Shine on, City Hall: Artist puts new spin on old craft

    Tacoma was a different place in 1957.

    "It's not like the old days," a Thursday morning patron of the Broadway Farmer's Market said as he stopped for an unorthodox shoeshine. "You walked in (stores) and everything was personalized. Everyone knew your first name, and if they didn't they did by the time you left."

    That nostalgia is part of what local artist and shoe cobbler Gabriel Brown is trying to evoke with his "Hard Times Shoe Shines" project, but the themes are still relevant today.

    For the month of October, he will be shining, waterproofing and whitening shoes dressed in a foam replica of Tacoma's Old City Hall - and hopefully getting people to think a little about consumerism and waste.

    Brown's customer, who asked to be identified only as Dean, used to sell papers on the corner of Market Street as a kid. Back then downtown Tacoma bustled with businessmen and shoppers - and shoeshine boys, who spent their days polishing the bits of leather people lived their lives in.

    When the Tacoma Mall was built in 1965 the landscape of the city began to change. So did the stores and products that were available.

    Brown is trying to get back to basics, or at the very least remind people what they are.

    "It's my subtle way of fiercely rebelling against mass production and disposable shoes," he said as he set up shop at the market.

    The idea was inspired by the Hope in Hard Times exhibit currently on display at the Washington State History Museum, which focuses on Washington in the Great Depression.

    Even his suit, which he made of foam and old political signs, was a strategic choice.

    "(Old City Hall) is the most beautiful historic building in town, and it's empty," he said of Tacoma's iconic tower. "It needed a job."

    It's a situation Brown is familiar with. He's been laid off four times in the last two years. Right now he works an assortment of part-time jobs, and he knows he's not the only one who is looking for ways to make old shoes last a little longer.

    It's a concept Dean understood immediately. He's been wearing the same style of leather boots since he was a teenager in the 1960s, and he's noticed a decline in the quality and durability of each pair.

    Brown has shined a lot of shoes in the last two weeks, and not one customer - conservative or liberal, city official or Pacific Avenue transient - has been proud of throw-away footwear from big box stores. And yet, even finding a pair of shoes that can be polished is a challenge.

    "I think that's symbolic of where the economy is and where our minds are," he said. "We're on this star wars mission right now. I like the aspect of coming back to earth."

    Shari Hart, an economic development specialist with the City of Tacoma, had a thought of her own as she paused for a minute to sip coffee and have her shoes buffed to perfection. For her, Brown's approach to a tough economy was an example of the best bad times can offer.

    "I think hard times are just new times," she said. "The opportunity borne out of those challenges can be exciting."

    Gabriel Brown will continue to shine shoes through the month of October. You can find him Monday through Thursday from 8 to 9 a.m. outside the Washington State History Museum on Pacific Avenue and randomly throughout the city as his schedule allows.

    The Hope in Hard Times exhibit will be at the Washington State History Museum through Nov. 11.

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