Northgate Mall by Akira Ohiso

Today I work in Northgate across from the mall.  I arrive early so decide to walk around the mall before work.  Most of the businesses are closed before 10am except the Starbucks in the food court.  Seniors walk back and forth along the length of the mall in small groups.  Seattle Parks & Recreation organizes walking program for seniors.

I walk from the food court to California Pizza Kitchen which is at the north end of the mall. Vending machines, massage chairs and kiosks line the middle of the long dimly-lit corridor.  A big white chair with giant eggs around it awaits the arrival of the Easter Bunny.  A flat screen hangs desperately from the ceiling to catch the eyes of passerby with advertisements, but it doesn’t seem to be working as many storefronts are empty and dark.   This could be because big changes are coming to Northgate.  


On a daily basis, I witness the rapid progress of the light rail project as it snakes up to Everett knocking down houses in its path.  When completed the rail service will connect Seattle-bound commuters to employment while also expanding the dimensions of the metro area.  The I-5 traffic is predicted to decrease, but Americans like the luxury of their cars of convenience and will guzzle gas if the commuter experience is an inconvenience.

Everett, with a local community college, could become a new target of gentrification. 

I walk around the outside of the mall. When you visit the mall in a car you don’t notice sidewalks along the perimeter, the Macy’s drop-off canopy and entrances to department stores that are locked for security purposes.  These spaces are now underused as shoppers are funneled through the electric doors of the mall entrances.


Around one corner, I notice a burglar alarm cover in an Art Deco style that looks like it is from the original construction of the mall which opened in 1950. It was one of the first malls in the United States and has gone through several renovations and expansions in subsequent decades.  The National Bank of Commerce was at this location.  Today, it’s a Bank of America.


The vacuous parking lot is empty most of the time except around the holidays or during big sale weekends.  Otherwise, the sprawl is antiquated as traffic is online these days.  On a side note,  the Green River Killer lured Tracy Ann Winston from the Northgate Mall in September of 1983.  In 2017, Anthony Bourdain did a episode of Parts Unknown in Seattle, highlighting the curious number of serial killers hailing from Washington State.  

In addition to Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, other famous Washingtonian killers include Ted Bundy, John Allen Muhammed, the Beltway Killer, and Robert Yates Jr.   On Bourdain’s Seattle episode, he posits that the year-round cover from evergreen trees helps hide bodies for a long time allowing decomposition to occur.  An anecdotal Quora entry titled “Why Are So Many Serial Killers from Washington State,” points out the historical transient and fluctuating population created by economic booms and the states inability to address the demands of increasing social issues.  

As a transplant to Seattle, I do notice that police work is much different than my home state of New York. Whether it’s a Libertarian ethos or the progressive policies of city government, I often see few police cars patrolling or officers on the beat.  

The latest social issues are homelessness and opioid addiction, which are turning Seattle streets into tent cities and encampments.  These two issues are often lumped together, but, in my opinion, mutually exclusive.  While some are experiencing homelessness and addiction, many are not addicted and trying to obtain affordable housing in a city that is still adjusting to the consequences of astronomical economic growth and rising housing prices.  

We often see the human suffering of addiction and homelessness and the desperation that plays out via crime and vagrancy.  It’s hard to bear witness to, but often unseen injustices of power and privilege are ignored, normalized and systemized.

Two weeks ago, a young married white male with a job, a house and no history of criminal activity drank too much, played video games then walked outside and shot and killed a woman in her car.  Next, he shot a bus driver who managed to drive his passengers to safety.  He got in the woman’s car and crashed head-on into a senior citizen killing him as well.  Someone I know was behind the bus when the shooting happened. She witnessed the man acting like he was in a video game.

The public reaction afterwards was minimal in comparison to the outrage of a person sleeping under an awning.  In my opinion, the angry white man is much more dangerous.


As I walk along the east side of the mall, I notice that some of the outlying lots are fenced off with land use signs and pictures of large apartment complexes.  The mall is again planning for major renovations as the light rail nears completion.  The new Seattle NHL team is planning to build a practice arena and Simon Properties, the owner of the site, envisions more retail, hotels and housing.  

I stop to take pictures of skybridges connecting the mall to a parking garage.  A corpulent man in a security car with a yellow flashing light slowly drives by, eyeing me suspiciously.  I stand my ground and make eye contact.  He drives off.  For most of my life, I have accepted  and internalized these interactions without much thought.   It’s just how things are.  Today, with self-awareness and a better sense of my identity, the experience is painful and infuriating.  Still, if I was brown or black I might be in jail on trumped up charges or dead, my  iphone mistaken for a gun.  Privilege.


Studio Without Walls by Akira Ohiso


I’ve been wanting to get back to a regular writing routine for some time now, but, my excuse is that life got in the way.  My discipline as a writer is not up to par with my art.  I work on art everyday mostly sitting on the couch with my iPad.  It’s not very romantic, but I think of Hemingway standing at a chest-high typewriter propped on a bookshelf in his room. Whatever works to facilitate the work. 


At this point in my career, I don’t have the finances or space for a studio, but, because I work digitally, space is not required. 

I have been moving away from my representational drawings of Seattle and towards a collage and mixed-media vocabulary.  When I had a studio space in the Catskills, I was using this vocabulary on canvas and wood panels. 


Lately, I have been returning to exploring these styles using digital art applications.  Because I work at a rapid pace and often in a stream-of-consciousness style, the ability to find visual media and get results quickly supports my process.  The internet is an effective tool in this regard.  It’s quicksilver, a digitized me thumbing through printed matter with no discretion.  Anything and everything can be cut and pasted into a new context. 

My work is prolific so I often don’t think about what I create until I stop for the day.  When I think about my work beforehand or have a pre-conceived plan, the work often is for commercial purposes.  Commercial often means constraints about messaging.  The most honest work comes through an unplanned exploratory process where accidents and serendipity play a role.

Perhaps it’s related to my social work background where talk therapy is about open-ended questions and the space to allow exploration and new insights to develop about self.

I remember lonely nights in my late teens and early twenties writing perplexed Bic-Pen entries in my black and white mottled composition book.  I had stacks of journals in my attic bedroom that were tossed when my parents sold the house a few years ago. 

I will never know everything that was expressed in those journals, but I do remember the identity-confused timber.  It’s hard for me to know the person I was back then because I had no identity.  Without the tools and knowledge to understand my biracial existence, I simply reacted in a white world.  I assimilated and denied any identity I was aware of.  I was a cipher, a void, an Akira-shaped hole.

Middlefield by Akira Ohiso


Snow continues to fall.  Schools are closed.  We walk to St. Alphonsus Church to play in the snow.  Behind Ballard Market, I notice, for the first time, a protuding structure that looks like it once had windows or was open like a porch.  Green wood panels seem to be added to change the purpose of the structure.  Structural posts hold up horizontal beams in front of the wood panels and seem to have no architectural relationship.  

According to the Ballard Market website, the store used to be a Lucky’s Discount Supermarket and officially became Ballard Market in 1986.  A supermarket message board online reports that Mayfair Supermarkets sold the property to Lucky’s in the seventies.  


The Ballard Market website states:

In 2003, a renovation project doubled the size of the produce department once again – and created a new entry to maximize natural light. The giant awning came down, replaced by the equally imposing series of four-foot-tall letters spelling out Ballard Market. In 2017, the market underwent another major remodel.

I moved to Seattle in 2016 and witnessed the 2017 renovation that expanded the beer, wine and spirits section on the south side of the building.  Could the 2003 renovation have adapted the back structure for indoor use?  I will have to ask around at the market.

As a second generation Japanese American, I was fascinated to learn that Ballard Market was founded by a Japanese family.  The Nakata family originally lived on Bainbridge Island prior to World War II and opened the Eagle Harbor Market.  When the war began, the Nakata family was moved to a Japanese internment camp.  They returned after the war and eventually started Town & Country Supermarkets in 1957 with friend Ed Loverich.   

The Island Getaway Blog has a photo of the “old Nakata building on Winslow Way.”  This structure was once used as as a laundry and bathhouse.  

Photo: Island Getaway Blog. 

Photo: Island Getaway Blog. 

In 1924, The Nakata family purchased a strawberry farm on 7363 Weaver Ave. NW and built a farmhouse.   The farmhouse expanded to grow produce and raise pigs, which were sold in the butcher shop of the supermarket.  John Nakata, owner of Town & Country Markets tore down the farmhouse and built a new house on the land.  Today, the Nakata Farm is called Middlefield Farm; “naka” means “middle” and “ta” means “field.”  

A online search shows the current house at 7363 Weaver Ave. NW.  Middlefield Farm is on the corner of Wyatt and Weaver just down the street from this house.  


Frozen Tire Ruts by Akira Ohiso


I didn’t venture far from the apartment.   Roads and sidewalks are icy, so you look for sure-footing on crunchy snow where dogs defectate.   I took the kids to the nearby playground at St. Alphonsus Church.  It’s a destination we frequent all year round.  To walk familiar routes over and over again may seem monotonous, but there is always the chance to find novelty if you are attuned to it.  Xavier de Maistre journeyed around his room feeling that staying put was far more convenient than the hassles of travel.  As Alain de Botton said his The Art of Travel, “The sole cause of a man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

The kids enjoy walking in frozen tire ruts and seeing the water move underneath.  Their masterful ability to be present is what we lose as adults.  Adults search, spend money, attend retreats, become addictive and clingy in order to experience fleeting presence.

I am in my head a lot these days.  I seek action to avoid silence, opinions to comfort uncertainty.  Yet these are delusional tactics to avoid my 48-year old self.  To find nothing in the silence is terrifying to me.  Is there a difference between “nothing” and “nothingness?” The former may be about a deficit, the latter about abundance.