Feature: Urban Pioneer

The city

Category: seattlepi.com teaser headlines


Annie Strain is hard to miss as she strides through a wintry Pioneer Square day in a puffy chartreuse coat, a vivid spray of freckles across her fair skin. With an infectious laugh she delights in pointing out her favorite places to eat—the city’s best falafel restaurant is in the neighborhood, she asserts—and the rock shop she routinely has to drag her 10-year-old son out of. All around her surges the usual neighborhood crowd: hip professionals texting on BlackBerrys, tourists peering into shop windows, panhandlers wheedling change.

It’s probably safe to say Strain is Pioneer Square’s only soccer mom. The historic, largely retail- and nightlife-oriented neighborhood tends to attract empty-nesters and single professionals to the market-rate condos and rental properties that do exist. Gritty, sometimes infuriating, wholly alive, the area is sorely in need of some serious love from city officials and developers, along the lines of what South Lake Union has experienced in recent years. Nevertheless, it’s where Strain and her husband are raising two sons, ages 2 and 10, and a daughter, 12. Although she says they are among the few families with children in the neighborhood, there’s no place in the city they’d rather be.

The announcement last fall by the venerated Elliott Bay Book Company that it was moving to the Pike-Pine Corridor on Capitol Hill brought all of Pioneer Square’s social and economic troubles to the fore, with plenty of hand-wringing over the neighborhood’s viability, especially as other vacant storefronts crop up with disconcerting frequency, including Trattoria Mitchelli, which closed in January after 33 years in business.

These feelings of fear and loathing aren’t exactly new, and they didn’t deter the Strains from moving to Pioneer Square several years ago. It was difficult to find a condominium big enough for a growing family, so they ultimately bought a converted two-unit space in a building on First Avenue near Yesler Way, creating an airy, Art Moderne space accessorized with sleek furnishings, three guinea pigs and art posters from the former Soviet Union.

A city housing inventory in 2008 put the number of homeowner units in Pioneer Square at 244, versus 771 government-funded units for low-income residents and 268 market-rate rentals. Strain doesn’t mind that she’s virtually one of a kind. “It’s a great neighborhood,” she says, a touch of her native Texas twang still evident.

She says it has everything her family needs, including easy access to all the culture and fun Seattle offers, from professional sports to the symphony to the Seattle Art Museum. They buy groceries at Uwajimaya in the International District. Galleries abound, there are independent restaurants nearby, and some of the city’s best downtown dining spots are within walking distance. She loves to take her 2-year-old son, Jackson—a charming blond fireball like his mom—for rides in his stroller down to the waterfront and downtown to shopping, with stops to run around Occidental Square Park.
Pioneer Square is where her husband, Jeff Strain, runs the Undead Labs video-gaming company, a type of business that’s becoming increasingly common in an area whose edgy urban feel and historic buildings appeal to high-tech firms.

“Pioneer Square is not for the faint of heart,” says Jeff, who based his company there after the family moved in. “It is a different vibe….I need to be attractive to very creative people. It’s such a departure here from a Bellevue office park.”

Annie Strain also does her share of “recruiting.” As founder of the new Pioneer Square Chamber of Commerce, Strain is trying to build a coalition of Pioneer Square stakeholder