Most Influential

Most Influential, Equity: Cynthia Brothers

Preservationist, activist

By Chris S. Nishiwaki February 13, 2024

Cynthia Brothers

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

It started with a single post on Instagram in early 2016. Cynthia Brothers chronicled the closure of Inay’s, the popular Filipino cuisine restaurant on Beacon Hill, and with it the end of the run of Atasha Manila’s drag show. That was the beginning of Vanishing Seattle, an online chronicle of local businesses and places that have closed, that has now grown to nearly 80,000 followers on Instagram. It has also spun off a short film series that has successfully toured the film festival circuit and is archived on YouTube.

This year, Vanishing Seattle appeared as an analog show with remnants and reminders of shuttered businesses displayed in the more than 12,000-square-foot fourth floor at Railspur, affectionately referred to by locals as the F.X. McRory’s Building, in Pioneer Square. In collaboration with Seattle nonprofit Forest for the Trees, the show ran concurrently and adjacent to the Seattle Art Fair at the end of July. Brothers accomplished the massive feat in less than two months, curating and filling the space.

“I had been back in Seattle for a while,” says Brothers, who grew up in Seattle and went to graduate school at New York University. “There were a lot of changes happening fast. The tech boom, people getting pushed out, gentrification. It was something I didn’t like witnessing.”

Brothers worked pro bono. Former business owners, patrons, collectors, and locals of all stripes lent their memorabilia of Seattle’s past. The oversized neon letters of the old Coliseum, and the iconic former movie theater on the corner of Fifth and Pike in downtown Seattle shared space with menus from shuttered Chinatown-International District restaurants such as Four Seas and Bush Garden, as well as signs from the Red Apple Night Club on 23rd and Jackson.

“It has been described as a grocery store masquerading as a community center,” Brothers says of the Red Apple in the Central District, recalling the regular live music shows, barbecues, and staff that had worked there for decades. “It became a symbol of gentrification when it was bought by Vulcan.”

As the elevator doors to the fourth floor of the Railspur opened, guests were met with a sign from the Red Apple.

“I wanted to have that up front. I wanted the Red Apple sign to be one of the first things that they would see, and people would have a very strong emotional reaction,” she says. “It elicited such a range of emotions. In the history of Seattle, places like Red Apple are landmarks, culturally, socially.”

The oral history project, called “Shelf Life Community Story Project,” inspired by the experiences at the Red Apple, has moved to a permanent home in the nearby Wa Na Wari, an art and community space at 911 24th Ave.

Brothers was inspired and mentored in historical preservation and activism during regular visits to Bush Garden, where she met the owner of the restaurant, “Auntie Karen” Sakata, as well as “Uncle Bob” Santos, a community leader, activist, and former Region X (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska) Housing and Urban Development director during the Bill Clinton administration.

“I consider Bush Garden another critical influential space in my life,” Brothers says. “I met ‘Auntie Karen’ when I was coming into my own in my consciousness as an activist. I grew up going to Bush as a kid, sitting in the tatami rooms, and then I transitioned to the bar. If there wasn’t a Bush Garden, I could be a different person. It is heartbreaking to see the dismantling of decades and decades of memories and legacy.”

Not all the installations were as familiar and intimate to Brothers, but they were no less important. Today, Vanishing Seattle continues to grow organically. “I get a lot of people contacting me with this place or that place is closing or that place is struggling,” Brothers says. “I don’t want people to feel powerless by all of this. I want people to have an emotional connection and feel something about it. It is not all doom and gloom. I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I am determined. I am dogged. I feel compelled to do it.

“I would like to see more things not vanish.”

Follow Us

Movers & Shakers

Movers & Shakers

Profiling the people who shaped Seattle

Back in April 1968, Seattle magazine published a feature similar to our Most Influential issue, focusing on those who "truly call the shots."

Most Influential, Sports: Kalen Deboer

Most Influential, Sports: Kalen Deboer

Former University of Washington football coach

He started out small, leading Sioux Falls to three NAIA championships in his five years as head coach. He then worked his way up the NCAA food chain with stops at Southern Illinois and Western Michigan... Photo by Scott Eklund / Redbox Pictures

Most Influential, Arts: Shin Yu Pai

Most Influential, Arts: Shin Yu Pai

Poet, author, podcaster

Pai is an award-winning author, podcaster, and the city of Seattle’s 2023-24 Civic Poet. She has spent more than two decades in the literary field, penning 13 books... Photo by Sung Park

Most Influential, Arts: Jose Iñiguez

Most Influential, Arts: Jose Iñiguez

Educator, musician

Jose Iñiguez discovered the art of opera through a PBS special. As a teenager, he came across a program featuring a tenor singing an aria while watching TV with his dad... Photo by Ashley Genevieve