The Res, an ethnographic paper

In the introduction of Majority and Minority: The Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity in American Life, author Norman R. Yetman provides exposition for a sociological discussion of the afore mentioned categorical descriptors pertaining to human interaction within and between societies.  Yetman establishes parameters to work within by defining literally and through extrapolation what “ethnicity” is:

The word ethnic is derived from the Greek ethnos, meaning “people.”  An ethnic group is socially defined on the basis of its cultural characteristics.  Ethnicity, the sense of identification with and membership in a particular ethnic group, implies the existence of a distinct culture… in which people perceive themselves… to be bound together by a common origin, history, values, attitudes, and behaviors…[1]

While Yetman continues on, setting up how ethnicity and race will play a significant role in the social stratification of United States, this definition provides a substantial foundation for the culmination of an ethnographic site study of slightly smaller proportions than that of America.  For the past three months, starting in mid-January of 2012, I spent a great deal of time at a north Seattle neighborhood local watering hole called The Reservoir Bar and Grill, or more colloquially known as ‘The Res.’[2]  While at The Res my goal was to immerse myself in the culture of the bar, discuss with bar patrons and staff the trends and overarching personality of the space and its inhabitants, and then relay these findings by means of written word, audio interviews, picture galleries, and art video pieces all compiled and organized into one cohesive online blog.[3]  While the crux of the study was to present cogently the culture of The Res and not necessarily to prove any hypothesis wagered before observation began, reflecting back on the work done and the relationships made bears out some striking generalities that held up throughout my observational experiences.  Ultimately the scope of the material gathered while on assignment is limited in nature and often based around interactions occurring between myself and one or more other people, but the self-reflexivity in this report is both purposeful and necessary; this project rests squarely on my shoulders and I carry the responsibility of presenting what I deem fit for knowing.  The information is no doubt biased in that I editorially made the decision to construct it in to the portrayal of The Res, but it also comes from a thoughtful place; I strove to adhere to consistent fact gathering procedures, ethical means of interaction with individuals in the establishment and accurate representations of the observed culture.  However, now having a body of work produced through this roughly described ethnographic process, conclusions from my observation of The Res can be drawn.  Through my studies, I have found that the people of The Res identify as active members of the culture and that this relationship most likely stems from a unique comfort achieved through accommodation and environmental amenities.

One of the most profound findings of what The Res is was finding out what it is not.  An opportunity for this binary comparison presented itself during a conversation I had with two bar-goers: Carla and Nicole.  These women had previously frequented another Seattle bar known as the Seven Seas (now defunct) and were both very closely associated with the specific cultural aspects that pertained to what would be safe to call their “stomping grounds.”  Due to the closing of the business, Carla and Nicole sought near literal refuge in a new home, and landed upon The Res as their haven.  Refuge is a slightly over-dramatic word for the situation, but perceived from their perspective, Carla and Nicole had established such a connection with the Seven Seas that its closing was in many ways a traumatic experience for them and others that they had come to know and build relationships with while there.  They identified as ‘Seven Seas-ian’ and required a new homeland to fill the void left by their old one.  The Res now presents itself not as just a bar but as a reflection of the people who go there, and as a safe environment where people feel they can properly be reflected.  While Carla and Nicole may never feel that same connection as they did with the Seven Seas, The Res offers the opportunity to reestablish an all-important sense of being.  Author Christian Norberg-Schulz offers insight on this relation by focusing on the notion of “dwelling,” saying that the term has come “to denote the total man-place relationship.”  He goes on to say that “When a man dwells, he is simultaneously located in space and exposed to a certain environmental character… to identify himself with the environment… he has to know how he is in a certain place.”[4]  So the relationship is cyclical; the person defines the space, and the space defines the person.  This relationship is most likely both spontaneous and evolutionary in nature.  In order for a space to develop character, the development must occur over time and those who frequent the space must nurture it.  But the culture will more closely relate to innate specificities of the culture of the sum of the individuals rather than a contrived effort to idealize an environment.  People do not go to The Res because it is classically beautiful, but because it is aesthetically pleasing to them and because it satisfies and falls in lines with the person’s sensibilities.  Those who go to Res are the providers of culture, and The Res subsequently houses the culture.  Or, The Res houses culture and the people who go there provide it.  The temporality of the process is not entirely important, nor is it definitive.  The resultant, though, is a place where ethnic identity has developed into a unique ‘Res-ian’ culture and those who dwell there assume this ethnicity and wear it proudly.  Those who seek newly required acceptance into another culture are able to relate to the culture of The Res and weigh this against their own previously established ethnic identity.

The Res is a bar, a food place, a watering hole, a gathering spot, an area to smoke (outside), somewhere to play video games or pool or shuffleboard.  Its décor is divey.  The bar feels both new and old.  It may be profoundly poetic that the actual Maple Leaf Reservoir namesake that used to be across the street is no longer there, yet the bar still stands.[5]  The Res does not appeal to the aristocrats though.  It has been described to me as “blue collar,” and those who prefer to not have a stuffy, pretentious bar experience tend to feel comfortable here.  Comfort plays an interesting role in this whole ethnographic exercise.  Varying levels of comfort were needed in order to gain access to the information I wished to find, and comfort with me and my seeking-of-information was needed on behalf of the participants in order to provide access.  Ethnographer Sarah Pink outlines the hazards of doing ethnography, specifically through use of a visual means, and draws attention to the inappropriateness of “using cameras and making images of informants.”[6]  Indeed, this was made apparent to me after some slight altercations with both patrons of The Res and management at The Res who often drew the most severe conclusions from my unsolicited picture taking or personal queries.  These objections are understandable and represent the difficulties of studying culture, especially ones populated with people.  But communication is king and as had been established through my visits to The Res and my descriptions of it above, comfort can be attained and substantial connections and understandings can be made while working with people as participants in a site study.

What remains one of the most unique aspects of The Res, and acts as an ultimate attest to its ‘homeliness,’ as in its overarching embodiment of a home to its patrons, is the reality that The Res is a literal home.  The Res has a 2 bedroom apartment directly above the main bar area where two men pay an understandably low rent to live above a neighborhood pub.  An unlikely home no doubt, as weekend nights often reach their peak around one-in-the-morning with jukebox blaring and all the commotion of a bar full of drunk and rowdy types.  But this additional layer provides yet more explanation as to the feelings of comfort that are often used to describe The Res.  Whether it is a conscious realization every time walking through the front doors of The Res or, more likely, an ingrained sense of domestication and familiarity, The Res acts as a homelike place not only to those who actually live there above it, but also to those who frequent it often.  There is a certain level of expectation when being at the Res that often is seen when considering ones relation to his or her own home.  Things are where one expects them to be, the people or characters that make up the space can be counted on as being there or not with a decent amount of certainty, and the dependability one develops with recurrent inhabitation persists into the overall attitude towards the place.  There is an “ease of use” or efficiency mentality that seems to stem from these places that we frequent often, and it certainly makes sense why; those who go to The Res can count on a bartender knowing what their drink is, or they can count on seeing familiar faces and having amicable conversations.  The documentary One Below the Queen: Full Version offers a relatable perspective with those who live above The Res and those who frequent it.  Residents of The Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate (a now historic community housing building in England) describe the uniqueness of their living situation saying “you’re so close to people you have to get [along] with them, and also you do get [along] with them because you are so close… it forces you to understand things more.”  Another interviewee in the documentary goes on to comment that “I certainly can hear my neighbor, and my neighbor can hear me… we, to some degree, start participating in each other’s lives.” This participation is inevitable at The Res and to cite one more line from the film, “you are explaining the nature of the building on its architecture.” [7]  The nature of The Res can thus be explained as a product of what it really is: a home for some that also exudes a homelike manner.

In accompaniment with the above report is an art-piece photo collage created to stand as a symbiotic representation of the aesthetic, material, and environmental aspects of The Res and the people who go there.  The collage was created by surveying 21 people at The Res to view a photo slideshow of 132 pictures of things in and around The Res, with each picture being labeled by a unique number.  The prompt given to each participant was to “Circle the numbers of pictures that either you identify as representative of The Res or that you feel are significant to your relationship to The Res.”  The results were tallied, assigning a 1-point value to each circled number and a proportional ratio value was then given to each picture by dividing the total number of times it was circled by the total number of participants.  This value was then used to rescale the corresponding picture, producing a wide spectrum of different sized pictures based on the frequency of how often the picture was selected.  The nature of this survey was in no way scientific or definitive, but rather it utilizes the collective knowledge and history of people of The Res in order to create a work that highlights the general aesthetic attributes that are associated with the space.  The variety of the kinds of pictures range from iconic images of The Res to general gathering areas to possible collective appreciations for certain specific area aspects.  While some surveys were taken two or more at a time, each participant filled out his or her own survey card and was thus represented as an individual.  The inherent small sample size again points to the inability for this photo collage to signify anything predictive.  The work instead stands as crowd-sourced effort to give multiple voices a say in what the substantive aspects of The Res in fact actually are.  While the crop of pictures themselves are limited in scope and can never provide an all-encompassing perspective of The Res, they do represent my own views of what ought to be considered in representing The Res and provide a distinctive view into the visual culture of the space.

What has resulted from this ethnographic experience has been a realization of what it means to be a part of a place.  In many ways, this feeling is ubiquitous.  We often feel familiar comfort in our homes, our hometowns, a frequented vacation spot, our work environments, etc.  In his The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenberg discusses this phenomenon of desire to seek out extra-domestic spaces.  He develops the notion of a “third place,” where first place is home, second place is work, and the third place is some other environment where socialization occurs and “the core settings of informal public life” are established.[8]  The truly fascinating aspect of The Res is that it is in fact all three places; first place for the people who live above the bar, second place for those who work there, third place for those who frequent the bar.  The three places mix and comingle with one another, building a bond that is unique and strong.  Oldenberg describes the unique relationship that occurs between person and third place: “If he individual has a third place, the place also ‘has him.’”[9]  This coexisting relationship plainly appears in all of the relationships observed at The Res.  While these links may be subconscious attachments to the bar, literal necessitations to go to the bar (because of work or home living purposes) or conscious efforts to manufacture or recreate specific environment-self associations, The Res stands as significant first, second, and third place for all who go there.

 

Bibliography

digital:works.  One Below the Queen: Full Version [Film].  London, 2011.

 

Norberg-Schulz, Christian.  “The Phenomenon of Place.” Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach. New York: Routledge, 1997.

 

Oldenburg, Ray.  The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1999.

 

Pink, Sarah.  Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research. London: Sage Publications, 2007.

 

Yetman, Norman R.  Majority and Minority: The Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity in American Life. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1991.

 


[1] Norman R. Yetman, Majority and Minority: The Dynamics of Race and Ethnicity in American Life. 5th ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1991), 2.

[2] The abbreviation of The Reservoir Bar and Grill is most “commonly” represented as ‘The Rez’ with a ‘Z.’  I have no specific reason as to why my shorthand recognition of the bar has come to be spelled with an ‘S’ other than it, to me, logically seems like the best abbreviation and it has been what I have always called it.

[3] “The Res, an ethnographic study,” last modified March 14, 2012, https://kxbchid250.wordpress.com/

[4] Christian Norberg-Schulz, “The Phenomenon of Place.” Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach (New York: Routledge, 1997), 423.

[5] The Maple Leaf Reservoir is currently under construction and is being converted to a subterranean reservoir with a park and playfield to be built above it.

[6] Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research (London: Sage Publications, 2007), 43.

[7] digital:works.  (2011) One Below the Queen: Full Version [Film].  London.

[8] Ray Oldenberg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1999), 16.

[9] Ibid.  39.

 

The Res, an ethnographic paper – DOWNLOAD

 

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Snake Pit by Snake

As part of participating in the survey, one Res patron opted to not circle any numbers and instead dictate what The Res meant to him.  His survey was still acknowledged as completed and the total sum of numbered pictures circled (zero) was still considered, despite him not actually viewing the slide show.  This poem stands in addition to the survey data contributed to the construction of the photo collage:


The Res – a crowd sourced photo collage


Pictures, drama, introductions and reintroductions.

My outing to The Res began simple enough.  I knew I was going to be snapping photos of various things and items in and around the bar.  My hope is to use them for a future (final?) installment of this ethnographic study.  I was going in around 5:30 in the evening (catch the tail end of happy hour, much to my delight) and was anticipating the bar being more or less dead.  It was.  There were maybe a handful of people in there, mostly all huddled around one corner of the establishment.  A few more folks were hiding in the back – smoking in the Butt Hut – but including myself and the lone bartender, there were barely more than half-a-dozen people in the joint.  Hazy, grey light struggled to make its way past the blinds and into the main barroom.  I didn’t want to use a flash and disturb what few customers were there, but regardless of my efforts, disturbing I still was.

I was moving around the area of the bar where all of the men were sitting when one inquired as to what exactly I was doing.  I shook his and gave a brief description of what the picture taking was all about.  He smiled  and nodded and was happy to be clued in; he mentioned his curiosity as to what I was doing and why I was doing it.  I apologized for being cryptic before.  A man sitting next to him stood up, introduced himself (I think his name was “John”) and shook my hand.  He shook my hand hard.  He voiced his displeasure with my taking photographs.  I hate confrontation and began to sweat.  He asked if my camera was recording him right now and I said, “no.”  He asked if I had permission to be doing this and I said, “yeah, I do.”  This did not satisfy John and he began to walk towards the back door saying he was going to contact Aaron (owner of the Res) and Tracey (long time bartender and de facto boss lady) and let them know.  The residing bartender, Twyla, said that I in fact did have permission and who were sitting around John seemed to dismiss his harrumph as per-usual curmudgeonly behavior.  I snapped a few more picture in doors before following him out there, apologizing for the confusion and taking still more pictures.  He finished his cig and went back inside.
I ventured back in to the Butt Hut to find half of the original four women that I met last time I was there.  There were also two other men there, and all four folks were, of course, smoking.  The Butt Hut was far more receptive to my picture taking and actually posed with me to take a group portrait.

The Butt Hut Group Portrait

This was a much more pleasant encounter and actually evolved into more of an expositional explanation of the ethnography project.  I broke the concept of the site study down for them and they were all very interested.  I talked a little about why I was taking the pictures and what the essence of my observation of the Res was all about (I was informed that I have been spelling my abbreviation of the Res incorrectly and it should in fact be “Rez.”  For whatever reason I’m partial to “Res” with an “S.”).  I actually broke out the laptop and, thanks to the free Res wifi, should them the blog.  Since we were in the Butt Hut, the Butt Hut post was a natural attention draw and it was met with smiles and adoration.  I wandered back into the bar to take just a few more pics and once again ran into another previously interviewed patron – Carla.  I showed her my post containing the interview and she also was blissfully happy with the product.
I took over 200 pictures around The Res that day.  My hope is to use them for a sort of crowd sourcing project to work as a culmination of the study. But amongst all of those photos, there were quite a few clunkers.  This slide show is of all my unused, ‘discarded’ pictures.  Are they bad photographs?  Probably, but poor quality or technical execution does not entirely discredit any significance to the place, to the culture of the Res.  These are the throwaways:

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The Butt Hut

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One of my favorite areas in the Res is the outdoor patio, specifically the grassy lawn.  It usually exists as a pure, unbelievably pristine grass patch that separates the smoking shed from the Dawg House (the outdoor shack that houses an old big screen TV).  But on a beautiful summer’s day, pulling a picnic table out in front of the TV and posting up with multiple friends and multiple pitchers of beer is about as good as good gets.  Baking in the sun and watching a day-time Mariners game, we settle in on the uncomfortable wooden bench seats and alternate in trips to the bathroom and back to the bar for more beer.

………..

Walking out the back door of the Res and looking out beyond the fence, one can just make out the very top of the school building neighboring the bar’s outside patio.  One woman who I chatted with said it’s a Catholic school that she attended called St. Catherine’s.  It turns out that one of her teachers, Father Something-something, used to live in the house where she grew up in, and actually lived in her childhood bedroom previous to her.  I asked if it’s in any way bizarre that a Christian school is direct neighbors with a grimy old bar.  Her response was that Father Something-something was probably just as drunk as anyone at the Res, and this made her and I laugh.

………..

The smokers are segregated.  This has been the law in Seattle for about half-a-dozen years now.  I remember going to shows back in high school and coming home smelling like smoke, and seeing guitarists stand up on stage putting lit cigarettes in their tuning keys and knowing that that is bad ass.  I remember my family always going to a small Italian restaurant by the house where I grew up and us choosing the non-smoking section instead of the smoking one.  There are no choices now, the decision is made for everyone.  The smokers (gladly?) go outside to smoke, and at the Res they are similarly forced to comply.  One has the option of sitting at the sports themed picnic tables and filling an ashtray there, or venturing in to what is apparently known as the Butt Hut.  It was a second woman, a friend of the (I’m assuming fallen) Catholic, who said the “Butt Hut” refers to the cigarette butts left behind by the smokers who inhabit said hut. Then, with the kind of laugh that only someone who spends a lot of time in the Butt Hut can have, she said, “at least most of the time ‘butt’ means ‘cigarette butts.’”

………..

The Catholic woman said she used to frequent the Seven Seas Bar.  I told her how I had met with two other Seven Seas transplants – Carla and Nicole – a few weeks back and how we had had a long chat about finding a new “home.”  Her phrasing of how she used to go to the now defunct bar was very specifically worded, and made me chuckle.  I asked if she had been coming to the Res for a while and her response was: “ever since my bar closed.”
I asked, “Which bar was that?”
“The Seven Seas,” she responded.
Here word choice immediately made me think that she was the former owner of the “Seas,” which she quickly corrected me and said that no, it was just the bar she went to all the time.  It was a very telling way of wording her relation to the Seas, though.  It was not a bar, it was my bar.

………..

I think there are highly negative connotations with bars, and these connotations are probably based in some kind of prejudiced assumption.  Today, this – the Res, the Butt Hut – was a place of gossip and chat.  The four women whom I spent time with in the Butt Hut gabbed on and on about whatever: new hair styles, problems with the dog, unpaid parking tickets, parents living and deceased, drug use, car break ins, friends, past vacations to the Grand Cayman islands, all the while chain smoking, chasing one drink with another.  Some people have church groups, others have book clubs or sewing circles or bridge nights.  People go out to dinner to catch up on old times, or head off to a concert with a troupe of friends.  These four women sit, smoke, drink and talk.  Simple enough that most should be jealous.

This is not something grand or noble, but I am not necessarily trying to seek out nobility, at the Res, or anywhere else.  I am here with four women; strangers to me, but friendly enough.  They had seen me, heard of me doing interviews around the bar.  I am an outlier of sorts, breaking with conformity to what ‘usually’ happens at the Res, and much younger than any of them.  The women do in fact initially approach conversation with me wearily, and the desire to not want to be on camera or formally interviewed was not a giant surprise.  But by no means were they standoffish.  We all sat around in the Butt Hut for hours, mostly me watching the second half of the Husky basketball game (winning out over Oregon State) and mostly them smoking and gabbing and drinking.  The weather was not particularly spectacular, but for a winter’s day none of us could complain.


A conversation with Jeff & looking in at The Res

This was a compilation effort of sorts.  I had talked with my friend, a long time Res frequenter, about some aspects of The Reservoir bar and what it meant to him.  We had some spontaneous moments like encountering an even longer time patron, Lou, who offered his own kind words to the chat.  The accompanied video was shot to give a visual feel as to how the Res looks, as well as provided some atmospheric sounds.  The color is dim and grainy, but that is not necessarily so different than from how the bar looks through my own two eyes.  My goal here is to show the variety of media objects in a portion of the bar, and how the users of The Res interact with the space.  It is nothing entirely different or out of the ordinary; just regular folks, enjoying some alcoholic beverages at an hour when many may be in bed and asleep.  Here, at this hour, people are up and active.  The space is meant for moving around, with natural path lines along walls and through seating areas and openings for gathering and standing.  There are also the destination areas like the bar itself, the pool tables, various video games, the shuffleboard, etc.  No one station is required and people move about at whatever whim they feel.  Thinks are set in place, but that doesn’t mean one cannot combine a table are to greater a grander drinking space.  The Res is in a symbiotic relationship with its patrons: bar-goers need a space to get comfortable in, and one that will not surprisingly provide obstacles or sudden offerings of distress.  The Res has shown that it thrives the most when people are comfortable, with themselves, with their service, and with their surroundings.  How the environment treats the people may be as important as how the people treat the environment.


A conversation with Carla and Nicole

The attached audio clip is a brief snippet from a long (long!) conversation I had with the two women mentioned in the title of the post here.  I had never seen them before our chat, and very well may never see them again.  What ensued in our dialogue are the kinds of things you either hear in a therapist’s office, or at a bar counter.  It was a great conversation and I’m very happy to have meet such nice (and willing) participants, all part of an aim to better paint the picture of what The Res is.  More audio segments will surely follow…

Some points of note:
~In the excerpt, Carla and Nicole both mention “the Seas,” meaning “The Seven Seas,” an old Chinese bar, restaurant, and karaoke joint that was up on Lake City Way, not terribly far from The Res.  The Seven Seas has since become “Pandora’s Adult Cabaret,” effectively driving the two ladies, and others, to seek new refuge.  (I asked if either had gone in to the cabaret, and I believe Carla responded with, “why pay to see what I already have?”  True enough.)

~Later in the evening, the music was silenced so everyone in the bar could sing happy birthday to some other relative stranger who was apparently born at least 21 years ago from that day.  The bartender, Tracy, even lit the candles and led the whole musical operation.  Of all the bars I have been to, I still don’t think I’ve seen the staff accommodate goofy little moments like that, and I’ve probably seen it happen at The Res half-a-dozen times.

All in all, Carla and Nicole stressed a real, tangible coziness they felt in the Reservoir; one that had only been matched by the now defunct Seven Seas.  The mood was carefree.  The two women knew the Res as a place where the bullshit was kept at bay.  They see the bar as a haven: somewhere nice and kind.  Familiarity was of great import and trust in the establishment – trust that the establishment trusted you back – was a quality that the two needed.  Not much was mentioned of aesthetics or decor.  The fact that both, in near unison, cited the “price” as being a major determining factor in frequenting the Res is also relevant.  But ultimately, Carla and Nicole know what they want out of their bar, and they both stand unapologetic and firm in their favoring of comfort and relatability over all else.