion in which an empty Greenwood structure is shot to smithereens.
Having lived in the vicinity only since 2012, I feel the recent loss, but I hadn’t known much about the threats and catastrophes the neighborhood faced in the past: fires, crimes, giant boggy sinkholes and a few broken promises of capitalism (now I know why sidewalks are rare in the northwest sector of Greenwood). BFI director Hein, in the collection’s pivotal piece, writes about the neighborhood’s 2009 arson siege at the hands of a mentally ill neighbor who is now imprisoned and, she fears, probably still untreated. And in the imaginations of the anthology’s younger writers, the challenges keep coming. In a neighborhood of old and new eateries, strife appears entertainingly often in the form of food sabotage amongst jealous restaurateurs. The chaos is always resolvable, though, with empathy, creativity, cooperation, and a bit of extra elbow grease.
Perhaps the kids get it right by looking to the future. With the long view in mind it’s not so hard to imagine the return of Mr. Gyros and its neighbors. Maybe it’s not even such a stretch to anticipate more ambitious reruns: new turns on a Phinney Ridge Ferris wheel, fresh flicks in a reprised Ridgemont. I don’t want to take things too far, but BFI’s young writers wouldn’t hesitate. So to take a page from this, their fearless book: Maybe we’ll see tropical flora once again, a return of the giant ground sloth, even time travel made as pleasant, unexpected and illuminating as a whirl through Greenwood and its layered stories.
Bonnie J. Rough is the author of The Girls, Alone: Six Days in Estonia, selected by Amazon as one of the Best Kindle Singles of 2015, and the memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA (Counterpoint), winner of a 2011 Minnesota Book Award. She lives in Seattle.
Follow Bonnie J. Rough on Twitter: @BonnieJRough