Madrona Memories, Part 1

  • By Carol Richman
  • Posted 3/13/2001
  • Essay 3030
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This people's history recalls life and society in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle in the 1960s and 1970s. The main author is Carol Richman, and this segment includes reflections by Mary Kenny and Sheila Bodemer.

Madrona: A Snapshot

The Madrona neighborhood, bordering Lake Washington, is located 12 minutes east of downtown Seattle, 12 minutes south of the University of Washington, seven minutes from the complex of hospitals between us and downtown. Madrona is essentially a hill. From an approximately 10 block long north-south ridge, 34th Avenue, it slopes down to the lake on the east and down to the valley and up the next hill on the west.

Lake Washington, 22 miles long, is a mecca for boating, swimming, and views overlooking the water, the Cascade Mountains, and the awesome Mount Rainier on clear days. The east side of Madrona, thus, going down to the Lake, boasted very good housing stock, generally sound and well designed mostly early century residences, usually surrounded by rich old growth shrubs and trees (although now, 1999, people are buying houses -- called throwaway houses -- to tear down and rebuild because the location is so desirable.)

The neighborhood is interspersed with foot paths and long flights of steps, all with street names, and probably a legacy of being one of the earliest settled outskirts of a new city, including cottages that had probably initially served as summer homes by the lake.

In those days, the inhabitants were middle-, upper-middle, and some truly upper-class folk. Going down the other side of the hill towards downtown the neighborhood went from middle class to the modest, blue collar housing in the valley, which was becoming low income, indeed, the ghetto by the 1960's. The low income housing concentrated in the valley was buffeted by a varied but generally improving housing stock where the land rose to view properties towards the top of the hill.

Demography, Elan, and Mystique

We [Carol Richman family] moved to Madrona from Eugene, Oregon, in 1961. One of my very first memories is of a party given by some neighbors to welcome new people. I think we were sharing the honors with Ted and Diana Bower, who were also newcomers. This is worth mentioning because it illustrates, and did at the time, the kind of esprit de corps and cohesion being nurtured in the neighborhood in those years.

Major demographic trends were reflected in the Madrona Elementary School which had become segregated in the last decade [1950s]. With the increase in the black population was a corresponding movement out of whites, but much of this movement took place in the valley where the low- and moderate-priced housing was located, where whites were moving out and African-Americans were moving in. A low income ghetto was developed in the same pattern as other cities, where the oldest, less desirable housing fell to the least prosperous people.

There was other movement, too, though not so pronounced, of middle-class minorities, African American and Asian, exercising upward mobility. The movement from the view properties, the top of the hill down to the Lake, was different. Some old Madrona families were remaining and there was an influx of new white replacement families, as well as a few middle-class blacks and Asians.

Mary Kenny: "We [Mary Kenny family] arrived in Madrona in November of 1963. Those of other ethnic groups already here seemed very well integrated and accepted on our relatively white side of the hill."

The location, bordering the lake, close to downtown and the University, with its extraordinary supply of good housing as well as historical significance for some of the old families, modified considerably a repetition of the seeming hysteria-based white exodus pattern in some neighborhoods in other cities and also served as an incentive for families to move in. Depressed property values presented an opportunity for middle-class families. The population change certainly had an impact on the nature of the Madrona community.

An accurate history of Madrona would have to include some of the things usually left unspoken or discussed only sotto voce or in code words. Much that dealt with race was - and is- in this category. And in Madrona this is quite a large category because of our interracial character. The special feeling, this very positive esprit de corps, that was being conveyed to us by the older neighbors in our new neighborhood was born out of the fact that we were a beleaguered neighborhood - we were geographically centered amid the demographic shifting of the growing black population. While the black population was indeed increasing, this immediate neighborhood in Seattle was definitely putting its back up in resistance to the then customary white flight. These activist neighbors were definitely taking a stand for an integrated society along with the other residential advantages they were gaining.

Perhaps even more defining was the way we were viewed from the outside, i.e., northend or across the Lake, where our social and some political associations extended. Our image was vaguely merged with that of the Central Area, a locus of crime and poverty, etc., etc., - all the mythology mixed with reality that is assigned the ghetto.

In short, when we ventured out into the greater (all white) world, we had a special aura which made us feel somewhat apart from the mainstream, a sense that obviously must have been dramatically more pronounced for our black middle class neighbors. And also for our young, who were attending schools they felt were unfairly maligned by the media, which so delighted (then as now) in playing up every instance of violent or untoward behavior, especially in a school. What it did for many of our children was foster a psyche of defensive loyalty. (Although in truth not all the students were in a survival mode. Some were intimidated or bullied and transferred to other schools -- private or otherwise, for a safer, kinder, or more educationally sound environment.)

The Madrona community, as all neighborhoods in those days, was defined by the elementary school attendance boundaries. The Madrona Elementary School served, more or less, the population that lived between Denny at the north and James at the south, Lake Washington on the east and 23rd Avenue on the west. The school population, one of the largest in the City, was about 650 in 1960, and was almost 90 percent black.

The demographic demarcations of the community, as suggested, were fairly clear. The side of the hill going down to the Lake was pretty consistently Caucasian ... Sheila Bodemer: ... "known at the top of the hill as 'white side liberals, somewhat in the same category as Lee Rowell's characterization of Denny Blaine as 'the liberal ladies' beach."

34th Avenue was at the top of the hill, the neighborhood shopping center location, and also the real estate boundary between black and white. As I understand it, there was an unwritten agreement among realtors, probably supported ardently by some of the older residents, that no homes East of 34th would be sold to a black person. Many of the older residents were not sending their children to the by then almost wholly segregated public school -- which, of course, was an interactive factor in the process of white flight.

The real estate contract for the purchase of our house, in 1961, had a clause saying the seller's approval would be required for any arrangements we might make to rent. Our lawyer in Eugene crossed out that clause and it stood. Indeed, the purchase of the house by a real estate contract instead of the more traditional bank loan and conventional mortgage was probably precipitated by the prevalence of red lining in our part of town. In comment on bankers' wisdom, it can be noted that the value of our house -- without alteration -- has increased about 2000 percent (20 times).

Mary Kenny: "In 1963 we did get a normal mortgage from Washington Mutual at what we considered a reasonable interest rate, five and three quarters percent with 25 percent down as opposed to 20 percent on an older house in north neighborhoods or 5 percent down in the suburbs."

Since the housing on the Lake side of the hill was more expensive and most -- not all -- of the black population was lower middle class or low income, integration of the neighborhood was very slow paced. There were quite a few houses for sale at comparatively low prices which enabled people of moderate means -- like University faculty people such as ourselves -- to buy.

Much of this population shared another characteristic besides being of moderate means -- being socially conscious along liberal lines. In those days, being liberal wasn't considered a crippling disease and there were even Republicans, and in Madrona, who would describe themselves as liberal. Only a small percentage of minority families, however, could meet the prices and many of those who were financially able were choosing to move farther away from the Central District or to the suburbs, following the pattern of other upwardly mobile Americans. They were making a choice for an integrated or integrating community someplace away from the Central District similar to the choice white families moving to Madrona were making.

However, a major factor in the social reality of Madrona and its life was that while we were in toto a somewhat integrated community, and indeed, there were probably few areas that were solidly black or white -- or Asian -- the housing pattern was a constant reminder of two societies. One end of Madrona was mostly white and middle-, upper-middle, and upper-class. The other end was predominantly black, middle- or lower-middle class, or poor. The middle ground, approaching the top of the hill was a grey area, with a much better racial mix and a more homogenous middle class.

A perhaps disproportionate number of us were civic activists, with a multiplicity of missions. The white people and black people and Asian people moving into the immediate neighborhood -- the lake side of the hill -- believed in integration almost by definition. A preferred action, since Madrona generally was becoming more segregated as the black population migrated in, was for white people who had to move to replace themselves -- to counter the white flight phenomenon occurring in communities in other cities

Much as the idealistic, hardworking activist residents worked at it, we were never able to put it all together. Although a persistent theme of everything we ever did was (and still is) that we must try to involve everyone, meaning we wanted participation from that low-income segment which -- white or black -- rarely participates. While most of the social and civic activity in the community was integrated, it was also almost consistently middle class. (Most of the truly wealthy families, as well as the truly poor, weren't enthusiastic community activists.)

The Socio-Political Cauldron

It should be apparent from what has been said so far that the interracial character of our population has made race a dominant aspect of our recent history. This was most important as the Civil Rights Movement evolved. Also incorporated in the social dynamic of the community was the aforementioned disproportionate number of idealistic civic activists of all colors -- people who were engaged in making democracy work, so to speak. This included a large contingent of well-educated people and professionals.

Race, and the Civil Rights movement weren't the only issues with which we involved ourselves. There was neighborhood preservation -- protecting the single family nature of this property, close to downtown and bordering the lake, from the developers who would have preferred to build apartment houses, and controling growth of freeways to accommodate persons living farther out.

Mary Kenny: If the R.H. Thompson Expressway would have gone through the Empire Way Thoroughfare, as planned, much would have been different.

There was the major issue of peace versus war in Viet Nam -- a very consuming issue affecting many of our own children reaching draft age -- which created alliances across the city and country, among young and old, and activities that took us out of our own community. There were a variety of environmental issues common to and thriving in the Northwest and particularly in this liberal activist community. There was the women's movement. There were the variety of social issues which became merged in the War on Poverty and later, Model Cities.



By Carol Richman, with additions by Mary Kenny and Sheila Bodemer, Seattle, Washington, 1999

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