Why do some neighborhoods rise, others fall? How do they get to be the way they are? What role does race play? This story examines those questions thorough the history of a single Seattle neighborhood. Through public records, academic research, family scrapbooks, survey responses and interviews, it traces the social and economic forces shaping the neighborhood, its people and their times.
In the summer at night on the street where the Pitter girls played, boys would stroll up the road singing. The girls would harmonize on "In the Evening" and "Down by the Old Mill Steam." They all dances to "My Gal Sal."
"Great elms reached up to the universe . . . Twenty-fourth Avenue was a skating rink from Madison to Olive. Our telephone pole was home base."
This, Connie Pitter Thomas said, was her Seattle neighborhood, the East Madison district southeast of 23rd Avenue and Madison Street, during what is ordinarily thought of as the worst period of the century - the Great Depression.
Then came World War II and the economic boom that accompanied it. The war has been followed by an astonishing period of growth. The result has been the transformation of a sleepy backwater port into a city in the middle of the future.
The neighborhood has been transformed, too. For one thing, most of the trees are gone.
"It's been a lot of change here, a lot of change," said Mary Lou Nurse. "When I moved in this house, people were so nice. There was no crime."
The biggest concern, Nurse said, were cars roaring down Pine Street.
"All of the front of the house was wood. People used to come flying over that hill and run into the porch and knock it off. Nobody's hit it since we put concrete in.
"We slept out on the porch," Nurse recalled. "I wouldn't do that now. I wouldn't even go out there to sit. Somebody might come by and shoot you."
How is it that 60 years of nearly unrelenting progress changed the East Madison neighborhood Connie Thomas once thought of as a cocoon - a place one could wrap up in like a great warm blanket and feel that all the world was here and it was yours - into a neighborhood where if boys walk the streets now they're apt to be followed by police, where "My Gal Sal" might be punctuated some nights by gunfire, where residents feel compelled to march at night in a campaign to take back their streets?
How did that become this? What happened here? What disaster occurred?
Roger Sale of the University of Washington wrote in his history of Seattle, "The worst things that happen to cities happen slowly."
The slide of neighborhoods like East Madison occurs very slowly, indeed. There is no explosion, no high drama; only erosion, the steady, quiet action of the ground giving way beneath one's feet.
FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA
Madison is the only street in the city of Seattle that runs directly from Elliott Bay to Lake Washington.
It's not long - less than four miles from sea to shining sea - but in its course Madison runs across layers of time and social terrain so varied they seem not to belong on the same planet, much less the same plat map.
There are neighborhoods full of city life as it is sometimes dreamed - boutiques, bakeries, friendly markets, knowledgeable wine merchants - but also blocks as bad as the city has to offer, places where neighbors are merely the people who live next door and where every door has an iron grate.
Starting at the Colman Ferry Dock, Madison heads out to the northeast, immediately passing two federal office buildings - evidence of the heavy role government has served in the creation of contemporary Seattle; through the middle of the downtown financial district, past the slim elegance of First Interstate Center and the blockier presence of the the city's first modern skyscraper, the old Seafirst Building - which, like almost all of those that followed it, is owned by someone somewhere else. In this case, it's Chicago; it could as easily be Frankfurt or Tokyo.
The street continues past the library and the federal courthouse; over the ever-clogged Interstate 5; up to the top of First Hill, passing the University Club, one of few survivors of a 19th century neighborhood of mansions, the first of what turned out to be many places to which the rich would retreat from the city below.
Atop the hill, the mansions have largely been replaced by hospitals and clinics that have renamed the place Pill Hill, physical evidence of the city's burgeoning medical industries.
Going downgrade past Broadway and Seattle University, a fixture on the street since 1894, Madison becomes what geographers sometimes call a zone of discard, a neighborhood of repair shops, storage depots, apartment houses, secondhand stores, things that might once have been downtown but have been pushed out by higher rents, discarded.
The street then heads up what used to be known as Second Hill, bending slightly to the north at the top, passing Mount Zion Baptist and then the Madison Temple Church of Christ. (The Rev. L.J. Thompson, pastor of another church in the same neighborhood - there are five within three blocks - points out that churches are like gas stations used to be: They congregate, apparently without competing.)
As the downgrade steepens near 23rd Avenue East, the street runs past a deserted union hall, an architects' office, a storefront church, run-down houses, low-rent offices, upscale condominiums and a hoagie shop. The oddball grouping reflects the ongoing gentrification of the Madison Valley, which is defying gravity, history and common sense and is moving uphill, not down.
The bottom of the valley has been almost completely redone in the past decade and now includes boutiques, chocolate shops, an AIDS hospice, upscale consignment shops and trendy restaurants.
The boutiqueing continues past the arboretum as the street heads up its last hill, rising and widening into neighborhoods that have never had need of gentrification: Broadmoor, one of the city's first exclusive residential communities on the north, and Washington Park on the south.
Over the hill, Madison enters the quaint, part-beach-club, part-village atmosphere of Madison Park and finally gets to its original destination - Lake Washington, Madison's watery reason for being.
The westernmost portions of the street were included in the original 1853 plat of the city. It was stretched to its full length as a stage line connecting the downtown waterfront and McGilvra's Landing, a ferry stop on the lake.
The road was overlaid in 1890 with the Madison Street Cable Railway, one of more than a dozen intracity lines. Most of these lines were privately owned, and Madison belonged to the same people who owned the park near the road's eastern end. More important, they also owned the potential real-estate subdivisions that adjoined the park.
"Real estate, rather than transportation as such, seems to have been the real motivation behind many a project," wrote Leslie Blanchard in her history of Seattle railways.
The Madison railway's main use was as a road, not a street. It existed to connect two points, not to serve those in between, and in the beginning the cable cars carried far more freight than they did people.
In between the city and the park was little of anything.
"It was mostly through the woods, and the passengers felt almost as though they were making a train journey to another town," Oscar DeFreon, a cable-car gripman, told The Seattle Times in 1940, when the cable system was being dismantled.
It was in this middle ground that William Grose settled, sowing the seeds of a ghetto.
William Grose was rich. He was also black.
Grose was described in his obituary as "a Negro of vast proportions" and "one of the most extensive taxpayers in the third ward."
He had somehow accumulated wealth at his downtown hotel charging $5 a week for room and board, $4 for just the room if you decided you couldn't afford the food. From the evidence of Grose himself, this would have been a mistake. He was a good cook, or at least a generous one. He was 6-feet-4, weighed close to 400 pounds and had to be taken into church through a window for his funeral.
Grose had been an adventurer. He was in China with Commodore Perry, in the California goldfields with the '49ers, in the Arctic and South America. He came to Seattle after befriending territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens aboard ship.
He began a restaurant downtown, later a saloon and a hotel. When his businesses, along with his house, burned in the fire of 1889, Grose moved with his family to land he had bought out in the country - the ranch, they called it - and had used as a sort of suburban retreat.
The 12 acres were between what are now Olive and East Madison streets at about 24th Avenue. His daughter, Lizzie, later described the area in a letter:
"There was nothing but roads and trails through fallen trees, stumps and underbrush. No street lights. When we went to church at night we carried our lanterns . . . The old homestead was not on any street but stood in the orchard at this time."
In addition to building his own house, Grose subdivided the rest of his 12 acres, giving lots to family and friends, selling others.
Calvin Schmid, a professor emeritus at the UW and author of seminal sociological studies on the city, wrote that Grose's move was a key event in the history of the African-American community.
"When Mr. Gross (sic) settled on the hill with his family," Schmid wrote, "other Negroes moved into the area. There was much opposition to this migration on the part of the white residents of the Madison area. Finally they decided to sell, but not to rent to the newcomers. Most of the incoming Negroes moved to the top of the hill, but a few bought and settled in the hollow to the east."
Schmid's original version of this text referred to the "migration" as an invasion. It couldn't have been much of one. There were fewer than 500 African Americans in the entire state at the time.
The hollow to which Schmid referred is now called Madison Valley. It was then called Coon Hollow; it isn't entirely clear whether this was a name derived from native wildlife - raccoons, which were plentiful - or pejoratively from what many white residents clearly thought a new sort of wildlife - black people.
Whichever, the hollow was not the preferred area for living. It was once described by a local resident as "a swamp and a mudhole," and that pretty well captured it.
R.D. McKenzie, writing in 1928, described the relationship of the city's topography to its people:
"It is obvious, then, that the settler type of population, the married couples with children, withdraw from the center of the city while the more mobile and less responsible adults herd together in the hotel and apartment regions near the heart of the community. . . . The neighborhoods in which the settler type of population resides, with their preponderance of women and children, serve as the custodians of the stabilizing and repressive mores.
"It is in the Seattle neighborhoods, especially those on the hill-tops, that the conservative, law-abiding, civic-minded population elements dwell. The downtown section and the valleys, which are usually industrial sites, are populated by a class of people who are not only more mobile but whose mores and attitudes, as tested by voting habits, are more vagrant and radical."
The judgmental aspects of McKenzie's tone aside, he points out what had become a continuing characteristic of the city - the relationship between class and altitude. As you rose in one, you rose in the other.
Grose and his relatives, friends and heirs, befitting people of stature, built and lived high on the western ridge above the hollow, south of Madison.
The stratification of the population began haphazardly, accomplished, like Grose's decision to live at what he had been his ranch, by chance and economic ability. In the earlier decades of the city, rich and poor, red, white, black and yellow people lived next to one another. Then the better-off began to build more distant residential neighborhoods.
First hill was the initial example of this. It would in time be followed by The Highlands, Capitol Hill, Broadmoor, Washington Park and, in later years, by endless variations in the suburbs.
Once it started, the sorting out soon took on racial and ethnic criteria, some of which continue to define large sections of the city today.
In 1909, a realtor sued Horace Cayton, a black newspaper editor, asking that Cayton be "removed" from living on Capitol Hill. Cayton won the suit but lost the war.
The realtors' desire to restrict the movement of non-whites, and often non-Christians, was formalized in the decade after the lawsuit with the creation of restrictive covenants, clauses that were written into property deeds forbidding the sale of property to certain people - typically blacks, Asians and Jews.
Even many areas that weren't covenanted sought to restrict ethnic encroachment.
1909, the year the salesman tried to evict Cayton, was also the year of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle's first world's fair. The fair brought thousands of people to Seattle, among them a 14-year-old Jamaican, Edward Pitter, who arrived as a captain's cabin boy aboard a Dutch steamer.
Pitter liked what he saw in Seattle. He found work as a printer and stayed. He later met and married Marjorie Allen, the granddaughter of a prominent theologian. They worked, prospered, became prominent themselves and eventually had three daughters, one of whom is Connie Pitter Thomas.
East Madison at that time was covenanted north of Madison Street to Capitol Hill. South of Madison was open but not, as the Pitters discovered, entirely.
In the '20s, they rented a house east of the valley, on 34th Avenue East, directly across Madison from Broadmoor in Washington Park, a new neighborhood that was quickly making known its exclusivity.
One day not long after the Pitters arrived, Marjorie Pitter answered a knock at the door. Connie Thomas, then a young girl, recalls:
"A lady said, `I'd like to speak to the lady of the house.'
"My mother said, `I'm the lady of the house.'
"The woman screamed, `Oh, my God! Oh, my God! She did it. She did it.
" `She rented the house to niggers.' "
There later unraveled a tale of the Pitters' landlady somehow being omitted from that year's Social Register. She had vowed to retaliate for the omission.
The Pitters were her vengeance.
They didn't stay long. Connie Thomas recalls her mother, a mere 20-year-old at the time, having to buy - and threaten to use on hostile neighbors - a pistol to protect the family.
They eventually moved across the valley to the neighborhood Big Bill Grose had started. The neighborhood had been growing with the city. Seattle's population had tripled in the first decade of the 20th century, riding the tail of the Alaska Gold Rush, and quadrupled by 1920.
The East Madison district had been logged off and houses were going up in bunches. In the six blocks surrounding the Grose homestead, 13 residences were built before 1900. In the next decade, 58 were built; in the decade after that, 19 more; and in the Roaring '20s, 20 more.
By 1930, the neighborhood's housing was pretty much what it is today. In the next 60 years, fewer than a dozen new homes would be added.
Almost all of the homes were single-family houses. Most had two or three bedrooms. The Pitters had rented in several locations before Marjorie Pitter went out for a walk one day.
"She came to 24th and Pine," Connie Thomas said. "There were huge trees there then, elms that went clear up to the wires. And there was the house she had dreamed of. She knocked on the door. Dining room, music room, pantry kitchen. Servants' quarters downstairs. They bought the house."
"We used to say, `For a woman with no money, she could do more things,' " said Marjorie Pitter King, Connie Thomas' sister.
"When we moved into our house, the neighbors did sign a petition to keep us out. Now isn't that interesting, only a block from Mr. Grose. But it didn't mean anything and we just ignored it. There were no restrictive covenants."
The neighborhood was still largely white. More blacks lived there than anywhere else in the city, but their numbers were so small in total that they were not predominant anywhere.
In addition to the East Madison neighborhood, blacks also lived in significant numbers on lower Jackson Street near the waterfront and on East Cherry Street, around 14th Avenue.
Most of the business leaders of the black community owned homes in the Madison neighborhood. People there referred to the others as living "cross-town." This was not a compliment, according to Schmid:
"During the early years of the depression the Madison Street Community could be characterized as conservative, middle-class, bourgeois and anxious to preserve non-militant relations with the white group."
Descriptions of life in East Madison during the Depression have an idyllic quality.
Edward Pitter later described the almost fairy-tale nature of social life to Quintard Taylor, an Oregon historian:
"We had dances all over town . . . We had fully dressed dances. I mean fully dressed. Tails . . . I used to wear a silk hat and tails and I had a cape you throw back and a monocle. I had a monocle."
The neighborhood had nightclubs like the Tarbox, the Mardi Gras and The Black and Tan Club, a jazz venue owned by the wonderfully named impresario Russell "Noodles" Smith.
There was a tennis club where the East Madison YMCA is now, a Japanese market, an African-American bakery, a meat market, a hotel, a druggist, a six-fingered tailor and a pool hall.
People watched the Seattle Royal Giants play baseball or the Ubangi Blackhawks play football.
Pitter's three daughters had a steady diet of church socials, movies at the Gala or Home theaters (with a real organist), blackberry cobbler at Mrs. Smith's Home Cooking Restaurant.
"There was an ice-cream-cone bakery across the street," Marjorie Pitter King recalled. "The baker would give us the broken cones. I sometimes thought he broke a few just so he'd have something to give us."
The girls matched their father's attire.
"I was so shocked when I went to high school and found out the white girls didn't have formals and gloves," Marjorie King said. "On Sunday, you set your table with your best linen, your best silverware.
"We used to leave the house unlocked and we would come home and find young people waiting for us inside. There was such a warmth. There was a feeling within the community of knowing each other."
Obviously, recollections can be glazed by time. Everything wasn't wonderful. As the Depression ground on, more and more people had a harder and harder time. Fewer and fewer people had work.
Edward Pitter took half a dozen jobs in a decade (although, extraordinarily, he and his wife managed to send all three of their daughters to the University of Washington).
The beginnings of war in the Pacific halted transoceanic trade by 1937. This had a particularly sharp impact on East Madison, because many of the black men in the neighborhood worked as cooks and stewards aboard ship. The effects began to show.
The neighborhood quit growing. Only two new buildings were built during the entire decade. The county's real-estate appraisers began to note deterioration of existing houses.
Fifty-five of the neighborhood's 120 houses changed ownership.
A 1936 letter from Aurora Russell to the county clerk regarding her family's property on 24th Avenue straightforwardly stated an economic dilemma faced by many:
"My husband and I are the owners, but owing to the high rate of taxes, assessments, etc., we gave up paying on it. It is vacant, and I want to know what is the least price it will sell for cash, and also on terms. If it is within reason, we may be able to handle it."
In 1930, four of every 10 black families in the city owned their own homes. In 1940, three in every 10 did. A fourth lost their homes during the Depression, a rate of loss about twice that throughout the city.
And the worst was yet to come. Despite the physical hardship of the '30s, the people of East Madison had felt a sense of possibility. Those possibilities broadened with the war as, out of necessity, new, higher-paying jobs opened to African Americans. But the war also foreshadowed the end of other possibilities. The neighborhood had grown with the city. During the war, its future began to shrink.
The idyll had ended.
Mary Lou Nurse's 25th Avenue living room is crowded.
Paper dogs, cats and a Student Painter brochure hang from a pole lamp. The "Last Supper" is done, in felt, on one wall. The Old Testament is done, in earnest, on the radio.
Great, high stacks of books are everywhere. Medical texts are prominent. Nurse reads herself to sleep at night with them. She's an old woman. She doesn't fear the diseases. She's simply curious as to what maladies might come next.
Nurse is, like Bill Clinton, a native of Arkansas, although any native affinity with him is slight.
"I don't put too much confidence in lip talk," she says. "I wait to see action."
Her home-state loyalty is diminished not by the dimming memory of her childhood but by the strength of it: men tied to the back bumpers of cars and dragged up and down the Negro quarters until dead; another man hanged; a grandmother kept as a white master's mistress, accounting for Nurse's chocolate skin.
"I went through some terrible things," she says, "but I'll tell you what: I wouldn't trade my journey for nothing.
"It taught me how to live."
There was no black high school in Nurse's hometown. She left for Hot Springs for school and left the state entirely as soon as she could thereafter, first for Tennessee, where she worked at a dry cleaners, later up north to Chicago.
After her first husband, an Army aviator, was killed at Iwo Jima, she took the government up on its offer to move her west for war work. Headed initially for Hawaii, she received a change of orders when she got to Portland. She thus arrived in the spring of 1945 at age 28 at the Bremerton shipyards for the last months of the war.
She just wanted to forget, she says.
"I didn't know what I was signing up for. I just wanted to see the West."
At Bremerton, she found there was "more prejudice than there was in Arkansas. That kinda knocked me back because I thought I was going where that didn't happen.
"People said, `What color are you?'
" `What do you mean? What color am I?' They were asking because of my light skin. I finally said I was purple.
"There were certain things you couldn't do in Seattle, restaurants you couldn't go into, hotels you couldn't go into, places you couldn't live. But they didn't drag you up and down the street until you were dead."
So she stayed. She traded Bremerton for Seattle after the war, went to work at Boeing and moved to East Madison, where she remains still.
Nurse's life story is repeated time and again among black Seattleites of a certain age. They came with the war and stayed when it was gone.
ARSENALS OF DEMOCRACY
"Industrially the impact of the war on the state was almost beyond calculation," wrote Edgar Stewart, a historian at what was then called Eastern Washington College of Education.
War industries led by Boeing and the shipyards expanded at dizzying rates. In 1935, Boeing built a single prototype for the B-17 bomber. The company employed 839 people. Eight years later, at its peak, the company made 250 airplanes a month and employed 78,400 people.
The number of shipyard workers in the metro area grew from 8,000 to 92,000.
In 1939, the total value of all goods manufactured in Seattle was $70 million. Between then and 1946, Seattle firms secured defense contracts worth $5.6 billion.
The first great rush of workers drawn into the war plants came largely from the rural Northwest. They were overwhelmingly white.
The second wave came largely from elsewhere in the country, many from the rural South, mainly Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. Many were black.
Quintard Taylor, in a soon-to-be published history of Seattle's African-American community, writes:
"Severe overcrowding, endemic to all of wartime Seattle, was particularly acute in the black community and accelerated the physical deterioration in the Central District, by now the city's oldest residential area.
"By 1945, over 10,000 blacks occupied virtually the same buildings that had housed 3,700 Seattle Afro-Americans five years earlier . . . Because restrictive covenants confined African Americans to specific residential areas, newcomers soon found themselves doubling or even tripling up in houses that were already among the oldest in the city."
"Mother had people staying in the attic," Marjorie King remembers. "She had peopled doubled up in bedrooms, anyplace she could put them."
The same was true throughout East Madison. Houses were divided, boarders taken in. "People was living in theaters," said the Rev. M.L. Whitman, who arrived in Seattle from Texas in 1945. "There was no place to live. People was buying a 25-cent ticket to a theater and staying all night."
Most of the migrants were poor - that is why they migrated, Taylor says - and poorly educated. They ate with their hands, signed their names with X's.
They were, one resident said, "rude and crude and loud . . . a different kind of black person . . . (and) that person became a threat, to the black community as well as to the white community."
Mayor William Devin said the situation was "fraught with a great deal of dynamite."
It never exploded. The neighborhoods, instead, caved in on themselves. They simply did not have the resources to serve their populations.
"Until World War II," said Connie Thomas, "you never could find one block, I mean just one straight block, from one corner to the other in which every single home had a black in it."
In fact, before the war, blacks were still a minority in Thomas' neighborhood.
That changed. In the six blocks surrounding the old William Grose homestead, the population in 1940 was 35 percent black. By 1950, it was 66 percent; by 1960, 82 percent; by 1970, 93 percent.
It wasn't apparent at the time, but the combination of the population explosion, housing covenants outside the area and overcrowding within it was deadly.
Seattle, which had been characterized by what Taylor calls a "benign racial environment," was creating something else. A slum was being born and the neighborhood, slowly, was getting ready to die.
PEACE, MONEY AND MORTGAGES
Seattle barely paused after the war.
Stalin replaced Hitler. The Cold War replaced the hot one. The industrialization that the war engendered continued apace. Almost swallowed in significance once the war began, the opening in 1940 of the first floating bridge across Lake Washington became in the postwar era one of the great shaping events of the metropolitan region.
Where the bridge went, people followed. The great migration of the postwar era was under way, from the city to the suburbs.
In 1940, Bellevue was mostly blueberry fields. In 1960, it still had mainly gravel roads and not very many people. Today, it has skyscrapers and is the state's fourth-largest city.
Movement to the region continued, but the people who came settled in the suburbs, not the city. Many of those who could escape the city joined the exodus.
Blacks were largely unable to join this initial flight to the suburbs. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed restrictive covenants, but later the same year, the Seattle Real Estate Board expelled a member for selling a house in a white neighborhood to a black family.
The migration to the suburbs and the building boom that accompanied it were attracting huge supplies of human and economic capital at what was a crucial point in the history of old, inner-city neighborhoods like East Madison.
The city housing was reaching the end of its useful life, an end that was quickened with the stress of overcrowding during the war and which was inevitable without reinvigoration.
David Hodge, a geographer at the University of Washington, says two things have to happen to kill an inner-city neighborhood: the property must be aging, and relatively inexpensive housing must be available on the city's periphery.
"That's what our country's housing policy is built on - a focus on building middle- and upper-middle-class housing and the older housing stock filtering down," Hodge said.
This was precisely the case in East Madison.
Lenders quit lending. Mortgage money poured out to the suburbs rather than in to the city. As the housing stock declined, those who could leave left, further depressing the general economic ability of the area they were leaving.
"You end up with a classic ghetto, deteriorating housing, low economic levels," Hodge said. "It's not the sheer numbers (of people). It's a combination of economic class, disinvestment and conversion to rental housing.
"Some important, significant boundaries develop. It becomes larger than life."
The boundaries largely have to do with lenders who on one hand are simply exercising what they see as prudent business judgments. If you only have so much money to lend, why risk it?
As surely as the Berlin Wall separated the East from West on one Cold War battlefield, another wall went up around what was becoming another battlefield in East Madison.
The wall might as well have been built of concrete and barbed wire. Some tunneled under it. Others climbed over. But most were simply trapped inside. All of them - those who butted head-on against it and those ignorant of its existence - were caged.
Money, never plentiful, dried up.
"You can keep the slums from coming if the banks cooperate. It's as simple as that," said Gerald Frank, a developer who worked in the neighborhood. "But bank loans were impossible. I did everything - picket the banks, scream at them. Nothing worked. "
"The banks wouldn't lend you a dime," said Charlie Russell, who lived on 24th Avenue. "Your property could be free and clear. Didn't matter. Wouldn't give you a dime. In 1950, I asked for a loan to fix up the property. They said, `Sorry, we just don't loan any money in that area.'
"You couldn't get a dime."
Most years, not a single bank loan would be made in the neighborhood. In some years, more money was spent to tear down dilapidated housing than was spent repairing any.
People who wanted to buy houses either had to pay cash, persuade the seller to carry a contract, or go through a private mortgage company, some of which would lend in the area, but only at higher rates.
As property values increased generally throughout the city, cash purchases became rarer. The cumulative effect was devastating.
By 1958, one area resident complained in a letter to the City Council that a "relentless slum" was developing in the neighborhood.
The city's urban-renewal director, Talbot Wegg, replied, saying he concurred, "but there are no means to improve it."
Residents had difficulty getting the slightest city services performed. One wrote to the City Council complaining she had been trying unsuccessfully to get traffic engineers to fill a pothole on 23rd Avenue for three years.
"I realize this block is not kept up by all, but we have civic pride and try to keep our yard in good condition," she wrote. "We keep our taxes up, have remodeled our homes and are Christians."
The city's inattention to the problems of the neighborhood would prove to be a governmental as well as financial mistake of staggering proportion. The sums of money spent - much of it futilely - in later years to try to fix the problems then being created would be enormous.
An ordinance that would have opened housing throughout the city to all races was put to a popular vote in 1964. It lost 2-to-1.
Taylor, the historian, wrote:
"The enemy in Seattle was indifference in the white population born of its perception that `there was no problem' in the city.
"Residential patterns were, in part, the result of economic conditions. The black neighborhoods were the oldest and usually the cheapest sections of the cities, often the only places impoverished African Americans could afford. But much of the residential segregation was also directly attributable to white hostility prompted by the fear of falling real-estate values - a fear which often became a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"You could see it turn," said Connie Thomas. "Little by little, it got blacker and blacker. Blacks had no place to go."
Thomas suffered the double indignity of watching her neighborhood decay while also being deprived of the right to teach in the Seattle schools. After her parents had labored to put her through the university during the Depression, Thomas had to fight for 11 years to get a job with the local schools.
Eventually, federal, state and local open-housing legislation was passed, and, still later, enforced. This was liberating for those trying to escape, but like almost everything else that happened, just more bad news for those left behind.
The East Madison district was being cooked down to the only people who would take the heat - the truly stubborn and the truly poor.
It would take two decades to play out, but East Madison's fate had effectively been decided by the war, the overcrowding that came with it, the financial famine that followed and the residential segregation that overlaid the entire period.
A LONG, SLOW, CERTAIN DEATH
In East Madison, much of the next two decades passed under a microscope. Studies of the neighborhood's plight done in the 1960s and 1970s fill entire shelves in the city's archives.
Population began falling. Census Tract 77, which includes East Madison, lost half of its white population and a tenth of its black population in the '60s.
The city in 1970 estimated that 40 percent of the housing stock in the neighborhood was either dilapidated or had major deficiencies. One of every five houses was vacant.
One city study observed that "deterioration is encouraged by the inability of homeowners to obtain the financial assistance necessary to rehabilitate and maintain their properties . . . Financial institutions have simply lost confidence in more than a few neighborhoods and are no longer willing to make loans to property owners in such areas."
Another study warned that "a tight, institutionalized ghetto with unbreakable patterns of poverty, inadequate education and limited opportunities for employment, housing, and an amenable environment is in the making."
One man complained in a letter to the city that, "By your inaction you have ruined a fine neighborhood. Rehabilitate these or see them burn.
"Families are being forced out who do not want to leave. But they live in a wasteland. And the citizens care enough to do whatever they must."
Programs sometimes followed the studies, but often without visible effect, and almost always without the amount of money they were designed to need. They didn't fail so much as they never arrived.
The federal Model Cities program was the broadest-based and farthest-reaching attempt, but it received only 10 percent of the money anticipated for it, had not much to do with housing and in any event ended in 1974 after just five years.
The most ambitious effort directed specifically at housing grew out of the Mann-Minor Neighborhood Improvement Plan. Its main goal was to make home-improvement loans to low-income residents within a portion of the Central Area that included East Madison.
Planning for the program started in 1968. Federal money was finally authorized in 1972. But just a week before it was to be made available, Nixon administration officials notified local administrators the funding had been cut. Eventually, the program proceeded, but its promises far outpaced its performance. It was, in fact, a disaster. Loans were made and contracts signed, but little work was done; at least, little work was done well.
Houses were torn apart and not put back together. Contractors disappeared. So did money. The program director eventually was accused of misappropriating project money and went to jail.
The rehabilitation program continued under a different name. But to date, only one loan has been made in the six blocks around the old Grose residence. And some complaints about faulty workmanship and overbilling are still unanswered after 20 years.
Private capital, the lifeblood of healthy neighborhoods, remained a rumor. Studies of lending practices indicate loans were made in the area at less than a tenth the rate they were made in other parts of the city.
Through all the programs and all the years, the area resisted improvement.
By 1980, the neighborhoods around East Madison had the highest percentage of low-income people in the city, the highest percentage of people living in poverty, of low-birth-weight babies and of housing needing repair.
By 1990, fewer people lived in the East Madison area than at any time since the Depression.
As soon as people could get out, they did.
"It was very sad. These people I knew all my life were leaving," Marjorie King said. "Some came and apologized. Some cried. We were very sad to see them go."
The sociologist William Julius Wilson has described the process of decline in central cities as one heightened by an increasing degree of social isolation.
As the black middle and working classes left, they took with them the stability that "reinforced and perpetuated mainstream patterns of norms and behavior.
"The social transformation of the inner city has resulted in a disproportionate concentration of the most disadvantaged segments of the urban black population, creating a social milieu significantly different from the environment that existed in these communities decades ago."
The most obvious recent manifestations of this milieu have been gangs and crack cocaine.
The original William Grose residence, on what is now 24th Avenue, still stands and is still a house. It might, under other circumstances, have become an historic monument. It became, instead, a crack house.
Arthur and the Rev. M. L. Whitman, who lived next door, bought the Grose house, not knowing its historical significance, just to take it away from the drug dealers.
If you think of it, as Arthur Whitman does, in military terms, the destruction of East Madison was not a great pitched battle. It was a siege, a long, slow strangling.
When the financial lifeline of the community was cut, it was only a matter of time until it collapsed.
A CITY ON THE HILL
There is a shining city on the hill. You can see it from here.
The next ridge over from East Madison is a residential neighborhood called Washington Park. It's the neighborhood the Pitter family was chased out of in the '20s.
Washington Park was built at about the same time as East Madison. The lots were about the same size and the houses were a little bigger.
Much of the neighborhood faced west, so it didn't have the views of the Cascades that East Madison had, but views weren't as important in turn-of-the-century Seattle as they are now.
The neighborhood prospered.
In a perverse way, people who would say that the biggest difference between East Madison and Washington Park was the skin color of the people who lived there are right. The defining difference between the two neighborhoods was that Big Bill Grose had settled in one rather than the other.
As time wore on, the two neighborhoods, which are less than a half-mile apart, grew more and more distinct. Washington Park got better and better. The houses got bigger and bigger. In East Madison, they got smaller and smaller.
Even the trees in Washington Park are taller.
The biggest disputes in that neighborhood have been over things like what the assessment for putting utility wires underground ought to be, or who should pay to have the alley paved, or should the city allow a cable-television antenna to be mounted to a utility pole.
The neighborhood has prospered as higher and higher premiums have been placed on in-city neighborhoods. There are, after all, only so many of them.
In East Madison, lots have been subdivided to make room for more, smaller buildings. In Washington Park, lots have been joined. Old houses have been torn down. New, bigger ones have gone up.
The county assessor has set the value of one house in the neighborhood at more than a million dollars. A couple of years ago, you could have purchased all of East Madison for a million dollars.
But things are changing there now, also. Against almost all expectations, and almost without notice, things are getting better.
Valeena Banks, the Whitmans' daughter, lives in suburban Spanaway. For years, she feared for her parents' physical well-being. She tried to persuade them to move. They wouldn't do it. They stayed, and stayed with a purpose.
"These neighborhoods, we have to work like a battlefield strategy, piece by piece, until we conquer the whole area," Arthur Whitman says.
As property values have risen throughout the city, even neighborhoods like East Madison have become to some degree desirable. Land values have quadrupled in a decade. The banks have noticed. Spurred by protest but, more to the point, by profit, they have begun to lend in the area again. The underlying value of the land makes loans almost risk-free.
Money and mood ride in tandem. The increases in value have made it possible to rebuild. More improvements - remodels, new siding, new roofs, new rooms - have been made to houses in the neighborhood in the past decade than were made in the previous five, according to property records.
There are new people, too.
Carolyn Walden was sitting at her kitchen table one night two years ago, not long after she had taken the big gamble and bought the house on 24th Avenue. At the time, Seattle police regarded the neighborhood as one of the toughest.
Walden knew the area's reputation and didn't doubt it. But she had been living in Kent for several years and working in Seattle, and the commute was eating her time and her nerves in big bites.
She was determined she'd move into the city, where she could be closer to work, to the art museum, where she was a volunteer, and to the other things she liked.
This was the only area she could afford, she says now. The area frightened her. She was white and it was heavily black.
But she was determined - or perhaps desperate; several new homeowners in the neighborhood say they bought out of fear they would be left out of the great house-buying boom of the late '80s. As Walden searched for houses, she talked to everyone she ran into and eventually most of her fear dissipated. They were just people who wanted the same things she wanted, people who cared for both their homes and their families.
They hated what went on in their neighborhood just as she did.
A late-model sedan had pulled up behind the station wagon parked across the street, in front of the old Pitter house. The load of people in the car, Walden thought, were "pretty rough looking." They were strangers to the neighborhood.
The renters who lived in one of the apartments the old house had been chopped into came out. They talked for quite a while with the folks in the car and pretty soon what looked like money was changing hands.
My God, Walden thought, I'm witnessing a drug deal. Across the street from my new house. What have I done moving here?, she thought.
Eventually, a man climbed out of the sedan and got into the station wagon. He started it up, waved and drove off.
Walden had watched not a drug drop, but a used-car sale.
"I was afraid to move here, but I talked to everyone (around here) and eventually I lost my fear," she said. "I have had no problem at all. I had more problems in Kent. Here they live in the front yards. In Kent, they sat in the back yards and you never saw them."
Problems, of course, seldom disappear. They move. In this case, increased police attention has helped chase them. The new boundary for real problem neighborhoods has moved south of Union in one direction, west of 23rd Avenue in the other.
The Larsen family recently moved from 21st to 23rd.
"It's a war zone over there," Chris Larsen said.
The old East Madison district is gentrifying. In some blocks now, the percentage of owner-occupied housing is reaching levels unmatched since before the Depression. Black and white middle-class families are moving in, but mostly the latter. The white population has doubled in the past decade. Property values have quadrupled. Some longtime residents say these two facts are not unrelated.
There are complaints about taxes going up with land values. Some residents are resentful. Some are happy. Others are leaving.
The only constant is change.
THE DREAM DWINDLES
Society and the market are spontaneous order - results of human action, but not of human design," wrote Friedrich Hayek, a theorist whose work provided the philosophic underpinnings of the conservative revival in the 1980s.
There is more than a seed of Darwinian thought within Hayek and those who followed him. In American political life of the past 15 years, it often translated into a sort of fatalism, a giant shrug of government shoulders.
How do neighborhoods go bad? Well, the economic geography of a city just sort of happens, doesn't it, the result of happy, or unhappy, nearly organic accidents. Places are what they are: sums of circumstances that somehow bloom, or wither, in the dirt they are planted in.
The history of Madison Street mocks such notions of social organization.
The neighborhoods are so distinct, the reasons behind the patterns they form are so evident and stark, they seem to have been the result of some harsh plan.
How we lie upon the land, and how we came to do so, might be partly accidental, but it is at least as much the result of willful action.
The near-destruction of the East Madison neighborhood did not just happen. It was caused. And it was caused mainly by the fact that the people who lived there had black skin. Because their skin was black, they could not get money. Because they could not get money, their neighborhood fell apart.
East Madison began as a suburb. It prospered. Walls went up around it. It declined. It nearly died when its most prosperous residents fled to newer suburbs. Now a new generation of suburbanites is coming back, renewing it, reviving it.
What is most important about this cycle of change is not the change itself, but the fact that the people of East Madison, the people who stayed, have never had it within their control to affect the change.
The best any of them can say is that they've ridden it out. A good bit of their lives has been taken from them in the process. Some parts can never be restored.
Even when they didn't lose, they won by retreating, by expecting and getting less.
Mary Lou Nurse, for instance, lost her ability to sleep on the sleeping porch. Arthur Whitman lost the ability to know his neighbors. Connie Thomas lost 11 years. Some families lost entire generations to the streets. The Ebenezer A.M.E. Zion Church, which has been on 23rd Avenue since 1930, has no members - none - between the ages of 16 and 35. "We've lost all them in between," said the Rev. L.J. Thompson.
People lost the ability to walk to the store without fear. Eventually, they lost the ability to walk to the store, period. They lost the stores.
Their world got smaller. Their lives shrank.
One day this summer, Marjorie King was showing off her newly remodeled kitchen. She was particularly proud of one cabinet that had a rollout shelf.
"The piece de resistance," she called it.
I didn't think much of it at the time, but another day, seeing her in her basement accounting office, hooked to the air tubes she needs to breathe these days, stacks of paper growing all about her, some of them rising almost from floor to ceiling, towering above her desk, diminishing her, I saw she was shrinking relative to the stacks of papers around her, relative to the time she has left and relative to the life she might have led. I felt an overbearing sadness for her and her cabinet.
I used to think you could escape history. If you ran fast enough, worked hard enough, flew high enough, I thought you could _ like a rocket _ tear loose of gravity and fly free to wherever you wanted to go.
That is the American Dream, isn't it?
Reality is something less. We are not beyond our history. We live with it. Some of us swim in it. Some of us sink.
You find yourself tied to circumstances; your skin, for example. The dream dwindles.
"My life," Connie Thomas said on another day, "isn't what I thought it would be.
"I'm not living the way I intended to live.
"I didn't do well."
I didn't know what to say.
Seattle founded; Chinese Exclusion Act; Seattle Fire; Madison Street Cable Car line built; Great Northern Railroad reaches Seattle; regular steamship runs to Asia begin; Gold discovered in Alaska; half the houses in East Madison built before 1910; city passes Public Accommodations Act.
Twenty-seven percent of African Americans in Seattle own homes; East Madison streets paved; Bogue Plan for parks and public places defeated; WWI; General Strike; Centralia Massacre; First East Madison YMCA built.
Restrictive covenants originated, forbidding home sales to "undesirables"; Horace Cayton Jr., first African American appointed deputy sheriff; Black Tuesday stock-market crash signals beginning of Great Depression.
At beginning of the decade, 39 percent of blacks in Seattle own their own homes; at the end, only 30 percent; at mid-decade, Boeing has 839 employees; trans-Pacific shipping curtailed by Japanese.
East Madison 35 percent black; Evergreen Point Floating Bridge completed; World War II; Boeing reaches 78,400 employees; The Rev. Benjamin Davis, an African American, narrowly loses City Council campaign; "voluntary agreements" replace now-outlawed covenants.
Seattle's black population has grown 313 percent in 10 years; East Madison is 66 percent black; Charles Stokes elected first black state legislator; Brown vs. Board of Education; Seattle population peaks at about 560,000.
East Madison 82 percent black; Civil Rights Act; Seattle Open Housing ordinance defeated, approved five years later;
Boeing employment hits 104,000; dry cleaners at 34th and Union blown up; East Madison Safeway bombed; Sam Smith is first African American on City Council.
East Madison 93 percent black; city rents average $94; Boeing bust - employment drops to 40,000; Grose house sells for $16,950; busing for racial balance begins in Seattle schools.
East Madison 92 percent black; Central District for the first time is not home to a majority of black Seattleites; Two East Madison houses sell for more than $100,000; Norm Rice elected mayor.
East Madison 77 percent black; Asian Americans outnumber African Americans in Seattle for the first time since World War II.