How Knute Berger Regained his Neighborhood Pride

This third-generation Seattleite admits to a little ZIP code chagrin
Knute Berger  |   March 2014   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
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Madison Park’s resort roots include a bathing beach and ferry dock, shown here in 1939

When I tell people I live in Madison Park, I frequently have the urge to qualify it by saying something like, “I’m doing my best to bring down the demographics.”

There’s no doubt about it, I live in a part of town that is white, rich and a shade more conservative than Seattle political norms.

This is a neighborhood where George W. Bush bumper stickers remain undefaced and Broadmoor, its gated residential community, is the only precinct in the city that went for Mitt Romney.

There are lots of empty nesters here—dual-income couples and the well-to-do retired who fill lakefront condominiums. Think: Jaguars and walkers. According to the real estate columnist for Madison Park Times, at the end of 2013 the median price of a home listed for sale in the Madison Park market was $2.45 million.

Life on the ground is a bit more complex. There are actually market-rate apartments, and a (diminishing) number of the old bungalows that once defined parts of this former working-class community. Neighboring Madison Valley, built on old wetlands, represents the northern reach of the Central District. The Madison Park business district, once a resort community and ferry stop, still sees itself as a village. There’s Bert’s grocery, Madison Park Hardware, old pubs, even a family-owned ice cream shop. It’s walkable; there are high-rises and direct bus service going downtown. It has the urban amenities planners say they want everywhere.

Living here is not the first time I’ve felt touched by neighborhood shame. When I lived in Kirkland, I often felt compelled to describe my neighborhood as an affordable Ravenna. Seattleites with an anti-Eastside prejudice tend to suspend judgment a bit about Kirkland, as if it is a wayward Seattle neighborhood that accidentally floated to the wrong side of the lake, but I often got a dose of Seattle snobbery when I admitted to being an Eastsider.

My first experience with feeling the need to explain where I lived was in high school. I was a third-generation Mount Baker resident, and we lived just a few blocks off Rainier Avenue. I assumed all neighborhoods were like mine. The schools were integrated, at least by Seattle standards. Rich, poor and those in between all lived together; so too whites, blacks, Asians and Native Americans.

In high school, I was sent north of the Ship Canal, and for the first time I began to feel embarrassed about where I came from. I had an “ethnic” name, Knute—who can pronounce that? I was at Lakeside, a school literally on the northern border of the city where guys had names like Worthington and Corbett. For junior high, I had attended Asa Mercer on Beacon Hill, which was a chaotic, violent mess on a remote rump of town. I went to Lakeside in 1968 as part of the Lakeside Educational Enrichment Program to help inner-city students. (LEEP celebrates its 50th year this May.) I thought that Lakesiders saw themselves as missionaries and that I was among those who needed to be saved by virtue of my home address.

It took time for me to regain neighborhood pride. I found that some kids from Laurelhurst and Bellevue envied what I had. Mount Baker had genuine Olmsted boulevard parks. We had that aged ballpark wonder, Sicks’ Stadium, which experienced in its twilight years some coolness as a rock concert venue for the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. (It’s now a Lowe’s.) I was astonished to meet kids from the North End who had never even been in a classroom with an African-American. I took pride in our diversity.

As for Madison Park, the village life here suits me. We rent an older apartment that keeps us close to the lake. My embrace of diversity now includes people who are wealthier than I will ever be. That’s part of the legacy of a Lakeside education, and a useful skill to have in contemporary Seattle.

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