Ten Awesome Things About Spokane (and Five Random Observations)

I found myself in Spokane last weekend.

It was an unplanned visit, mostly. My sister was flying out to Spokane from New York to visit a few of her old friends. I had nothing in particular going on, so at the last moment I flew up and joined her.

I was born in Spokane; we were both raised there. Our parents moved out of Washington right after I graduated from high school, so we haven’t found much reason to go back. We both like Spokane, we really do, but there have been other priorities.

This wasn’t the best weekend to visit. In addition to having record-breaking heat, Spokane was also in the middle of hosting some monstrosity called Hoopfest. Hoopfest bills itself as the world’s largest three-on-three basketball tournament; while I have no reason to doubt this statement, I do sort of wonder how many other three-on-three tournaments are out there. In any case, Hoopfest was a big honking deal, drawing 24,000 players and monster hordes of spectators. Hotels were booked, restaurants were crowded, streets were closed to accommodate the dozens of makeshift courts, and the sound of incessant dribbling continued far into the night.

Still, we had a good time. My sister saw her old friends, I saw my old friends. We walked around far too much and got far too much sun exposure. We ate some good food and some godawful onion rings. We grew thoroughly sick of this Hoopfest nonsense. And then we flew home to our respective coasts.

I’m glad we went. Spokane has a lot to recommend it. Specifically:

The Davenport Hotel. Closed and near-condemned throughout our childhood, it’s now renovated top-to-bottom and open for business. It’s gorgeous. The lobby is so pretty it almost made me burst into tears. Even though we had a perfectly acceptable room at another downtown hotel, we spent a great deal of time at the Davenport. I had crab salad and girl-drinks with a childhood friend in the Safari Room; my sister and I breakfasted on bagels and lox and crab omelets at the Palm Court. We loitered in the lobby, staring at the fish swimming in the fountain. We bought postcards in the gift shop. We peeked into the Peacock Lounge. We shopped at the candy store on the ground level twice. Instead of rambling on about the history of the place (opened in 1914, first hotel with air-conditioning, home of Crab Louis), I’ll just link to the official website and, in particular, their photo gallery. It was breathtakingly lovely, really.

Looff Carrousel. (It looks like I’m spelling it wrong, doesn’t it? Confirmed: that second “r” is indeed supposed to be there.) The carrousel, built in 1909, is in Riverfront Park. Spokane is very proud of the carrousel, and it should be. If you don’t understand how a carrousel can provoke such affection and awe, either you’ve never seen the Looff Carrousel, or you have a twisted, blackened little soul. The carrousel features hand-carved wooden horses (and a giraffe, and a goat) with manes and tails made of genuine horse hair. Like the Davenport, the carrousel reeks of history in the best possible way.

The garbage goat. Functional art in Riverfront Park: press a button, and this steel goat sculpture becomes a powerful vacuum, suctioning up any garbage you feed it. If Spokane had vacuum-powered goats instead of garbage cans on every street corner, it would be the most awesome little city in the world.

The bus ride from the airport. Spokane’s a small place: the bus ride from the airport to the center of downtown takes about half an hour and covers about ten miles. The trip costs a dollar. On the downside, the bus only runs once every hour, and it doesn’t run nights or weekends. (Pshaw! No one ever needs to get to an airport at night or on a weekend.) The roadside scenery is quintessential Spokane: volcanic rocks and pine trees. For years after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the sides of the road were covered in volcanic ash. (Mount St. Helens is not especially close to Spokane, but thanks to some fluke wind patterns, the bulk of the ash that shot into the air post-eruption sailed neatly over the Cascades and landed in a glomp on Spokane, blanketing the city and forcing all of us to wear surgical masks outside in the days immediately following. As a six-year-old kid, this was the neatest thing ever. For Christmas that year, we gave all our relatives jars of ash.)

Lewis and Clark High School. A gorgeous turn-of-the-century building, Lewis and Clark looks precisely how a high school should look. Like the Davenport, LC was extensively renovated a few years back. Spokane does renovations well: it looks fantastic. Too bad the same can’t be said for our junior high, Sacajawea (Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea… detect a trend?), which is still a collection of monstrously ugly one-story brick buildings, set upon an unlandscaped patch of grass. Sacajawea might be the ugliest building in Spokane. At least it has a swell totem pole out front.

Manito Park. The reality of Manito Park looked a little ragged compared to my memory: the duck pond was sludgy, the topiaries in Duncan Gardens weren’t the perfect gumdrop shapes of my imagination, the Japanese Garden made some changes for the worse (they ditched the crooked bridge designed to thwart evil spirits and added “Keep off the Grass” signs written in an incongruous Chinese Menu font), and Upper Manito paved over the wading pool. (The wading pool in Comstock Park is also gone. In both parks, the original wood playgrounds have been replaced by pre-formed plastic equipment, which probably cuts down on the risk of splinters, but is a bit of an eyesore. It’s kid-friendly! It’s safe! It’s hideous!) Still, I love Manito, and always will.

Boo Radley’s. A cool little novelty/curio shop downtown featuring a good selection of gag gifts with a dry sense of humor. While shopping in Boo Radley’s, I was possessed by a near-uncontrollable urge to own a Spokane Ninja Society t-shirt. I abstained, but it was close.

Taco Time. Slogan: “It Really Is.” We were delighted to find Taco Time still in existence. It’s a chain, but one you don’t find much anymore. At least not here in Los Angeles, where presumably the locals would be quick to point out that, traditionally, an empanada is not a deep-fried flour tortilla stuffed with cherry pie filling. Taco Time is the home of Mexi-Fries, a divine culinary creation consisting of crispy-fried tater tots covered in a mix of vaguely Mexican-ish spices. Prior to this visit, I hadn’t had Mexi-Fries since 1991. I’d missed them.

Rocket Bakery. New since our time, we spotted at least three of these cute little coffee shops around town. We’re indebted to Rocket Bakery for providing a place of calm refuge on the first day of Hoopfest, where we could linger over coffee and pesto bagels and commiserate with the countergirl about how much Hoopfest really, really sucks.

Spokane Falls. The Spokane River rips through Riverfront Park. Precarious wire-strung gondolas swing out in a circuit over the falls. You don’t mess with the Spokane River: you know how you sometimes look at a river and think about how you could probably swim across it? In Spokane, you look at the river and think about how fast it could kill you.

Five Random Observations:

Spokane is terribly afraid you’ll show up someplace without your shirt or your shoes. I saw more “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” signs – in restaurants, on buses, in shops – in one weekend than I have in seventeen years in Los Angeles.

Spokane restaurants do not want your business. At least this is my conclusion from looking at the exteriors of many restaurants: windows shuttered, no OPEN signs, no menus posted by the door, no hours of operation posted anywhere, no outward signs of life.

Spokane is home to the Skywalk System of the Damned. Spokane’s downtown area has an extensive system of second-level skywalks. In my childhood, the skywalks linked together the major department stores – the Crescent, the Bon Marche, Nordstrom, JC Penny, and Lamonts. Of the five, only Nordstrom remains; the Bon is now a Macy’s, and the other three are… mostly vacant. While there are a lot of shops and restaurants on the street level, the skywalk level is gutted and abandoned in large part.

Spokane has too many shouty people. There are two classes of shouters in Spokane: the marginal folks on the street who mutter to themselves and shout incomprehensibly at nothing in particular (yeah, we have them in Los Angeles, too, but it somehow seems more pronounced in tiny Spokane), and the annoying jerkwads who shout at pedestrians out of their car windows as they pass. Those in the former category need proper medical treatment; those in the latter need a better hobby.

1974 was a very good year for Spokane. 1974 was the year of my birth. Of somewhat more importance to the city, 1974 was also the year Spokane hosted a World’s Fair: Expo ’74. At the time, Spokane was the smallest city ever to host a World’s Fair; this is roughly akin to the Olympics being hosted by, say, Muncie or Wichita. It’s hard to know what the world thought of this, but Spokane got a lot out of it: a re-energized city center, the IMAX Theater, the gondolas, the garbage goat, and the Riverfront Park Pavilion. The Pavilion, intended as a temporary structure for the purposes of Expo, started out as an enormous structure of canvas-covered cables. The Pavilion became an iconic part of the city skyline, but the canvas rotted away, which looked bloody marvelous for several years. Now, only the skeletal frame of cables remains. Oddly, it’s much cooler that way.

(Photos looted from Ingrid Richter's Facebook page, because her phone can take pictures and mine can't. Speaking of cell phones, mine turned into a paperweight for an entire day in Spokane when it couldn't find a network. I'm not sure how, but I blame Hoopfest).


Anonymous said…
If you grew up in Spokane, how could you not know about Hoopfest? Its 19 years old, when did you leave? If you were born in 74 you should have at least have been here for the one or two years of it?

It brings millions of dollars into this town and we love it.
Morgan Richter said…
I left in '91. I'm guessing Hoopfest wasn't a big deal for the first couple years, because neither my sister nor I knew anything about it. I'm sure it does bring millions of dollars to Spokane. I don't care much for either basketball or large crowds, so I would have prefered visiting during a different weekend.
Ingrid said…
It looks like Hoopfest started back in 1990: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoopfest

I'll back my sister up on this: Hoopfest flew completely under the radar while we lived in Spokane (up to the late summer of '91). It must have taken a few years to gain momentum.

It's quite a behemoth now, isn't it? I'm glad Spokane's making money, but they're fairly shameless about jacking up the prices. Hotels triple their rates, which makes the city about a third less fun that weekend. Great for Spokane, not so great for visitors who used to live there.
Morgan Richter said…
(Hi, Ingrid! Thanks again for letting me steal your cool Spokane photos!)

I'm sure Hoopfest is awesome if you live in Spokane and want something sports-oriented and different to do during summer. Might be fun to grab a couple of your friends and form a team. It's less great for visitors who don't have any connection to anyone playing in the tournament and who just want to take a leisurely stroll through Riverfront.

Still, Spokane looked great. Can't say enough good things about the Davenport.
Anonymous said…
I've never heard of "Hoopfest" and now I know which weekend to never visit Spokane during. Thank you for the kind warning. I'll leave that weekend in Spokane to the fans of the surely riveting spectacle that it must be.
Morgan Richter said…
Yeah, unless you're a local or a three-on-three basketball afficianado, there are fifty-one better weekends in which to visit Spokane. Hoopfest seemed to bring the city to a halt (some of my favorite places, like Mizuna, a great downtown restaurant, were closed for the weekend due to the event), and hotels suddenly became awfully expensive.

If you've never visited Spokane, I highly recommend a trip. Avoid that last weekend in June, though.
I live in Spokane AND I work at a hotel, and I really, really don't like Hoopfest. It does bring in money, but I sure don't see any of it and it makes my life really stink for about a week every June. If I were still going to live here next Hoopfest, I would definitely make plans to be nowhere near Spokane the last weekend in June.
Morgan Richter said…
steph and tristan: My sister and I had a great deal of sympathy for the staff at the hotel we stayed in -- it was fully booked, and they were pretty much overwhelmed. It's probably a rough weekend for restaurant workers in the downtown area, too. We spent a lot of time wandering around the south hill, where things were considerably calmer.
841 said…

It was great seeing you and Ingrid. I agree about Hoop Fest. It went under the radar as I left Spokane in 97 and it was just beginning to get big.

Great pictures by the way. Reminds me of home.

Morgan Richter said…
Hi, Colleen! It was great seeing you as well. I'm so glad we all got a chance to meet up (and it's fantastic that you're going to see Ingrid in New York in the fall). The photos are all Ingrid's -- I think she did a nice job of capturing the essence of Spokane.


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