I first met Kyla Fairchild in 1995, and Ballard, it seemed, was an alt-country ground zero. The scene was taking off with bands like Whiskeytown, the Old 97s, Son Volt, and Wilco all releasing albums still revered today as some of the genre’s best. Plus there was a sizeable crop of local bands leaping on that hay wagon.
At the time, Fairchild was the business manager for the new magazine No Depression that covered such artists, and most of them could be found playing at one of two Ballard venues – the now-defunct Backstage, and the Tractor Tavern. In 1996, Fairchild and husband Ron Wilkowski bought the beloved Ballard dive bar Hattie’s Hat.
Twenty years later, No Depression has been sold, Fairchild, Wilkowski and Tractor Tavern owner Dan Cowan only retain 10 percent of Hattie’s, and luxury apartment and condo towers are casting shadows closer and closer to Ballard Avenue. Over drinks at Hattie’s, I ask Fairchild if it’s time to stick a fork in Ballard.
“I don’t think it’s over,” she says, but there’s a hint of wistfulness in her voice. “There are always going to be much-loved places that leave, or are being destroyed. But there are also a lot of great new places in Ballard. I think Hotel Albatross is great – what those guys did with that old Azteca. And I love Ballard Consignment – you can seriously get lost in that place.”
“I think people romanticize about the past,” she continues, “but [in the 90s] we couldn’t be open for lunch because there wasn’t enough business. There were tumbleweeds – it was just a ghost town. The changes, not that I’m happy about it or that I don’t yearn for parts of the past, but I kind of equate it with aging. If you can’t stop it, then you might as well just embrace it and make the best of it, because otherwise, you’re going to just make yourself miserable.”
She understands why people are upset about getting priced out of the neighborhood, though – especially the local artists who helped bring the crowds to Ballard in the first place. “I am sympathetic to the financial struggles that it has placed on many people,” she says. “It’s easier for someone who already owns a home to ‘embrace’ it, than someone who is fearing how they will survive and be able to stay in their community.”
She tells me of a bumper sticker Cowan recently designed that reads, “Stop visualizing Ballard,” and we laugh, maybe a little too hard. “I don’t know, maybe it’s music towns,” she says. “I have friends and associates in Nashville and Austin and Portland, and they’re all complaining of the exact same thing, which is this out-of-control growth and gentrification and bad traffic and rising prices.
But she adds that the growth also brings nice surprises, like Ballard’s warehouse district turning into a cluster of microbreweries. “I hate microbrews,” she says laughing. “I just want someone to make the Miller High Life of microbrews. But you just never know what cool little thing is going to pop up out of someplace that is more off the beaten path, [even if it’s] not where you used to hang out.”
A walk down Ballard Avenue early this fall evening brings memories of the first time I walked there. Yellow leaves were falling onto red brick and the quaint charm of the old buildings elicited in me nostalgia for a time that wasn’t mine to know. Fairchild admits to being happy about Ballard Avenue being designated a historic district in 1976. “I feel a certain sense of relief about that. When I come down here, I often think, ‘Oh, thank god.’ If it wasn’t for that, all these little buildings probably would be torn down.”