In the 1930s, my father had a paper route in the Rainier Valley that included the Courtland neighborhood, a residential area tucked between Mount Baker and Columbia City. It gave him a view of the “other side of the tracks.” In an oral history I recently came across, he described the area as giving him “glimpses of poverty, drunkenness, the difficulties of old age, people who were irresponsible with their children, people who were mean, and people who were beautiful, and people who faced the Depression with great dignity and courage.”
I was amazed when I read this because it essentially described the Courtland where I delivered papers in the 1960s. Since the time when my father and I delivered papers to people who would be labeled “poor white trash,” the neighborhood has gone through different iterations. New ethnicities and neighborhood amenities have arrived, the old Chubby and Tubby has closed, and Vietnamese signs and a taco bus have sprouted. It’s experienced gang violence, too, and it was the site of one of Seattle’s first crack houses.
The area is finally changing, though. It has a city P-Patch. Crime-watch programs have put a dent in some of the chronic problems. More significantly, the new light-rail line running up Martin Luther King Way joins Rainier Avenue near Courtland, and planners have targeted the adjacent areas for what they call “transit-oriented development,” which likely means taller apartment blocks, more density, perhaps even gentrification. Metaphorically, Courtland has long been on “the other side of the tracks,” but now being adjacent to real train tracks could have a transformative impact on what has been a pocket of poverty for 80 years.
Seattle has frequently been called “a city of neighborhoods,” meaning that it’s diverse and spread out, and that livability here comes from the bottom up, block by block, P-Patch by P-Patch. There are many residential areas in Seattle, of all classes, that have remained largely unchanged over the last half-century or more, though many have been improved by new parks, revamped libraries and community centers, additional sidewalks.
For some neighborhoods, evolution is slow. For others, it is resisted. Some seem to hope City Hall will take no notice of their low densities and free street parking. They don’t want to be ground zero for some planner’s social engineering experiment. Seattle has enclaves that time forgot, and residents there often like it that way.
That said, time has not forgotten every place. In the last 30 years, Chinatown added a Little Saigon and became the International District. The industrial area saw the rise of sports complexes in SoDo and the hipsterizing of Georgetown. Much of the African American population of the Central District has dispersed. Downtown Ballard went from being home to blue-collar fishermen to becoming a condo community for young urbanites. Even Seattle’s iconic Skid Road along First Avenue, which lasted into the late 1980s, lost its pawnshops.
Much high-profile neighborhood change has come downtown with new high-rises and skyscrapers. Some parts are in major transition. When the mayor of Bremerton criticized Pioneer Square earlier this year for being “less than mediocre,” it touched a civic nerve. The neighborhood was saved from blight in the 1960s and became a model for urban renewal through historic preservation, but it’s troubled by conflicting agendas: too many tourists, homeless people, tacky clubs, and empty storefronts. Farther north on First Avenue, even Belltown, which pioneered upscale downtown living, has lost some of its gloss to persistent crime and drug problems.
These urban experiments have new competition, too. The rise of Paul Allen’s South Lake Union is a tribute to the billionaire’s clout and the developer-tilted agenda of the past decade. Pioneer Square lost its waterfront trolley station, while Allentown gained streetcars. Belltown needed a grocery store, but Allentown got the Whole Foods. Shops are closing in Pi-Square, but South Lake Union snagged Amazon.
All three of these neighborhoods, however, are likely to face a shared challenge in the future from another new kid on the block. A potential game changer will be the future post-Viaduct waterfront. Either a surface option or the deep-bored-tunnel option Olympia and the City settled on (though haven’t paid for) is an opportunity to reshape downtown for the next century. It’s uncertain what will emerge, but presumably it will have a significant impact on adjacent areas. The “city of neighborhoods” will have a new one that in all likelihood will become its face to the west, and the world.This essay first appeared in the August issue of Seattle Magazine.
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