Fisher Mill: Industrial Collapse Is Fun

Scrappers, urban explorers, ghost hunters, artists, and even an 8-year-old give life to a historic buiding Seattle no longer needs.

Fone is slouched back in a chair at Rancho Bravo Tacos on Capitol Hill. His beat-up jacket is covered in paint stains. He has been tagging with his friend Aser, who is sitting next to him and unwinding after an unsuccessful attempt to enter one of Seattle’s most notorious graffiti galleries.

“I’ve run into a lot of fucking bums in there stealing stuff,” Fone says. His mouth is full of one of the five steak tacos he’s just ordered. “You gotta be careful. When I’m in there, I don’t want to run into anybody, and if I do, I definitely don’t want to get confrontational.”

Fone is talking about the abandoned Fisher Flour Mill on Harbor Island, but he calls it by a different name: “Thug Mansion.”

“When I first went there I just went, ‘Wow. This is a heaven spot. This must be heaven,’ ” Fone says while chewing.

Over the past five or six years, the mill has become an illegal makeshift gallery for the West Coast’s best graffiti artists. Crews from Oregon and California come north to Seattle and slip into the mill under cover of darkness. Once inside, they do some of their most intricate and involved tags. At 13 stories, the building’s looming edifice looks straight out of a Silent Hill video game. Inside it’s a decaying, labyrinthine maze of broken machinery. Chains dangle from the ceiling, casting sinister shadows on the dusty floor. Catwalks lead to holes in the floor that drop 40 feet. According to Fone, it’s not uncommon to come across a seemingly exploded bird carcass.

“Today was going to be his first day,” Fone says, looking at Aser, who is finishing his Bravo Burrito. “He’s never been in.”

Two hours ago Fone, Aser, and I almost got arrested trying to do just that.

I showed up at the mill on Memorial Day on a wild goose chase. Two filmmaker friends of mine had told me about the place and the graffiti inside. They had recently finished shooting a science-fiction short about time travel inside the mill, using the decrepit machinery as a backdrop. The filmmakers found out about the mill from their friends, who had used the place as a giant skate park. From filmmakers to skateboarders and graffiti artists, the building hardly sounded abandoned. So on a whim, in the middle of the day, I went to Harbor Island to see if I could find anybody.

I did.

I first encounter Fone and Aser sitting behind some bushes about 50 yards from the mill’s perimeter.

“What did that guy say?” they ask, having seen me chatting with a shipping employee out front. He’d spotted me wandering aimlessly around the adjacent shipping yard, and promptly told me I should leave. On my way out, I find Fone and Aser, exactly whom I was looking for in the first place.

The two are excited that I’m interested in talking to them about their art, and quickly introduce themselves before making quite possibly the least stealthy maneuver I’ve ever seen—strolling right past the worker in full daylight, heading for the mill’s fence.

The worker stops the two almost immediately. “All right, all right, how much paint do you guys have?” he asks.

“In liters or gallons?” Fone says snarkily.

Fone and Aser are turned away but undiscouraged. They offer me a tour of their recent pieces on Harbor Island in consolation. We travel beneath underpasses, through remote waterways, and behind construction sites. While we’re looking at a retro-futuristic piece Fone tagged in an off-road industrial canal, two Seattle Police Department officers find us and ask to see our ID’s.

Technically, we are trespassing. Trespassing in a gross, disgusting runoff canal.

Luckily, Aser and Fone had left their paint behind for the impromptu tour. As one officer radios back to get info, the other starts interrogating Aser.

“Where do you work?”

“Red Robin,” Aser says.

“Why do they put the yellow cheese on all their burgers?” the officer says.

Aser seems confused.

“They should put some pepper jack on there or something,” the officer continues. “You know, to spice it up a little.”

The officers let us go.

“When you write a story about this, make sure to let everyone know how nice SPD is,” the officer tells me.

On our way out, Fone seems a little shaken, but thankful that nothing happened.

“That’s what’s nice about Seattle, man. People just mind their own.”

“Yeah, but did the cops have to do that?” Aser asks.

“Ultimately everybody is trespassing on somebody’s personal property or the government’s personal property,” says Dan Hawkins, stroking his chin. “These ethics don’t have a lot of holding power.”

Hawkins, a local photographer and urban explorer, has ventured into the Fisher Mill almost monthly since 2007. Hawkins rubs elbows with many conceptual artists in the city, and it shows. He thinks of architecture and space in highly philosophical terms, referencing something called “psychogeography” when reminiscing about his trips to abandoned buildings across the world. In many ways, he has become a scholar of the Fisher Flour Mill. In 2009 he hosted a show at local gallery Form/Space Atelier entitled “From Industry to Information: The History of the Fisher Flour Mill,” which featured the countless photos he has taken of the site.

“The flour mill tells a story about Seattle that is untold. It’s a different story,” Hawkins says. “The story of Seattle is about progress . . . except for the flour mill. In many ways it reflects the story of the shifting psychology of our city.”

To understand what Hawkins is talking about, it’s helpful to get into the mind-set of a Seattleite in the city’s early days.

Before 1900, Seattle was a podunk blip on the nation’s map. City fathers were eager to expand, but standing it their way, among other things, was the city’s landscape, namely some damn hills in the middle of downtown. What we now call Belltown used to be an overwhelmingly steep mountain that made construction of anything resembling an urban center nearly impossible.

In 1897, the city decided it had had enough. Enter the Denny Regrade Project. Wielding giant hydro-pumps hooked up to Lake Union, workers water-blasted their way through 16 million cubic yards of dirt. Surprisingly, the plan worked.

Having carved out 62 new city blocks from the Earth itself, the city decided to schlep all that leftover dirt and refuse into Elliott Bay to create Harbor Island. Finished in 1909, it was the largest artificial island in the world until San Francisco’s Treasure Island one-upped it in 1938.

Industrial-minded Seattleites probably fancied themselves a bit like gods in those days. Not only did they literally move a mountain, they created an entire island and then dedicated it to newfangled commercial ventures that would bolster the city’s low-rung, backwoods reputation. Things were going well.

In June 1911, the Fisher brothers, locally famous for slinging their popular Fisher Scones at Northwest city fairs, opened the Fisher Flour Mill on Harbor Island, causing a massive public celebration. According to the day’s issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, there was “Jollification Accompanied by Parade of Autos with Brass Band—Every Sign Spelled Confidence in Greater Seattle.”

In many ways, the mill symbolized the city’s newfound industrial might and its nascent, unfolding tale of progress. That progress eventually led the brothers, who’d built a fortune on flour, to shift to an entirely new venture: radio. KOMO was founded by the brothers out on the island in 1926. The station was a huge success, and soon enough the brothers acquired KIRO, KVI, DTH, and countless more broadcast stations. Fisher Flour became Fisher Communications, today claiming 26 radio and 12 TV stations under its banner. With the flour business slowly losing money, the focus began to shift more heavily on the broadcast end of the Fisher enterprise. In 2001, Fisher Communications decided to sell the mill to Portland based Pendleton Flour. Unable to turn a profit, Pendleton put the mill up for sale a year later in July of 2002. King County, the mill’s current owners, bought the mill in 2003.

The Fisher Family “divested themselves of the flour mill because they had moved on,” Hawkins says. “It’s kind of in parallel with the city’s movement from an industrial enterprise to a software hub and a biotech hub. It’s also interesting because it’s a story about what we do with things that are no longer useful to us.”

A hundred years after the celebratory “Parade of Autos with Brass Band,” the flour mill sits abandoned on the southwest corner of Harbor Island, a cast-off relic of Seattle’s forgotten history of industrial progress.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t using the mill anymore. Quite the contrary.

“Abandoned buildings attract a number of different types of individuals,” Hawkins says with a roguish smile.

“Firebugs and arsonists are one type of people who are attracted to abandoned buildings,” he adds. “Graffiti artists are another. Urban explorers, of course, and kids.”

As an urban explorer, and one of the mill’s most frequent illicit guests, Hawkins has interacted with many of these groups. In 2007 he joined a loosely knit, friendly community of people who knew about the mill and hung out inside it, including a bunch of teenagers from Vashon Island.

“Robert,” as one of those former teens asked Seattle Weekly to call him, would visit the mill most weekends with his pals. Nightfall transformed the place into an enormous personal playground. “It had just recently been abandoned in 2002, so the power was still working when we started going in,” Robert says. “We figured out how to get the manlifts started up—you just had to find the power switch and throw it on.”

The teenagers would routinely cruise around on the rickety lifts, hopping off to explore. Sometimes they would bring hand-held K-II EMF readers designed to measure paranormal energy fields. Robert and his friends were ghost hunters.

Soon enough, graffiti artists began to claim the mill as their own, too. Robert and his friends did not take the shift kindly. They turned themselves into digital vigilantes. “We would get online and track the taggers down,” Robert says. “We would find pictures they posted of their tags on forums, and send them e-mails telling them to stop.”

The crew of high-schoolers made a habit of hunting down the people responsible for any new tag they found. With a little bit of ingenuity, the teens would locate them online and rip into them for ruining the building. “The building was pristine back then—[the mill graffiti] wasn’t artwork at that point. It was a bunch of yahoos. In 2006 it was still really nice. By 2009 it started going downhill.”

Hawkins attests to a similar timeline. “At first, it was the most benign and respectful group of people you could ever hope for,” Hawkins says. “We used to do things to reach out to each other. On the 12th floor there was a television. It was on for over five years on channel 13. You’d think ‘There must be somebody in there watching television.’ I remember finally creeping up there to the offices and peeking around the corner to see if maybe there was somebody sleeping or something, and seeing that there was nobody there. So I just sat there and watched an episode of The Simpsons.”

Maybe someone would leave beers in the still-operational fridges. The Vashon Island teenagers would rearrange the furniture on occasion for the frequent projector-powered movie nights they would hold. Hawkins thought the little traces the community would leave were funny. Everything was peachy. “Ah, well, then stuff starts to get thrown out the window and fires get started,” Hawkins says with a sigh.

“Finally, another type of group that’s attracted to abandoned buildings are scrappers and copper thieves. In 2008 is when they began, but by 2011 they were pretty much done,” Hawkins says.

Robert remembers the scrappers’ advent as well. He and his friends initially attempted to seal them off by barricading portions of the mill with furniture. “A number of people in the exploration community posted in the forum boards exactly how this could be done,” Hawkins says. “There were a couple of huge concerted efforts to truly seal the building, you know, forever. What happened is, the ‘scrapper community,’ I’ll call it, just sledgehammered through the walls after it was sealed. They were destroying the building in such a way that we couldn’t see the end of it. In our eyes, the building would’ve imploded if we didn’t do anything. We couldn’t bear to see it come to that.”

Despite the efforts of Hawkins and the Vashon Islanders, the scrappers had their way, and eventually everyone moved on.

Flash-forward to 2013, and Fisher Flour Mill is a mess. Exposed wire hangs out from the walls amid heaps of broken machinery. Chairs lie smashed through windows. Tags dot every single wall.

The mill’s Wild West nature has created a whole new community—those pesky graffiti artists. However, what started as some crappy bubble lettering and rudimentary scrawling has given birth to a truly awe-inspiring collection of beautiful art.

Eack of the mill’s 13 landings hosts 10 or 15 impressive, large-scale pieces of varying styles and colors. A grotesque floating head peers out from one corner. A wild-eyed gold prospector stands guard in a decrepit, crumbling room. “Industrial Collapse is Fun” is cheekily scrawled in red on a wall near the top of the mill.

Fone has five or six pieces in the mill. For budding graffiti artists like him and Aser, the mill is a shining bastion in the city.

Fone tells me about a recent tagging expo out on a U District freeway with a buddy. “We were like, ‘Let’s go out, let’s do a sick piece, let’s get noticed.’ ” After spending most of the night on a piece he was particularly proud of, he heard someone shout “SPD.” Police lights came on. “I just left my backpack and ran,” Fone says. “I hopped over a center divider, then another center divider, then ran through a school.”

Fone ended up spending two hours hiding under a bush while searching lights flickered around him. “I spent all that time on that piece, and then the next day it had already been buffed out,” Fone says.

The mill, in that way, is an unusual space. Its untamed “urban jungle” aspect provides the adrenaline rush of tagging in a place you aren’t supposed to, but nobody has to see you do it. It’s a frontier to explore and claim as your own, but it’s always relatively covert.

“That’s why [Fisher Mill] is great,” Fone says. “It’s far away and nobody really cares about it. There are some well-known pieces in there by some famous crews that were from way early on. Once you get a piece in there, it will probably stay.”

In a way, he’s totally right.

“I’m not the art police,” says Christopher Young, SPD’s sole graffiti detective. Appointed in 2011 after an extensive report by the city auditor citing increased community need, Young has been tracking down and investigating over 800 incidents of graffiti a year.

According to him, places like the mill are not on his usual beat. The mill falls under a category that Young and the tagging community call “chill spots”—places where you can take your time, where taggers aren’t likely to get bothered by the police. “There’s only one of me and a lot of graffiti, so I prioritize spots where I get complaints a lot,” Young says. “You know, places where an 80-year-old woman keeps getting her fence tagged. That bothers me more than a dark alley that nobody cares about.”

Beyond that, Young claims the mill isn’t even really his jurisdiction, asserting that it’s on Port of Seattle’s beat. When Port of Seattle was contacted, Media Officer Perry Cooper claimed the mill was under SPD’s jurisdiction.

The Fisher Flour Mill has become the ultimate “dark alley that nobody cares about.” Tucked away in a dumpy corner of an island literally built out of castoff dirt, the mill is out of sight, out of mind, and seemingly under nobody’s jurisdiction.

King County acquired it in 2003 as a potential site for an intermodal waste facility. If utilized, it will act as a center for shipping garbage by train to Oregon once the Cedar Hills waste facility in Maple Valley officially reaches capacity. Thanks to Seattle’s newfound interest in recycling and composting, however, that date has been postponed. King County Solid Waste division director Kevin Kiernan confirms that the mill’s destiny as a dump is pretty far off. The county will first have to do an extensive environmental review of the site.

In 2011, the building was found in violation of the Vacant Building Code by the Department of Planning and Development because the “enormity of the structure precludes [the] city from typical enforcement.” In the case report, the county makes the case that hiring site security or enacting a full-on demolition of the building are both just too expensive. The violation was then “resolved” when the manager promised to try a little harder and throw on some extra locks.

So again—out of sight, out of mind. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a tagger creates a giant, highly involved mural in an abandoned factory and no one is around to see it, does it even matter?

For one inquisitive child, it matters a lot.

At the ripe age of 8, one child, whose mother asked that he remain anonymous, decided he wanted to record the city’s fleeting works of graffiti. Now 13, he says, “[People] do not see the side of how [graffiti] isn’t just for destruction or to cause trouble, but that it can actually be a very cool and helpful way to make Seattle become more colorful.”

His mother, herself an artist, decided to nurture her son’s impulse by taking him on graffiti adventures. Probing homeless camps, highway grottos, and train depots, the unlikely duo traversed the city’s forgotten bits to photograph its secret collection, and the boy’s Flickr pool grew to 14 pages of professional-grade documentation of beautiful street art. The Fisher Flour Mill proved a fruitful locale for the boy’s expeditions.

Hawkins also has taken his children to the mill. They loved it. “I’ve taken my kids in there, because I wanted them to get a sense of what I do,” he says. “It’s interesting to see them rediscover this sense of adventure. You grow up in a city and there’s a lot of concrete, but this building is like a new frontier. I sat them down and told them when we went in, ‘Now, most buildings have safety measures installed, like hand rails, to make sure you don’t get hurt. This building doesn’t have that, so you need to be extra-careful in here.’ It’s interesting to see them with this heightened awareness, discovering this inert exploratory nature inside of them that doesn’t get to come out in most contexts.”

Beyond becoming an unusual playground for adventurous children and their daring parents, the mill almost became the site of an arts performance. In a surprising move, King County Project Program Manager Rick Ouellet was willing to take popular Seattle performance group Saint Genet on a tour of the space, giving them permission to perform inside it. Although the group didn’t take up the county’s offer because of the cost and the stipulation that they wouldn’t be allowed an audience, the fact that the county was willing to entertain the idea was interesting.

Hawkins, who often shoots photos for Saint Genet, was the one who approached Ouellet about the performance. “I was shocked that they were OK with it,” Hawkins says. “It was very surreal.”

It also gave Hawkins a glimmer of hope about the mill’s future. If the county is willing to entertain the idea of the Fisher Mill as a place for culture-making, could it consider it as something even larger?

In 2008, the Tempelhof airport in Berlin officially shuttered. The airport’s main terminal was at one time one of the world’s largest buildings. Rather than letting the airport rot or turning it into condos or a mall, Berlin decided to do something unusual—they opened the runway as a public city park. The main terminal and hangar now host events and fairs.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 that the city was investing €70 million (roughly $95 million) to develop the park into what the designers called “a contemporary prairie for the urban cowboy.” The park has already become a massive hit with Berliners—attracting skiers to the runway when it snows and barbecuers when the sun comes out.

In the German town of Duisburg, a giant, abandoned iron works was turned into Landschaftspark, an insanely expansive public industrial park. Rope courses have been tied to blast furnaces. Tube slides for children run through ore bunkers. Big factory halls have been turned into skating and mountain-biking rooms. Charge bunkers and chimneys were converted to climbing walls where professional climbers prepare before they head south to scale the Alps. British artist Jonathan Park was commissioned to create a light installation on the site that covers the location in an eerie glow at night. One of the factory rooms, the “Blower House,” frequently hosts DJs and parties. On August 30, the popular British trip-hop band Massive Attack will perform there.

The park was created when a local citizens’-action group protested the demolition of the iron works, and enlisted the help of an architectural professor from Kranzberg to plan and design the park. In 1994, the whole thing became a reality.

“Through the contrast between continuous redevelopment and the constant need for preservation, an industrial wasteland has developed into a unique adventure playground for young and old,” Landschaftspark’s website reads. “If you set off on a tour of the area, familiar concepts will not get you far.”

This kind of development, based on “unfamiliar concepts,” is spreading across Germany.

Thanks to the country’s commitment to green energy, nuclear-power plants and gas-works facilities across the nation are closing. Rather than going to waste, they’ve been turned into theme parks, indoor towns, and industrial public parks. Imagine Seattle’s Gas Works Park on a considerably larger scale.

In Seattle, children, explorers, photographers, and artists are already treating the Fisher Flour Mill like our own Landschaftspark. With all the underground culture in this clandestine mill that could emerge given the proper care, what would happen if the space was spruced up and opened to the public? What would happen if the scrappers and copper thieves were prevented from tearing the place down to its foundations?

Hawkins thinks about the mill’s potential all the time. “I remember I took an architect in there once, and I said, ‘Surely you could see the possibilities that are in here. Surely you could see how this place could make us the envy of other cities—that they would look longingly upon it and think that they should do that too.’ ”

The Fisher Flour Mill once symbolized the city’s story of progress. Now it symbolizes its industrial past, rotting and crumbling in an abandoned corner. If the county’s plan follows through, it will literally become a waste site—a place where the city dumps all its trash to be forgotten and shipped off. It’s interesting to imagine all the ways the factory could be reintroduced and reintegrated into Seattle’s story of progress. In the meantime, people will keep reimagining the site themselves.

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