Seattle Now & Then: The Historic Hundred

Much of this Sunday’s Seattle Times Pacific magazine is devoted to our new book. You may notice our pre-order button just to the right, upon which all readers are welcome to click! Or our many events, to which all are, of course, invited! Also, check out our many illustrious blurbers, who seem to like us very much!

Paul and Jean discuss Seattle’s past, present, and future at the old MOHAI (Photo: Berangere Lomont)

To  celebrate its upcoming launch – next Sunday, October 28th, which is also Paul’s 80th birthday! – we’re reprinting our senior editor Clay Eals’ lovely introduction and, as always, click to enlarge photos: 

Photo by Berangere Lomont

The Seattle Now & Then story:
from simple pleasures to the truth

By Clay Eals

The late Seattle newspaper pundit and historian Emmett Watson once said it is fitting for a flourishing city to have a “sense of itself.”

“I’m not even sure what I mean,” he wrote in 1984, “but it has something to do with a feeling for its past, a curiosity about its origins, a pride in its present.”

Emmett’s sage advisory resounds today amid our city’s tangle of construction cranes, pricey digs and teeming tech jobs — a veritable frenzy of future-focused development.

So, what is Seattle’s “sense of itself”? People of all stripes likely would agree that it derives from the city’s unique lay of the land — the lyrical, physical contours that created a natural stage for urban beauty and demanded ingenuity for the shaping of a prosperous port.

A 2018 view from Smith Tower

In the bustling “now” days of our city, hordes of newcomers may give these enduring qualities only fleeting thought. But longtimers, with visions of “then” dancing through their experience, have a more deep-seated grasp.

They summon formative years when the post-World War II maxim was the glory of growth. A prominent case in point: the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair — drawing nearly 10 million to a gleaming Jetsons view of the future  — trumpeted the trend. “Take a way-ahead look at tomorrow, just as if you were there,” crooned its catchy theme song.

“We Come In Peace”

But it didn’t take long, as baby boomers reached their 30s and 40s, for a generation clamoring for peace, equality and the environment to reach back in time to embrace and protect local icons and characteristics targeted by the business bulldozer.

Evidence in the 1970s and 1980s was undeniable. Seattle voters saved the Pike Place Market. The city council crafted a tough landmarks law. Grassroots heritage groups sprouted like spawning salmon. The past was becoming palpable.

Enter Paul Dorpat.

Paul after a public shave at his 40th birthday party in 1978

Today he is known as the indefatigable purveyor of what has become, over the past nearly 37 years, a beloved citywide optical institution entitled “Seattle Now and Then.”

Back in 1966, however, the 28-year-old was a newcomer to our city. Raised in Spokane by a father who commanded a preacher’s pulpit and a mother who devoted herself to public service, Paul was anything but resolute about his future.

Paul, 37, poses with his father, the Rev. Theodore E. Dorpat, in about 1975
Paul’s mother, Cherry Dorpat

He had considered the cloth while bouncing around Northwest colleges, but once here he applied his insistent conscience to the counterculture, founding the Helix underground newspaper near the University of Washington and launching the (pre-Woodstock) Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair in rural Sultan.

Paul, 30, talks with Seattle author Tom Robbins in 1968 at the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair in Sultan

A freelancer throughout the 1970s, he was gravitating toward a life of painting and film when, as he puts it, a “serendipitous spin” gave him an immersive entrée into local history. As is typical in the tracing of Paul’s trajectory, this biographical juncture owed to the bidding and support of a friend.

College buddy Dick Moultrie was seeking to reopen the Merchants Café, reputed to be Seattle’s oldest bar, in downtown’s oldest and most fabled district, Pioneer Square. He asked Paul to investigate the backstory of the business. Unwittingly, a die was cast.

Paul found himself diving into classic Seattle history tomes by Murray Morgan, Bill Speidel and others. Soon, projects that pointed to the past and piqued his native intelligence and inquisitiveness began to spiral.

Paul poses with Seattle’s Murray Morgan, author of Skid Road, mid-80s

While assisting the groundwork of a sculptor, Paul became intrigued by the lowered hills of the Belltown district north of downtown, and he prepared a detailed article for the alternative weekly Seattle Sun on the city’s massive, early 20th-century regrades.

After learning of the thesis of a UW graduate student in architecture who was digging into Seattle projects that were never pulled off, Paul assembled a “Then, Now and Maybe” exhibit of photos and visionary sketches for a June 1980 event called CityFair at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall.

The true turning point, however, came in fall 1981. Drawing from his budding collection of old images, Paul produced for the Mayor’s Small Business Task Force a sepia-toned booklet that displayed photographic collages of Seattle’s past. The charmingly titled publication, 294 Glimpses of Historic Seattle, sold for a clever $2.94, one penny per “glimpse.”

The response in that pre-internet era was phenomenal. Spotlighted in a column by the Seattle Times’ Erik Lacitis, the initial printing of 3,000 copies sold out in a flash. Eventually, 40,000 were snapped up, with proceeds going to charity.

It was the tangible beginning of an endearing pattern for Paul: He was simultaneously fueling and riding the wave of local interest in heritage.

There was no secret to his strategy. It was the photos — the city’s visual “sense of itself” coming alive.

“Each of these images is in some way quite precious, precious because of what it tells about the city,” Paul told Erik in 1981. “When I show this little book … to people who’ve never experienced the pictorial history of Seattle, … they are completely amazed. There is a sense of wonder that creeps across their faces. It spurs their imaginations, and they smile. … There are always new discoveries. Sometimes you see values that have been lost. But, happily, you see examples of things improved. It makes you respect the human effort that went into this city.”

With Erik’s help, Paul pitched a continuation of this concept to the Seattle Times. The paper’s Sunday magazine editor, Kathy Andrisevic, agreed, and the inaugural “Seattle Now and Then” appeared on Jan. 17, 1982.

A screenshot of Paul’s first column – updated for the book

That first weekly column showcased a formula that persevered through more than 1,800 installments and continues to this day:

  • Find a long-ago, well-composed “then” photo taken in the Seattle area.
  • Juxtapose it with a “now” image taken from an angle close to the original — a venerable art form known as repeat photography.
  • Add a brief, well-researched essay telling a story about the visual pair.

A key word in this recipe, a journalistic one, is “story.” In Paul’s lexicography, the story invariably centers on the common man and everyday life — and, not insignificantly, is leavened with gentle humor and layered with irony.

Presentation of the weekly feature has waxed and waned over the decades. Several dozen times, the magazine deferred the column for other priorities. In early years, “Seattle Now and Then” covered a generous two full pages but later shrank to one page and occasionally to two-thirds of a page. Thankfully, in recent years it has rebounded to a full page, sometimes more,. It consistently graces the magazine’s inside back cover, and all of the “nows” appear in brilliant color.

Through all the variations, the heartening constant is that those reading the 300,000 copies of the Sunday Seattle Times count “Seattle Now and Then” among its most popular features.

The column also maintains a fortified online presence transcending the Seattle Timessite to Paul’s own blog, pauldorpat.com, which allows magnified views of the “nows,” “thens” and countless other related images.

The launch of the blog 10 years ago also marked the full bloom of Paul’s partnership with Seattle teacher, actor and photographer Jean Sherrard, who has taken nearly all of Paul’s recent “now” photos and is the “now” photographer (and editor and production manager) for this commemorative tome.

Jean and Paul pose in 2011 at the entrance to a Now and Then compilation of their work, the
final exhibit of the Museum of History & Industry at its former location in Montlake. (photo: Berangere Lomont)

Jean’s formidable skills, imagination, artistry, tenacity and equipment (not to mention a tall frame) have let him create captivating present-tense pictures. But his greatest asset may be the dedication and joie de vivre that he brings to his friendship with Paul. Recognizing this, Paul altered the voice of many of his later columns from “I” to “we.”

Jean atop the Space Needle (photo: Berangere Lomont)

The dynamic of the Paul/Jean relationship is noteworthy yet typical. Though Paul jokes that his friends are few and “long suffering,” his basso-voiced personality is nothing if not mesmerizing and magnetic. This results in ties with many that reflect uncommon loyalty and affection.

Jean takes a “now” photo of native descendants Mary Lou Slaughter and Ken Workman in May 2018 atop Post Alley. (Clay Eals)

Such bonds contributed to the persistence and appeal of “Seattle Now and Then.” Paul’s resulting stature led him into myriad offshoots, including countless regional talks and installations, three book-length column compilations (1984, 1986 and 1989) and other publications both slim (on First Avenue and the University Bookstore) and behemoth (the public-works epic Building Washington, 1998, with his wife, Genny McCoy, and Washington Then and Now, 2007, with Jean). He also produced a panoramic, two-hour video tour of 90 years of city history (“Seattle Chronicle,” 1992) and a one-hour KCTS-9 documentary on the first 30 years of the Bumbershoot Festival (“Bumberchronicles,” 2001, with Catherine Wadley and Jean).

Paul with his Building Washington collaborator, Genny McCoy, in 2011 on their porch in the Wallingford neighborhood.

At the core of Paul’s persona, however, is “Seattle Now and Then.” The “best of” volume that you hold in your hands is a culmination — a subjective selection and updating of the most compelling and essential of the 1,800 columns. By definition, it celebrates Paul’s lifetime contribution to inspiring all of us to both enjoy and champion the history of our city.

The occasion of this anthology is also personally momentous. It salutes a prolific track record that has required of Paul considerable initiative and fortitude.

Yet today, well into his 80th year, he doesn’t see it all as profound. He describes himself as merely “a sentimental guy” who long ago stumbled upon a vehicle to provide the “simple pleasure” of allowing people to imagine a visit to the past.

“It’s like hide and seek,” he says. “That’s a really deep motive in all of us, to figure out how things are hidden, where things have changed, what things are revealed.”

Next to Pioneer Square’s Pergola in May 2018, Paul ponders downtown Seattle’s oldest neighborhood. (Photo: Clay Eals)

Of course, Paul is grateful for the popularity of “Seattle Now and Then” and the many doors it has opened for him. He also comprehends and revels in the societally therapeutic virtues of comparative history. How could he not?

“History is delightful,” he says. “It’s understanding. It’s actually the truth if you do it right, and the truth is progressive. It always is.” To that end, he cautions that elevating an old scene does not always make it more treasured than its more recent counterpart: “I don’t mind some things being knocked down.”

But lifting up the city’s heritage, Paul allows, is inherently altruistic. It also feeds his “pretty radical” personal politics, which he knows he can’t tout every week to a mainstream readership. “To some extent, I toe the line,” he says. “I don’t express what I really feel about the usury and avarice and stinginess of the 1 percent.”

Paul keeps other avocations in his sights, including his younger pursuits of painting and film editing. A hope he holds dear is to complete a mammoth online biography of the beloved Seattle folksinger, restaurateur and self-promoter Ivar Haglund.

His most substantial aim, however, is to secure the professional storage and cataloging of his enormous archive, so that citizens one day will be able to access everything in it, including all of the “Seattle Now and Then” columns, free of charge.

Underlying this archival quest is Paul’s yearning to inspire others throughout the region to likewise share their own local photos, films and ephemera — his version of vox populi (the voice of the people).

Through it all, “Seattle Now and Then” abides. Though Paul laments his flagging energy (“It doesn’t cook as quickly — my cuisine is always resting on simmer”), he has no plan to pull back from his weekly dispatch.

That’s fortunate for all of us navigating the seemingly relentless change of the city’s latest boomtown ethos, a time when each “now” threatens to become a “then.” We need Paul “now” for as long as humanly possible.

“I love Seattle,” he says. “It’s the multifarious topography, it’s all my friends I’ve made over the decades, it’s my knowledge of it — they’re the kinds of reasons we do all these things. This is my home.”

What better guide could we have to discover, and rediscover, Seattle’s “sense of itself”?

West Seattle journalist and author Clay Eals has been active with the Southwest Seattle Historical Society in West Seattle since its founding in the mid-1980s, when he was fortunate to begin his own collaborations and friendship with Paul Dorpat.

Clay Eals

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