Life after the Seattle Weekly: Madrona's David Brewster looks ahead - and back

From his office at Town Hall at Eighth and Seneca David Brewster can gaze across the freeway to the steel and glass towers of downtown, the heart of the city where he has been so active. The First Hill view is the perfect perch for Brewster, a Madrona resident, to keep an eye on things.

Brewster is, and has been, Seattle's engaged observer.

As founder of the Seattle Weekly, Brewster changed the way the city looked at itself. As executive director of Town Hall, Brewster has helped save a vintage building from the wrecking ball and create a community cultural center.

Given his career as a journalist, then entrepreneurial publisher and now as impresario of the cultural arts, it's hard to imagine what Seattle would be like if the 64-year-old Brewster had never moved here in 1965. Less narcissistic, probably, but no doubt less interesting, too.

The competition

There was a time - from the Weekly's inaugural issue on March 31, 1976, until the early 1990s - when the tabloid was the only real alternative to the local daily newspaper grind. The Weekly put out the best, most interesting writing in the city.

At its launch, Brewster envisioned a vehicle for first-rate literary journalism. Two of his touchstones were the Tattler and the Spectator from 18th-century London - quixotically ambitious, perhaps, but the tabloid rose often enough above its patented front-page stories on pasta or the latest trend to provide a stock of reality the Times or P-I could never deliver.

But then the bratty Stranger came to town, presaging a shift in local consensus politics from, say, the buttoned-down style of a Bruce Chapman to the combative, it's-all-about-me Judy Nicastro.

Nothing is so conservative as a successful revolution, history says: The Weekly was quickly outflanked.

"I adopted a high-minded view," Brewster recalled. "It looked like a niche they couldn't expand. "By then, (1995) when we thought [the Stranger] was going in the red, it was too late."

Meeting the Stranger's challenge was not in Brewster's bag of tricks. He and his investors sold to the Village Voice in 1997. Ever since, through a number of vicissitudes, the Weekly has struggled to keep editorial pace with the Stranger, and has even tried to be cooler. The effort can be painfully transparent, as when long-time, ever omniscient Weekly writer Roger Downey employs the "F" word.

That would never have happened on Brewster's watch.

Town Hall, situated in the renovated Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist, is a natural progression for Brewster. With the help of investors - Ancil Payne, David Skinner and Priscilla Bullitt Collins, among them - the facility opened its doors in 1999.

Among other things, it's a place for chamber music and poetry readings, Croation dance, African-American events, discussions on the Middle East and performances by the Seattle Chil-dren's Chorus.

In other words, Town Hall is designed to be Seattle's public square with an accent on diversity. This, rather than fighting the Stranger, is more to Brewster's liking.

Learning the inside story

Brewster was born in New Jersey in 1939, attended Yale as an undergraduate and then pursued his doctorate degree there, completing everything but his dissertation.

Offered a job to teach English at the University of Washington, he and his wife moved to Seattle in 1965. Brewster conducted classes in fiction, poetry, humanities and writing.

His special interest was British literature of the Victorian era and early 20th century. Teaching the British novels of imperialism - Forster, Kipling - Brewster took a harder look at the real world of economics and government policy.

He'd done newspaper work in the summers while going to school. Journalism still called to him.

In 1968, Brewster turned his back on academia and went to work for The Seattle Times. The former college professor occupied a copy desk. Six months later, Brewster was a full-time writer for Seattle Magazine.

"It was a publication ahead of its time," Brewster said. "Irreverent. It poked fun at advertisers and Seattle's wounds."

Seattle Magazine folded in 1970. The city's business interests didn't much like having the mirror held up to their face in the era of Vietnam, culture wars and hard economic times.

After a stint with KING-TV, Brew-ster became managing editor of the venerable Argus, under legendary publisher Phil Bailey. The Argus covered politics and the arts.

"He taught me how to know what's going on on the inside, instead of just throwing darts," Brew-ster remembered.

That knack would serve Brewster well - he would become one of this city's best-informed and most readable writers.

Brewster harbored hopes that Bailey, who was in his 70s, would sell the weekly newspaper, which was founded in 1894. When it became apparent Bailey wouldn't - the paper eventually did change hands and died in the early 1980s - Brewster laid the foundation for the Seattle Weekly.

By March 31, 1976, Gerald Ford sat in the White House, disco ruled, the Vietnam conflict was officially over and People Magazine was new.

And, Seattle - the good, gray, little burg in the far corner, where even winos waited for the streetlights to change - it was said, was "in." Santa Fe was "out."

In the national press, the word "livable," linked to Seattle, reared its stubborn head. And Seattle rode a new economic and political wave.

"It was part of what I thought was an important reform movement," Brewster said of his newspaper.

As he put it to himself: "Can journalism have the sophisticated complexity of tonal nuance of literature?"

"Clearly the New Yorker does that," Brewster said. "Can that be done on the local level with young writers?"

Not the right person

Brewster had his own approach to hiring: "I would hire writers and teach them to be better reporters," Brewster said - rather than the other way around. Brewster wanted stories that exhibited the best elements of fiction, stories that supported ambiguity and drama.

Looking back on his stable of writers, he cites, as standouts: Fred Moody, Katherine Robinson, Roger Downey, Rebecca Boren and Barry Mitzman.

The Weekly launched with a paid circulation of 5,000 and peaked in 1992 with about 40,000 paid subscribers.

For Brewster, there was little ambiguity about his target reader: "35 years old, a junior associate in a law firm who had made certain life decisions, who had decided his boss was a jerk. He knows how the system works and isn't content with the system."

Indeed, the demographic became known as the Brewster Brigade: the new monied class; the yuppies who had "relationships" and whose "lifestyles" declared the good life; who stood in line for "The English Patient" and thought "Snow Falling on Cedars" ("Snow" for those in the know) was a great book; who crowded the bistros with "Best Places" stickers as La Conner and Port Townsend buckled under the "Getaway" onslaught, consuming chocolate-chip cookies on the sunny side of the street.

But the Stranger - when it came in the early 1990s - reflected an even younger youth culture: the 25-year-olds who cared more about music and journalistic attitude and sex-as-plumbing than grumping about the hand of the establishment that feeds them.

"National cigarette advertisers would say, 'Can't you get your readership younger?'" Brewster recalled. "I wasn't the right person."

Seattle: A liberal melodrama

Brewster said Town Hall - with an annual budget of $625,000 - maintains a balanced budget. About half of its dollars comes from fund-raising. In 2002, he said, there were 255 events. At the end of 2003, there were 314.

As Brewster concentrates on bringing the cultural arts to the First Hill stage, he has not lost sight of the goings-on in the adopted city he loves, which he refers to as a "liberal melodrama."

"It's just been nuts," he said of issues like the monorail and Sound Transit. "The city is completely isolated from the rest of the state. It's just this loony bin. School-board meetings are amazing, right out of "Marat Sade." I think we are in a free fall, and nobody's stepping up to arrest that.

"The history of this city is, you don't have to sober up because a ship will come in with gold from Alaska," he continued. "Or it's Boeing. Or Bill Gates will bail us out."

Brewster said there might be a book in him somewhere, maybe a history of Seattle over the last 50 years.

For now, Town Hall puts him right where he wants to be.

"I wanted to bridge cultural differences," he said of Town Hall. "It is a midsized, multi-arts center, a Seattle thing the way the Harvard Exit is. It's a mission-driver organization, intellectually very serious. It's an extension of my values system: to see life steady and whole."

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