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Kalakala: The memory, the vision, the listing hulk

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 28, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
March 28, 2011 4:41 pm
The 276-foot Kalakala lists in its mooring on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma. (Janet Jensen/Staff photographer)

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Think of the Kalakala as a dream, not a ship.

She’s not that rusted-out corpse of a ferry now slowly sinking in the Hylebos Waterway, threatening to stir up the toxins in a Commencement Bay Superfund site. Busted by Bay Watch, the environmental group that caught her listing, that remnant of a great vessel must be put out of its misery in short order.

The real Kalakala is a memory of magical voyages across the Sound in a silver, streamlined ferry nearly the length of a football field; a memory of live orchestras and dancing, of plush chairs and a Horseshoe Cafe, of affordable luxury for wartime laborers crossing the waters to the shipyards of Bremerton. She is an icon of Seattle, a symbol of the 1962 World’s Fair.

The real Kalakala is not that rust bucket in the Hylebos; she is a story of dreamers.

After her career as a ferry ended, she was consigned to ignominy as a crab-processing plant on Kodiak Island, then abandoned there to rot on a mudflat. Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis, dreamer par excellence, spent 10 years and a fortune refloating her decayed remains, towing them to Seattle and trying to resurrect the Art Deco magic.

After he and his foundation failed in 2003, another dreamer named Steve Rodrigues picked up the torch. He bought the hulk, tried to rustle up the millions needed to restore the ship, sold commemorative fake gold coins, held up one vision after another of its shimmering future.

In Rodrigues’ mind, the Kalakala would be reborn, variously, as a five-star restaurant, a skating rink, a dinner theater, a museum, floating dance hall, a wedding venue, a “teaching tool.”

In the meantime, the actual corpse had to be stored somewhere. Seattle loved its iconic ferry, just not very much. Its powers-that-be evicted the ship from Lake Union; Rodrigues tried to find more friendly berths in Port Angeles, Neah Bay, San Francisco, Anacortes, Everett.

Everett’s executive director said, “Everett’s ship is coming in, but this ain’t it.” Said the Makah tribal chairman, after his nation evicted the vessel, “It’s somebody else’s headache now.”

That somebody else – inevitably? – turned out to be Tacoma.

After the ferry was discovered listing, Rodrigues told The News Tribune he was on the verge of a breakthrough; the Kalakala still had a big future. “I’ve got plans,” he said.

The real Kalakala is an idea always on the verge. The real Kalakala is an ever-promising plan.

As for the actual hulk, give her back to the element she belongs to. Let her suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange. Let the real Kalakala – the idea, the memory, the dream – ply the waters of Puget Sound forever.

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