In the Mount Baker neighborhood, where classic Craftsman-style homes are set back from quiet, tree-lined streets, people are just as likely to come knocking at your door with a petition as a potluck dish — and there's plenty of both.
In the Mount Baker neighborhood, where classic Craftsman-style homes are set back from quiet, tree-lined streets, people are just as likely to come knocking at your door with a petition as a potluck dish — and there’s plenty of both.
It’s the kind of place where a few neighbors hire a band, strap on their tool belts and erect a stage in the park to provide free concerts for the neighborhood. Where people get together to fight City Hall or to dog a major petroleum company over a contaminated site. Where the community club hosts a neighborhood potluck for 300 and a biennial Home Tour requiring 150 volunteers — and also raises around $100,000 a year in college scholarships.
“That sort of ‘Let’s-pitch-in-and do-this-thing’ happens a lot,” says Al Johnson, longtime resident of Mount Baker and assistant manager of the Windermere Real Estate office there.
The neighbors tend to be so active that Johnson finally made a sign for his front door saying, “No Solicitors over the age of 18” — he still welcomes neighbor kids’ sales pitches for cookies and mints.
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Nestled against Lake Washington and graced with verdant parks sloping to the shore, the neighborhood, considered one of the most racially diverse in the city, seems placid and inward-looking.
But in the 1960s and 1970s, even into the 1980s, this same neighborhood nurtured a generation of activist and progressive politicians. Among them was former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, the city’s first black mayor, and a former president of the Mount Baker Community Club — “one of the harder jobs I’ve had,” he says.
The neighborhood was the site of sawmills before developer J.C. Hunter purchased 130 acres in the area in 1905. Hunter set about developing his tract into one of Seattle’s finest neighborhoods, hiring as consultants the Olmsted Brothers, the famed landscape architects from Massachusetts who designed Seattle’s parks system. Their influence is still seen in Mount Baker’s sweeping boulevards lined with large trees whose branches form a leafy canopy over the street.
In some ways, Mount Baker resembles Capitol Hill, where the stately, expensive homes were built about the same time. But Mount Baker also includes blocks of houses with more modest designs and more affordable prices.
The neighborhood’s boundaries, according to the City Clerk’s Neighborhood Map Atlas, stretch from the lake to Martin Luther King Way South and Rainier Avenue South and from the Interstate-90 lid to South Genesee Street.
According to the Zillow Home Value Index, the median value of all single-family houses in Mount Baker, not just houses that have recently sold, was $484,600 for August, up 1.9 percent year-over-year.
But home prices in Mount Baker can vary widely. A newer two-bedroom town house recently sold for $266,200 and while an older four-bedroom house not far away sold for $1.27 million.
During the politically turbulent 1960s and 1970s, many in the community came together to fight a host of issues, including racially restrictive bank-lending practices, a freeway that would have degraded the neighborhood and a plan for a second, Interstate 90 floating bridge that would have removed a big chunk of the Mount Baker Ridge. That plan was later scaled down, saving the ridge and some of the older homes that had not yet been razed.
The community also found itself rocked by the racial integration that led to Mount Baker’s fairly even distribution of white, Asian-American and African-American residents. Also, nearly a third of the residents are foreign-born.
Today’s activism is more nuanced, says Lee Stanton, chairman of the board of the community club. “When there are enough people who have state representatives and senators on their speed dial, there’s a certain amount of political savvy in the neighborhood,” he says.
Often, the community club has been the nexus around which residents have coalesced to tackle neighborhood issues. The community is deeply engaged — even relatively routine zoning and transportation matters draw crowds of up to 50.
Other concerns include the tangle of trolley wires and towering poles at a gateway to the neighborhood and plans for development around the Mount Baker light-rail station.
For the past 26 years, the club has sponsored a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund, which this year awarded 21 scholarships totaling more than $90,000.
While funds originally were designated for Mount Baker residents, the neighborhood has become prosperous enough that promoters have expanded the boundaries to find enough deserving applicants.
While it seems like an oasis of calm in the city, where the same people live in the same, well-kept houses for years, Mount Baker is not without crime.
A few years ago, in response to increased home burglaries and thefts, a group of neighbors formed a public-safety group that hosts workshops, supports a strengthened Block Watch system and solicits funds from neighbors for a security patrol. Incidents have declined, the group says.
Every summer, the neighborhood’s calm is shattered during Seafair, when the hydroplane races take place at Mount Baker’s corner of Lake Washington, and the Blue Angels perform aerial acrobatics overhead.
Mount Baker neighbors are deeply divided over Seafair — reportedly, half of them gather their pets and leave town while the other half break out the beer and the hot dogs and host huge viewing parties.
Another party of sorts takes place in July, when some residents host ParkTunes, a free concert in Mount Baker Park.
Bands play salsa and jazz, kids dance to the music in front of the stage and neighbors sit on blankets on the lawn, polishing off pizza from the nearby cafe.
“It’s like a little Bumbershoot in our own backyard,” says E.J. Gong, a Windermere real-estate agent who, with his wife, Susan Byrnes, has been heading the event for five of the seven years they’ve lived in Mount Baker. Donations come from a few businesses, concertgoers and the couple’s own pockets.
On the block where they live, neighbors routinely get together on the spur of the moment, pooling whatever is in their refrigerators to create dinner for a dozen or more people.
That kind of neighborliness is not atypical of the Mount Baker neighborhood.
“We just enjoy where we live,” Gong says, “and we enjoy who we live near.”