Avast ye me hearties, here is a tale of Brian Little, an urban pirate who sails under the colors of Aberdeen in his quest to vanquish naysayers and decay — and treasure the history of downtown and the waterfront of the city he adores on Grays Harbor.
Like the fictional Jack Sparrow of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame, Brian Little is a romantic who believes in the power of the past to make the future prosperous. Sparrow sought bounty for himself. Little, on the main, gives of his time and energy to polish the gold he sees beneath Aberdeen’s tarnished image.
The pirate affect he cultivates cloaks a serious mien when it comes to the city he loves. But it fits in his mission to “live a great life.”
In real life, Brian Little is on a campaign to illuminate Aberdeen’s future as well as to shine a light on its past. A senior project manager at an architectural design firm, with a thorough knowledge of zoning law, he can deftly juggle intellectual analysis and critical thinking with his other values of “whimsy and play.”
Why a pirate? “I strive to act on my values,” he says, adding a yellow “Caution Adults at Play” sign in email. A longer explanation, shortened here, involves an encounter with a Rusty Scupper pirate in Hoquiam, Pirate Days in Westport where he and wife Julie celebrate their wedding anniversary in June, and “I love sailing and Jewels loves the ocean.”
On the serious side, Little volunteers as chairman of the Aberdeen Planning Commission and the city’s Shorelines Hearings Board, and rarely misses a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission or City Council.
On the lighter-hearted one, he is the founder of two creative coalitions of citizens. Ladies of Aberdeen salutes the city’s brothel past and is “a hoity toity and lusty loose affiliation of people dedicated to joy and the celebration of Aberdeen’s rich and colorful past while writing our future’s past,” and the other is the Myrtle Street Buccaneers, a tribute to pirates “to capture and hold a spirit of fun and adventure.”
Social media experiment
Virtually each day, often before dawn, he posts new photos and information on Facebook, challenging others in the community to think about what makes up the essence of a successful city. One day it’s a historical photo to remind citizens of what Aberdeen could be like, another it’s a direct challenge to improve the city here and now, often with information about how.
“He is willing to voice his opinion and back it up, such a rare combination these days,” said Aberdeen Community Development Director Lisa Scott in a speech for when Little was honored for government service. “His passion and leadership shines through every time he takes the floor.”
His posts appear on a Facebook page titled Aberdeen Planning Commission. There, he has forged a crew of 397 followers. “Social media is a game changer” as a public commons, he thinks. Others agree.
“Little has done an incredible job of reaching out and engaging the community in a conversation about who we are, and who and where we want to be. Brian’s initial ‘Facebook experiment’ continues to pay dividends years after its launch,” says Capt. Les Bolton, Executive Director of the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority.
Each weekday, Little commutes to Olympia to work full-time as senior project manager for a design firm. On those trips he listens to books on tape about sociology, city planning and history, whatever suits his fancy. He is currently listening to “Thinking Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahmen and just finished “The American Legal Experience,” by Lawrence M. Friedman.
He keeps a spiral notebook and sets priorities each day. Most days “family” and “time” trade as lead priority. Sometimes, he steals time. “I am a pirate, after all.”
He also dreams of reconnecting the city to the waters that spawned past prosperity of fishing, logging and shipping.
Weaving past & future
On a recent sunny Saturday, he set sail in his land yacht, a deep blue Honda Civic of recent vintage, and cruised the city, taking a reporter on his version of a tour of the city. In the backseat is a chest (read plastic tub) full of articles, photos and pamphlets about the city’s early history.
Little sports a red bandana and tricorn hat atop his graying mullet. “I find that my pirate hat softens a lot of conversations.”
He spins tales of Aberdeen’s planning past and possible future as he weaves around the city, driving around industrial Aberdeen by the railroad tracks where the city is cut off by barbed wire, brambles, private land and derelict dreams of the logging and mercantile past. His grasp of the history of city land use is impressive, he can reel off dates, past planning documents, political fights and a who’s who of built Aberdeen.
As a project manager, he uses the pragmatic elements of “a budget, time constraints and a deadline” to focus his effort toward an end. It’s a skill that comes up often as he drives around town, pointing to problems, explaining how things got that way and what has to happen to make it better. He points out the evolution of years of decisions that have served to block downtown Aberdeen from the waterfront.
With Little you learn to listen for the subtext. He may be recounting a plethora of reasons why downtown Aberdeen cannot yet reach the water, but underneath is a river of hope and the knowledge that “land use planning never ends.”
How does he stay positive in the wake of so many tales of zoning and planning woes?
“It’s my nature,” he says. “I find my joy in … sparkles of achievement” that shine through efforts to “build a great city” ala Aberdeen founder Sam Benn, for whom Little organized a Founder’s Day this year with help from the city council. “I enjoy the act of creation” in building a great life as well as aiming for a great city, he says. He hopes the events he helps organize take off as annual ones.
The late John Erak, a former legislator and city council member, helped him to see the need for vision and purpose in Aberdeen’s zoning and land use. He sees the process as an ongoing conversation in which stakeholders, particularly those with power such as city officials, will act on recommendations forged over time.
He fuels up on caffeine at Starbucks, ordering the weekend standard vente Americano with four — yes four — shots of espresso. He and Julie, his wife of 25 years, quip that it is like some medicines that calm hyperactive children.
To the Harbor
The couple met while working at the long-closed Ernst store in Aberdeen where he worked after he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Washington State University in 1987, following a B.S. in architectural studies at WSU in 1986. Little was born in Seattle. His family moved here in the mid-1960s. His sister Kathy died of leukemia a few years ago, his older brother Don is co-owner of Bergstrom Foundry.
A 1976 graduate of Weatherwax High, Little lives in the same house he grew up in one block up the hill on Broadway. “Only one block up, so I am not that snobbish,” he jokes. His parents live at Channel Point Village in Hoquiam and hope to return to their home at Mason Lake.
His brief hiatus in retail ended when he returned to work for Alan E. Gozart, now owner of Harbor Architects, where he had done an internship. He stayed for a dozen years.
“Brian, being a local resident, is very passionate about our colorful heritage, and, being a very talented design and planning professional serving on the Planning Commission, has the ability to blend both worlds, well serving Aberdeen residents for many years to come,” his former boss, Gozart, said in an email.
Little has also worked as a building official for Hoquiam, and for a private developer, before heading to KMB Design in Olympia.
“Feet on the Street”
Back on the tour, Little heads up Think of Me Hill, then down onto Kurt Cobain Landing, through East Aberdeen, to South Aberdeen and the boat launch there. He notes how busy it is. As he drives, emerging in the subtext, filtering up through the Irish and violin music playing in the car, a new version of a possible greater Aberdeen emerges in his descriptions.
Given vision and purpose (and a whole lot of money and ingenuity), the Aberdeen he has in mind could have kayak and boat launches on both sides of the Chehalis River, pedestrian pathways along the Wishkah and new, better-designed bridges to accommodate 21st Century Aberdeen. The estuary might connect to F and G streets, or Broadway via elevated walkways. River Street would be paved and free of potholes. State Street would be free of shame about its brothel past on the eastern end, and be loud and proud as Hume Street, its original name.
Through it all, Little will urge civic participation with his current slogans: “feet on the street” and “care in the air.”
As Jim Wynans, member of the commission on historic preservation puts it, “Brian Little is passionately opinionated about almost everything. He has beliefs and visions about what was and what should be. When engaged in discussion about a topic, he is willing to express his opinion. However, whether two agree or disagree is not the issue because he is a true gentleman who will truly listen, without interruption, to another’s side of the issue. And I mean LISTEN, without debate, and allow another to express themselves.
“Furthermore, if you believe in pirates, then Brian believes you.”
Erin Hart: 360-537-3932 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @/DW_Erin on Twitter