Although Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood appeared in the 1890s as a dream of real estate developers, the hilltop community northeast of Green Lake was slow to grow. The last half of the twentieth century saw dramatic changes to the area, but Maple Leaf remained a stable home to middle-class families. The residents were late to organize themselves politically, but their patient and focused persistence soon gained nationwide recognition.
In 2001, Maple Leaf was a rough triangle bounded by Northgate Way, Interstate-5, and Lake City Way NE. In 1894, the area appears on maps as a plat by real estate promoters and was called the Maple Leaf Addition to the Green Lake Tract. The name may have come from the Maple Saw Mill that operated to the east on Lake Washington or from some maple trees that once grew in the area. The first residents organized the Maple Leaf School District in 1907. When the Seattle Water Department built a drinking water reservoir on the hill in 1912, they called it the Maple Leaf Reservoir.
The area remained a quiet residential community, somewhat cut off from Seattle by politics and geography. Japanese immigrants were attracted to the area. In 1912, Denjiro (d. 1926) and Jin Nishitani leased five acres of stump land on NE 98th Street and opened a nursery and oriental gardens. They raised 10 children and were able to buy the property in 1920. When the family was interned during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry, Hiromu Nishitani's Caucasian wife remained behind to manage the property. Hiromu sold the property in 1973 for an office development.
Seattle Moves North
Until 1954, the city limits stopped at N 85th Street, which was also the limit of streetcar service. In 1955, Sacajawea School was started with nine portable buildings. A permanent structure was opened in 1959. By 1961, the enrollment was 500. The area south of the school, including the street, became Sacajawea Playfield in 1971.
Monumental changes swept around Maple Leaf during the last half of the twentieth century. After World War II, Lake City Way NE became a main corridor for the housing boom that swept the area. In 1950, Northgate, the nation's first regional shopping center designed as a mall, opened its doors and parking lots northwest of the neighborhood. In the mid-1960s, Interstate 5 sliced along the western boundary of the hill.
The Community Organizes
As early as 1900, Seattle neighborhoods began organizing to put their interests before the city council. Groups lobbied for everything from electric service to parks and boulevards, and usually got results. Maple Leaf did not become active until 1983 when, under the leadership of Puni Hokea and Peter Orser, they formed the Maple Leaf Community Council.
Quietly, persistently, the group worked to improve services, yet preserve their sense of community. Without confrontation and without blocking a single building permit, the group managed to scale back the zoning of Roosevelt Way NE so that businesses had to provide off-street parking. The group was "articulate and well organized" (The Weekly).
In 1986, Neighborhoods USA, a Nashville-based non-profit organization that promoted and built neighborhood organizations, selected Maple Leaf for distinction. From more than 500 nominees Maple Leaf was chosen as one of three finalists for Neighborhood of the Year in the category, "Single Community, Resident Physical Needs" (The Seattle Times).
It was the only neighborhood west of St. Paul and Dallas to make it to the semi-finals. In a statement, Mayor Charles Royer said, "It has a 'can do' attitude and works cooperatively with government, business, and other neighborhoods. In doing so, the Maple Leaf Community Council never loses track of what will benefit the neighborhood and the residents."
In 2000, Maple Leaf joined other North End groups in opposing the expansion of Northgate into its south parking lot. The historic South Branch of Thornton Creek had been buried in pipes when the shopping center was constructed in 1950. The expansion would have precluded forever "daylighting" the creek -- restoring it so that it would support spawning salmon. Eventually, the developers abandoned the expansion plans and offered the property for sale.
One distinctive feature of Maple Leaf is the Northwest Puppet Center at 9123 15th Avenue NE. The converted church serves as home to the Carter Family Marionettes. The Carters are especially known for their mastery and preservation of the traditional Sicilian marionette theater known as Opera dei Pupi. The Puppet Center produces over 250 performances a year.