by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
The development maps displayed on the big, red wall around the Capitol Hill Station site never fail to stop me on a walk. They put things in perspective no matter how one feels about the construction and business boom of our neighborhood. One thing is for certain: there used to be very little up here and now it’s the densest district in the city. What’s more, it’s a neighborhood of tensions. There’s a tension between its working-class, industrial history and its modern trendiness. There’s a tension between its low-rise status quo and high-rise ambitions. There are too many people from too many backgrounds to say that Capitol Hill “wants” anything, but it’s certainly leaning more in one direction today. We have our specialized, locally owned businesses fueled by a curious mix of public enthusiasm and a median income that outstrips the national average by approximately $20,000.
That major income gap has been instrumental in shaping the Hill over the past decade. According to figures presented by the National Retail Federation, restaurants and bars account for the largest portion of all retail business in Washington. As a subsector of retail, food and beverage service provides more jobs than any other subsector by an order of magnitude. Restaurant- and bar-rich Capitol Hill opens and closes establishments by nearly three-figure numbers each year now, but the people who work at these places don’t have nearly enough income to support the boom. Industries such as information, real estate, and finance have far fewer workers making a lot more money than the average retail employee. It’s these people who have pushed the median income past $60,000 and who fuel the boutique business tidal wave.
Of course, Capitol Hill and its surrounding communities have a long and storied history as destinations for edibles and entertainment. When Henry Yesler, a man who used federal funds and newfangled steam technology to become our city’s first millionaire, made his famous mill, he built a lodge that served food to the workers who worked up on the hill. Back then, the place that would become Capitol Hill was by the timberline and Yesler Way, now on the path to mixed-use buildings and high-rise apartments, was our Skid Road.
In the early part of the 20th Century, lumberjacks turned to auto industry workers on Capitol Hill and speakeasies opened so they could drink some of bootlegger Roy Olmstead’s Canadian liquor. The stretches of Pike and Broadway once known as intersecting Auto Rows had dealerships, parts stores, mechanics, and warehouses for the cars that temporarily killed rail in Seattle. Today, there are tiny bars modeled after the speakeasies of old on those same streets, and two kinds of mass transit rail are in the offing. Old Auto Row buildings are now home to the Elysian Brewery, the Northwest Film Forum, and the Comet Tavern, just to name a few.
But how did those Auto Rows turn into trendy hotspots? Basically, old business trends and a period of decline. Success brought development to Capitol Hill and in the post-war 1940s, King County’s auto industry moved to cheaper, farther-flung land. The Hill’s value depressed, making it possible for mom-and-pop shops and arts venues to move in. So came three small theatre stages, intentionally ratty concert spaces, independent cinemas, and a society for the preservation of literature that leased a red-lined mansion to become the Richard Hugo House. Where there is entertainment, there will soon be retail to benefit from the foot traffic.
Capitol Hill wasn’t developed when the Great Seattle Fire ate the waterfront, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t still built on top of yesterday. Our neighborhood has the love of little, personal places inherent to the Prohibition era and the Hill’s working-class roots; now they’re just specialty cupcake boutiques and bars with one-word names. The rent’s going up, the buildings are getting taller, and the city is trying to find a way to funnel well paid patrons into the district that can’t park all their cars.
If nothing else, Capitol Hill is on an upswing, the third of three so far. First lumber money mansions, then auto industry showrooms, now retail designed for the median income professional. Tomorrow, after all the cute shops pick up and move to Ballard, maybe nanobots and jet packs.