I get the strangest feeling from the sight of Murray Motors front window lighted up in the night. The feeling comes purely as nostalgia, Murray’s window evoking the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” painting with James Dean at the counter huddling in his leather jacket. The sensation comes partly from the fact that Murray’s storefront still looks much as it did in the 1950s, save the absence of shiny autos in its two-car showroom. Murray Motors now sells automotive parts, operates its old service bays and sells a few used cars, parked across the street on a vacant lot owned but never developed.
Port Angeles grew eastward and beyond the end of “The Boulevard” to the west over the past 60 years. The drive-in restaurants that demarcated Highway 101’s eastern and western entrances to town — Linkletter’s to the east, Fairmount to the west — no longer serve the teen cruisers of the fifties seated in their parents’ cars, yet some sense of
“American Graffiti” remains in a city where antique emporia replace clothiers and jewelers.
My own teen cruising years were wasted elsewhere in Ventura, California. Given the presence of grandchildren near there, I still visit Ventura regularly. But that city has overhauled its facades. We old timers look in vain for storefronts or any other sight — save The Mission and our high school — that existed when we spent our evenings driving to and fro in search of trouble we might get into but never did.
Port Angeles escaped any similar overhaul and survives on commercial shoestrings, leaving the city’s two main downtown streets as virtual ghosts of a past where Vern Burton, Jack Elway and Art Feiro, and the news publishing Webster family, set stolid examples for what this city could be.
The strangest feeling is that for all the success they had in modeling the American way for the teens of their day, the city in which they fostered productive ideals has struggled to live up to the legacy, and struggles still to thrive in a backwater of the nation’s economic geography. This city sleeps like the coal counties of Appalachia waiting for Prince Charming to kiss it to sublime wakefulness.
The truth is that Prince Charming never comes. Port Angeles will reawaken fully only after it has psychologically shaken off its logging past and embraced the new opportunities of the 21st century in tourism, alternative energy and service industries. Logging continues, though the log companies now chiefly sell out to Asian exports.
That is not a formula for growth, and we must look elsewhere for the core of future hope. I believe that hope can be found in three institutions: the Park Service, Peninsula College and the public schools, as well as local businesses (which benefit from each of the three). The park is our county’s world-class tourist attraction. The college is a major employer as well as an educator, and also adds immensely to the local culture, including its role in the proposed creation of a new performing arts center on the waterfront. Port Angeles High School should be a capstone of local education.
I think we will begin to see a new future only when the voters act; first, to re-create the City Council in the November election and, second, to approve spending for the next plan to rehabilitate the high school and move into that future. Till then, we live among the vestiges of an American Graffiti grown grey and fragile.
John Merton Marrs is a writer and editor who lives in Port Angeles and at Lake Sutherland. (Full disclosure: He is also a retired college educator and a member of the Peninsula College Foundation Board of Directors.)