Seattle, a City of Neighborhoods

October 10, 2018 | Seattle, a City of Neighborhoods| By Cathy Wickwire, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation 
The Emerald City Trolley in Chinatown-International District, Seattle, WA. Photo by Alabastro Photography

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Much has been made of late of Seattle’s current status as the country’s biggest boom-town with 114,000 residents added since 2010. As eye-popping as those numbers are, it’s not the city’s largest population increase in its 167-year history. That distinction goes to the first decade of the 20th century when the population almost tripled from 80,671 in 1900 and 237,194 in 1910. The 194% population increase is 10 times the increase of the last 8 years, a mind-boggling number to be sure.

Where did all these new residents come from over 100 years ago? Many were new to the area, drawn by the opportunities presented by a rough, frontier town rising at the edge of a vast continent. Others were already living here in one of the independent towns or unincorporated areas that were annexed to Seattle and doubled its geographical size in the five years between 1905 and 1910. In 1907 alone, there were seven separate annexations, including Southeast Seattle, Ravenna, South Park, Columbia City, Ballard, West Seattle, and Rainier Beach. In April of 1910, Georgetown was the last independent city annexed by Seattle, which already surrounded it completely.

If these names sound familiar, it’s because they live on today as vibrant neighborhoods that retain their own distinctive identities. With their starts as streetcar suburbs or satellite towns, these neighborhoods boast commercial districts that developed in much the same way as a Main Street community’s downtown and continue to be the same vital center of the local community. While some travel writers would have you dash from one neighborhood hotspot to another, this lifelong Seattleite encourages you to choose one neighborhood to explore at your leisure.
107-3-40535__1_.jpgGeorgetown neighborhood in Seattle, WA. Photo by Alabastro Photography

A great place to start is Georgetown located about five miles south of Downtown Seattle. The layout of Seattle’s oldest continually settled neighborhood makes no sense until you realize that there used to be a giant river bend that ran through it. What started as a small agricultural community founded by Luther Collins in the early 1850s along the banks of the Duwamish River grew into a beer-making powerhouse by the first decade of the 20th century. The town incorporated in 1904 primarily to protect the brewery interests from a growing anti-saloon movement. By 1908, the Seattle Brewing & Malting Company claimed to be the fourth largest brewery in the United States and the sixth largest in the world by 1914.
Evidence of this storied industrial past is readily apparent in the massive brick buildings that line the east side of Georgetown’s main thoroughfare, Airport Way. While the Seattle Brewing & Malting Company has long ceased operations, beer is still being brewed here at the Machine House Brewery. Taking their inspiration from the Brits, the brewery has been producing authentic cask-conditioned ales since 2013 and serving them up in their taproom from traditional hand pumps. Like many of Seattle’s local craft breweries, kids and dogs are welcome, and feel free to bring your own meal or order from a visiting food truck.
Machine House Brewery. Courtesy of Seattle Department of Transportation

If these old brewery buildings remind you of Willy Wonka’s factory, you’re not far off the mark as it’s also been the home of Fran’s Chocolates since 2014. Founded in 1982, this local institution now produces its signature handcrafted truffles, salted caramels, gold bars, and other delectables in a modern production facility that’s open for viewing and guided tastings.

Industrial chic is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot these days, but Georgetown is the real deal. Adaptive reuse is a theme that runs deep in the neighborhood as former industrial, commercial, and residential buildings have been re-purposed for one-of-a-kind restaurants, bars, galleries, shops, saloons, and cafes. It’s the neighborhood that wouldn’t die thanks to the grit and determination of those artists, bohemians, and visionaries who have made it their home.
Visitors take in the sights on the boardwalk at the Seacrest Ferry Dock at Alki Beach. Photo by Rudy Willingham

Moving on to West Seattle, the city’s largest neighborhood has long been known as the birthplace of Seattle although the landing point at Alki Beach was soon abandoned for the more hospitable western shore of Elliott Bay. There, the nascent community developed a settlement that grew into what is now the Pioneer Square neighborhood. West Seattle’s topography and geographic isolation limited residential and commercial development for many years after that 1851 landing and continue to give it the feel of another city altogether. The fact that you have to take a seasonal water taxi or a massive bridge to get there only reinforces that feeling, but that’s the way West Seattle likes it.


Nowhere is this feeling more apparent than at Alki Beach. Although recent development has replaced most of the small beach cottages that once lined the road, it still feels like you’re on vacation when you venture over to Seattle’s sunshine coast. After a walk, run, or ride along Alki Avenue’s beachfront, stop in one of the many small cafes, restaurants, or pubs to soak up the sun on an outdoor patio in the summer or storm watch in the winter. If you want to learn more about that early Seattle history, the Southwest Seattle Historical Society’s Log House Museum is just a short walk off the main drag.

Two men playing ping-pong in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. Photo by Rudy Willingham

Closer to downtown, the Chinatown-International District reflects the diversity of Seattle’s Asian-American community. The neighborhood’s collection of commercial and hotel buildings took shape in the early 20th century after the Jackson Street Regrade flattened a hill and provided enough dirt to fill in nearby tide flats. In the years before World War II, it became home to Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants -- mostly single men initially – who sought to create a community that shielded them from the harsh discrimination outside.
The Chinese centered their Chinatown along King Street, which became a gathering point, marketplace, and home for laborers in lumber mills, canneries, construction sites, farms, restaurants, and laundries. Emblematic of their community is the building that now houses the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. The East Kong Yick Building was constructed in 1910 along with its twin to the west with funds pooled by 170 early Chinese pioneers and no financial backing from a bank.


The Japanese developed a Nihonmachi or Japantown near Main Street, just north of the new Chinatown. Of the many Japanese businesses – restaurants, bathhouses, laundries, dry goods stores and markets – that thrived before World War II, most vanished when their owners were forcibly removed to internment camps in early 1942. Built in 1910 by the first Japanese-American architect in Seattle, Sabro Ozasa, the Panama Hotel serves as a physical and visual reminder of what was lost and what remains, a story beautifully captured in Jamie Ford’s bestselling novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Photo by Alabastro Photography

Filipinos, the third Asian group to arrive, found their way into area hotels, seeking connections for work primarily in the canneries. Later residents included African Americans who moved to Seattle during the war years and established diners, groceries, taverns, tailor shops, and nightclubs. For many years, Seattle's after-hours jazz scene thrived on Jackson Street. Restrictive zoning in Seattle limited housing options for African Americans who settled most prominently in the Central District further to the east. The nearby Northwest African American Museum chronicles and keeps their stories alive, which is especially important as the community’s prominence has waned in part due to gentrification.

More recently, Vietnamese refugees fleeing war in their country in the 1970s and 1980s created what has become known as Little Saigon, a center for restaurants, markets, and stores near 12th Avenue and South Jackson Street. The Chinatown-International District is the only area in the continental United States where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans and Vietnamese settled together and built one neighborhood.

In the breakneck pace that development runs these days in Seattle, some feel that we have hardly anything left to save, but an immersion in Georgetown, West Seattle, Chinatown-International District or any of Seattle’s many wonderful neighborhoods acquaints you with those who remain invested in their future. As with any place, we can’t stop progress and growth, but we can try to manage and guide it to ensure that Seattle still feels like Seattle to those who lived their whole lives here and to the many newcomers who now make it their home.

To explore all of Seattle's neighborhoods, click here


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About the author: Cathy Wickwire is a lifelong Seattleite, resident of Capitol Hill, and the Operations Manager for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.