by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
“The most profound lesson I learned with JAMPAC is how accessible our democracy can be. Sure, you can burn a flag on the steps of the legislature, but I’ve found you can be effective and less alienating by walking into that legislature and asserting yourself as a citizen.”
That’s what former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic told the 1998 Spitfire Forum, an annual tour promoting free speech for musicians. JAMPAC (Joint Artists and Music Promotions Action Committee) is a political group over which Novoselic presided for several years, including when he was the top VIP of the 1998 Capitol Hill Block Party. Proceeds for that year of the festival went to JAMPAC and the set list pulled from Capitol Hill’s punk sensibilities from the era. They were local bands, circus acts, game booth operators and vendors. They were also several years deep in the Block Party’s transformation into a money-making event.
In a sense, every era of the Block Party has its nostalgists who claim that their version of the event was the best or most genuine. In truth, the first thing ever called the Capitol Hill Block Party resembled nothing of the event even a few years later. It was a 1993 hang out put on by Crescent Down Works, then a skateboard shop on 11th Avenue and Pike Street. It was smaller than small, but that first year attracted the attention of a promotions company calling itself Thirsty Girl Productions, not to be confused with a wine promotions company formed in 2009. TGP is still rolling and its CEO, Jen Gapay, still claimed to be the Block Party’s founder as recently as 2011 when she said so much in an interview with Time Out New York.
However it started and whoever started it, by the time the 1998 Block Party happened, the oft-derided commercialization of the event was already in full swing. It used to be a true block party: no ticket to enter, no sponsors, just an open invitation for locals to hang out and have a laugh. The first stage rolled in and it became a full-on music festival in 1997. Gapay sold the outfit in 2000 to Marcus Charles, the man behind the Crocodile Cafe and music venue in Belltown, and David Meinert, a nightlife entrepreneur and activist. Among other contributions, Meinert put a lot of energy behind the campaign battling the Teen Dance Ordinance – a Seattle law that limited the ability of venues to host all-ages events – and it was repealed in 2002.
The Charles/Meinert years saw the addition of a second stage to the Block Party, as well as a second day of the festival. Theirs was a solid decade of turning what began as a few couches on the sidewalk into a mini-Bumbershoot, attracting loads of indie rock and major acts with national or even international tours. The Block Party began partnering with Pike Street music venues to host bands at places like Neumos and The Comet.
The Block Party really exploded in 2010, though. Expanded to a three-day, three-stage extravaganza, the event drew an estimated 20,000 people to see just south of 90 bands perform for a $60 three-day pass. Today, the same three-day pass is $115, or $133.33 after fees. The inflation occurred after the Block Party’s long-time programmer and talent buyer, Jason Lajeunesse, grabbed the festival from Charles and Meinert.
With a $133 ticket price tag and corporate sponsorships by the likes of AT&T and Budweiser, the CHBP has come a long way since putting couches on the sidewalk. Of course, Capitol Hill isn’t what it was in the early 1990s, either. It’s not Krist Novoselic’s Nirvana-age punk haven, but in a sense it closely resembles his post-Nirvana ideals of citizenship. Next door to The Comet is Lobby Bar, the epicenter of the 2012 Election Night party and the staging ground for a wing of the grassroots campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington. One block over on Pine, the Century Ballroom in the Oddfellows Building hosted fundraising events in 2012 for Governor Jay Inslee’s campaign and President Obama’s re-election campaign.
Capitol Hill is not the freaky, grungy, alternative-over-all place it once was. Its people don’t burn flags and the window-smashers among them are May Day protesters from out of town. Pike/Pine gets engaged in system politics, it’s proud of its sunny boutiques, and its LGBT visibility has legitimized itself out of yesterday’s controversy. It is possible in a roundabout and much more monetized way that the come-as-you-are of Capitol Hill’s past made the place and its festivals so attractive that the explosion of the Block Party was inevitable.
Punky chips on leather shoulders notwithstanding, a lot of Capitol Hill businesses enjoy promotions during the Block Party. They and the city at-large enjoy the tens of thousands of visitors and millions of dollars that flow through the festival. For the optimists, the narrative is that Capitol Hill and the Block Party exploded because people love them. For those less taken with the commercialization of the event, it’s a sell-out. That’s all subjective, but what’s true is that Crescent Down Works moved out of the neighborhood while the music venues stayed. That’s the bed Capitol Hill made and now it’s about to share the pillow with a festival-hungry throng, again. Come out if you love it or take a vacation if you don’t on July 26, 27 and 28.