University District Museum Without Walls Oral History: Patty Whisler (University District volunteer and activist)

  • Posted 3/20/2010
  • Essay 9340

Patty Whisler is a former resident of Seattle's University District and a current neighborhood activist and volunteer there. She is known as the unofficial "Godmother" of the District.  This is a transcript of an oral history that Whisler gave in an interview conducted by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009.  The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories.

Patty Whistler

I'm Patty Whistler, and I moved to the District in 1963 when my husband joined the faculty at the University of Washington. And we were from Berkeley, and we'd lived in France and in Montreal before we came to Seattle, so it was really like coming home in a lot of ways. Except it wasn't, because it seemed very, very different from Berkeley in a lot of ways. There was a sedateness, a kind of politeness, a lack of -- in some ways a lack of spontaneity that we felt was expressive perhaps of the Scandinavian background of Seattle.

But then we realized that if there was one place in all of Seattle where things were going to be volatile and people had strong feelings and people argued about things and people got out and expressed themselves, it was in the University District, and that was one of the reasons why we were very glad that we moved here. And in Montreal, my husband had had a long commute on a train and we found that utterly objectionable and no way to live at all, and so it was marvelous to come to a campus where you could live just a few blocks from your laboratory and work -- take a nice walk home, go back at night if you needed to and to feel that it was part of a community that was campus-centered, where you could do everything. You could -- ballet lessons for the kids, or swimming lessons, or anything that you needed in the way of dishtowels or underwear or anything, you could purchase on the Ave. It was really the all-in-one community that made it just a delightful place to live.

And the kind of people who lived here were more interesting, even than the social structure that professors and people who just simply hung out. Artists and writers and then just plain old people who worked for a business and raised their kids in that place and, as we've spoken of before, who had lived there for generations and generations. The diversity of people was magnificent and the Girl Scout troop that my daughter belonged to was made up of different kinds of kids and it was wonderful. It was just exactly what you would want if you were trying to design a computerized neighborhood that you would want to bring your kids up in.

Changing Times 

Then, as the sixties wore on, the Ave itself became a little bit changed. And the stores themselves were still abundantly full of wonderful clothes and wonderful things from the world around -- I think it was the only place in Seattle where you could find imports in the scale that are very, very familiar to us now but that's where people came from all over the area to find just the right kind of tea, or the right kind of kimono, or the wonderful things they had from Latin America at La Tienda. So you could eat from all over the world, you could shop for things from all over the world, you could hear people speaking languages from all over the world, and that was Seattle at that time. Still a wonderful asset.

Kids, I think, were attracted to the area because it was so different from Bellevue, or so different from Ballard, or so different from West Seattle, and so there was always a turnover of people who didn't belong here who may have had a tendency to get into more trouble than the people who actually lived here and who knew how to cope a little bit better. But still, the businesses flourished nonetheless, and when the high tide of activism and of student unrest and the concern with civil rights and the Vietnam War became more and more of a demonstrable movement in the area in the late sixties and early seventies, businesses began to be a little bit more discouraged about attracting a clientele from all over the city, because a lot of people who lived places that were very, very quiet found the kind of people they encountered on the Ave and the kind of things that happened on the Ave were things that they were not comfortable with.

We formed the Ave group to kind of study the situation, you know, the same old rigmarole that you go through, and figure out some ways that we could change things. And no matter what we were trying out, no matter if it was social services and transportation or whatever, it came back to the fact that we had the narrowest sidewalks in Seattle. They were the most heavily populated sidewalks in Seattle, barring Downtown, and people just didn't feel comfortable. The sidewalks were old and full of cracks and holes and you had to really look and make sure you didn't break a leg. Physically it was a very unattractive and inconvenient and dangerous -- well, not dangerous except for spraining your ankle -- but it was not a happy pedestrian environment.

Fixing Sidewalks

So the first thing to do before we looked at all the bigger problems of what kind of businesses would prosper here or what kind of services we should provide was to fix the actual structure of the Ave. To widen the sidewalks if possible, to redo the lighting so that in the evenings the sidewalks would be lit, not just the thoroughfares for cars, to invest in some street furniture that would make it more lively, to give the place a personality, other than one of just grim desperation.

And so we spent about 10 years convincing the city that this was worth doing, and that was finished in 2003 or '04, I think it was. And everyone was saying, "Well, that's not going to change the social climate. It's still, no matter how much you throw at the structure of things" -- and it was about $8 million -- "no matter how much you spend, it's still going to be full of people who need help, who prey on those people who need help, and it's not going to change very much." And so I think a lot of us said, "Well, that's true, but in time, there may be increased confidence on the part of businesses to make further investments."

And I think that's what's happening, and I don't think we can really tell how much of a payoff that investment will show for another 10 or 15 years. It's such a gradual change that you don't say, "Oh my God, the Ave's a totally different place." It's not a totally different place. We don't want it to be completely different. We don't want it to be like University Village, but a place where everybody can feel at home, and where street kids can feel safe, and where little kids can feel like there's lots of fun to be had, and pedestrians really enjoy walking up and down and seeing what's new.

So I have a friend who lives on Chestnut Street in San Francisco, and every time I'm down there I think, "This is exactly what the Ave should be like." And everybody knows everybody else's dog, and kid, and here they are in the middle of a huge city and yet it's so - the atmosphere is so friendly and so welcoming and so warm. And you just feel like you're in a little teeny-tiny town. And that's, I think, what would be wonderful if we could stimulate here.

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