Commentary By Bryan Tagas
Columnist, author, and Madison Park resident Knute Berger (aka Mossback) wrote a cute piece several years ago (“Coffee talk in Madison Park”) in which he declared, somewhat tongue in cheek, that people living in the neighborhood could be divided into two principal camps: those who choose to get their java at Starbucks and those who are aficionados of Tully’s.
Starbucks customers, he wrote, “seem a little more groomed, more LA, more SUV.” He described the upscale coffeehouse as bustling “like a cross between a busy ski lodge and a place where people in office-casual dress take meetings” or perhaps “run their empires from their laptops.”
The much smaller and cozier Tully’s, in contrast, he viewed as the kind of “neighborly” place where groups of old friends might meet in an atmosphere embodying “some kind of older, village version of Madison Park.” He saw the place as being “old tennis shoes” versus “tennis club.”
In summing up the dividing line within Madison Park, Berger determined that the neighborhood “still carries some shades of class difference, between the upper middle class and the rich; between old-timers and newcomers, between people who seem to prefer an older, unpretentious Seattle and a slicker, more professional one.” And in their choice of coffeehouse, Madison Parkers may be making a statement that is more than just about the quality of the coffee. “It strikes me,” Berger concluded, “that the self-sorting in Madison Park suggests there is something sociologically important going on in these places. It's where people can quietly announce their class identification and aspirations.”
While Berger’s class-based assessment of the neighborhood is not without merit, it misses (or, at best, skirts) the principal issue that really defines Madison Parkers. The chief fault line within Madison Park, in my opinion, is the one that runs between the “Lesser Madison Park” crowd and the “Improvements Should Be Made” agitators. This ongoing “status quo versus change” conflict forms the backdrop that defines most of the struggles over proposed “improvements” to the neighborhood. And while Tully’s patrons might be more likely to be found in the “keep Madison Park as it is” group, there are plenty of Starbucks-coffee drinkers who are also solidly on the front lines with the stand-paters. Simplistically, the defining issue of this Great Divide can be summed up as Madison Park for Madison Parkers! versus Madison Park for Everybody!
The view from East Lynn Street
The current brouhaha over the possible removal of the chain-link fence at ‘Swingset Park’ (aka Madison Park Beach North) provides an appropriate jumping off point for a discussion of how the fault line works. Someone (in this case someone from outside the neighborhood) proposes that an “improvement” be made to a Madison Park venue: restore waterfront access by eliminating a fence that for many decades has created a barrier between Lake Washington and the public.
Residents then react, making a couple dozen comments on the proposal on this blog or in emails. The lines are drawn: Open things up or keep things closed?
There are, admittedly, legitimate safety concerns about the fence removal. Unless the original beach is restored, the riprap will still limit access to the water and will certainly be a potential hazard for children (one that insurers might define as an “attractive nuisance”). The water is several feet below the level of the grassy surface of the park; and at the bottom of the riprap, the water is filled with jagged rocks. But safety concerns are not predominant in the thinking of certain Madison Parkers, who are more focused on the potential disruption to the neighborhood that could be caused by opening that stretch of waterfront to the public.
Though the fence, with its blackberry-bush overgrowth, is an eyesore and an imposition on an otherwise pristine landscape, some neighbors are taking a clear position: “We like it like that!” They say they are worried about the parking situation in the area if the fence comes down and people from outside the neighborhood discover another lakeside access point. And then there are those concerns about possible nighttime crime and the loss of the quite, secluded, neighborhood feel of the park. But are these legitimate issues or just manifestations of what might be termed the “Lesser Madison Park” mentality?
“Keep the bastards out!”
Curmudgeon and longtime P-I columnist Emmett Watson (now long dead), was well known in the last century for half-seriously championing the concept of a “Lesser Seattle.” Watson’s proto-movement was an anti-outsider, anti-Chamber of Commerce reaction to growth, so-called improvements, and the establishment’s civic-booster mentality. Watson, who had his own connection to Madison Park, claimed to believe that it would be best if the City didn’t try to attract any new residents (hence his creation of the official Lesser Seattle slogan, shown above).
Even through Lesser Seattle may be dead, Watson’s legacy seems to live on in Madison Park, where a preservationist and anti-outsider mentality is often coupled with a feisty leave-us-alone stance. The neighborhood’s grand dame, Lola McKee, once summed up the attitude (which she didn’t necessarily admit to subscribing to) this way: “Let me pay my taxes, then leave me alone.” In order to discourage visitors, T-shirts were once supposedly printed up with “It’s Always Raining in Madison Park” emblazoned on them. There’s an anti-City of Seattle component to all of this as well. Madison Park is one of the very few neighborhoods in Seattle that takes pride in the fact that it has never adopted a comprehensive neighborhood plan, while bureaucrats from City Hall are often viewed here with intense suspicion.
Many in Madison Park are wary of any change that would potentially draw more people to the neighborhood. At a public meeting a couple years ago one resident used the term “those people” when describing the kind of visitors to the Park who might ride the bus in, or bring their home barbeque to the beach in the back of their pickup. Sometimes on hot summer days, visitors park on the public streets in front of our houses. Perhaps this kind of behavior should not be encouraged.
This Lesser Madison Park thinking sometimes immobilizes the neighborhood’s “establishment,” such as it is. For example, the rehabilitation and improvements made two years ago to Madison Park (the City park, that is) were the result of the organizing and fundraising efforts of a group of residents, Friends of the Park, who joined together in common cause. It could have been—but was not—a project of the Madison Park Community Council. From the Lesser Madison Park perspective, the proposed improvements might have resulted in more people coming into the neighborhood, potentially creating problems of parking and crime. At least some on the Council apparently bought into that view. Let’s keep the old park the way it is!
Another example of “establishment” immobilization is the time several years ago when some residents of Madrona wanted to re-open to the public Madison Park’s E. Mercer St. waterfront road end. They proposed that the City revoke the private-use permits of the neighboring private property owners. Madison Park’s own Council, however, was reportedly the only one in the area that did not come out in favor of the plan. Effectively, the neighborhood’s representatives could not agree to the position that opening publicly owned space in Madison Park to the public was an inherently good thing.
Lesser Madison Park, it should be noted, does not equate to “make no changes to the Park.” After all, there have been many recent improvements to the neighborhood (such as the McNae Triangle Park in front of Bing’s, the BofA parking lot benches, and the “beaver lodge” road end) that are the result of people banding together to enhance the community. These projects are generally not controversial since they are unlikely on their own to attract additional visitors to the Park. They fit more into the category of improvements that residents, primarily, can enjoy. Lesser Madison Park advocates and boosters alike are able to work together on these kinds of projects without shifting the fault line.
But when it comes to bigger changes, something that would get the attention of a much wider audience, the division within Madison Park becomes much more pronounced. This controversy over a new public waterfront-access point is therefore not surprising, since we do not have consensus on what kind of a neighborhood Madison Park really is.
Inclusive or exclusive?
There are 5,000 of us living in Madison Park; and short of our doing a formal survey, there is just no way to know for sure what we think our neighborhood should stand for--if anything. Whether Madison Parkers predominantly see the various neighborhood “improvements” as an inherently good or bad thing is a mystery; and frankly, our representatives on the Community Council are simply not in a good position to know. Does Madison Park embrace “outsiders” or are we just threatened by them?
While we may really be the elitist, keep-it-all-to-ourselves kind of neighborhood that our detractors claim we are, I’d like to think we’re better than that. The choice before us, I believe, is this: Do we as a community wish we were more like our exclusive enclave, Broadmoor, with its perimeter walls and gate guards? Or are we a neighborhood that believes in sharing with other Seattleites the very amenities that help make this Village by the Lake a joy for those of us lucky enough to live here?
How we answer that question will certainly do far more to define each of us as Madison Parkers than our preference for where we purchase our morning coffee.
[Thanks to Richard Carl "Dick" Lehman for the use of his cartoon, above.]