I am sitting in Loretta’s Northwesterner in downtown South Park. There are some things that have changed here since I first came to the neighborhood almost 20 years ago to visit Sea Mar Community Health Centers. But some things have stayed the same. For one thing there is a bar here that I feel comfortable walking into and ordering a beer. The only bars down here in 1993 were pretty rough spots. I did visit the County Line earlier in this decade, but only after a group of neighborhood folks banded together and started an official hang out there. To tell the truth, when it comes to cities, it’s always a little hard to tell whether it’s a the neighborhood that has changed or me.
Try standing on the corner of Donovan and 14th or Henderson and 14th to make a call on your fancy smart phone. You’ll find out that it’s not very easy. Not because there isn’t any reception, but because it’s loud. Planes fly low over the neighborhood. Really low. So low you can almost read the in flight magazine. Trucks rattle along loud and fast on 14th. I remember one time waiting or the light to change at 14th and Cloverdale and having to back up all the way to the building on the corner to avoid the tire of a turning truck rolling over the curb. One weird thing about the planes is that they actually do look like they’re dumping their fuel as they come in to Sea Tac. The fuel dumping conspiracy theory has been a popular one for as long as I have known the neighborhood.
Noise is something that hasn’t changed down here. Back then I didn’t really care that much. Today, it would drive me crazy if I had to put up with it constantly. The sense that the neighborhood is an outpost of rugged individuals in a sea of industrial use hasn’t changed either. It’s not a pretty place, in spite of the efforts to spruce up 14th and Cloverdale, the main business district still feels like it’s in a state of transition either from single family to industrial or the other way around. There are more tattoos and motorcycles and nose rings down here now. But there’s a sense that these folks can kick your ass if it’s needed, unlike the hipster hooligans in the bars of Capitol Hill. Back when I was here there was a bar that locals would take me that skewed more toward a crowd that looked more like aging fisherman than bikers.
The flavor is also distinctly Latino as well. The Mexican food here is a diet busting feast, with generous portions that defy price theory. As always, South Park also defies easy demographic categorization. It just isn’t that easy to pin down. Years ago, as single family house prices began their steep climb, the vanguard of the middle class made a pretty strong foray into the neighborhood. I could be wrong, but many of them have moved on to their second homes somewhere else. The neighborhood never gentrified. There are no Starbucks or Tullys here. There isn’t a chain in sight except for the ones on peoples wallets and the Subway at the gas station.
South Park is a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood. Come to think of it, even the placid Leave it to Beaver like residential center of the neighborhood is kind of rough too. But the neighborhood is just too damn rough for folks that want to wear roughness like a pair of factory distressed designer jeans. The neighborhood bar I was too scared to enter back in the 90s had a sign on the door that said “no crybabies.” That ought to be the official motto of the neighborhood. But let me be clear, it’s not like it isn’t friendly. It’s just not fertile soil for the more effete urbanist set. But it’s a neighborhood just like any other in many ways too. I find that it’s kind of an oasis of honesty.
Please, don’t chalk me up as one of those Seattle tourists (“Brave New City!”) that wander around unfamiliar territory as if they were a 16th century explorer. This neighborhood has been part of my life for a long time. And it will likely always be. It’s where I got my start in neighborhood planning, public health, and learned to appreciate the important role of small things in reordering space. Small stuff matters. The corner of 14th and Cloverdale. The skate park. A park named for Cesar Chavez. A new library. Issues of scale in most neighborhoods are about height. Here those discussions are about smells, noise, simple access.
So what’s changed? Not much here. As for me, I’ve changed a lot. I hate driving. I like walking everywhere. I want to feel close to the center, not a pioneer in a far flung outpost. Things could have been different. There were some little houses that, with a push, I might have been convinced to move into. But I didn’t. I chose Beacon Hill then Capitol Hill. And I gotta say that I wouldn’t mind seeing some nice density on 14th and Cloverdale. And how about some Residential Small Lots? South Park was one of the first places to do RSLs.
So I’d love to use South Park as an ongoing experiment in land use because people here mix themselves up with stuff that would make people in Roosevelt or even Capitol Hill burst into tears. But something tells me that it already is a working experiment. People can live just about anywhere and build a sense of community and neighborhood, even if we big shots from Capitol Hill don’t get it. South Park abides. A visit here is proof positive that even just a little bit of discomfort can pull people together.