Sunday, October 2, 2011

Lesser Madison Park

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.]


  1. I think removing the fence without cleaning up the shoreline is a big mistake. I would be fine with another beach, if it is feasible, but leaving a rocky shoreline is just inviting an accident.

  2. I find it totally amazing that no one has chosen to comment on Bryan’s editorial comments. “Lesser Madison Park” is a well written statement as to the status quo in Madison Park which is protected by a few for the benefit of themselves. It seem that the same people keep saying “NO” to any new ideas and that the only way things get done is by groups forming to “Just Do It”, like the Friends of Madison Park that coordinated the building of our beautiful park. Based on the Bryan’s article, it appears that some of us still miss the old park.

    We in Madison Park have chosen to be“different” from the other communities in Seattle and it worked for many years, but is this the future that the current residents of Madison Park want? It also appears the out Community Council only represents the few and in no way represents the Park, even though they think they do. When was the last time a real survey was done to see what park residents really want.

    I also appears that many would be happy to see the Broadmore gate expanded around the entire park with the gate at Lake Washington Blvd and East Madison. This is not far fetched since I’ve heard recent complaints about runners who start their races in Madison Park and remember we don’t want to have any food carts in our area.

    The current controversy over Swing Park is just one of many points of contention in the park and in particular this issue has been raised more than once over the years. I really feel that we as a community should look at “all” the outstanding issues and develop a plan for the future. This plan should include upgrades to the Business district, parking, the East Madison Street End and whether we want the entire community to be gated like Broadmore!

    Not doing anything continues “Lesser Madison Park” and do “we” really want that? Do nothing, will just continue the"Lesser Madison Park"!

  3. OK, I'm tearing up this little Lesser Madison Park card. We don't own the Park, we just live here. And I'm OK with that. Anybody else?

  4. Hmmmm....broadmoor or other Seattleites...broadmoor or other Seattleites....broadmoor or other Seattleites...broadm...oor.....zzzzzzzzzz.

  5. It's public shoreline. It should be open to the public. Case closed. If you want to keep "those people" out of your neighborhood, move to a neighborhood with a gate. As pointed out, Broadmoor is only a few blocks away.

  6. Unfortunately, it’s commentary like this that perpetuate the divide. I’ve been actively involved in the neighborhood for five years and aside from a few bad apples - I don’t see the old vs new or Tully’s vs Starbucks mentality Bryan is describing. The people who attend the community meetings, who actively participate in the business association, and are working every week with the city to improve the neighborhood couldn’t care less about age or socioeconomic class. They care about making the park the best it can be. Isn’t it time to let go of things that happened generations ago and start living in the present?

  7. The real issue is that the immediate neighbors do not want ANYONE using the park any more than it is used today. In fact, based on the number of complaints coming from my neighbors, they don't want it being used AT ALL, by anyone, ever.

    People driving Mercedes Benz's could descend on the park and the neighbors' beef would still be the same. It is not a color issue or an orientation issue. It's simply that they don't like noise, they don't like crowds and they don't like parking problems.

    Perhaps a large urban city is not the best choice for them?

  8. Can anyone confirm the rumor that a "big bucks" group is working behind the scenes with the City to build a marina at the North Madison Park site? Apparently the "bring in a beach" idea is just a smoke screen to test the waters for a major project that would coincide with the 520 re-fit so that equipment used for the bridge project could be tied in with the building of a marina. When you think about it it’s scary because the site would be ideal for Tennis Club types to moor the boats close to home without having to leave the Park. Also the Seattle Yacht Club in Montlake, has met heavy resistance in their efforts to increase their mooring inventory so the new Madison Park Marina would be a perfect alternative for locals with boats

  9. For full disclosure, I grew up in Broadmoor (gasp), attended McGilvra and still live in the neighborhood. And I am guilty of being a Tully's patron - it's easier to get a parking spot and I have always found the Starbuck's blends to be a bit bitter for my taste. I'd like to join in this very interesting discussion.
    I do have to agree that there is a bit of a divide and I'd like to share a few decades of observations. In the days of olde (queue the violins) Madison Park had a much wider socio-economic band. There were bank presidents and Boeing executives, as well lawyers, and small business owners, tradesmen, teachers and service workers. Way back when, MP was a nice neighborhood, but waterfront property on a polluted lake didn’t hold the same cache it holds today.
    One of the things that made MP successful in adhering as a community (besides Lola) was how residents dealt with that spectrum. Blatantly ostentatious overtures weren’t so much rude, but rather a cruel snub to someone that you’d see regularly. Improvement projects and expenditures were discussed and prioritized to maximize benefits assuming there were limited resources available – because it would be irresponsible to overtax those that had smaller incomes. Most community events were less sophisticated, so to be useful, neighbors needed to show up to help, rather than make a donation (though donations were always accepted). And this rubbed off on kids – all adults were respected, and if the banker’s kid tried to pull a superiority card, his/her mom (or any mom in the vicinity) would set it straight very quickly. I don’t mean to paint a demented scene of noblesse oblige, but the community thrived because neighbors had systems and conventions that accommodated a much wider spectrum. Good or bad, that was the world before grudge rock, and the dot com boom.
    Flash forward to 2010, and Seattle is has grown into a big city with new economic rules. I think it’s safe to say that the socio-economic band in MP has shrunk a little. The unwritten rules that make our neighborhood a community are changing, but since they’re unwritten, I’m not sure if everyone got the message. I adore Madison Park, and I see a community that wants to continue to thrive and make the best possible decisions, but may have to come up with new systems.
    I can see where one might divide the neighborhood between “Lesser Madison Park” and “Improvements Should Be Made”, but I would argue its old-school “Let’s Prioritize Community Resources” versus “Improvements Should Be Made”. It’s a different mindset. Reviewing the reactions to the Swingset Park demonstrates this. Some may see this as wanting the old geezers not wanting to change things; but look at it from their perspective; they are going through a cost benefit analysis. If we had unlimited resources, I’d love to make as many beautiful beachfronts on the lake as possible. Since Seattle is in a bit of budget crunch, addressing the costs and benefits of changing the park is an excellent idea. I guess my first question is whether MP or Seattle Parks is in need for more opened beachfront? My second question would be how much would this cost to re-engineer and to maintain? What are environmental impacts? Is that money best spent on this or a higher priority? If activities of current park users are interrupted, what are alternatives for them? Can we please NOT jump to the conclusion that asking good fiscal questions means that “the stuck up snobs want to keep everyone else out?
    If we could implement my perfect use of community funds, we’d put a three story underground parking lot under the main Madison Park; because we’ve been complaining about parking availability near the stores for 40 years. Now the cost benefit analysis on that…..

  10. I love the consiracy theory about installing a marina in the North Beach park area. Anything is possible in the city that brought us Sonicgate, however, the set up is not the an ideal set up for a marina. The wave action is very heavy since it is so close to the thruway under 520; and its a tight fit between the two buildings for boats coming and going. I'm sure zoning would require at least one parking spot per boat slip. The cramped quarters would make it way too small to make any financial sense.

    Besides it would make much more sense to expand the marina in Leschi, as there is almost 1/2 mile of open beach front next to it. Plus the marina infrastructe and traditional racing is already down established.

    And can we not make fun of the Tennis Club set - they are team 'Lesser Madison Park'. Besides, they are already members of the Yacht Club, and won't keep their sailboats in Madison Park because all the Yacht Club racing/events are on the north side of 520 (I haven't seen the draw bridge on 520 go up since 1990 to move float equipment down to I-90), or they have their boats at Leschi Marina, it's closer to Tuesday night sailboat racing course. If you're looking for suspects, take a look at waiting lists for these places. :-)

    An alternative theory would be to build a marina for houseboats, as new regulations may cause some barges to find new moorage. Tight quarters would be less of an issue for more stationary vessels.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.