WHEN HEIDI Matzen moved to West Seattle from Chicago two years ago, she brought with her an expansive sense of place.
“I thought nothing of driving 40 minutes across the city because that’s what I was used to,’’ says Matzen, who would bundle her two toddlers into the car to explore Seattle’s parks and neighborhoods, even the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma.
She found it odd that so many people in her new social circle talked in laborious terms when she suggested an outing that would take them out of West Seattle.
“They’d say, ‘It’s all the way in Sodo,’ ” she recalls. “Sodo! You can see it from here. I didn’t get it. Now that I’ve been here a while …” Her sentence trails off into laughter.
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Matzen is laughing because “all the way” is now part of her vocabulary, too. Her trips away from what some long-timers affectionately call “The Peninsula” have been replaced by visits to West Seattle haunts such as Lincoln Park, Alki Beach, the neighborhood library.
“I don’t know how or why it happened,’’ she says, as her kids, now 5 and 3, squirm and play with friends on Adirondack chairs outside an Admiral Junction coffee shop. “I guess it seems unnecessary. I love it here so much. There’s so much to do.”
Like others before her, Matzen, 40, has fallen under the spell of West Seattle, a community that sits apart from the city it has been officially connected to — at times tenuously — for 106 years.
“I feel like I live in a small town next to a big city,’’ Matzen says.
You hear that a lot here, even though the community is the oldest and biggest in the city with roughly 16 square miles of land and more than 83,000 people — about 14 percent of the city’s population.
Within that area are more than a dozen distinct neighborhoods, salmon creeks, old-growth forest, and the highest point in the city where you can take in two mountain ranges, Puget Sound and the city skyline by simply turning your head.
It’s a place rich with sounds, too: the whisper of the arriving tide, the braying of fog horns on the Sound, the profound quiet at night.
A little more than a decade ago, it was easier to get your hair permed in West Seattle than to buy a decent cup of coffee. The dining scene was calcified, the main shopping district a mash-up of moribund and Mayberry.
Decidedly unhip, it was a charming place that cherished its habits and its history. What it lacked in big-city amenities, it more than compensated for with breathtaking views, crown-jewel parks and beaches, and a refreshingly unpretentious vibe.
The late, great newspaper columnist Emmett Watson, who lived in West Seattle, summed it up nicely when he said: “I have never known anyone who moved to West Seattle for the sheer status of it, only because they liked it. And that, it seems to me, is about as nice a thing as you can say about any place.”
The West Seattle Watson knew and loved wasn’t interested in becoming the next big thing. But bigger it’s becoming.
Nearly 3,900 new housing units have been built here since 2005, most of them multifamily or mixed-use developments near or along major thoroughfares. Another 1,258 have been approved or are under review. The tiny beach cabins along Alki Way have largely disappeared, replaced by condos with million-dollar views. Gone, too, is the World War II-era housing for low-income residents at High Point that some called “the projects.” In its place: a master-planned community of owners and renters that is economically and racially diverse.
New apartments, one seven stories high, have cropped up near the Alaska Junction seemingly overnight. Where there were once five large grocery stores serving all of West Seattle, there are now three — soon to be four — within five blocks of each other.
Delridge Way Southwest is being remade almost block-by-block, while the Youngstown neighborhood near the West Seattle Bridge is being marketed as a destination to single people and young families who enjoy the great outdoors.
The once-sad Westwood Village has been renovated into a thriving shopping center where you can find the best Reuben sandwich in the city — and that’s a fact.
There’s more bustle, more traffic, better coffee, a few thousand more people and more good places to feed them.
In short, it’s becoming an extension of the metropolis that early white settlers envisioned when they arrived at Alki Point 162 years ago.
AS EVERY primary-schooler in Seattle learns, the city began here when the Denny party landed on the shores of Alki Beach in 1851. The group stayed only a few months before moving to a more sheltered location across Elliott Bay.
Still, the West Seattle Land and Improvement Co., after which the community is named, had ambitious plans to create a metropolis to rival the one developing across the bay, according to “West Side Story,” a book on the area’s history.
To attract homebuyers, the developers started Puget Sound’s first ferry service and later a system of streetcars to carry people inland. Although the streetcars are long gone, people still refer to the intersections where the lines met as the Alaska, Morgan and Admiral junctions.
The area, bounded on three sides by water and to the south by Southwest Roxbury Street, experienced a boom following the 1889 fire that wiped out 29 square blocks of downtown Seattle. It also enjoyed a brief boom when it was annexed by the city in 1907, and again when High Point was constructed as housing for defense workers during World War II.
But growth was mostly slow and steady as more-affordable housing and the proximity to industrial jobs attracted working families, many with young children, says Clay Eals, executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society.
“We were the blue-collar bedroom for Boeing and Todd Shipyards and all the industries along the (Duwamish) River,” says Eals, a genial man with a pixie cut and a quick smile.
Generations tend to stick around, he says, because “you have everything you need here.”
That stems, in large part, from historical necessity. We’ll let Eals tell it his way:
He puts his right hand out, as if he’s taking an oath on the Bible. His thumb, he says, is West Seattle; his hand, the rest of the city.
“The whole story of West Seattle is how do you get from the thumb to the hand,’’ he says. “Geography is the thing. We’re a part of the city and apart from the city.”
It’s a brilliant summation of the trials and tribulations West Seattleites endured in trying to secure a high-level bridge that would get them to and from “the mainland” without being held up by boat traffic along the Duwamish River.
West Seattleites began campaigning for the bridge in 1916 and at one point threatened to secede from the city if it didn’t deliver.
The protracted bridge battle cemented the community’s reputation as hard-to-reach and “way over there” — even though it’s roughly the same distance to downtown Seattle from Ballard or University Village as it is from West Seattle.
The dreamed-of bridge was finally built in 1987 after a freighter crashed into the old bascule bridge, rendering it inoperable and spawning jokes about “the night the ship hit the span.” New on and off ramps and additional lanes opened last year, making the trip even quicker.
Bridge traffic can still get as hellish as Interstate 5 some days, and nerves will be tested in 2015, when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is scheduled for sporadic shutdowns to connect ramps to the tunnel now under construction.
But that hasn’t stopped the inflow of people or the kind of dense urban-village developments that caused an uproar here when Mayor Norm Rice proposed them in 1994.
“West Seattle used to be a sleepy retirement and blue-collar community. You hardly get a sense of that anymore,’’ says Marty Riemer, a popular radio host who broadcasts live on the Internet from his “moldy basement” on Friday mornings.
Riemer, who moved from Lake City to West Seattle in 1989, is an unabashed cheerleader for his adopted neighborhood.
“I rarely ever leave The Peninsula,’’ he says, noting that he told his now-wife that if she loved him she also had to love West Seattle, because he wasn’t going anywhere.
“I love the economic diversity. Block to block, it’s crazy,’’ he says. “One block will have million-dollar homes stacked up on each other. The next will have little war houses from the ’40s and ’50s with unkempt lawns.”
West Seattle is proud of its famous progeny, including actors Frances Farmer and Dyan Cannon, mountaineer Jim Whittaker, restaurateur Ivar Haglund, performer Gypsy Rose Lee.
Band members from Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney also have lived here; many practiced in the industrial area along the Duwamish at NAF Studios, which also hosted some of the largest raves in the state, says Xana La Fuente, a writer who has been involved with the grunge scene since its early days.
La Fuente, who runs the music and lifestyle blog www.xanaland.com, calls West Seattle “a great rock ’n’ roll neighborhood.”
“With such a perfect set of conditions for the artist, how could they not migrate here?” she says, noting that Chris Cornell of Soundgarden wrote the 1994 hit “Black Hole Sun” from one of the many views from Alki.
Easy Street Records at the Alaska Junction has hosted performances by local and national acts since 1997, she says, while the Feedback Lounge, a neighborhood bar and rock ’n’ roll mecca a mile south, attracts “famous and almost famous” musicians from the neighborhood and elsewhere.
Riemer, the radio host, says he’s amazed by the number of times band members have told him they lived close enough to walk over for his Friday jam sessions.
“It’s a very musically rich part of the city,’’ Riemer says. “I always assume that if you’re a rocker, you live in West Seattle. Once you have Eddie Vedder in your neighborhood, you’re the rock ’n’ roll neighborhood.”
EARL CRUZEN, 92, shuffles down the hallway of the Alki beach condominium he shares with his wife, Ada, and takes a seat at the table near a picture window with an expansive view of the sand, downtown Seattle, the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound.
It’s a spectacular view that changes constantly with the weather, the seasons, the time of day. On the beach across the street, the same view is being enjoyed free of charge by bikers, walkers, fishermen, families and lovebirds.
Cruzen has lived in the condo for 13 years, but has known the beach all his life. Born and raised in West Seattle’s Highland Park neighborhood, east of Delridge Avenue, he remembers the place when it still had an indoor pool.
He graduated from West Seattle High School, worked selling car parts for his father, then began investing in real estate. He was the driving force behind West Seattle’s 1989 mural project, which captured the neighborhood’s rich history on 10 murals still visible around Alaska Junction. It’s a rare and beautiful enterprise that serves as a reminder of what West Seattle was and what it values.
Like many people who live here, Cruzen inhabited West Seattle as if it were an island. He and his friends circulated around the woods and trails from the Duwamish to the Sound, shooting bows and arrows, riding bikes and encountering people from all walks of life enjoying the same views at the water’s edge.
The water binds people in ways that transcend geography, he says.
“It’s going to grow more and more, and higher and higher,’’ Cruzen says. “There’ll be more people coming in here, too. They’re building houses on top of houses. It takes the good out of the area just to get more people in it. Once you lost it, you can never get it back.”
But then he turns toward the window and points to the great connector, the thing that has been drawing people here for more than a century.
“They can’t take the tide away,’’ he says, “and they can’t take the water away.”
Susan Kelleher is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com or 206-464-2508. On Twitter @susankelleher. Bettina Hansen is a Seattle Times staff photographer. Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.