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Story of South Lake Union

In December 2012, Amazon.com, among the fastest growing companies in the United States, as well as one of Washington State’s major employers, announced it had purchased eleven buildings in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood for over $1.1 billion. The acquisition, part of a new headquarters complex for the online retailer, served as an outsized reminder of South Lake Union’s ongoing transformation from a district characterized by light industry and working-class housing to an internationally-recognized center for technological innovation and medical research

Why had this shift occurred and how had the social, economic and material landscape of the neighborhood been affected?  Were current efforts to remake and reshape South Lake Union an anomaly or was change a consistent theme in the area’s history? What can the story of one community reveal about the broader contours of urban and regional growth in the United States?

In the winter of 2013, 60 undergraduate students at the University of Washington set out to answer these questions by researching the history of individual blocks in the South Lake Union neighborhood. The projects, completed as part of History 208, “The City,” and accessible via this website, reveal not only a complex and intriguing local history, but also a narrative rich in national themes and subjects. By studying South Lake Union, the students discovered, it is possible to learn about issues as varied as immigration, urbanization, environmentalism and urban planning.

Using a wide-ranging set of primary and secondary sources, including U.S. Geological Survey maps, historic newspapers, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, letters and records of 19th century residents, historic photographs, city directories and more, students documented and analyzed a series of tremendous changes to the neighborhood’s human and non-human ecology. A heavily forested and hilly landscape became flat and largely treeless; sawdust and other debris gradually filled in shoreline, creating new opportunities and unexpected conflicts for local residents; competing groups of city boosters promoted a canal to connect Lake Washington to Lake Union and eventually Puget Sound, a plan with profound regional, national and even international implications.

Among the primary themes explored in the student projects are work, transportation and environment. The exhibits document how varied forms of labor have shaped South Lake Union over the course of more than three centuries. Native peoples, such as the Duwamish and the Shilshoolabsh, fished, hunted and built towns and camps near the lake and other area waterways. Following contact, they continued these practices, but also began working in local industries including logging and agriculture, serving as Seattle’s most significant early labor force. In later years, South Lake Union became home to a variety of commercial endeavors, including sawmills, boat yards, boarding houses, a number of laundries and even the first Ford Motor Company plant west of the Mississippi. The area was one of Seattle’s industrial hubs, with workers and their families living in and around the varied workplaces.  As an industrial economy gave way to a postindustrial one, and as the suburbs surrounding Seattle grew, many of these employers and workers went away.  When work returned, it was in a very different form:  high-tech, biotech, and higher education facilities employing a high-skill, high-income knowledge economy workforce.

The history of transportation also emerged as a common element in student research. Located close to downtown, it is not surprising that South Lake Union quickly became a center for the movement of people and goods. In the late 19th century, a ferry carried residents to the then distant neighborhood of Fremont, while competing trolley companies sprung up as electrification took hold. The rise of automobiles as the country’s primary mode of transport, along with growing suburbanization, also shaped the neighborhood, with the construction of Interstate 5 serving as only the most visible example of the car’s impact. More recently, alternative forms of transit have become visible, with bike lanes along Westlake Avenue and, in 2009, a new streetcar, the city’s first in decades.

Perhaps more than any other feature of South Lake Union’s history, however, students focused attention on the neighborhood’s physical landscape – drawing on place as a particularly rich primary source. A key part of each report is an “environmental history,” which traces changes in vegetation, elevation, land use, water quality, shorelines and more. The massive Denny Regrade, which leveled a steep hill, and the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, are two of the better known stories explored in the research, but so too are lesser known instances of environmental change, such as the impact of the Western Mill, perhaps the first such sustained sawmill operation on the Lake in the 1880’s, as well as the lasting effects of industrial discharge from laundries and automobile repair shops, among other commercial ventures.

The final portion of each exhibit looks ahead, to the future of the neighborhood. Drawing on a variety of past and present planning documents, the students imagined what South Lake Union may look like in the near and short term. They also envisioned the “might-have-been,” analyzing ideas like the Seattle Commons, an urban greenway project that city residents voted down in referendum. In the years to come, students wondered, will long-standing residents and businesses retain a voice and a presence in such a rapidly changing community? What will be the effects of policy actions such as rezoning, new roads and streetcars, and the growth of Amazon.com as an anchor tenant?

Examining the history of urban places allows students of urban history – and anyone who lives and works in cities – to look at the landscapes around them with fresh eyes.  For neighborhoods like South Lake Union that are in great flux, historical awareness is a critical element of understanding the present, and planning for the future.  We hope this site will help you see the neighborhood differently as well.   Please contact us with questions.

For more on the South Lake Union Stories project and the work of HSTAA 208, see this April 2013 interview with Prof. Margaret O’Mara on the History News Network.