by Josh Feit
With additional reporting by Erica C. Barnett
Many of my Gen X peers like to wax about Capitol Hill circa the late ’90s, as they long for the golden years when the central Seattle neighborhood was so much cooler. When I think about Capitol Hill, I like to cast my mind back decades as well. But not to pine for the past. Rather, to remember the aspirational crystal ball renderings of city visionary Liz Dunn, who laid out a plan in the early 2000s to revitalize the neighborhood. Honestly, Capitol Hill was a predictable white hipster zone at the time. Nowadays, I like marveling at how Dunn’s vision for an energized, vital city neighborhood came true.
Sorry to burst your nostalgic bubble fellow Gen Xers, but Capitol Hill is far cooler today than it was in the past. I’ve lived on Capitol Hill for 20-plus years, and it’s never been a more exciting place to be than it is right now.
I was the news editor at The Stranger 20 years ago and, jealous that my colleagues on the arts side of the paper had established the Genius Awards for arts and culture trailblazers, the news team managed (in 2007) to give out “Political Genius” awards. The news staff picked developer Liz Dunn as “one to watch” for her “pro-development and pro-density” plan to “bring more life to the street” on Capitol Hill.
In a lovely case of “how it’s going,” fast forward 14 years to Dunn’s premier project, Chophouse Row, which is located at the epicenter of Capitol Hill between Pike and Union on 11th Ave. With its winding indoor-outdoor arcade, its restaurants, housing, shops, landscaped punch-throughs, and a lively public fire-pit courtyard where local jazz legend Evan Flory-Barnes regularly takes the stage, Chophouse Row has become Exhibit A for the new, action-packed Capitol Hill. Just across the street from Dunn’s bourgeois garden of delights? A plebian pizza joint that serves stiff drinks. And right around the corner from that: another grungy pizza joint, a lesbian dive bar, a coffee shop that’s been around since 1995, a punk rock burrito joint, a perfectly cheesy Mexican place, a late-nite diner, and a loud tavern.
In fact, Capitol Hill itself is Exhibit A in my counter-narrative to the notion that Seattle is dying. Capitol Hill has always been billed as a one of Seattle’s destination neighborhoods, and—as someone who regularly frequents the jumping Pike/Pine Corridor—I can tell you, anecdotally, it has never been more popular and crowded. The crowd has never been more diverse either.
Driven by an increase in people identifying as Asian and mixed-race, Capitol Hill’s white population dropped nearly 10% as a percentage of the neighborhood overall.
Standing in line for a veggie dog from one of the many street vendors lining Capitol Hill’s drag, watching a weirdo electronic show at Vermillion Gallery, or grabbing a drink at your pick of taverns and dives on the weekend, it’s impossible not to notice the sea change that’s taken place on Capitol Hill in recent years. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago, you were likely to see sparser foot traffic and mostly white faces, these days the crowds appear much more diverse.
Certainly, Friday and Saturday nights mean “bridge and tunnel” crowds, which doesn’t say anything about Capitol Hill’s internal demographics, but it does indicate that BIPOC people see the neighborhood as a much friendlier destination these days. Additionally, I tested my anecdotal experience and looked at the American Community Survey stats from the four census tracts that make up Capitol Hill—from 15th Ave. E to I-5, and from Madison St. to Roy St.—and, yup, the neighborhood is less white than it used to be, according to ACS data comparing 2010 and 2019.
The African American population grew in raw numbers, but with such small numbers to begin with in the area (around 6 percent of the population in 2010), the increase in the Black population could not keep pace with Capitol Hill’s stunning 36 percent population growth overall and declined to about 5 percent of the population in 2019. Nonetheless, driven by an increase in people identifying as Asian and mixed-race, the white population declined from around 78 percent to 71 percent of the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, there’s been no real change in the average age over the past decade: 31.6 now compared to 31.8 a decade ago, according to the ACS data. In short, Capitol Hill is still youth-centric.
Of course, there’s no denying that Capitol Hill has become a more expensive place to live. The average income has climbed from $32,765 in 2010 to $51,041 in 2019 (all in 2019 dollars) and average rent for a one-bedroom has gone from about $1,000 to as much as $2,400—or around $1,700 for a smaller one-bedroom. Capitol Hill is not in the top ten most expensive neighborhoods, but certainly, like every neighborhood in the city, it needs more publicly funded, affordable housing.
As for the ubiquitous related criticism that “artists” can no longer afford to live on Capitol Hill, I say this: With the bevy of venues and spaces, there are more opportunities for artists to actually work in the neighborhood now. According to the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture’s cultural space inventory, there are 50 cultural spaces on Capitol Hill, including music venues, art galleries, performance spaces, and dance clubs—not to mention a potpourri of dining options, versus, what, chains like Taco Bell and Jack in the Box in the ’90s? And, oh, there was Café Septieme for stepping out!
Only Pioneer Square, with its concentration of art galleries, and the University District, amped by UW arts programming, comes even close to supporting as many arts and culture hives. The city didn’t catalog cultural spaces 10 or 20 years ago, but I can tell you from experience, there weren’t as many venues to see artists perform “back in the day.”
You know what else Capitol Hill has today that it didn’t in its supposed heyday? A light rail station—a busy one too. The Capitol Hill station is the third most crowded stop in Sound Transit’s system, with nearly 8,500 daily pre-pandemic weekday riders. That 2019 number represents a 12 percent jump from just two years earlier, indicating the increasing momentum Capitol Hill’s got right now. And soon, as the pandemic recedes, it will be even more crowded as college students discover the new light rail route between the U District and Capitol Hill, just a seven-minute ride.
The successful Capitol Hill station may help explain Capitol Hill’s “walker’s paradise” Walkscore designation and also the neighborhood’s increase in non-single-occupant-vehicle commuting. The share of commuters who drove to work alone declined from 35 to 27 percent, according to the ACS. Indeed, with no more parking minimums required for development on Capitol Hill, biking and walking to work also increased, helping make the neighborhood far more green and sustainable than it used to be.
Protected bike lanes now criss-cross Pike/Pine and Broadway. There's a farmer's market. And there's an activated park—Cal Anderson—for skateboarding, basketball, soccer, gleeful dog owners, or just reading a book on one of the benches by the reservoir.
None of this existed 10 or 20 years ago. And, don't worry, you can still slip into the nondescript door on 11th and climb the stairs to see a play at Capitol Hill's Annex Theater—the longest-running fringe theater in town.
Capitol Hill is certainly not the gay enclave it was in the post-Bowers v. Hardwick, pre-Obergefell v. Hodges era of the mid-1980s and 1990s. But with Gay City and Lifelong maintaining prominent footprints in the Pike/Pine Corridor, including Gay City's library, plus hangouts such as the Wild Rose, Queer Bar, the Madison Pub, and Pony among the bounty of gay bars in the neighborhood, queer-centric establishments and services are alive and well on Capitol Hill. In fact, GenPride, an advocacy group for LGBTQ+ seniors, just broke ground at Broadway between Pike and Pine on its 1,800-unit affordable housing development, Pride Place, with a 4,400-square-foot community and health services center. It opens in 2023—just in time for Gen Xers to be eligible!
Meanwhile—gasp—there are homeless encampments on Capitol Hill, and heroin needles, and graffiti as well, aka "ghetto-style paintings," to quote default backlash citywide council candidate Kenneth Wilson. (Good grief. Vote for urbanist Teresa Mosqueda.)
A Tale of Two Cities: There are also $1 million, 2-bedroom condos, yuppie boutiques, $18 wild boar sloppy Joes, and $8 pretzels served with whole grain mustard for the bourgeoisie. However, instead of becoming an exclusive monoculture, the fancy spots sit side-by-side with local dive bars, homegrown live music venues, late night food trucks, dance clubs, and the diverse crowds.
"Re-purposing these commercial buildings," Dunn said, referring to her original blueprints for changing 11th Ave. from an auto-shop row to a mixed-use market place, "created opportunity for a surprising diversity of small locally owned businesses. I’m proud of the fact that over half of my ground floor tenants are woman- or BIPOC-owned, or both.
"For the most part it’s still very much an indie neighborhood," Dunn continued, while also flagging her concern that "massively inflated assessments" on property values are "damaging to small businesses."
Ten years from now, the young fans who lined up around the block at Neumos last week to see Puerto Rican rap star J.I the Prince of N.Y may very well be longing themselves for Capitol Hill's early-2020s heyday.