Reflections on Belltown

  • By Joe Martin
  • Posted 10/17/2000
  • Essay 2736

In this people's history, Joe Martin reflects on the old Belltown neighborhood of downtown Seattle, "once a quiet community largely made up of skid roaders, low-income elderly, struggling artists, and working people," and now "one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city" with some of the highest rents.

Belltown: Gone But Not Forgotten

I will never forget Ben Ferguson. Ben resided at the Donald Hotel for 30 years, occupying a modest room which looked out on 1st Avenue and gave him a slight view of Elliott Bay. He moved there in 1952 after he had lost both legs. Ben had been a fisherman all his life and knew the Puget Sound as only fishermen knew it.

Gentle and soft-spoken with a deep and slightly crusty voice, Ben was well acquainted with all manner of 1st Avenue and Belltown denizens. As the assistant manager of the Donald, Ben acted as an intermediary for the elderly Japanese couple who officially ran the building, and served as a sort of liaison to the streets. In those days, if you knocked on Ben's door, had the rent money in hand, and if a room was available, it was yours. Ben spent almost all his waking hours in his wheelchair. Since the Donald had no elevator, Ben had to crawl down the stairs on his hands and the stumps of his legs in order to access the street; it was the same way in reverse to get back to his tiny room. He'd depend on a friend to bring the wheelchair down to the street, and to haul it back up.

Ben knew a lot about Seattle and its history. He was the one who first told me that Virginia Street, which constitutes the southern border of Belltown, was named after the daughter of William Bell, the area's eponymous founder. Once Ben shared a funny story of an old Seattle judge, a Judge Bell, who may have been a scion of the family. It seems that the good judge was notoriously hard on anyone who was brought before him on a drinking charge. Ben recalled how one day he had strolled into a smoky skid road tavern somewhere in the Belltown area, and there was red-bulbous-nosed Judge Bell in the midst of some of the same characters he'd sentenced, soaking up the suds.

Things Have Changed

The Belltown of Ben Ferguson and so many other colorful individuals is gone. Once a quiet community largely made up of skid roaders, low-income elderly, struggling artists, and working people, this part of downtown is currently one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city. Some of the highest rents are here too. Whereas 20 years ago the most expensive drink in this part of Seattle, a cocktail, might cost a buck or two, today many of the Belltown nightspots are likely to have bottles of choice wines available, some going for as high as $500. Things sure have changed since the days of early morning happy hours at long-lost Belltown taverns where two bits would get you a schooner of Rainier.

The Donald Hotel still stands at 1st and Blanchard, though it's been renovated. The store front is now occupied by a new business which specializes in diamond rings. Some decades back, the same space was home to the Clipper Tavern. Ben Ferguson told me about the Clipper. The Clipper is listed in an old 1940s Seattle phone book; the phone number was SE-9461 (the SE stood for Seneca Street).

Once It Was More Down-Home

Sometime between the beer and the diamonds, this space was occupied by two young artists, Mark Sullo, and Buster Simpson. Both are still a part of Belltown's story.

Sullo lives in Belltown and is the proprietor of The Wall of Sound music store at Second and Bell. He feels that there are a lot of good people in the neighborhood with a strong sense of community, but Sullo expressed concerns about the development pressures and outside forces over which the locals have little control. Like many others whom I interviewed for this article, Sullo is dismayed at rampant building construction that has taken place:


"The large influx of new residents who live in the new buildings is not kindling any particularly rich or vibrant sense of community. In the past, communication in the neighborhood was a simpler process, the atmosphere was more down-home."

Despite these concerns, Sullo is hopeful, and supports local efforts to emphasize the unique dimension of Belltown. But still he worries about the wrong kinds of change. Especially the kind that drives out struggling artists and the elderly on low incomes.

Where Will the Artists Go?

Buster Simpson is currently immersed in an ambitious community art/ecology project on Vine Street which he refers to as the "Urban Crack." Not a drug reference, Simpson likens this greening effort to the cracks in a street or sidewalk which create fissures through which plants can sprout. Although he is excited by the multidimensional format of the Vine Street project, Simpson laments the passing of the old Belltown and worries about the viability of existing small businesses still in the neighborhood:

"Belltown used to be a franchise-free zone, simply because this community was overlooked. Now there is a headlong rush by forces with lots of money who want to make a big splash and big bucks. In the face of this trend, how can we as a community preserve the modest street level businesses? And where will we maintain space for the artists?"

A Poet Speaks Out

This sentiment is echoed by the legendary Beat artist, Robert Lavigne, who resided in Belltown for 10 years before moving to the Pike Market in 1991. Lavigne is a knowledgeable historian when it comes to the displacement of indigent artists. Seattle, he fears, is well into a process that displaced the bohemian art communities in New York City and San Francisco. He is especially concerned for the young, gifted, and largely self-taught artists who are denied the space and opportunity to create:


"How does one calculate the loss to society when great works of art and inspiration never see the light of day because of economic constraints imposed upon a poor artist? Today, Van Gogh would have to go to the Street Life Gallery to create. Belltown has definitely fallen into the gentrification problem."

A Northwest native, Lavigne recalls the time when Belltown was the home to those with little or no money. "Gentrification has perhaps physically improved the old buildings that weren't knocked down altogether, but who can afford to live in them? The people now sleeping on the streets, in shelters, and doorways, they are the old downtown residents who've been really pushed out by all this."

All About Money

For the last 22 years, Father Tony Haycock has been ministering to the homeless as a member of Operation Nightwatch, an ecumenical religious program which attempts to address the immediate needs of those without shelter. In the past it was customary for the Nightwatch volunteers like Haycock to visit the various skid road taverns and related venues that catered to the street community. Nightwatch duties often took Haycock into Belltown, but today all of those haunts have disappeared, leaving only the people.

For the last few years, Haycock, a Roman Catholic priest born in Liverpool, England, has been the chaplain for the Port of Seattle and runs the Catholic Seaman's Club, a longtime institution in Belltown.

Father Haycock doesn't mince his words:

"Belltown is now all about money. Many of the old union halls that were so prominent around here are gone. This city needs to recognize the growing need for affordable housing. Here at the club, we encounter many old seamen who can't find reasonable housing."

The Seaman's Club still serves as a venue for gatherings that bring organized labor and management together. These labor-management luncheons were initiated by Father John Murphy who bought the building almost 50 years ago for $54,000. Haycock states that everyone who has to drive to events at the club becomes aware of the paucity of parking:


"And at night it's worse. The fancy restaurants and nightclubs often have valet parking services. Some of these valets have actually parked right in our three minute zone, the only official parking spot we've got. It's to the point that if you really want a sure parking space, you better own a condo that comes with your very own parking spot."

A Sense of Community

One woman I interviewed who requested anonymity resides in Belltown with her daughter. She has been able to pay her rent because she receives assistance from her extended family to do so, otherwise living in the area would be out of the question. It is unlikely she will stay in her current apartment for more than another year. She and her daughter, a teenager, enjoy the Belltown scene, but the high costs and lack of parking detract from the benefits. She believes that a lot of simple things could add a great deal to the neighborhood:

"Why not put in some chess tables at the park at 3rd and Bell? Why aren't there more benches on the streets so people can sit down? I can honestly say that most of the people I've encountered here, even the homeless and some of the drug users, are pretty decent. This city should try to be more trusting of the general public. It's important to encourage a sense of community, and I would hope that such a community building effort could extend to those people stuck on the street too."

Talk of changes in Belltown were rife 20 years ago. With the central business district undergoing its own transformation, attended by significant low-income housing displacement, developers planned a sweeping wall of highrise development throughout all of downtown. To many citizens, such a concept was horrifying. Joan Paulson was then the president of the Denny Regrade Community Council. She has been a community activist for 30 years:


"The city was prepared to allow the planting of tall buildings throughout the downtown corridor. We said no way. Out of our community effort came the Crescent Plan, and the heights of the buildings in Belltown are to this day determined by this plan. The Crescent Plan received an award from the American Institute of Architects. Our city government, though, was very lax in addressing the urgent issue of housing. It took them until 1988 to finally develop a municipal housing policy. Sadly our Crescent Plan could exert no control over the economic forces that have had such an obvious impact lately in Belltown."

Gone to Hell

Ninety-three year old Jesse Petrich worked with Paulson on the development of the Crescent Plan. For many years he resided at Security House in Belltown. Petrich embodies the sort of personal history that characterized so many old Belltown dwellers. He's been a merchant mariner and a fisherman on the famous schooner Wawona, which is docked at the southern end of Lake Union. Petrich began his working life at the age of 13, when he worked as a whistlepunk in Greys Harbor. A whistlepunk was a fellow who signaled the donkey engine, an engine which hauled logs out of the forest and loaded those logs onto a train. Petrich joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, called the Wobblies) while doing this job. He has got to be one of the last of the original Wobs still around. He likes to speak bluntly:


"Belltown has kind of gone to hell. There used to be a lot of four bit rooms, now you wouldn't believe the buildings. And hardly any of them are low income."

One successful, but grueling effort to salvage one small piece of Belltown's legacy was the campaign to preserve the Apex Hotel on 1st Avenue, an old SRO [Single Room Occupancy, usually with no kitchen and the bath down the hall]. The Apex functions as a limited equity cooperative. Ann Hirschi, an architect who now works with the Urban Forestry Project, had a lot to do with bringing the Apex project to fruition.


"The renovated Apex opened in April of 1984. The renovation process took a couple of years. It seemed to go on forever. We got money from all kinds of disparate sources. It was a lot of hard work, but the result is that today there are 21 units of housing that people of modest means can afford."

Hirschi is herself a former resident of Belltown. She lived in small former SRO at Second and Bell where the monthly rent was $100. Like so many current and former Belltowners she is upset by what seems to be the outright destruction of a special place:

"Belltown now feels so foreign. It used to feel cozy and homey. There are still fine people there, and Buster's Vine Street project is great. But there has been so much adverse change."

Hirschi conducted a study on the Belltown/Denny Regrade SRO hotels two decades ago. "How many of the buildings mentioned in that study are even still standing?"

Fifty-six year old Dewitt Harris considers himself fortunate. He has called Seattle home for almost 40 years, and for the last three he has lived in Belltown. He has a lovely subsidized apartment with a beautiful view of the bay. His disability has prevented him from working. Not long ago he did have a job at a business on Capitol Hill, and the apartments for rent above that business were going for as high as $2,400 a month. "Belltown is changing a lot," he states, "even in the time I've lived here":


"Occasionally I stop in at the Baccano restaurant for a special treat, but that's rare. My low income requires that I be careful with my money. I do know that I'd be in a difficult situation if I didn't have my place here. A lot more affordable housing is needed."

Poor People on Shaky Ground

"Belltown used to be a place where regular people could live," avers Mark Dalton, a social services supervisor at the Belltown Community Service Office. "People with minimum wage jobs could actually get a place to live in this part of town. Now there's such disparity in terms of income. Poor people are on real shaky ground in this city." Dalton has been a state employee with the welfare department for more than two decades and has worked at the Belltown CSO since it moved from Pioneer Square to its current location on 2nd Avenue in 1979.

Dalton views the steady encroachment of upscale apartments and businesses as a disaster for the low-income community:


"Since the mid-nineties, poor folks are perceived as a nuisance. Ironically, the chaos caused by the rapid introduction of so many new buildings and new residents with no previous connection to Belltown has also invited some of the tougher street elements into the area. The special bohemian flavor is eroding fast. Belltown could become a place primarily for the well-to-do, interspersed with entertainment spots. Fortunately, some programs like the Low Income Housing Institute are ensuring that at least a few old-time residents will continue to live here."

Luxury Prices, Shoddy Construction

The furious pace of development, and the kinds of buildings that are popping up all over this neighborhood have gotten people like Gretchen Apgar considerably exercised. "It's called 'luxury housing,' and the prices attest to that, but many of these new buildings are absolutely hideous in their design, and shoddy in their construction. They are definitely not going to be long-lived structures. The way in which some of these apartment complexes are set up, the occupants are structurally divorced from the community." Apgar cares about the social health of her neighborhood. A Seattle native whose family roots go back to the original frontier settlement, she is one of the proprietors of the Speakeasy Cafe. Apgar is also the chair of the Denny Hill Association.

And she is passionate about the need to maintain a diverse community. Apgar recognizes the need for social services and affordable housing. But the current zoning arrangement has enabled developers to turn this section of downtown into one of the most densely packed residential neighborhoods in the region. "We desperately need to implement a truly community-spirited design review process. This can ensure that we'll avoid economic homogeneity, and prevent architectural blight too." Apgar points to buildings such as the Pomeroy and the Dorothy Day House as aesthetically pleasing urban structures that also serve the needs of the community.

Changes Keep on Coming

But the changes keep on coming. The Children's Orthopedic Hospital Thrift Store on 3rd Avenue will soon be a thing of the past. A sprawling space with lots of stuff at cheap prices, the store has served as an affordable shopping alternative for downtown dwellers and workers alike. A store manager says:

"We have always served a broad spectrum of people here. Our largest volume of business is in clothes. I doubt that we'll be back in the downtown area anytime soon. With the rents these days, when an operation like us leaves, there's no coming back."

Homeless Women

The good news is that the Children's Orthopedic space will be taken over by the YWCA. Laura Bloske is the community affairs director for the Y, and a former Belltown resident herself:

"We want to be sensitive to the concerns of our Belltown neighbors. We are planning a high quality, seven story building that will contain five stories of low-income housing, employment services, and a first floor space for Angeline's drop-in center [now located across the street]."

Bloske shared some of the statistics on the numbers of homeless women using Angeline's:

"There's been a 50 percent increase in the numbers in just the last two years. We are now serving up to 250 women per day. Though we are supposedly in an economic boom, it is a very inequitable one. But the Y has been a part of downtown Seattle since 1894, and we intend to keep right on doing what we can to address the plight of women in need."

Gillian Parke also works with the population of homeless women, as the director of Noel House Programs. Parke, too, has seen the number of individuals requesting help more than double in the past few years. In 1996, 600 women received help from Noel House Programs; in 1999 that figure had leaped to 1,350. "We are very glad that the Archdiocese owns our building," states Parke, in reference to the climbing rents throughout the neighborhood:


"But the situation for our women is so discouraging. There's such a critical lack of housing for poor people. Our women, many of whom have nothing, walk by signs advertising condominiums for $200,000. Market rate rents are equally out of reach. Even our staff can't afford to live in this neighborhood anymore. I don't know where this trend is going, but we must continue to keep homelessness and the dire need for affordable housing and necessary services in the public eye."

Funky Taverns v. Posh Bars

In 1972, a local artist, Laurie Olin, put together a splendid booklet of text and sketches she had made of a number of individuals who were a part of Seattle's skid road at the time. The booklet is entitled Breath on the Mirror, Seattle's Skid Road Community. Olin indicated that in 1970, one estimate of Belltown's population was put at more than 5,000 people. Significant change was already looming in the early 1970s. Olin wrote of Belltown: "This is the area that has been absorbing more and more people displaced elsewhere and this is the area where the city is threatening to close down most of the hotels."

Some hotels were closed, some were torn down, some were gentrified, and a few were blessedly salvaged for low-income residency and function as such to this day. The economic transformation lamented by so many persons with whom I spoke shows no signs of abating. The rough-edged and funky taverns of the past, places like the IXL, the Queen City, the Fore and Aft, Tugs, Seafarers, Cohen and Kelley's, and the Cascadia have vanished, while the posh bars, soigne restaurants, and hip nightspots are in the ascendant. Vertiginous rent hikes continue their upward spiral as the social diversity and bohemian aura of Belltown, so treasured by current and former residents alike, recedes accordingly.

And while the presence of affordable housing ensures that some traditional residents will remain a presence, and while ardent community activists who are sensitive to both the poor and to urban aesthetics are committed to maintaining Belltown's special legacy, there is widespread concern that big money and out-of-control development will overwhelm that legacy.

One Cherry Tree

In the autumn of 1979, the block directly north of Virginia Street on 1st Avenue had only one resident, a beautiful old cherry tree. It stood majestically in the middle of a block that had once been occupied by a congeries of cheap hotels and taverns. Hundreds of low-income people had lived in these structures. By 1979, everything but the tree had been torn down. The affluent Market Place North Condominiums, the Seattle Athletic Club, and related ventures now occupy the block.

The day had finally arrived when the cherry tree itself was to be uprooted. Sometime in the night, a group of activists breached the chain link fence surrounding the block and bedecked the cherry tree with bunting. Next day, as the workmen began their task of deracination, a small group of concerned downtown residents and activists stood beyond the fence with signs registering their protest. The uprooting of the tree was, for many, symbolic of the uprooting of the old neighborhood and a way of life that seemed to be fading into history.

One of those who had gathered for the protest was Hubert "Mac" McCanlies. Mac was retired and had lived at the Scargo Hotel. He had been a government bureaucrat, and was also a fine poet, a writer, and an artist. John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski had been his friends. Mac had recently moved from the Scargo into the Livingston-Baker Apartments at 1st and Virginia, and he had a view of the cherry tree from his window. He had executed a number of drawings and paintings with the tree as the central focus.

An intelligent and sensitive man with a wonderful sense of humor, Mac understood that more than the tree was being taken away. A reporter from the local press came by, and Mac was asked what he thought of it all. As he was lighting a cigarillo, Mac put it simply: "Some call this progress. I call it decadence."

Which Will It Be?

There are many throughout Belltown today who share in Mac's expressed disapproval of those transformative trends still very much at work in the neighborhood. Can those who want to save the remnant of old Belltown succeed? Or will money and the raw power of capitalism overcome all efforts to preserve this area as a diverse and socially rich urban enclave? Will the combination of sincerity, love of place, political savvy, and a sense of fairness evidenced by many of those Belltowners with whom I spoke be enough to stop the monied forces of exploitation from eradicating all of Belltown's vibrant legacy? What will be the fate of working people, of artists, of those with little or no money? Will the poor and homeless be no more than a marginal presence, an afterthought in the midst of rapid change which benefits the affluent primarily?

Those who truly care about these questions had better make their opinions known. Silence and inaction will only open further the flood gates to the well-financed agents of economic and social disruption which are motivated only by an insatiable thirst for profits.

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