When Tacoma glass artist Oliver Doriss moved to Puget Sound from Boston, he decided only two places really had authentic art communities: Tacoma and Seattlel’s Georgetown. They were also both decidedly grungy. That was back in 1999, but you could still say the same thing today, with one slight difference: Georgetown flaunts its artsy grunginess. You might call it self-conscious grunge. It’s a mix of gorgeous historic buildings, craft beer and food, edgy art and endlessly bizarre places that’s undeniably seductive. It’s also a place that gets a bit scary after dark and has weird opening hours.
So, in a nutshell, here’s our guide to exploring Georgetown, from the Victorian steam plant to the trailer park mall to the flying trapeze and everything in between.
WEIRD: PAST AND PRESENT
There’s no shortage of the unexpected in Georgetown: haunted “castles,” circus schools, vintage taxidermy, trailer shops. Originally inhabited by the Duwamish people, settled by nonnative farmers in the 1850s, and eventually hitting a boomtown stride from 1870-1916 as a brewing and working-class community, Seattle’s oldest neighborhood has never strayed far from its gritty roots. And while the best way to take in the glory of its early-1900s architecture and neighborhood feel is to walk, don’t miss some of the fun stuff farther away from the main Airport Way drag. Some of the highlights:
The 1906-7 Georgetown Steam Plant: 6605 13th Ave. A technological wonder in its time for its vertical turbine generators, it is now on the National Historic Preservation list. Creepy, dim and mysterious in a steampunk way, it’s been used for zombie photo shoots, punk rock concerts and plays, and will play host to a site-specific dance event this fall.
Carleton Avenue: Start at the corner of Bailey Street, where the historic Queen Anne Mueller residence is now painted a spooky black. Across the road, the Georgetown History group is working on opening its exhibit of the area in a small cottage. Farther down is the supposedly-haunted Gessner residence, a.k.a. “Georgetown Castle” (6420 Carleton Ave.), a turreted Queen Anne built in 1902. The first owner, Peter Gessner, killed himself by drinking carbolic acid in a back room after hearing of his wife’s infidelity. It’s now privately owned, but worth a sidewalk look, as the renovation and garden are magnificent. Keep going down Carleton Avenue for the adorable Carleton Grocery, the magnificently tacky Hat and Boots sculpture at Oxbow Park and a roundabout with an entire tree in it.
Vintage shops: Kassie Keith Curiosities, 5951 Airport Way, has the kind of bizarre vintage retail that screams Georgetown. A gawky obstetrician’s model with a baby poking out of a plastic torso, a 1900s mail filing cabinet repurposed into lusciously dark wine shelving, vintage neon signage and mysterious grids of mirror discs all come together with a 1950s smoking club vibe. Don’t miss the retro yellow scooter atop the roof and the graffiti mural on the south side.
There’s upcycled fashion and map-covered notebooks inside Spectrum House, 5811 Airport Way, and more vintage farther north at Susan Wheeler, Kirk Albert and District (just north of the I-5 on-ramp). But you’ll find the weirdest vintage at the one-and-only Trailer Park Mall (505 Airport Way, in the parking lot). Adorable trailers, from 1950s orange-and-aqua to space-age silver, cluster behind the Georgetown Cultural Arts Center with delectably retro offerings inside and outside each tiny space: Day of the Dead kitsch, old spice tins, mounted moose heads, 1930s typewriters. A pile of hoops on the ground tempts kids and grown-ups to play, and in winter the place gets cozy with braziers and canopies. If it’s not unique, it ought to be.
SANCA circus school: This has been a Georgetown fixture for 10 years now, offering classes to all ages in juggling, tumbling and more. Most classes are sequential, requiring a 12-week session. But the flying trapeze, housed in an enormous white hangar a short drive (don’t walk it at night) northwest of the Airport Way shops, is open to anyone who wants to drop in. Business folks just off work, teenagers, the fit and the unfit — anyone can fly through the air if they are older than 4 and weigh less than 225 pounds. Strapped into a harness with a safety net below, you’ll learn to swing safely, and maybe even pull through into a knee hang, stretching your hands out to the incoming catcher for a circus trick you’ll never stop bragging about.
BEER (AND WINE, AND FOOD)
You can’t ignore beer in Georgetown. Craft beers abound at every eating joint, the breathtaking red brick of the original Rainier Brewery (no, not the Tully’s roasting place with the big R — the one farther south on Airport Way) hulks like a horror-film set along every block, and the place is known for happy hour pub crawls. Elysian Beer now brews there, and there’s even a beer barrel sculpture outside Brass Tacks pub. In fact, beer created Georgetown. The city incorporated in 1904 to protect local breweries and saloons against Prohibition. (Seattle took it back in 1910.)
There are many fine places to enjoy a pint. Machine House Brewery has a minimalist décor and English style ales, housed under the soaring Rainier smoke stack. The Jules Maes Saloon, named for an early Belgian immigrant to the area, delivers craft beer along with good burgers, sandwiches and tater tot nachos in an 1888 pub with lofty ceilings and brassy hardware. The Star Brass Lounge lets you drink on the deck overlooking the trailer park mall, and The Mix is one of those true rock dive bars that have mostly disappeared from the Seattle scene. Flying Squirrel pizza serves up Elysian beer to a soundtrack of vintage cassette mixtapes.
Then there’s the food. Georgetown is studded with quick pizzerias and diners, but some stand out: Via Tribunali for thin Neapolitan-style pies with super-fresh ingredients and a light, coffee-soaked tiramisu, smooth coffee at All City and everyone’s favorite food truck, Hallava Falafel. Deli snobs will love Hitchcock, the mainland outpost of the Bainbridge Island charcuterie that makes divine sandwiches out of its own cured meats and pastes, while Fonda La Catrina makes contemporary Mexican cuisine in a beautiful old building with a garden courtyard: rich, smooth mushroom enfrijoladas; tangy salsa verde with salty solid cheese; and a vegetarian tortilla soup rich with flavor and texture. They have a salty, dulce-de-leche-coated flan that’s eggy rather than sweet, and you can also cross over to Fran’s Chocolates, newly ensconced in an airy space in the Rainier brewery with a spiral cast-iron staircase and plenty of samples. Get there before 3:30 p.m. on a weekday or Saturday, and sample deliciously thick Greek yogurt from the Ellenos factory a few doors up.
If you’re looking for a Georgetown mix of funky history, beautiful architecture and delicious food, don’t miss The Corson Building. Now a restaurant, it’s in a 1926 Spanish Eclectic-style house built by Italian immigrant Bernardo Germani, who made Italian cast-stone statuary — much like Dario’s still does up on Fourth Avenue. Surrounded by wisteria-entwined cast iron and a fig-tree courtyard, it serves locally-sourced gourmet menus at rustic group tables: a la carte on Thursday and Friday nights and prix fix Saturdays and Sundays.
Finally, Walla Walla wine darling Charles Smith has expanded to Georgetown, with a Tom Kundig-designed winery and tasting room for his bold flavors with big-font labels.
Like Tacoma’s Doriss, artists have been drawn to Georgetown for decades, thanks to the gritty ambiance, clean western light and low rents. You can poke your nose into studios and live-work spaces during the monthly Art Attack, where all those New York-style lofts in the Rainier brewery open to visitors, as do the art schools (Miller, Arts and Cultural Center, Georgetown Atelier), communal studios (Equinox) and funky pop-up galleries. Start down at Oxbow Arts, a converted triangular building at South 12th and Bailey streets, which last month housed Alex Norwood’s slightly menacing sculptures woven with metal bullet casings and plastic caps. Climb the dark wood stairs between Hitchcock and Via Tribunali past lime-green, flower-embossed walls to The Alice, a New York-ish one-room gallery that rotates exhibitions like last month’s tongue-in-cheek ceramic jugs, while Interstitial showed light installations next door. Farther up in the Rainier brewery is Krab Jab Studio and Eight and Sand, and it’s worth making the trip out to the Guest Shed Gallery (739 S. Homer St.), where artist Tammy Spears hosts pop-up cutting-edge shows in her yellow garden shed.
Bars, shops and other businesses also host art during Art Attack; you can see it at other times as well.
Keep a look-out for street art: murals on the side of Brass Tacks and Kassie Keith, spray-painted shadows checking their phones on the sidewalk, and the bizarre little island garden next to Runway Café.
Grunge? Tacoma may have it in spades. But Georgetown has preserved its grunge with an artsy vintage flair and a slew of off-beat surprises. Start exploring —there’s no knowing what you’ll turn up.
From the Interstate 5, it’s impossible to see Georgetown. You also don’t drive through on the way to anywhere else. South of Seattle, between Safeco Field and Boeing Field, and bordered on the west by the Duwamish River, Georgetown’s a little island of cool in the middle of big industry. To find it, take the Corson/Michigan exit from I-5, and turn left at the lights onto South Bailey Street. Keep going past the on-ramp left turn, and make the next turn onto South 12th Street, where the shops begin. Parking can be tricky evenings and second Saturdays. To leave, get back onto South Bailey to the on-ramp, or else continue (Bailey becomes South Michigan Street) and turn right onto Fourth Avenue to get to downtown Seattle.
Via Tribunali (6009 12th Ave.) has handy maps of the area.
WHEN AND WHERE TO GO
Saturdays are your best bet to experience everything, especially the second Saturday of the month.
Vintage businesses: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; Airport Way between Corson and Lucile streets and at 5951 Airport Way. georgetownmerchants.org.
Bars, cafes and quirky shops: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (later for bars and restaurants) Tuesday-Saturday, Airport Way between Bailey and Corson streets, georgetownmerchants.org.
Charles Smith winery: Tastings 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 1136 S. Albro Place, charlessmithwines.com.
Trailer Park Mall: Noon-7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, 505 Airport Way, georgetowntrailerpark.com.
SANCA: Flying trapeze classes 3-5 p.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday (pay per flight) and 8-10 p.m. (regular); 12:30-10 p.m. Saturday; 10a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m. Sunday; $50 for the first class or $10 per flight (subsequent flights $5); 674 S. Orcas St.; sancaseattle.org.
Power Plant museum: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. second Saturday (tours 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., free; rehearsal for November dance performance noon-2 p.m. Oct. 10); 6605 13th Ave. S; georgetownpowerplantmuseum.com.
Galleries, art studios and everything else: 6-9 p.m. second Saturdays (Art Bus every 15 minutes) and during that afternoon, map at georgetownartattack.com.
EVENTS AND FESTIVALS
Georgetown Bites: March, georgetownmerchants.org.
Georgetown carnival: Second Saturday in June, georgetownmerchants.org.
Georgetown Garden Walk: Second Sunday in July, georgetownneighborhood.com.
San Gennaro Italian festival: Second weekend in September, sangennarofestivalseattle.org.
Flight of the Living Dead trapeze shows and open house: Oct. 2-3; sancaseattle.org.
Art Attack: Second Saturdays 6-9 p.m., georgetownartattack.com/wordpress.
“Study of Time and Motion”: Art and dance work at the historic Power Plant Museum, Oct. 24 and Nov. 14, sitespecificarts.org/project/study-time-motion.