Thursday, November 5, 2009

Defining Madison Park: an essay (part one)

You might think it would be a pretty easy thing to describe the community in which you live, defining, for those not in the know, its characteristics and its boundaries. A simple neighborhood definition might be possible for a lot of places in this town; but, as I’ve discovered, it’s not a simple thing to accomplish when it comes to Madison Park. For it’s a fact that there is no consensus on what it means to live in Madison Park. The City has an opinion, the local realtors have one, the area’s community councils each have one—and their views are certainly not identical. And then there are the people who actually do (or, in the opinion of others, do not) live in the Park.

Where, exactly, does Madison Park begin, and where does it end?

Let’s start with a premise, perhaps the only one, on which all of us can agree: living in Madison Park does not mean sleeping, homeless, within in the confines of the actual City park known by the same name. Yes, the community does get its geographic identify from the City park, but the two things are not synonymous. Once we agree on that fact, however, we are probably done with consensus. From this point forward the story gets complicated and the disagreements sometimes become acute.

I first became aware of the problem of defining Madison Park well before I moved here. Although a native Seattleite, I had lived my entire life ‘north of the canal’ and was simply unfamiliar with the details of neighborhood geography ‘south of the cut.’ I made the mistake of introducing a friend to someone by saying that “she lives in Madison Park like you do!” I was immediately corrected by my friend, who told me she didn’t live in Madison Park! Really? This was a surprise to me, since I’d visited her at her house. “You’re just confused,” she told me, “I actually live in Washington Park.” “What’s the distinction?” I asked. “Washington Park is south of Madison, Madison Park is north,” she told me. This, it turns out, is the mutually exclusive proposition endorsed by a few: Washington Park is not a part of Madison Park. This was news to me then—and it still is.

I suspect it’s also news to a lot of other people who live in Washington Park, as some people think I do. Other people, by the way, don’t think I do. For not only is there a dispute over whether Washington Park is part of Madison Park, there’s also a dispute over where Washington Park itself begins and ends. Do I really live in Washington Park? And even if I do, is Washington Park also home to my neighbors on the next block? Well there’s a dispute about that as well, since the City thinks that many of us down here actually live in a neighborhood called Harrison Denny-Blaine, which isn’t Washington Park at all. In the City’s opinion, not only is The Seattle Tennis Club not in Washington Park, it isn’t even in Madison Park! Confused? I told you this was complicated.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

In the beginning there was the park, Madison Park, the land for which was set aside by landowner Judge John McGilvra in 1880. Madison Street had already been named (but not by McGilvra, as is sometimes claimed), and the park at the end of the street logically became Madison Park (the picture above shows the Park in 1900). McGilvra, who owned the surrounding land, developed some of it into cottages, and the growing community along the Lake soon became known as the Madison Park neighborhood. To this point, the story is pretty straightforward.

By early 1900’s the City had already set aside (but had yet to substantially develop) the 260-acre Washington Park, which would later, beginning in the 1930’s, be developed into the Washington Park Arboretum under an agreement between the City and the University of Washington. (The picture above shows Lake Washington Boulevard snaking through the Park in 1913). During the 1920’s, meanwhile, a 216-acre “country club within the city” had been built in Madison Park. Opening in 1927, Broadmoor provided Seattle’s wealthy with a gated community on a golf course, all located within shouting distance of downtown. This is Broadmoor, circa 1930:
Thus, by the late 1930’s the three major components of Madison Park were well established, with Washington Park at one “end” of E. Madison Street, Madison Park at the other, and Broadmoor sitting secluded and serene in the middle. The neighborhood of big houses and mansions built in the area south of Broadmoor (and therefore south of E. Madison Street) become known, apparently early in the 1900’s, as the Washington Park neighborhood. The designation may have been prompted by a desire to distinguish the area from the grittier and more working class housing of Madison Park to the east. Washington Park certainly had a greater cachet than the rest of Madison Park, although after Broadmoor opened, Washington Park was no longer the most exclusive enclave within Madison Park.

Unlike Washington Park, there’s no problem defining the boundaries of Broadmoor: the community is pretty well walled in. The only question that concerns us here, therefore, is whether Broadmoor is part of Madison Park or is not part. I haven’t taken a poll on the subject, but I suspect there may be a few people living there who feel they are not residents of Madison Park. But that’s certainly not the official view. Broadmoor, I am told, has historically been represented on the Madison Park Community Council (MPCC), and to quote current Broadmoor Homeowners Association president Erin McCormick, “I consider our neighborhood part of Madison Park. In fact when I am asked where I live, I say ‘Madison Park area’ because that is well known to people not from the area, and it is a destination point.” Most Seattleites who are in the know, I imagine, would agree that Broadmoor is in Madison Park, just as they think of Blue Ridge as an exclusive section of Ballard. Google, for what it’s worth, actually places Broadmoor at the very center of Madison Park:
While there may be a few exclusivists out there who hold themselves aloof from Madison Park, the record seems pretty clear that both Broadmoor and Washington Park have historically been considered parts of Madison Park and are so viewed by most residents. The interconnection of Broadmoor and Washington Park with the rest of Madison Park is further reinforced by the fact that the Madison Park business district serves as the focal point for most residents of the area. Bert’s, Bing’s, Madison Park Hardware, and Pharmaca are among the many places along the strip where people from each of the neighborhoods intermix on a daily basis. And of course the city park and its beach provide another common point of reference for what is really one big Madison Park community.

Once we accept the idea that we’re all in the Park together, you might think it would be a relatively simple matter to define our boundaries. After all, the Park is surrounded on two sides by water and Lake Washington Boulevard is generally accepted as the demarcation line to the west. But it’s a fact that to both the south and the west there are multiple disputes over large chunks of Madison Park’s territory.

Before we get into all that, let’s start with this blog’s working definition of the community: “Madison Park is bounded by Lake Washington Boulevard E. on the west and south (to the intersection with 39th Avenue E.) and by Lake Washington and Union Bay to the east and north respectively.” Here’s what that looks like on the map:

This definition of Madison Park is consistent with Wikipedia’s definition (I should know, since I wrote it). It has a couple of advantages: 1) it is fairly easy to explain, since Lake Washington Boulevard extends almost to the water at Lake Washington, allowing that street to define both the western and southern boundaries of the Park and 2) it is almost exactly the same definition as used by the U.S. census for King County Tract 63 (shown at right).
For some reason, the Census Bureau doesn’t extend the tract all the way south to the intersection of 39th Avenue E. and Lake Washington Boulevard. Instead, it extends only to 36th Avenue E. and then meanders up Hillside, over to McGilvra and down 39th for awhile, finally reaching the Lake at “E. Mercer Street” (which appears not to be a real street at that point). The difference between Census Tract 63 and our definition of Madison Park, however, is fairly insignificant—amounting, by my count, to 60 or 70 high-end houses.

The City of Seattle, meanwhile, has a very different take on Madison Park’s southern border, eliminating almost all of Washington Park from Madison Park. Here’s what the City’s neighborhood map looks like:

As you can see, a majority of the territory south of E. Madison Street is missing, including all the blocks south of E. Prospect Street and most of the blocks south of E. Lee Street. In fact, the southern border of Madison Park, as defined on the City’s map, is what some people think is the real border between Washington Park and Madison Park. In other words, everything south of E. Madison Street doesn’t necessarily constitute Washington Park, just certain blocks. And these are the very blocks that appear not to be a part of Madison Park in the City’s opinion. In fact the City seems to think that Washington Park is part of some other neighborhood, namely something called Harrison Denny-Blaine.

Now if you have never heard of Harrison Denny-Blaine, you are not alone. Denny-Blaine is certainly a recognized neighborhood, but Harrison Denny-Blaine? If you Google it you find that every reference to HDB ties back to the City’s use of the term on its neighborhood maps. Real estate websites such as Zillow, Redfin and Trulia follow the City’s convention and use the HDB designation, as does Google (although Google places the neighborhood south of Washington Park rather than including Washington Park in HDB).

Why the City appears to believe there’s a Harrison Denny-Blaine neighborhood and why Washington Park is included in it are among the issues we will explore in Part Two of this story, to be posted next week. We’ll also explain why the Madison Park houses located closest to Washington Park Arboretum are designated as “Madison Park” by realtors while some houses that are closest to Madison Park itself (the actual city park, that is) are designated as “Washington Park.”
Confused? Stay tuned.
[Historic photos courtesty of the Seattle Municipal Archives.]


  1. This is the best analysis of the Madison Park area I've read. I'm actually excited for part two. Well done.

    I've always laughed at the "Harrison" designation, as it turns up in plenty of official literature, but no locals use it or even recognize it. I've understood the desire for a distinct neighborhood mapping separating Denny-Blaine, Washington Park, and Madison Park. However, the city's map doesn't correctly map any of the three.

    It's similar in Green Lake/Wallingford (Green Lake being the most-abused neighborhood name in Seattle real estate listings). The city extends Wallingford all the way North to 60th St in some areas, while the residents would all agree they're in Green Lake.

  2. Now only if people would smile or return a greeting of hello from time to time. It always astounds me when I am out running that people in Washington Park seem a little startled to not only see someone young in their neighborhood but also friendly. Maybe they can tell I live in Madison Valley? Keep up the good work on your blog - I love reading about all the little factoids and history you dig up about this great area of the city.

  3. judylutzen@gmail.comNovember 7, 2009 at 7:27 PM

    As a newcomer to Madison Park (lease is signed, but move-in hasn't happened yet,) I found this description very helpful. Initially, I fell in love with the Madison Park area with just a drive-through. I then did a follow-up walk through the neighborhood, and knew I was hooked. A bit confusing during the property-for-rent search, because many listings clearly not anywhere near Madison Park still claimed that heading. Now I know which are the real Madison Park places, and which are wannabees. It all seems a bit silly though. From my perspective, if you live an easy walk from the Madison Park shops and restaurants, you can say you live in Madison Park. But I guess that all depends on your level of fitness. My husband and I (the soon-to-be-move-ins) have a daughter living on
    (?in?) Capitol Hill. She claims our new address is walkable for her, however no amount of fitness training would make that distance walkable for us! Anyway, geography--beautiful lake, well-maintained homes, playgrounds for kids (in our case, grandkids) to play--is just part of the attraction. I like that anyone I observed anywhere in the area, met my smile with a return smile--sometimes even a friendly word or two. We have a retirement home in a Florida golf community for the same reason, even though I'm the only one retired. This is a work transfer for my husband. I love meeting new people, and cherish the precious friendships that sometimes develop. I'm hoping Madison Park has a walking group, a book club, some potential golf partners, maybe a few other women who like to meet for mah jongg, cards or whatever. Maybe there are volunteer opportunities within the community. I'll keep checking this great blog. We're not even there yet, and already it feels like home.


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