Room to Grow

Love City Love is seizing a chance 
to keep culture alive on Capitol Hill. 

There’s no stage inside this former auto showroom on Capitol Hill, but the piano in the center of the room radiates enough gravity to keep the small crowd gathered in close orbit. The baby grand’s chipped white paint matching the elegant decay of the second-floor space, white walls and rafters lit by strings of white café lights.

Teasing the keys and leading the band is a lanky guy with graying hair under an orange knit cap. His eyes are locked on a diminutive dude to his right thumping a massive upright bass next to a young woman sizzling on a drum kit with minimalist precision, blond hair bobbing over her face. They volley a groove, jazz-ish, propulsive and wide open. The green scent of sage smoke spikes the air.

From the semi-circle of about 50 people, a woman approaches the piano and grabs the microphone. A tiny infant papoosed to her chest sports oversized plastic headphones and appears to be sleeping. The woman bounces with the mike in her hand and begins a wordless chant. The crowd joins in call-and-response style, clapping in unison.

She cedes the mike to a young woman who begins reciting a line from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” recently revived via Kanye West: Blood on the leaves… Blood on the leaves… The crowd repeats it back. She turns over the mike to a tall African-American man with a long burgundy scarf draped around his neck. He raps a few bars in low tones, bows out and everyone cheers.

A new drummer—a stocky 20-something guy in glasses—takes over, bursting into a rapid-fire breakbeat rhythm. A sax player sneaks in, blowing tentatively at first, then insistent and raw. The musicians adjust, but the music never stops. The whole room is dancing.

Between performers, Hollis Wong-Wear—fresh off touring the world with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis—works the mike in casual-MC mode, singing and rapping and leading call-and-response. A guy joins her for an impromptu blues-hop version of “Hit the Road, Jack,” and between freestyle verses, everyone sings the chorus at full volume.

I turn to the person next to me, a handsome, dark-skinned dude with deep-set eyes and long thin dreads. Judging by the hellos and hugs he’s been spreading among the crowd, he’s been here before.

“This is incredible!” I say. “What’s this night called?”

“They just call it Love City Love,” he says.

Love City Love: It’s a name, a description, a slice of poetry. It’s a wellspring of unselfconscious spontaneity and intentional good vibes set in the middle of Seattle’s densest neighborhood. An urban cultural experiment in visible, participatory form. Along with these weekly sessions, it comprises an ongoing pop-up boutique that showcases local designers and various other events. This month it hosts a music video premiere party, a massive Valentine’s Day art show and an all-female photo exhibit.

Events will continue through the end of February, possibly into March, and then the temporary lease runs out. After that, the 90-year-old Dunn Motors building, a piece of prime real estate at Pike and Summit, will be shuttered for retrofitting and development.

If the stars align—which is to say, if investors and organizers can find common cause to maintain its existence—Love City Love will find a new home on Capitol Hill. Otherwise, like so much grassroots culture in this restless part of town, it will disappear completely.

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If Seattle has a prevailing mood, it’s embedded in youth and newness.

Seattle—the inexorable terminus of westward migration, the period to the run-on sentence that was Manifest Destiny—remains a mostly blank slate in its social temper. Maybe coming of age with the rise of mass media—first television, then the Internet—unsettled our sense of self, swaddling a robust city in a permanent state of becoming. All this yearning and ambivalence and indecision, this blank-slate-ness—it’s a blessing.

The rampant property development currently overtaking Seattle is rebuilding the city’s physical image, completely and indelibly. The skyline we knew five years ago is already a memory, the one we see now a mirage. In five years we’ll hardly recognize the city we now live in.

Right now, Capitol Hill activists are racing to establish a foothold of alternative culture before heedless development establishes something else: potentially a generic corridor of ugly architecture and clueless newcomers with no ken of the neighborhood’s artistic bent. Every art gallery, black-box theatre and local-goods retailer, every preserved historic building counterbalances faceless construction and encroaching national chains.

Opening a large urban environment to free form, street-level expression isn’t a new idea. Plenty of people imagine a creative sandbox set inside a beautiful old building in the heart of the city. These things rarely materialize. Space and resources are painfully hard to come by, and the gap between a pipe dream and a signed lease is vast. But the timing, scale and visibility of Love City Love are unprecedented and its execution has been flawless. It’s an of-the-moment reinvention—and it’s working.

The space’s ground-floor storefront, previously home to Ed Murray’s campaign office, is a fishbowl, fully visible to the outside world through floor-to-ceiling windows. In late December Love City Love’s organizers turned it into a gallery and boutique called Closed Circuit. The space is full of impeccably stylish local fashion—leather jackets, unisex jewelry, textile art and other inscrutable décor. This stuff represents the edgiest indie designers in the city, the essence of Seattle style and taste right now.

But the second floor is the centerpiece. Industrial-sized neon radiates the words LOVE CITY LOVE from the corner window—a signpost as much as a directive. Along with the Wednesday night sessions, the space has hosted dance parties, rock bands and a 35-piece jazz orchestra. Several artists and clothing designers have set up shop there, producing the stuff that will be shown downstairs in Closed Circuit. It’s as much a venue as an engine, a room devoid of anything more remarkable than beautiful natural light and potential, fueled by creative intention.

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As an idea, Love City Love began years ago with a young artist named Lucien Pellegrin. Born in Indiana, raised in the Northwest and the San Francisco Bay Area, Pellegrin, 30, grew up surrounded by a lifestyle that could generously be called “bohemian.” His mother was absent and addicted to drugs, his father forever in search of the right partner and place and manner to raise his son. They lived in communal houses on Capitol Hill and in Green Lake, in a school bus in Olympia and an apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District. They traveled a lot. No TV, no junk food, but whatever music and art and literature Pellegrin could get his hands on.

By his early 20s, Pellegrin was an itinerant skateboarder taking photos and making videos of his travels. He’d studied abroad in Holland, lived in Paris for a year and attended art school in Oakland. After finding his way back to Seattle, he dedicated himself to Arts Corps, a Seattle nonprofit that offers music and arts education to at-risk youth. He became a part-time teaching artist, leading classes in book arts and photography. He scraped rent together by working at coffee shops and restaurants on the side.

All around him, he saw poverty—not just economic, but poverty of the mind and spirit. Life was struggle. He began to apply the name Love City Love to his projects because he couldn’t find love anywhere else.

Spurred equally by frustration and wanderlust, Pellegrin tried to relocate—to New York, LA, Mexico City, places that boasted arts scenes more entrenched, diverse and activated than Seattle’s. But they were weak attempts, with little money and not much of a plan behind them. For better or worse, Seattle kept him moored to the Northwest.

Through happenstance, good looks and a sort of guileless suavity, Pellegrin found a high-paying gig as a model for TCM, a local talent agency. He was placed in a Men’s Wearhouse commercial that went national. Paired with the finances he’d saved over the years—a childhood of instability bred in him an innate sense of frugality and responsibility—modeling money suddenly provided the means to invest in something he believed in.

In early 2012, the corner of Pine and Melrose became the latest battleground in the ongoing campaign to bring urban density to Capitol Hill. Eastside developers announced plans to raze the decades-old Bauhaus building and replace it with a high-rise, mixed-use building, in turn eradicating the businesses housed there. One of those, the Warren Knapp Gallery, vacated the space it had occupied for years. In the empty gallery Pellegrin saw the opportunity he’d been waiting for. Sometime around the end of 2012, he slipped a hand-written note through the mail slot:

I’ve seen this space has been available for some time. I’m an artist living in the neighborhood and would like to create a gallery here.

The simplicity of the wording belied Pellegrin’s deeper intentions, but it got the job done. Two months later, he’d signed a six-month lease on the space at a deep, deep discount and opened it as Love City Love. He enlisted a slew of arts-world friends and began to host events. Friends from local menswear label Tarboo debuted their summer line and other designers showed theirs as well. The Wednesday night sessions launched with Amos Miller, a keyboardist and music producer Pellegrin knew from Arts Corps, as musical director. Word spread and artists and musicians from around the city made Wednesday night a regular stop. Throughout last summer, crowds spilled out the door and onto the sidewalk—and often the jam session did too.

The summer of Love City Love culminated with “Vigil,” a group show of 100 artists organized by a group of Seattle’s sharpest young curators. It was billed as a wake for Old Capitol Hill, but the buzz inside the gallery that night in early September suggested more of a beginning than an end. The following week, the entire block was boarded with plywood, like a death shroud laid over a corpse.

The success of the LCL’s initial run propelled Pellegrin into action. He resolved to email five developers a week seeking a new space. One of those was Jill Cronauer, an associate at Hunters Capital, the Capitol Hill investment firm that had recently purchased the Dunn Motors building, formerly the longtime home of CK Graphics, a printing company. Pellegrin sent her an email similar to the note he wrote the owners of Warren Knapp.

Cronauer had attended Love City Love events over the summer and was familiar with their low-key atmosphere. She endorsed Pellegrin’s proposal to the owners of Hunters Capital, Mike and Barbara Malone. In turn, the Malones—philanthropists and preservationists who own the Sorrento Hotel, among other classic buildings on the Hill—invited Pellegrin in with a tremendous discount in rent. Love City Love opened in its current location in December of last year.

Soon after the first events started upstairs, Jessica Carter joined the fold full-time. A San Francisco transplant, Carter had recently quit her job as a trend forecaster and package designer for Nordstrom. Like Pellegrin, she’s well traveled, with art world roots in Seattle and beyond, and her background in the fashion and retail industries adds a degree of credibility to Love City Love’s idealism.

“We all have our own dreams that we want to accomplish, and we realized it would be easier if we did it together and housed it under one roof and worked together to create,” she says.

Through her professional connections, she’s booked the second floor to the likes of Tempur-Pedic and American Eagle Outfitters for commercial photos shoots. The money those shoots have brought in has helped offset the cost of expenses. Carter, Pellegrin and the project’s manager are making a modest living from the operation, but really it’s generosity, savvy and dedication that keep Love City Love sustainable.

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We agree, and I think the community agrees, that art builds civilization,” says Barbara Malone. “It’s important.”

Malone says she appreciates Pellegrin’s directness, focus and humility and is proud to give him a temporary platform. “He’s masterful in what he’s doing and how he’s bringing people together, creating conversation and introducing audiences to artists.”

Pellegrin is quick to compliment the community work Hunters has done, the commitment to the arts the Malones have demonstrated. His mantra these days is “collaboration with gentrification.” He’d prefer to let the obvious speak for itself—art builds civilization—than to ask for funding for his idea, successful as it’s been. But that’s what he’s after. Imagine a curated space, free to all ages, featuring live music and street fashion and art, installed in every new building on Capitol Hill.

“It’s about accessibility, man,” says Pellegrin. “If it’s Starbucks and a gym in your condo storefront, then you’re gonna grab a cappuccino and hop on the treadmill. But if there’s a Love City Love, then maybe you print out your photos from your Instagram and you have a photo show at Love City Love because you just bought this condo for 450K and moved here from DC and you make six figures and you’re like, I got this new condo and they have this cool thing called Love City Love and it’s this creative platform for people who live in the condo but also people that don’t live in the condo have access to it.”

Ideally, the next space Love City Love occupies will be long-term. Not necessarily a preserved historic building, but certainly somewhere on Capitol Hill, close to the heart of the city. It will provide a livelihood for the artists who run it and a creative outlet for the artists who use it.

Pellegrin admits to pipe-dreaming. He’s an artist, not an entrepreneur, which is why his passion is so contagious. For all his easygoing can-do, he’s plagued by questions. Why hasn’t this happened already? How do we pay for it? Who are we waiting for? The Malones? Paul Allen? The Mayor?

All these exasperated mutterings bespeak the extreme urgency of the situation. Because regardless of specifics, Pellegrin’s vision is captivating and the stakes in this race are nothing short of the soul of the city. No single one of us can win it. It’s a collective effort.

“With true leadership, you build something up and then you step away, and you trust that the community can hold it up,” Pellegrin says. “Everything is possible. This stuff is worth more than money.”

Photo by Avi Loud

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