Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Seattle's infamous Donut House. Was this one-time ground zero for the city's street kids a safe harbor or exploitation central?
In his book Seattle Vice, legendary streetwise columnist Rick Anderson describes the scene at First Ave. and Pike St. back in the day: "For decades, street crazies and druggies occupied the four corners, along with prostitutes, players and partyers." Anderson introduces readers to a guy named Andy Brodie, who perfectly captures the corner that was for decades Skid Road's ground zero: "[H]e saw a buddy in a crowd cross the intersection and he shouted 'Hey asshole,'" says Brody, "everyone in the street turned around."
The Pike scene has deep roots in Seattle crime and vice. The young city was built on the backs of prostitutes who labored away in districts South of Yesler Way or Jackson Street referred to as the Tenderloin, Whitechapel and Blackchapel. These neighborhoods were home to marginal, transient populations, as well as those looking for frontier recreation of the kind you could find in Deadwood, or along San Francisco's Barbary Coast. Business was so good that containing prostitution proved difficult, as enterprising pimps (men and women) were always looking for fresh opportunity.
In 1905, not long before the Pike Place Market opened, The Seattle Times profiled the area around First & Pike. Saloon and club operators had broken out of the southern vice districts and moved uptown. "Dens of Iniquity on Upper First Avenue Far Worse Than Holes in District Set Apart for City's Tenderloin," exclaimed one Times' headline.
"In more than half the saloons north of Pike Street drunken men and women gather every night and engage in conduct that would not be permitted below Jackson Street," the paper huffed. "Minors, both boys and girls, go into the saloons and drink with broken-down, hardened men and woman. Girls, mere children, have been standing at the bar partaking of the intoxicating beverages. ... Girls are lured into the curtained boxes to be taught the ways that lead to certain destruction. Beardless youths congregate and mix in the society of painted faced women ..."
Such scenes recall some troubled parts of downtown today, from Pioneer Square to Westlake Park, Pine and Pike to Belltown. The seedy elements of the Market neighborhood — seen by tourists and nostalgists as authentic local "color" — sometimes match the mood of the pre-gentrified 1960s, '70s and '80s when Anderson walked the beat for Seattle dailies, documenting the cast of characters who frequented one of the city's most Dickensian of 'hoods, a world of pawn shops, strip joints, peep shows, billiard rooms and onetime sailor bars that served 10-cent beers in tiny juice glasses for the desperate, broke and thirsty. It was urban edge as recorded by artists like Mark Tobey and stream-of-consciousness beat bards Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.
As befits any Dickensian scene, one business at First & Pike emerged as the hub for Seattle's street kids and runaways. From the mid-'70s to the early 1980s, a time before there was a Starbucks on every corner, the neighborhood hangout, especially for those too young to inhabit the dive bars, was the International Donut House on the southeast corner of First & Pike. The Donut Shop.
The site is occupied today by the Seattle Shirt Company (left). But back in the Donut House heyday, young girls and boys sat for hours in this malt shop of the damned, its big windows perennially fogged. It was a hangout for scared and scary kids, and some even scarier adults.
Jim Theofelis remembers it well. Theofelis is now the executive director of The Mockingbird Society, a non-profit that advocates for foster kids. He has worked with homeless youth for various organizations in Seattle since the '70s when, he says, on any given night you could find 200 or 300 kids hanging around First & Pike. Many were foster kids who had escapes their assigned homes. There were few services or shelters for them. Runaways couldn't be arrested for just running away. Most were on the streets and on their own.
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