Spokane, Washington: Hometown Oddities and Affection
When I tell people I’m from Spokane, typically they respond in one of two ways: “What was it like growing up in your nation’s capital?” or “Zomg, I love Washington state! Doesn’t it rain all the time there, though?” It’s safe to say that, unless you’re a Sherman Alexie fan, you probably haven’t heard of my hometown. It’s about as far as you can get, within the intercontinental United States, from Washington D.C., and the climate is arid and seasonal (steppe), common for a place so far north and well-above sea level yet (as I learned when researching this article) uncommon for its significant winter precipitation. Its rare abundance of wildlife, varied flora, and interesting seasonal weather patterns are due to being smackdab between two mountain ranges—the Cascade range to the west and the Rockies to the east.
Spokane is also the second largest city in Washington state. The city is home to over 200,000 people, a handful of colleges and universities, including Gonzaga University of NCAA basketball fame, the Spokane Indian Tribal headquarters, and a small international airport (GEG). The city, bisected by the river that bears its name, was also the site of the 1974 World’s Fair in Riverfront Park. Spokane is approximately 20 miles from the Washington–Idaho border, and 280 miles east of Seattle along Interstate 90. I get back for a visit maybe 1-2 times per year, but not much seems to change there. As if time passes more slowly. I joke sometimes that certain roads in Spokane haven’t changed their billboards in 30 years...
Spokane is odd as Washington population-centers go, politically-speaking, in that Spokane leans right while the others generally lean left. In the 2012 general election, for example, Spokane County favored Mitt Romney for President over Barack Obama by 51.5 to 45.7%; on the state ballot, the county supported the legalization of recreational marijuana ballot measure by 52.2 to 47.9% and opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage by 44.1 to 55.9%. I sat in a bar on Spokane’s north side during this election, watching my ex-boyfriend, Marc, complain about the spotty free WiFi and hem over the lethargy of late-reporting districts; Ryan, Marc’s husband, and I shared knowing glances and sipped our beers. My dad joked later that I shouldn’t worry too hard about Spokane’s position on Referendum 74: “We did vote in favor of pot legalization. Just let the city get high enough, and we’ll let you get married here too…”
Spokane is odd for other reasons, too. Its crime rate is significantly higher than other state averages, 64.8 to the state’s 38.3. And almost 20% of the city’s inhabitants live below the poverty line. The racial makeup of the city, checked by the 2010 census, was 84.00% White, 5.00% Hispanics, 2.50% Asian and 2.20% African American. It is not terribly diverse.
Yet Spokane boasts some fascinating features anyway. Spokane does boast an opera house, as well as the Smithsonian-affiliate museum, the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. On the more noteworthy pedestrian points-of-interest, Spokane has its own fast-food staples: Dick’s Hamburgers (its sister-locations are in Seattle) that’s been in operation since 1965, and also my personal favorite, Zip’s, with its buckets of French fries and “famous” tartar sauce. Both burger chains were staples of my youth, bane of my cross-country coach’s existence, and just down the street from my high school, Lewis & Clark High.
I recently went to lunch in Los Angeles with an old high school friend, Erin. She’s also queer, but we’d never really taken the opportunity with each other to talk coming-out stories. One of the most curious things about the conversation, which Erin’s girlfriend mostly observed in patient bemusement, was just how often Erin and I voiced the same thought about growing up in Spokane, echoing a feeling or impression or experience we’d thought beforehand specific to us. I’d spent years already, assigning these thoughts to growing up Mormon, I’d never really considered that my hometown might be the more to blame. It forced me to rethink my story.
One of the things I constantly miss about Spokane is its green spaces, particularly Manito Park in the city’s South Hill historic neighborhood. I grew up in this park, picking lilacs in the spring, walking sleds over to its giant hills in the winter, or chasing the snapping turtles in its ponds in the hot summer. I trained there over years of cross-country running. I snuck into the park’s walled Japanese Garden for secret make-out sessions in the middle of the night with a handful of “boyfriends” in adolescence. I go back to Manito every time I visit.
My parents have lived in Spokane since I was six year’s old, 1988, but they’re currently thinking about leaving. They want to travel more. Ultimately, they want to be closer to their kids and grandkids, who now live scattered throughout the country’s southwest. It may be that my visits to Spokane will eventually inevitably stop. Time may seem to pass slowly in my hometown. Yet change still comes. It may be soon that—for my family, at least—Spokane is home only to memories and old friends. It is an odd thought.
Matthew D. Kulisch