Seattle Neighborhoods -- Past, Present, Future

  • Posted 1/04/2005
  • Essay 7196
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Seattle is the biggest city in the state of Washington and among the largest in the country. But as in most urban settings, people in Seattle seldom think of themselves as residing in the city as much as inhabiting visually and culturally distinct neighborhoods.  From trendy Belltown to Scandinavian-influenced Ballard to the diverse Chinatown-International District, Seattle neighborhoods offer a fascinating range of architecture, cuisine, and lifestyles that reflects the diversity of the city. This essay was prepared by Walt Crowley (1947-2007) and Dr. Quintard Taylor to help orientate attendees at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Seattle, January 6-9, 2005.

Unlike in most cities, however, Seattle neighborhoods are set off by major topographical features. Steep hills, valleys, bays, rivers, lakes, and peninsulas all combine to create local identities which unite and divide; the physical barriers help reinforce the mental images of neighborhood.

This was not always the case. The city was founded in 1851, when 24 settlers from Illinois and New York disembarked from a coastal brig at Alki Point in present-day West Seattle. Presumptuously calling itself New York (later changed to "Alki," meaning by and by), to suggest a future New York City in the West, Seattle aspired from its founding to be a great city. Its destiny, at least before 1890, was hardly assured. Twenty-one years after the Alki landing, the Puget Sound Directory described the settlement of 1,500 residents as “resembling a New England town were it not for the ... burnt stumps and ungraded streets.”

Early Seattle was a physically compact “walking city” (if one didn’t mind sinking into the mud occasionally) whose homes and commercial buildings were confined to a narrow strip of land which ringed the harbor at the foot of three imposing hills. The young city had not developed distinctive ethnic or economic neighborhoods and resembled pre-Civil War "walking cities" such as Boston and Baltimore where urban dwellers resided no more than two miles from work, the typical distance one could comfortably walk in 30 minutes.

Here is how one observer described Seattle in the 1880s:

"The fishermen, sailors, and...unemployed lived west of First Avenue, near the water. Nearer the heart of the city one could find not just cooks, waiters, domestics and janitors, but many others [including] doctors, lawyers, real estate and investment brokers, office managers, stenographers, and bookkeepers ... The alleys between the streets ... were hives of activity. In one stretch of alley between First and Second avenues were a print shop, a contractor's office, a painter's office, and a shoe outlet."

Seattle’s spectacular growth from 3,533 in 1880 to 237,194 by 1910 created the modern metropolis. Not even a devastating fire in 1889, which turned most of downtown into what Rudyard Kipling called “horrible black smudge,” slowed Seattle’s growth. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1899 accelerated the process. Rapid growth also created the first distinctive neighborhoods. New streetcar and cable railway systems spurred annexation of outlying communities, bringing the various areas together under a single political administration. But the newer communities often consciously maintained their sense of neighborhood identity precisely because they were now part of a larger, growing city.

Pioneer Square was Seattle’s first downtown. The area was settled in 1852 when most of Seattle’s founders abandoned Alki Point. The settlers originally called their village “Duwamps,” but town physician David “Doc” Maynard convinced them to rename it for Chief Seattle, the leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes who had welcomed the strange newcomers into their midst.

That same year Henry Yesler chose Seattle as the site of Puget Sound’s first steam-powered lumber mill, which immediately became the village’s largest employer. Young Seattle also earned the name “Skid Road,” a common term for timber camps at the time and, much later, a universal epithet for dilapidated neighborhoods. The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 burned down the area but it was quickly rebuilt with brick and stone, creating the ensemble of late nineteenth century architecture that survives as today’s Pioneer Square.

In 1899, civic leaders established a park at 1st Avenue and Yesler Way which they called Pioneer Place. They raised a Tlingit totem pole there to symbolize the city’s connection to Alaska and the Yukon. In 1914, typewriter magnate L.C. Smith built the Smith Tower which remained the tallest building west of the Mississippi River until 1931. Seattle’s downtown shifted north away from Pioneer Square and the area fell into decay and disrepute. But by 1970s preservationists and entrepreneurs converted the old buildings into stylish taverns, music clubs, offices, and loft apartments, creating the first of many gentrified neighborhoods in the city.

Downtown Seattle began to take shape in the early twentieth century, after the University of Washington relocated from the site of the present-day Fairmont Olympic Hotel (built in 1924) to its land-grant campus in northeast Seattle. City Engineer R. H. Thomson launched an aggressive program of regrades that flattened the area’s hills, including Denny Hill (near the present site of the Westin Hotel), which blocked downtown’s northward expansion. Meanwhile local truck farmers and their customers began gathering at the foot of Pike Street in August 1907, planting the seed for today’s colorful Pike Place Market.

Downtown Seattle is rich in commerce and culture. Commerce is symbolized by the 76-story BankAmerica Tower, the tallest office building in the United States west of Chicago. Unlike the core of most major American cities, the downtown area with Westlake Center Mall, Nordstrom, Nike Town and hundreds of other stores remains the vibrant shopping center of greater Seattle. Downtown is also a cultural center with the Seattle Art Museum, Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, the daring new Seattle Public Library and Cornish College for the Arts. Broadway road shows and major concerts are performed at the 5th Avenue, Moore, and Paramount theaters.

The Central Waterfront is literally the western edge of downtown. For a number of years its piers and tourist shops welcomed visitors. Today much of the area is home to thousands of Seattleites in Puget Sound-facing highrise apartments and condos. Area residents, like their predecessors a century ago, often shop at colorful Pike Place Market daily for the freshest fish, fruits and vegetables.

First Hill defines downtown Seattle’s eastern flank. Seattle’s first millionaires built mansions here to escape the noise and smell of Pioneer Square, making First Hill the city’s oldest suburb. Today First Hill is home to the Frye Art Museum, Seattle University, and one of the largest medical complexes in the nation, anchored by Swedish, Virginia Mason and Harborview hospitals. Partly because of that concentration, numerous biotech companies engaged in medical research are interspersed here and in downtown Seattle.

First Hill was severed from downtown Seattle by Interstate 5 in the 1960s but it has been partially reconnected by Freeway Park and the Washington State Trade and Convention Center. The latter will soon be the new home of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).

South Lake Union lies northeast of downtown. A historical maritime park is now being developed there, and the expanding Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has seeded the growth of biotech firms in this neighborhood as well.

Belltown and the “Denny Regrade” which lie just north of downtown Seattle were slow to develop. For years the community was home to sailors and longshoremen and its working-class character led the city’s labor unions to build the Central Labor Temple, which still stands at 1st Avenue and Broad Street. However, in the mid-1970s the city approved new zoning changes to encourage the construction of a high-rise residential district. Denny Regrade and Belltown today combine artist lofts, jazz clubs and homeless shelters with new condos and upscale restaurants. The resulting mix, for the time being, is a neighborhood where the poor and the wealthy, the bohemian and urban sophisticate share social and cultural space.

Queen Anne Hill, rising 456 feet above Puget Sound, is the highest promontory in a city of hills. Although it is one of oldest areas of the city, the hill’s steep slopes made it one of the last neighborhoods to be developed. Electric streetcar lines reached tho top of the hill only in 1902 after they were equipped with counterweights to stabilize the cars along the 18 percent grade. Queen Anne offers some of the most spectacular views of the city, Puget Sound, and Mt. Rainier. Wealthy Seattleites built new “Queen Anne” style mansions on the South facing slope at the end of the nineteenth century, giving the area its present name. By 1930 the hill had 30,000 residents. Despite its reputation as an exclusive residential district, the vast majority of residents were wage earners who lived in modest homes. Seattle Pacific University occupies a tract on the hill’s northern flank.

A sister hill, Magnolia, lies to the west. This neighborhood is the home of Discovery Park (a vast in-city wilderness), Daybreak Star Center, operated by the United Indians of All Tribes, and historic Fishermen’s Terminal on the south side of Salmon Bay.

Seattle Center lies at the foot of Queen Anne Hill just north of Belltown. The area underwent extensive redevelopment for the 1962 “Century 21” world’s fair, which left among other institutions the Space Needle (the city’s most famous landmark), the mile-long twin Monorails (now undergoing repair after a Memorial Day fire), which link the center to Westlake Center Mall in downtown Seattle, and the city’s theater “district,” which includes the Intiman Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theater. In 2003 the Seattle Opera House reopened as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, home to the Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Today the Seattle Center also includes Key Arena, home of the Seattle SuperSonics and the Seattle Storm, and the Experience Music Project.

Ballard, the Seattle neighborhood with a decidedly Scandinavian accent and proud maritime heritage, is located in the northwest part of the city. Salmon and Shilshole bays on Puget Sound form its southern and western boundaries while Phinney Ridge rises to the east. Founded by Captain William Rankin Ballard, who received 160 acres of “worthless” timberland in payment of a business debt, the area prospered as developers extended rail and streetcar service to Golden Gardens, a beach resort at the northwest edge of the community. Although Ballard’s 1,636 residents incorporated their city in 1890 and built a handsome city hall in 1899, concerns about their water supply prompted the residents to vote for annexation to Seattle in 1906. The completion of the Washington Ship Canal (which linked Lake Washington and Puget Sound) in 1917 strengthened Ballard’s maritime character.

Meanwhile jobs in Puget Sound mills and fisheries attracted thousands of Scandinavian immigrants to Ballard. Although Scandinavians never comprised more than a third of the community’s population, they gave the city one of its first ethnically identifiable neighborhoods. The Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard continues to celebrate Scandinavian culture and history, but young urban professionals seeking moderately priced housing have converted many of the old ethnic bars and taverns into coffeehouses, jazz clubs, and microbreweries.

Despite being under the shadow of the huge Aurora Bridge (completed in 1932), Fremont nonetheless proudly proclaims itself “The Center of the Universe.” Located north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, it was founded by developers who named it for their Nebraska hometown. Fremont was annexed to the city in 1891. Noted for its eclectic public art including a statue of Vladimir I. Lenin, the popular sculpture, People Waiting for the Interurban, and the Troll under Aurora Bridge, the community has since the 1960s been an attractive neighborhood for students, bohemians, and artists who in the 1990s declared it an “Artists’ Republic.” Fremont today continues to be home to a lively mix of bistros, artist studios, boutiques and coffee shops. However they are now joined by high tech companies such as Adobe Systems and Getty Images, both of which built their corporate headquarters there in recent years.

Capitol Hill, named by developer James Moore in 1900 to attract wealthy home buyers, is arguably the cultural and generational melting pot of Seattle. Located immediately east of the I-5 Freeway, it has a vibrant business and entertainment district along Broadway Avenue. It is also home to the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, Seattle Central Community College, the Richard Hugo House writers' center, and numerous shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses. Capitol Hill is the site of Seattle’s annual Gay Pride week celebration and in 1999 was made famous as one of the major areas of confrontation between World Trade Organization (WTO) demonstrators and the Seattle police. This neighborhood remains an area of rich social and economic diversity.

Seattle’s University District, home of the University of Washington since 1895, is located in the northeast section of the city. It is a neighborhood of restaurants, cafes, a renowned street fair, a farmer’s market, the Meany Hotel (now Best Western University Towers), the century-old University Book Store, the Henry Art Gallery and the Thomas Burke Museum of Natural History located on the UW campus, and of course thousands of university students. Originally named Brooklyn in 1890 by land developer James Moore, the neighborhood’s fate was permanently tied to the University of Washington when the state legislature in 1895 designated the area between Portage and Union bays as the new home of the institution.

With the arrival of students in 1895 the name Brooklyn gave way to University Station and eventually the University District. The early Methodist, Christian, and Congregational churches in the district produced its first community activists, who lobbied for paved streets, a public library, and corrals for the area’s free ranging cows. The cows, and the remaining farms, were gone by the summer of 1909 when the University campus became the site for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. An estimated 3.7 million people visited Seattle’s first world’s fair and many returned to make their homes in the city.

But students dominated the character and culture of the area. On armistice night, November 11, 1918, thousands of pajama clad marchers took to the streets to celebrate, leaving more than a few windows broken and establishing an enduring University District tradition. Six years later, a different type of university activist, Bertha Landes, wife of a UW geology professor, became the first woman mayor of a major American city. On January 28, 1930, the 15-story Edmond Meany Hotel opened. The Meany was one of the first hotels in the country named after an historian.

By 1960 the University had more than 20,000 students, many of whom lived in the district. Ten year later, that enrollment reached 33,000 and by the 1980s stabilized at around 43,000 for the remainder of the twentieth century. The University District continues to evolve. The area’s youth culture, influenced by the beat generation of the 1950s, gave way to the much larger counterculture of the 1960s. The District and especially University Avenue remain the center of a dynamic youth culture. Neighborhood bookstores, theaters, and restaurants -- representing the food and culture of nations on six continents -- are a powerful attraction for students and visiting scholars from around the world.

Chinatown-International District is the most culturally distinct neighborhood in Seattle. The city’s original Chinatown, just east of Pioneer Square, was emptied when white workers forcibly expelled approximately 350 Chinese immigrants in 1886. By the early twentieth century, however, a new community began to evolve south of Jackson Street, bolstered by Seattle’s growing Asian trade and the opening of the King Street and Union Railroad Stations on the edge of the district in 1906 and 1911 respectively. By 1900 a growing number of Japanese immigrants made the neighborhood their home, followed by Filipino families by the 1920s. Yet the area also included African Americans who helped give the neighborhood a distinct character; Asian and black businesses were interspersed along Jackson Street and black entertainers performed in Asian-owned clubs or resided in Asian-owned hotels.

The World War II internment of the Japanese again disrupted the community as black war-worker families became a significant part of the population, often occupying homes abandoned by interned Japanese Americans. The Asian character of the community survived, thanks to the Chinese and growing numbers of Filipinos. The Japanese population, however never recovered to its prewar size. In 1951 Seattle officials proclaimed the neighborhood the International District to reflect the community’s mix of citizens of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and, ironically, African American ancestry.

By the 1970s change came again to the area with the construction of the Kingdome (imploded in 2000 and replaced by Safeco Field and Qwest Stadium). The District continued to be the cultural center of the Asian community even as many older residents moved away. New immigrants from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began to populate the area, forming their own thriving commercial center called “Little Saigon” near Jackson and 12th Avenue. With the largest concentration of Asian restaurants and markets in the city, anchored by the Nippon Kan Theater, the Wing Luke Asian Museum, and Uwajimaya, one of the largest Asian American retailers on the West Coast, Chinatown-International District remains a major Seattle attraction for international visitors and local residents.

Even in a city known for rapid neighborhood change, Seattle’s Central Area (also known as the Central District) is a place of transitions. Between 1890 and World War I, the district was a predominantly Jewish community anchored by Temple de Hirsch Sinai on 15th and Union and Bikur Cholim Synagogue on 17th Avenue (now the Langston Hughes Cultural Center). By the 1920s Japanese residents moved into the area from Chinatown, operating a number of small stores and shops along Yesler Way. African Americans, however, crafted the major twentieth century cultural image of the neighborhood.

The first blacks arrived in the 1890s, locating the two oldest African Americans churches, the First AME and Mt. Zion Baptist, there. The population grew slowly until the influx of World War II defense workers created a heavily black community in the area. By 1960 well over 90 percent of black Seattle lived in the Central District, which became the focal point for the local civil rights movement for the rest of the decade. Open housing legislation in 1968 allowed African Americans to move out of the area in significant numbers, first to neighboring Rainier Valley and then beyond to Seattle suburbs.

By the 1990s the district changed again with the arrival of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali immigrants and the return of European Americans, mainly young professionals who sought its relatively inexpensive housing. With ongoing gentrification it is not clear whether the Central District will remain the cultural heart of black Seattle. For now, however, it is still the site of the major black churches, a number of good soul food restaurants, and blues and jazz music venues which share space with coffeehouses and East African restaurants.

Beacon Hill (which is in fact a ridge) overlooks Seattle from the Southeast. Its entrance is “guarded” by the imposing 16-story art deco former U.S Public Health Service Hospital which in 1999 became the corporate headquarters for Beacon Hill was established in 1889 by M. Harwood Young, who moved to the area to oversee the development of real estate for the New England and Northwest Investment Company. Young named the company’s holdings after the historic hill in Boston. Italian and Japanese immigrants settled on the hill, growing fruits and vegetables, which they sold at Pike Place Market.

By the 1960s Beacon Hill became the destination of many upwardly mobile former International District and Central District residents as well as growing numbers of Mexican American newcomers. In the 1970s Latino activists occupied and converted an unused elementary school into El Centro de la Raza. The various ethnic groups have, along with the remaining white residents, created a thriving multicultural community.

Due southwest of Beacon Hill are Georgetown and South Park, located on former mudflats along the Duwamish River. Georgetown, the older of the two communities, began when John Pinnell, a saloon owner, built the Seattle Race Course in 1869. After the track was opened more saloons and other forms of adult entertainment began to characterize the area. In 1883 a brewery was opened in the community to take advantage of nearby hop fields harvested by Native American farmworkers. The brewery eventually became Seattle Brewing and Malting Company, at one point the world’s sixth largest producer of beer. By 1908 Georgetown, with 24 saloons operating 24-hours a day, was the quintessential “wide-open” town. Although both Seattle and Georgetown felt deeply ambivalent about their union, the small community was annexed in 1910.

That same year daredevil pilot Charles Hamilton demonstrated Seattle’s first airplane on Georgetown’s Meadows Race Track (near the present site of the Museum of Flight). Six years later William Boeing, who had recently arrived from Illinois to manage his family’s timber interests, began building his own airplanes in the “Red Barn” shipyard he owned on the Duwamish River. By 1928 the Boeing Company was Seattle’s largest employer. As Boeing converted to wartime production in the late 1930s, thousands of workers lived in nearby housing, but industrial expansion eventually displaced homes. By 1998 Georgetown claimed only 1,200 residents. Its brewing legacy lives on -- somewhat. Seattle Brewing and Malting became Rainier Brewing, which erected a huge red “R” on top of its building plainly in sight of southbound Interstate 5 motorists. In 2000, Tully’s Coffee bought Rainier Brewing and replaced the “R” with a green “T.”

South Park on the west bank of the Duwamish River was for much of its history a small community of Italian and Japanese farmers who supplied produce to Pike Place Market. The community’s need for water and electric utilities convinced its residents to approved annexation to Seattle in 1907. By 1920 the Boeing facility provided employment for local workers and like Georgetown, it experienced a transitory World War II worker influx. By the 1960s, the remaining residents stubbornly resisted the city’s attempts to declare the entire area industrial and at one point nearly all of the neighborhood’s 4,000 residents staged a noisy protest at City Hall, forcing the city council to rezone the area as low-density residential. By the end of the 1990s, the community population had declined to 2,800, most of whom were working-class Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants.

Southeast Seattle, or the Rainier Valley as most residents know it, extends six miles south from downtown Seattle to the suburb of Renton. The “Valley” is in fact a series of communities -- Columbia City, Rainier Beach, Hillman City, and Genesee among others -- which were shaped by the railroad and interurban trolley lines that extended from Seattle to Renton in the late nineteenth century. Many of the first residents were Japanese and Italian farmers. In fact the Italian community at the north end of the valley was, like Ballard, one of the few discernibly European ethnic neighborhoods in the city.

During the twentieth century, the Valley attracted more residents of various backgrounds. It also became the site for semi-professional baseball in the city when in 1913, Seattle Braves owner Daniel E. Dugdale, opened a 10,000-seat stadium bearing his name on Rainier Avenue at South McClellan. In 1938 Rainier Beer owner Emil Sick replaced Dugdale Stadium with Sicks' Seattle Stadium, which served as the site of various minor league and briefly one major league team (the Seattle Pilots in 1969), and rock concerts (both Elvis and Janis Joplin played there) until 1979.

By the late 1960s many African Americans moved to the Valley from the Central District in search of relatively inexpensive housing. Eventually other newcomers came, including Southeast Asian and East African refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, India, and Latin America. The 2000 Census designated the Valley as the most racially diverse neighborhood in the nation. That diversity is clearly seen in the Ethiopian, Cambodian, Somali, Vietnamese, Chinese, Eritrean, Italian, Mexican, African American, and Indian Restaurants along Martin Luther King Way and Rainier Avenue.

West Seattle, the oldest and largest of Seattle’s neighborhoods, is both a peninsula and a state of mind. Although home to Alki Point, where the first European American settlers landed in the region, its geographical isolation from the rest of the city has also spawned occasional secessionist movements from Seattle. At the center of this tension is transportation. On December 24, 1888, a local land development company began offering the first regular ferry service on the Puget Sound between downtown Seattle and West Seattle. The ferry crossing took eight minutes. Today, more a century later and after the construction of 10 bridges and the expenditure of millions of dollars, the ferry crossing still holds the record for the fastest trip between downtown Seattle and West Seattle.

Isolation encouraged independence. West Seattle incorporated in 1902 when it seemed annexation to Seattle was unlikely. Two years later it began building the first municipally owned streetcar system in the country. However the line extended only a mile because surrounding communities rejected an offer from West Seattle to provide service in exchange for annexation. A 1907 “land rush” brought both more people to West Seattle and more demands for annexation to Seattle, which West Seattle voters approved later that year.

From the time of annexation until the 1980s, West Seattle residents nonetheless felt isolated from the rest of the city despite the construction of new but soon inadequate bridges over the Duwamish Waterways and Harbor Island. In a typical World War II rush hour, for example, West Seattle’s 70,000 residents waited in long traffic lines as drawbridges allowed shipping vessels access to the Boeing and other industrial facilities along the Duwamish River. Traffic conditions deteriorated in 1978 when a wayward freighter rammed the drawbridge in 1978, prompting the construction of the West Seattle Bridge, which finally opened in 1984. This soaring concrete link to the rest of Seattle did little to reduce West Seattle’s independence. In the 1980s threats of secession flared in response to school busing. In 1995, city plans for redevelopment in the area prompted West Seattle residents to appeal unsuccessfully to the state legislature to allow them to secede.

West Seattle, of course, is more than its politics. Its geographic setting makes it one of the most beautiful areas in the city. Residents looking northeast have unmatched views of the Seattle skyline. Those on the west slope face Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Alki Beach remains (along with Golden Gardens in Ballard) a favorite spot for Puget Sound beachgoers. Most importantly the obelisk at 63rd Avenue S.W. and Alki Avenue S.W. marks the spot where Seattle’s first European American settlers landed in November 1851.


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