FOR A MOMENT, forget everything you know about Cal Anderson Park.
Forget about its tumultuous spotlight in 2020, when a demonstration for Black lives dug in and became a controversial, nearly monthlong occupation and, months later, police pushed out encampments of unhoused people.
Forget about the decades before that: picnickers, dog walkers, children on swings, skateboarders and soccer players; people falling in and out of love; solitary readers; gay pride rallies; summer movie nights; so much more. Forget the 21-million-gallon Lincoln Reservoir that lives beneath the land, but used to sit on top of it, and the famous Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, who designed this park (their first) for the City of Seattle.
Before all that, historians affiliated with the Duwamish and Muckleshoot tribes say, this land was old fir and cedar forest with a marshy spot fed by a natural spring. Warren KingGeorge, tribe historian for the Muckleshoot, says its name is s.ts’p’alich.
A web of small trails ran over the land, used by hunters and gatherers, with two busier walking trails nearby. One passed north-south, leading from villages along the Duwamish and Green rivers up to villages on Lake Union and northern Lake Washington. The other, a portage trail just south of the park, ran east-west from Lake Washington (near Leschi Park) to the village dzidzalalich (dzee-dzee-LAH-letch), where Pioneer Square sits today.
The land was a forest and a crossroads.
But on Sept. 24, 1855, eight months after the Treaty of Point Elliott gave non-Native settlers an excuse to claim land on Duwamish territory, a German immigrant named John H. Nagle staked out his homestead — 160 acres on what would eventually be called Capitol Hill.
The legitimacy of that treaty was almost immediately disputed, and the events that bookended it were unquestionably horrible: lynchings, war, false imprisonment, forced relocation, broken promises. The following year, Native warriors from several tribes would attack Seattle (walking that same east-west portage trail), partly because of that treaty. But people like John Nagle saw it as permission.
Nagle was a farmer (cattle, fruit, vegetables) and an engaged citizen. He co-founded Seattle’s first church, was elected county assessor twice and joined an expedition to establish Snoqualmie Pass, now Interstate 90.
Then, on July 14, 1874, he was dragged before a judge, declared insane and immediately shipped off to the Washington Territory Insane Asylum. We don’t know why — the old records at King County Courthouse are sketchy on the details.
A few days later, fellow settler David T. Denny took charge of Nagle’s property, which is now the heart of Capitol Hill, encompassing three supermarkets, the Elliott Bay Book Company, Dick’s Drive-in, the Pike/Pine bar corridor, six churches (including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and African Methodist Episcopal) and much more.
As Nagle’s trustee, Denny leased the land to farmers and other tenants — including the Seattle Amateur Rifle Association, whose range was right around today’s Capitol Hill light rail station — and slowly sold off plots.
In 1897, after 23 years in asylums, John H. Nagle died of “exhaustion due to acute mania.” Nine months later, newspapers reported that the City of Seattle bought around 12 acres of Nagle’s property to be “used as the site for a water reservoir.”
That is how Seattle came to own the land we now call Cal Anderson Park.
CAL ANDERSON PARK is easy on the eyes — maybe too easy.
With 7.37 acres of soft lawns and gentle inclines, its topography lacks the weirdness and drama of its fellow parks: no sea cliffs (Discovery Park); no rusting, industrial-gothic ruins (Gas Works Park); no cinematic views of the city (Dr. Jose Rizal Park) or the sea (Golden Gardens Park).
Cal Anderson’s landscape is domestic. But its history is not.
Since it was first designed by John Charles Olmsted in 1904, the park has been many things to many people — some tragic, some triumphant, some simply pleasant — and a zone of controversy and resistance. Its namesake, the late state Sen. Cal Anderson, is a gay-rights icon: After earning two Bronze Stars in Vietnam, he left the Army to become a vocal LGBTQ advocate and Washington’s first openly gay state legislator.
Throughout, from the park’s earliest days to its tumultuous 2020 of protests, police raids and debates about homelessness, people have argued about who and what belongs on the land.
“On one level, it’s just a relatively small park in a pretty dense neighborhood, which sets an unreal expectation that it can play one role for everyone,” says Jesús Aguirre, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation. “It’s a neighborhood park, a regional destination park, and it’s at the core of our civil rights movement. It evolves, but it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
Part of what it does is serve as a mirror — usually, debates about the park aren’t just about the park.
“It’s always going to be a reflection of the larger society,” says Taha Ebrahimi, a park neighbor who watched the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) and the other events of 2020 through her windows. “The park is a litmus test.”
In the early 1900s, Seattle was growing at a crazy rate. Between 1900 and 1910, the U.S. Census recorded a population surge from 80,671 to 237,194. Seattle was figuring out what it wanted to be — and Capitol Hill neighbors had a minor, but telling, fight over whether to tolerate baseball.
At that point, the “park” was just a publicly owned dirt pit next to a reservoir where kids played pick-up games. The city wanted Olmsted to turn that pit into a kind of teaser park for the public, explains environmental historian Jennifer Ott, who recently wrote a book about the Olmsted Brothers’ influence on Seattle. If people liked it, they might be willing to pay for more.
Some neighbors wanted a sedate promenade — nothing that would encourage more baseball. According to a 1908 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story: “It was claimed that the amount of profanity and vulgarity that emanated from the improvised recreation group would be doubled when further and better inducements were offered the young men to gather there.”
It was an early fit of park-related NIMBYism.
But the P-I story said the neighbors’ fears were misplaced: “The opposite effect has been had … the entire moral tone of the vacant lot has been improved quite as much as the landscape.”
The fortunes of the park, Ott says, rose and fell over the years. Some decades it got attention and maintenance; some decades it didn’t. The Depression of the ’30s, the war effort of the ’40s, and the general neglect of the ’80s and ’90s were low points.
WHILE COMPLAINTS ABOUT crime in the park rose and fell, it was always there.
As early as 1902, the Chief of Police fumed about arresting “boys” who had been vandalizing and “disfiguring” reservoir walls. In 1926, detectives rolled up their pants, drained the huge water tank and raked its bottom, looking for a diamond ring and other jewelry “three youths” had stolen, then thrown into the water before being arrested. That same year, a used-car salesman was accused of kidnapping a 14-year-old girl from the park. A few years later, a woman told police a 17-year-old had snatched her purse, then hit her with it. And so on.
By the late 1990s, the park had a reputation as a dead, chained-up lot that was wild and dangerous at night.
“On warm nights just after last call, you could hear the drunken, jealous arguments of couples stumbling home from the bars,” says Ian Bell, a theater artist who used to live next to the park and now runs the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a youth literary program in Greenwood. “It was like listening to the wild calls of exotic nocturnal birds.” The next morning, he’d walk his pug through the park and look at the residue: matted wigs, broken heels, ripped shorts, empty bottles, empty vials.
But change was already coming. In 1993, a neighbor named Kay Rood, who ran a nearby framing shop, began organizing neighbors to demand — and, more trickily, find funding for — a park renovation. Rood called the group Groundswell Off Broadway. One of its first volunteer projects: Replace an old thistle patch with a perennial garden.
As it happened, the city also was ready for a change. It had talked about putting lids on Seattle’s reservoirs since 1969, when someone (described in newspapers as “a ‘hippie’-type youth”) went swimming in the Volunteer Park reservoir. But by the 1990s, the city was ready not just to cap the Lincoln Reservoir, but to spend millions putting it underground.
The two projects dovetailed — sort of. (“We received both considerable support and considerable resistance from the city,” Rood wrote in a 2006 essay describing the project.) In 2005, after 12 years of planning, lobbying and cobbling together grants, Groundswell Off Broadway got its new park, naming it after Anderson.
ANDERSON, WHO HELD office in the state Legislature from 1987 until his death from complications of AIDS in 1995, is a revered figure. People still tear up when they talk about him.
“He was a brilliant politician and went through some dark stuff to do what he did,” says Michael Wells, who met Anderson while working at Bailey/Coy Books on Broadway and now works in Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. “In the beginning, people wouldn’t even talk to him in the elevators, and I don’t think it got all that much better before he died. Cal was heroic to me from day one.”
Every year he held office, Anderson moved to expand the state’s civil rights law to include the gay and lesbian community. Every year it failed. He also caught heat from the left. In 1993, before Anderson’s HIV status was public, activists graffitied “AIDS Money Now” at his home and accused him of failing HIV-positive patients. “I think Cal was a graceful man,” Wells says, “who understood the realities of politics.”
Beyond LGBTQ advocacy, Anderson worked on low-income housing, gun control and other major issues.
Omari Salisbury, a reporter for Converge Media who closely covered the park’s intense year of CHOP, camps and sweeps, has a childhood memory of seeing Anderson at a Mothers for Police Accountability meeting. “People knew Cal in the Black community,” he says. “He came from a viewpoint that the basic rights that people were looking for in the gay community were also lacking in the Black community.”
AFTER ITS RENOVATION, the park had a renaissance and became a backyard for one of the densest neighborhoods in the country.
Then, in 2020, 14 days after the killing of George Floyd, Cal Anderson Park would become home to one of the most high-profile protests for Black lives in the United States.
For three and a half weeks, CHOP protesters occupied a small chunk of Capitol Hill, including the park, after the Seattle Police Department packed up and abandoned its East Precinct building.
The events were complex, and people are still debating their significance. That summer’s protests for Black lives, including CHOP, ignited a new reckoning about systemic racism and forced police reform onto the local and national agenda. CHOP also saw violence, including two fatal shootings.
The sustained protest attracted a polarized response, including the wrath of President Donald Trump. Some supporters of the park were upset as well, as they watched Cal Anderson overwhelmed with people and heavily graffitied. “Politics aside,” says Rood, founder of Groundswell Off Broadway, “what happened at the park was my worst fear for it.”
Ott, the environmental historian and Olmsted scholar, takes a slightly different view. “Things can be repaired,” she says. “I saw all that graffiti and thought, ‘This is so powerful.’ It felt like people were expressing long-suppressed thoughts and feelings. That’s not a bad thing.”
While nobody wanted to see the old park struggle, she explained, even the Olmsted Brothers thought about parks in democratic terms — as public places away from the grind of the city.
“The idea was, if you have a democracy and people are going to vote, you have to make sure you have a populace healthy in body and mind,” Ott says. “I’m always worried people think the Olmsted folks are pearl-clutching and caught in the past of some white guy who designed things, but I’m really in it for the fact that these parks are part of urban life. Olmsted’s vision was inclusive, even if it’s not always practiced as such.”
ON A RECENT MORNING a few steps from the park, where people filtered in and out of the light rail station, construction workers were putting the final touches on the AIDS Memorial Pathway (AMP), a public-art commemoration of activism and suffering during the AIDS epidemic.
On one of AMP’s walls, a poem by Seattle writer and activist Storme Webber describes the continuity between those days and today: “Sister to Sister./Brother to Brother./Space of resistance and relation/Palimpsest of liberation generation upon generation.”
In some ways, that “palimpsest” could describe the park itself — protest and resistance have crisscrossed that land for a long time.
In recent decades, the park has been a rallying point, and sometimes a flashpoint, for many political movements: anti-war protests, anti-capitalism protests, the 1999 WTO demonstrations, the 2017 Womxn’s March (by some estimates, the largest in Seattle history) and years of gay pride events.
Rick McKinnon, longtime reporter for Seattle Gay News, remembers the first Gay Pride Festival at the park in 1986. During that complementary event to the more-established Pride parade, informational booths — for community organizations and AIDS services — ringed the park’s sports fields. “In the ’80s, the LGBTQ community was still very much under attack nationwide and locally,” he says. “But there was enormous community-building.”
One of that land’s first known brushes with organized resistance came in 1856, one year after Nagle settled there.
On Jan. 25, a coalition of Native warriors — 100 of whom might have come from across the Cascades in snowshoes — walked that portage trail from Lake Washington to Pioneer Square, planning to burn Seattle the next day.
“Native fighters put up an extraordinary resistance against arrogant white expansion,” explains historian David Buerge, who has a longstanding affiliation with the Duwamish Tribe. The warriors, he says, brought baskets of pine pitch for burning houses and hoped to seize weapons and ammunition from the Navy sloop Decatur, then anchored in Elliott Bay.
The attack lasted only a day, but the property damage was severe, Buerge says, setting the settler economy back 10 years. “Moreover, it allowed Native people to live their traditional lives in Seattle for another crucial decade, long enough to make their presence felt economically and socially,” he explains. “They were not driven out of the town until 1865, but continue to maintain a vital presence here to this day.”
Like Webber, Buerge also sees the land’s history of resistance — from 1856 to CHOP — as a kind of palimpsest. “The Native American movement of the 1960s was inspired by the Black civil rights protests, and the growing influence and political voice of people of color is spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement. Cal Anderson Park and the Indian Trail on Capitol Hill are two important artifacts of that vibrant stream of American history.”
But that legacy of resistance is twinned with patterns of exclusion.
Early Capitol Hill has some significant Black history, but the park doesn’t seem to, even though it’s less than half a mile from the old First African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1886 — Washington wasn’t even a state until 1889. Plus, prominent Black entrepreneurs lived on Capitol Hill around 1900, including Isham Norris (who owned a livery stable and trucking business) and the Cayton family (who published The Seattle Republican newspaper). Any of them parkgoers?
Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, says she hasn’t seen any evidence of early Black residents frequenting Cal Anderson Park.
“This early history of Black people and Capitol Hill is complicated and was not always welcoming,” she explains. “As Garfield Park was high proximity to the center of the African American community, it was a comfort zone where Sunday afternoon baseball and picnics happened.” By 1909, the Cayton family was fending off a lawsuit claiming their existence in the neighborhood depreciated property values. Racially exclusive covenants on Capitol Hill weren’t far behind.
Then there were the unhoused people kicked out of the park several times over 2020. What did they have to say about it?
After a couple of calls, someone invited me to a small, tidy encampment (a few tents, a field kitchen, some folding chairs) along Lake Washington where a handful of folks had relocated. They offered me coffee and lunch, and we talked.
Dozens of people, mostly activists, had been arrested on the two mornings that police raided Cal Anderson’s homeless encampments. But a man who went by E., a thin guy with a beard, in his early 40s, wasn’t impressed. He’d slept at the park off and on for decades, under his favorite tree (“I can roll out a bedroll right there and get a better night’s sleep than you can on a $10,000 mattress!”), but says the crowds of 2020 were a liability. More people brought more attention, which brought police.
“All these people came and invaded the park,” he says. “I’m pretty sure 80% of them had houses to go to. I got [expletive] up by them. They go mess up a Starbucks, firebomb police cars and go home. But who has to deal with it? Me! I’m left holding the bag.”
E. says he’ll keep making his way: “It doesn’t matter what they throw at me. I’ll always bounce back. It’s what I do!” And he loves the park. “What’s not to like?” he says. “I guess there’s always an element of danger. But the park is like everything else on this planet — it’s evolving.”