Sunday, October 3, 2010

Georgetown drive-by

Most visitors to Seattle never hear about Georgetown. The neighborhood lies in the industrial area south of downtown. If you're visiting, like we were, and you leave your hotel for a quick taxi, limo or rental car ride on I-5 south to Sea-Tac Airport, it's that grimy, unattractive jumble of truck depots and factories on your right beneath the freeway.

Many people who live in Seattle don't know much about Georgetown either. In 18 years living there, I barely set foot in that part of town. I didn't know anyone who lived there. The lifestyle magazines don't mention it and the newspaper real estate section doesn't feature it. Only recently, with a small but dynamic community of residents, artists, and businesses, is it beginning to appear on Seattle's radar screen.

Before we left Seattle for L.A., we decided to take surface streets to Sea-Tac, for a close-hand drive-by.

The facade of the old Brewery

In many ways, Georgetown can be considered the birthplace of King County. The swampy and fertile bottomlands of the Duwamish River, it was settled in 1851 by Luther Collins. It was a fine place to farm, and one of the crops that did well here was hops. In 1883, a brewery was built that eventually was named the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company, and by 1904 it was the largest brewery west of the Rockies.

A Burlington Northern switch locomotive on a spur track at Lucille Street and Airport Way.

Seattle's railroads began in Georgetown, too. The Northern Pacific terminated at Tacoma, so a line had to be built to connect to Seattle.

In 1890, the community was named Georgetown after the son of real estate developer Julius Horton, who platted the town and sold lots. It was also a wild place - there was a horse race track, brothels and more saloons than there were churches.

In 1903, as the city of Seattle expanded and its boundaries grew closer, it threatened the brewing industry, because state law decreed alcohol could not be made in unincorporated areas within one mile of any city.

Georgetown City Hall, built in 1909 just before the city was annexed by Seattle. Timing.

So Georgetown became its own city, incorporating in 1904. The owner of the brewery was elected mayor. It was a true "company town," run to benefit the prime industry. Saloons stayed open 24 hours a day. It got so bad that residents voted in 1910 to become annexed by the city of Seattle, which had started to implement sensible regulations for its own alcohol and prostitution problems.

By the time Washington State went "dry" in 1919, other industrial development had transformed the area. The swampy Duwamish was straightened out and channeled to accommodate shipping. This also provided new drained flatlands that could be used for growing produce or for building factories - or runways for a new airplane factory.

Residents of Georgetown were local brewery and railroad workers, and Japanese and Italian immigrants who grew produce for market. But by the end of World War II, industrial development had made it not such a nice place to have a home. The library, the movie theatre, and even the public school closed down for lack of demand.

By the 1980s, when I was looking for a house to buy in Seattle, Georgetown was boarded up, dangerous, and dead.

Enough history. What's happening in 2010?

Well, in 2000 or so artists and musicians started moving in, looking for cheap studios and places to live. Old factories became alternate music venues. Workingmens' dives became hip bars. The tattoo parlors began to look more upscale, the coffee shops more organic, and the factories became workshops for artisans.

Let's take a tour.

The old brewery, which is really the heart of the neighborhood, is now being developed by a real estate firm as a mixed use development. Artists workspaces, offices, retail and event spaces are planned in the large brick complex that dominates this stretch of Airport Way. One of the tenants is a working brewery, the Georgetown Brewing Company. The Farmers' Market sets up on the site on Saturdays in the summer.

Go to the link for more photos - and don't miss the historical photos.

Near the old city hall are some retail blocks that include an antique store, a musical instrument store, and a bakery. There are several restaurants, including a Sushi restaurant, a pizza place and a fine dining establishment.

Many of the buildings date from Georgetown's early days. Red brick buildings with massive stone arches reflect the popular Richardsonian Romanesque style of the era.

Most of the homes here are clustered in a few quiet blocks. The houses are modest, many dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.

There were once many fine homes here, but over decades of neglect and industrialization many were lost.

Thankfully, this home has been preserved. Just across the street from Oxbow Park, it's known locally as "The Georgetown Castle." Records at the City's Department of Neighborhoods claim it was built in 1902, but the listing hints that it may have predated its first records. Its first owner of record, Peter Gessner, owned the Central Tavern in Pioneer Square, and committed suicide a year after moving into the house. There are stories the house was once a brothel, and that it's haunted. If you want to read about its history, here's a link.

For a peek inside, visit this blogger who toured the house and relates some of the ghost stories.

Now that the area is being gentrified, new modern houses sit beside old preserved homes. There is an annual art and garden tour. The old City Light electric steam plant has been turned into a museum.

If you take Lucille Street to 4th Avenue South, you'll encounter this vacuum shop, where the proprietor has created some memorable art using appliance parts. Click to "embiggen" and see it up close.

Marco Polo Saloon is a neighborhood dive known for its great fried chicken

It's only fitting with its heritage that Georgetown is known for its bars. Names like Calamity Janes, Smarty Pants, and 9lb Hammer hint whether the vibe is punk, biker, desperado, historic or eclectic. Many bars have live music and most offer food.

Slim's Last Chance Chili Shack and Watering Hole has a great neon sign. It's right next door to Pig Iron Barbecue.

We had time for a quick lunch before heading to the airport.

Back to Airport Way and the on-ramp for I-5, we found The Georgetown Liquor Company, in another historic building, right by the railroad tracks.

A dark, divey bar with wooden booths, it features banks of old computers running vintage games like Atari, Pac-Man on arcade machines, and a pinball machine with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The menu here is surprising - it's all vegetarian. I had a cup of split pea soup seasoned with "vegan ham" and a sandwich with Field Roast meat-substitute, brie, apricot chutney, tomatoes and arugula. [The Man I Love] had a vegan burger. Both were delicious. He enjoyed a local beer on tap, while I had cider. Then it was off to the airport.

And there it is - my quick tour of Georgetown, many years postponed. I hope to come back and explore it again.


The Man Who Loves You said...

Pitch perfect, cookie.

Sue said...

It must have been fun to see the changes that had happened. I would bet this will be entirely different in a few more years. I'm glad you had a great trip!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

It's always the (struggling) artists who move in first (because they don't have hardly any money).

I saw this happen in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a few decades (give or take) ago.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Amazing. I had no idea Georgetown even existed!

Unknown said...

That is a really nice essay about historic Georgetown, but did you know that it is haunted as well?
On Oct 16, 2010 starting at 8:00 PM a paranormal group PIHA will be broadcasting their paranormal investigation live on the Internet. You can view the actual investigation and watch the Infrared cameras by going to There will also be a live video/text chat room open for anyone who wants to talk to the PIHA Grey Team.
Then, the following weekend, there will be the annual Georgetown Ghost Walk starting at 6:30 pm. Lots of fun, ghost and activities for Halloween this year in the haunted, historical district of Georgetown, WA.