During the mid-1800s the area was logged off, creating an ideal location for residential development because of its proximity to the Central Business District. Logs were slid directly down "skid road" to Henry Yesler's sawmill. This road was later named Mill Street and eventually became Yesler Way.
In 1870, a large block was platted by N. B. Knight and George and Rhoda Edes, which encompassed roughly 40 blocks from 10th to 20th avenues between Cherry and Union streets. With the cleared land and the arrival of the cable cars around 1888 to tackle the steep hills, old and new settlers began to build homes and to establish culturally rich communities in the area.
The Central Area contains the city's oldest housing stock, most of which was built in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Types of housing include pioneer houses, the classic box, Victorian style, company cottage, bungalow, and low rise apartment.
A drive through the district is a drive through Seattle's early architectural history. Listed here are examples of properties built before 1900:
- 106 20th Avenue (1890)
- 216 20th Avenue (1890)
- 1810 E Fir Street (1890)
- 619,621 21st Avenue (1890)
- 1428 25th Avenue (1890)
The City of Seattle has designated these properties in the Central Area as landmarks:
- Immaculate Conception Church, 820 18th Avenue (1904)
- Old Firehouse #23, CAMP, 722 18th Avenue (1909)
- Victorian House, 1414 S. Washington Street (1900)
- Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center (formerly Bikur Cholim Synagogue) 104 17th Avenue (1912)
- 23rd Avenue Houses Group, 812-828 23rd Avenue (1892-93)
- James Washington Jr. Home and Studio, 1816 26th Avenue (1918)
- First African Methodist Episcopal Church, 14th Avenue/Pine Street (1912)
A potpourri of colors and cultures flowed in and out of this four-square-mile area during its more-than-a-century-old history. There were the European Americans, the Japanese, the Jews, and the African Americans. All left a distinct imprint.
At the turn of the century, parts of the Central Area were still held in farms and nurseries. John Leitha Nursery is an example. His greenhouse operation encompassed a couple of blocks at about 14th Avenue, Yesler Way, and Fir Street. A "Market Garden" consumed several more blocks just west of the green houses.
From 1890 until World War I, the Central Area was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The German Jews were hardware and grocery merchants who reached Seattle in the 1850s, settling eventually in the Central Area and on Capitol Hill. They built the Temple De Hirsch Sinai on 15th Avenue and Union Street in 1907, and offered monetary and social assistance to the Jews from Poland and the Mediterranean who arrived later on. The Polish Yiddish speaking Jews were the next wave of immigrants and they built kosher markets, Hebrew schools, and orthodox synagogues near and on Yesler Way. The last wave were the Spanish speaking Jews from Turkey and Rhodes. They added coffee shops and Mediterranean grocery stores to the area as well as their own orthodox synagogues.
A legacy of the Scandinavian presence is the St. Johannes Dansk Evangelisk Lutherske Kirke on 24th and East Spruce (in 2001, the Eritrean Community Center and Church). The first Danish community was established in 1890. In 1914, 40 Danes met at the Danish Brotherhood Hall (Washington Hall) at 14th Avenue and East Fir Street for the purpose of formerly organizing the congregation. The church was dedicated in 1926.
The Japanese who came to Seattle in the late 1880s, settled in the International District. There was sharp growth in this population from 1890 until 1920 and gradually their community spread east and into the Central Area. They operated grocery stores, barbershops, gas stations, a dry cleaning shop, a beer parlor, and a shoe repair shop along Yesler Way. The blocks between 14th and 18th avenues and Yesler Way and Jackson Street still retain a strong Japanese presence -- the Buddhist Church, Seattle Koyasan Church, Konko, Wisteria Park, Japanese Congregational Church, Keiro Nursing Home, and the Kawabe Memorial House.
African American William Grose arrived in Seattle in 1861, and soon became a successful businessman, owning and operating a restaurant and a hotel. In 1890, he built a home on his 12 acres of land between what is now East Olive Street and East Madison Street at 24th Avenue. This property was purchased in 1882 from Henry Yesler for a reported $1,000 in gold coin. The area attracted other African Americans and became one of the first black settlements in Seattle. A settlement of single black transient workers developed around Jackson Street, and middle-class black families settled near East Madison. Eventually, these two communities merged.
Black-owned and -operated businesses that flourished along East Madison during the early 1900s included barber shops and restaurants, a fuel yard, a drug store, a hotel, and a theater. Churches (First African Methodist Episcopal, Mount Zion Baptist Church) and cultural organizations were also established on and near the East Madison district.
After World War II, the Central Area became home to most of Seattle's growing black population because of housing discrimination and restrictive covenants. The Jewish population began to move to Seward Park and to the Eastside, leaving their synagogues to black Christians and to city institutions. The Japanese and European American population in the area decreased as well.
A natural outcome of segregated housing was de-facto segregated schools and by the late 1950s, six elementary schools in and adjoining the Central Area were more than 60 percent black. Civil rights leaders began a fight to integrate the Seattle Public Schools. They called for the closure of Horace Mann school, won support by the school board to begin a voluntary racial transfer program in 1963, and successfully waged a boycott of the schools on two days in the spring of 1966. These and other efforts to integrate the schools finally resulted in mandatory busing in 1978.
Housing and job discrimination created severe unrest in the black community. As the civil rights struggle was being played out across the country during the 1960s, Seattle's Central Area became the stage for marches, riots, and civil disobedience. Stokely Carmichael's speech at Garfield High School in 1967 ignited the call for black power. The Black Panther Party formed and located their activities in the area the same year. During those years it was not uncommon to find demonstrations interrupted by tear gas, and squadrons of police cars parked in readiness for action. Passage of the open housing law by the Seattle City Council in 1968 and the widening of job opportunities for African Americans began to ease tensions.
The War on Poverty
The War on Poverty made inroads in improvement of living conditions for residents of the Central Area in the late 1960s. The Central Area Motivation Project was the first totally new, community-inspired program in the country to receive funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity and it remains as one of the few surviving community organizations that got its start in those early years. The Central Area Motivation Project assisted in the planning of the Model Cities Program, which led Seattle to become the first city in the nation to get its program operational. A multitude of social, health, recreational, and educational services were offered residents of the Central Area during this period.
Garfield High School has served the area since 1923. Providence Hospital, built in 1911, stands proudly on the hill at 17th and East Cherry wearing a tower visible from miles around. The Odessa Brown Children's Clinic on Yesler Way is a legacy of the Model Cities Days. The Douglass Truth Public Library has sat serenely on the corner of 23rd and Yesler Way since 1914. Formerly known as the Yesler Branch Library, the name was changed in 1975, to reflect the dramatically changed population it served. It houses the largest African American collection in the Seattle Public Library system.
The Medgar Evers Swimming Pool at 23rd and Jefferson was the first of seven pools to be built with Forward Thrust funds in 1970. It was named for the slain Mississippi civil rights leader. The largest park in the Central Area is the Powell Barnett Park between Cherry and Alder streets on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Named for a black community leader, it was developed in 1967 by Central Area Motivation Project. Other parks in the area are the Edwin T. Pratt Park on 20th and Yesler, named for the the Urban League Director killed by an unknown assailant and the Dr. Blanche Lavizzo Park near 20th Avenue and Jackson Street named in honor of the first medical director of the Odessa Children's Clinic.
The 1990s have seen a gradual change in the color and economic status of the area's residents. Many of the African American residents have moved south along the Rainier Avenue corridor into Renton and Skyway. Gentrification is on the rise and numbers of white couples with children are moving in. In 1990, the highest level of family income was between $35,148 and $37,232 but a few years later there were six digit incomes of predominantly white people who were new hires at Boeing and Microsoft.
There are still black families living in the area and there are still elderly people in full control of their homes and who can manage their property taxes. Dedicated to preserving the area's unique cultural heritage, the Central Area Development Association, a community-based non-profit corporation, is setting out to provide affordable housing and develop strong business partnerships. New mixed-use buildings are being built near 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street and older apartment buildings are being remodeled.
Interest in the area is demonstrated by the construction of the Anne E. Casey Family Foundation building at 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, located a block from where UPS founder Jim Casey grew up, and the slender new Planned Parenthood building at 21st Avenue and East Madison Street. Concern for the elderly is exhibited in the Samuel E. McKinney Home on East Madison Street, named for the former pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church and in plans for an Assisted Living Residence on 23rd Avenue.