For Emmett Watson, ‘Lesser’ is more

This caricature of the legendary Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson by the equally legendary former Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist Bob McCausland appeared in Watson’s 1988 Lesser Seattle wall calendar.

The following story, an interview of longtime Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson, appeared Dec. 16, 1987, in the West Seattle Herald/White Center News. More than 30 years later, Watson’s comments have a lot of resonance given today’s development boom. The interviewer, Clay Eals, was editor of the papers at the time. The story is reprinted here by permission of Robinson Newspapers. To see the story as printed, click here or scroll to the bottom.

For Watson, ‘Lesser’ is more

Columnist comes home Saturday to sign calendars
By Clay Eals

One of the West Side’s more famous/notorious native sons returns to his home turf this weekend.

He comes hat in hand, however, looking for holiday shoppers who are having trouble finding just the right item for those remaining on their lists.

It helps if the toughies on the list are from Seattle – now or sometime in the past.

That’s because Watson is pushing his new Lesser Seattle wall calendar for 1988. It’s a fanciful look at the not-so-attractive aspects of the Queen/Emerald City as detailed by Seattle’s consummate newspaper columnist. The $9.95 calendars also feature more than a dozen caricatures of Watson by ex-Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist Bob McCausland.

Watson will sign copies of the calendar at Pioneer West Book Shop, 4510 California Ave. S.W. in the Junction, from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Those who miss him there can find him scribbling his signature Saturday afternoon from 1 to 4 at Frederick and Nelson downtown.

Watson, who spent his youth in West Seattle, was one of the dignitaries featured in the West Side Story history book published this year by the West Seattle Herald and White Center News.

The history book is on sale at the News-Herald office, 3500 S.W. Alaska St., during the holiday season. It also is on sale at Pioneer West Book Shop, along with Watson’s calendar, and Watson will sign both on Saturday for those who are interested.

Watson, who lives next to the Pike Place Market, sat down for an hour to reflect on the mythical Lesser Seattle organization and on West Seattle earlier this month, over a cup of coffee at his favorite haunt, Lowell’s cafeteria in the market. Here is an edited transcript of the interview:

You’ve had Lesser Seattle around for quite a while.

Yeah, and a couple of times guys have come to me and said they wanted to market it, and I said no. But Fred Brack, a freelance writer, he does those cookbooks with Tina Bell, Taste of Washington, he’s a hell of a reporter and writer, worked for Sports Illustrated and the Washington Post, in fact he even had a hand in hiring Carl Bernstein. Anyway, he was trying to figure out a way to make some dough.

So we talked about it, and I had to go to the (Seattle) Times to get the OK, and I did, and we began to fool around with it. We already had those T-shirts out, sweatshirts and stuff, so we knew the designer, a guy named Tim Girvan, and Tim is one of the hot young designers in the country. Nice guy. I don’t know why Tim fooled with us. I think he just liked the concept of it.

So he went to working on it, then we got Bob McCausland out of retirement. (The caricatures) are all new. Some of them look like the old ones, but he did ’em all new. He really outdid himself.

Then I sat and wrote the stuff and took about two months or so to get it out.

With the flood of calendars on the market, what is this one’s appeal?

It’s a novelty calendar. We tried to get some tongue-in-check fun into it. That’s all Lesser Seattle is anyway, a tongue-in-cheek spoof.

There’s a serious message in it, too. A lot of people feel that way about the city. They don’t want it to balloon up. See, at the rate they’re going, why, they’re going to really make the streets deserted around here with all those high-rises. High-rises just wipe out a whole block of shops. And now we’re getting these elaborate plazas and a bunch of upscale shops that the ordinary person can’t afford. See, Third Avenue’s going to be wiped out.

Do you have any answers for the situation?

It’s too late now. Hell, they got so many new high-rises going in. They’ve got about four going up right now, and to some people that’s OK. I don’t like it that way. I like it the way it was on Third Avenue with the cigar store and the pool hall right around the corner. That’s all being moved out.

Does the character of a city stem from its downtown?

All you have to do is imagine what Seattle would be like if we didn’t have the Pike Place Market. Really.

Do you get into painting outlying areas with the Lesser Seattle swath?

Oh, yeah, we talk about Lesser Poulsbo, Lesser Winslow.

How about Lesser West Seattle?

Oh, I don’t know. Is it growing over there? It’s very much of a mix over there. I don’t know how dramatic the bridge has been, but it looks like it would have an impact. What I’d say there probably is, “Tear down the bridge.”

So far, how is the Lesser Seattle sentiment appealing to people through the calendar?

We were hoping that people would get carried away and buy four or five of them and send them to their relatives as sort of a tongue-in-cheek joke. And that’s happened. They give ’em to friends who have moved away. I always sign ’em, “Come back soon. Lesser Seattle welcomes you back.”

I was signing at Union Station the other night, and a lot of younger people bought ’em for their parents. There is that feeling. People don’t like to see Seattle get big.

Memories are funny things. We all think back on what it was like in the ’50s and the ’40s and ’30s, and I guess it’s kind of a growing-up process. We look back with nostalgia and fondness. I suppose it was just as hard to find a parking place in those days as it is now, but it doesn’t seem like it, y’know? People don’t like to have their lives disrupted.

Has Lesser Seattle had any tangible effect on the way things develop?

No, if anything, it’s probably counterproductive. I don’t think it has that much influence anyway. But people enjoy it because it’s a vehicle for saying a lot of things, like denouncing the high-rises.

And why do we want a Super Bowl here? All we’re going to do is get a bunch of drunken football fans in here for a week, and we’re going to subsidize them with free rent and parties. God, I really hate to see that. You just fall on your face in front of ’em and say, “Please come.” It’s just one big bash.

Anyway, you can always take off on it and use it that way.

Coming to West Seattle for a calendar signing, do you look forward to seeing people you know?

I was amazed when I did the book over there (five years ago) at how many people showed up who I’d forgotten, people I’d gone to school with.

West Seattle always was sort of a city in itself. See, when I grew up, we had the streetcar like everybody remembers, and it was a fair task to go downtown or to the U district. You had to ride that thing on those trestles, and it would take you 45 minutes to get downtown, and another 40 minutes to get to the U district.

I used to do that when I went to college. It was a bit of an isolation, and I’m convinced there are many, many families who grew up in West Seattle and never left, never went to any other part of the city.

West Seattle was also semi-country, really, and that wasn’t all that long ago. In the ’30s, there were an awful lot of wooded areas. In those days, as kids, we just ran loose. Back behind (James) Madison Junior High, there were little paths and trails, and you could walk almost clear to the Junction that way.

You once wrote, “I have never known anyone who moved to West Seattle for the sheer status of it, only because they liked it.”

I think that’s true. I really. You never got the feeling that there was any Highlands or Broodmoor mentality in it. At least I never did.

The people who had enough money would get beach property in those days. West Seattle always struck me as a mix, because you had people with real money down on the beach: the Schmitz family, the Colman family down along Fauntleroy. But then not very far away from that, very close, would be a middle-class and blue-collar neighborhood.

About Admiral Way and 45th, 46th, a lot of that is still with us. Once in a while, when I was recovering from my heart attack, I’d go over and go for walks around there, and it’s amazing how little of it has changed. A lot of rehabs everywhere. But the same kinds of people were there.

What do you remember best about West Seattle?

Well, I was born on Duwamish Head, and in college I lived with my brother and sister up on 35th. You could see down, and it was always kind of industrial, but I don’t think as kids we appreciated a lot of that. We didn’t think too much in terms of views. We thought too much of our own little problems.

Several years later, you get away from it, you go back over there, and Holy Toledo, the views.

The Dec. 16, 1987, interview as printed.

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