When Jim Diers arrived in Seattle in 1976 from Iowa, he admitted he “didn’t get it.”
“I was overwhelmed by the size of the city and I felt a loss of a sense of community that I had known in Iowa,” he said.
Diers eventually settled in the Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford, where he finally “got it.”
“I discovered that Seattle was all about tight-knit communities.”
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Seattle’s natural topography of hills and waterways attracts a diverse demographic to the city’s many neighborhoods, and its history of activism and advocacy helps to ensure these neighborhoods remain strong and vibrant.
Just how vibrant?
“There’s a significant number of residences in the heart of downtown that are the second or vacation homes for out-of-towners,” observed Windermere real-estate agent Jed Kliman
Not to worry. There are no signs of a sudden influx of New Yorkers or Michiganders looking to turn Seattle into another Miami Beach.
John Steinbeck passed through Seattle in his 1962 memoir “Travels With Charley,” disappointed somewhat by what he saw then compared to his memory of his first visit back in the 1940s.
“I remember Seattle as a town sitting on hills beside a matchless harborage — a little city of space and trees and gardens, its houses matched to such a background.”
Were Steinbeck alive and visited again today, he might find Seattle did find a way to hold on to a great part of that original Steinbeck image.
The city is replacing the 1950s eyesore known as the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel and a park that will add to the stock of the city’s stunning views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.
Seattle, however, was not founded with stunning views in mind. The original wooden settlement was pounded into the mud flats of the Sound’s Elliott Bay, and was subject to the daily ebb and flow of tides.
Once a sleepy and undesirable section of the city, according to Kliman, Belltown is vibrant now with a bar and restaurant scene for a younger crowd that likes to walk to work. It’s an upscale ZIP code now, too, with new condos in projects such as the Four Seasons, Madison Towers and Olive 8 atop some of the city’s swankiest hotels.
“Walking in the downtown area is part of the city’s culture,” Kliman says. “People love where they live, and Seattle has been lucky in that it has survived the country’s urban-renewal period without it having gutted what was essential to the city’s culture and visual look.”
This area exemplifies that the Emerald City is as much a composite of previous independent towns now incorporated into Seattle.
“Ballard still has the feel of an independent community,” says real-estate agent Brent Fosso. “It’s physically separated from Seattle by a drawbridge and has its own business district.”
While Scandinavians settled throughout the region, Ballard is most closely associated with Nordic heritage. The Norwegian Constitution Day, which is May 17, is celebrated with several events.
“It’s become more gentrified with a larger population of professionals that have made Ballard more fashionable than affordable,” Fosso adds.
Ballard offers its residents something old and something new. The Hiram Chittenden Locks link Ballard to its maritime roots, while the adjacent Carl English Botanical Garden provides a floral park of distinctive beauty and sweeps aside any lingering images of pickled herring that Ballard’s Scandinavian roots may otherwise conjure. The Majestic Bay Theater is a recreation of the classic style of movie-house architecture, but with the added twist of a nautical themed interior reminiscent of early Northwest theaters.
The city’s Queen Anne neighborhood is Seattle’s “City on a Hill.”
“We moved to Queen Anne in 1985,” says Michael Herschensohn, president of the Queen Anne Historical Society and a Seattle resident since 1970. “We had found a place where we could live and be happy while poor.”
While Herschensohn says Queen Anne has maintained its blue-collar roots through the years, it is now ringed with a white collar fringe.
Along West Highland Drive, turn-of-the-20th-century
brick and shingle homes form an elegant necklace with steep, panoramic overlooks of Elliott Bay and the Sound. That steepness once required the historic Counterbalance — a system of underground weights and magnets designed to “portage” trolley cars up its steepest incline, before releasing the cars to continue their route to completion, giving a “San Francisco cable car” flair to the neighborhood.
Along Queen Anne Avenue North, the weathered sign welcoming you to the family-friendly Paragon Bar and Grill suggests a much older staple of the neighborhood than its 1995 actual beginning.
“I get sign painters all the time offering to repaint it,” said Paragon’s first and only owner/operator, Todd Ivester. “But it’s a replica of a sign our San Francisco investors discovered from an old building they were developing there.”
GREEN LAKE AREA
“Seattle is an outdoors community,” says Windermere real-estate agent Mark Corcoran. And if you live in the Phinney Ridge, Greenwood and Wallingford areas, “you’re down to the lake every day.”
Green Lake’s 2.8-mile perimeter is more than just a magnet for its residents. It was the 1950s-1970s home to the famed Aqua Theater that hosted concerts for such mega bands as Led Zeppelin (in 1969); the area is also the legendary home of Colonel Sanders and the secret recipe he supposedly perfected at the Twin Teepees restaurant.
Living within the confines of lake and history, though, does not come at a premium by most modern urban standards.
“You can own a condo in Green Lake with lake views for around $300,000 or buy in Greenwood for under $200,000 and be well within walking distance of the lake,” says Corcoran.
Nearby Phinney Ridge offers views of the Sound and the mountains and is easy walking to the Woodland Park Zoo. Wallingford, where Jim Diers “got it,” is hard to miss, with a welcoming “WALLINGFORD” sign spelled out across the length of the QFC Market at North 45th and Wallingford Avenue North, the result of a compromise between the community and QFC to preserve something of the iconic history of the neighborhood that had been represented by the site’s previous occupants, Food Giant.
“We’re not a Not in My Backyard kind of organization,” says Joe Hurley of the Wallingford Neighborhood Association. “We worked together with QFC on a compromise that was acceptable to both sides.”
Hurley adds that Wallingford offers great public views of the city and the lake.
And if living near a lake isn’t enough of a water experience for you, there’s always living on the lake — Sleepless in Seattle style.
“That movie created the market for floating homes here,” says Rick Miner, of Coldwell Banker Bain Realty. “The joys of living on the water are unexplainable until you actually experience them.”
Miner says there are between 450-500 floating homes primarily along Lake Union. The first distinction to note is the difference between a “floating home” and a “houseboat.”
“A floating home is built on a pier, either of logs or concrete, and not on a hull tied to a dock, as is the case with houseboats,” Miner explains.
This also means that floating homes can have “basements,” built below the lake level with portholes to provide an underground aquarium effect.
“Floating homes are sold under the condo concept, with the dock ownership shared among each of the homeowners,” Miner explains.
Financing is a little trickier, though, Miner advises, with banks generally requiring a 20 percent down payment as a minimum, and amortization only over a 20- or 25-year period.
“Parking is also an issue, since there are no garages attached to floating homes,” Miner says. “Residents learn to carry their groceries from their car to their home via a “dock cart.”
“Water people have water genes,” Miner believes. “People who live in these homes simply love being on the water.”
“There’s no reason to leave once you are here,” says broker Brent Fosso. “The area known simply as the Junction (the intersection of California Avenue Southwest and Southwest Alaska Street) is the commercial and social hub of the community.” Also a bedroom area for Seattle’s employment base, Fosso says this community of some 100,000 maintains a small town feel. On Alki Beach, bonfires (in designated areas only!) are among the beachcomber-friendly attractions.
Don’t let the VW-eating Troll under the Aurora Bridge scare you away. “Neighborhoods here can shape their own destiny,” says University of Washington professor of architecture Steve Badanes, who designed the Troll in 1990. The community’s motto: De Delibertas Quirkus aptly describes a neighborhood that can embrace a statue of Lenin along with a figure of mythology. Once a magnet for the Bohemian set, Fremont is now becoming home to high-tech.
Home to the “oldest farmer’s market in Seattle,” University Way Northeast, “The Ave,” attracts the nonstudent population to this vibrant neighborhood. Enjoy a meal at one of the many restaurants, take in a film at one of the several movie theaters or a live performance at the historic Neptune.
Of course, Seattle proper is not the only area to boast distinctive neighborhoods:
If Seattle is a city of neighborhoods, Shoreline may be seen as a microcosm. “There are 14 distinct neighborhoods that make up Shoreline,” says real-estate agent Cori Whitaker.” With an independent school district, according to Whitaker, Shoreline remains a big draw to residents looking for “strong neighborhoods, the natural beauty of the Sound, the mountains and schools.”
Born and raised in Bellevue, Scott Richards has been a Mercer Island resident for the past 10 years. “We have the reputation of being ‘snotty rich,’ ” he says. “But it’s not true. There is a sense of community here that is unlike any other.” Richards adds that his real-estate clients are surprised by the level and depth of that spirit. “Clients have told me they were overwhelmed when as many as 50 of their new neighbors turned out to their welcoming party.”
Don’t look for much in the way of attractions, though. “The only visitors here are those visiting relatives or friends,” Richards says. And if you’re thinking of relocating, the reputation of the island as upscale is all true. “The median price for a 3,000-square-foot home here is $1 million. Builders expect to pay $800,000 just for the lot.”
Dock remnants along the shore of Juanita Beach Park confirm that communities such as Juanita, Kirkland, and Bellevue were once “vacation boat getaways” for Seattle’s urban residents.
But that has all changed. Redmond was voted 5th among Money Magazine’s “Best Places to Live for 2012.”
Real-estate agent Terri Herrara describes the attraction of Eastside communities more in terms of lifestyle choices “for people looking for a little more rural setting, good schools and quick access to outdoor attractions.”