Life on 59½th Street

I held a housewarming party recently for my new townhouse in Ballard. As friends and colleagues admired the view out towards other neighborhoods and all the way to the distant mountains, my eyes were on the other fourth-floor decks of the recently-built townhouses. From 59th and 60th Street, the view on the ground is dominated by older homes with driveways and street parking. From the alley between, it’s mostly new townhouses with their cozy open “parking pads.” Seattle doesn’t give its alleys street names, but I call the one closest to my home “59½th Street.”

Thanks to local zoning, townhouses have sprung up very quickly on and near 59½th Street. Some are built as sets of three or four: vertical homes on the whole-numbered street and a wide, much more expensive home on the alley. Some are tandems: one in front and one on the alley. Others, like mine, are flag lots: a traditional house is purchased by a developer, who then tears up the backyard and replaces it with a couple of new townhomes, and who then sells three homes at a profit. On the north side of 59½th Street alone, there are six townhouses whose lots only touch the alley, and the oldest one was built in 2017. By contrast, along the south side of 60th Street, there are two apartment buildings from the 1920s and eight single-family houses built before 1950.

As I looked out towards the other townhouses, some of which had people relaxing on their own roofs, I felt as though I lived in a parallel Ballard: a neighborhood located behind and above what came before. That characterization makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I were living in, but not a member of, a venerable community.

I’ve spent some time attending meetings about transit and proposed housing in and around Ballard. I attended my first Syttende Mai festival, commemorating Norway’s Constitution Day, last month, and it was great to see members of the community — and a few coworkers — in the crowd and in the parade. Thanks to my new bike commute, I pass through Ballard’s industrial district every day. I hadn’t realized just how much industry there was in my new neighborhood other than beer and oil. There’s a baseball bat company down the street from a new taproom on Shilshole Avenue, for example. Cyclist commuters share the road with large trucks, including construction vehicles, every day. I wish the best of luck to the dozen or so candidates running to represent the economically diverse district in the City Council election this year, although I haven’t done much research on any of them yet.

As I was warned, local Nextdoor and Facebook groups are cesspools of “othering” and fearmongering about the very poor and the rich residents that are accused of impurifying Ballard. Intriguingly, a couple of small, explicitly positive groups have spun out of the general Ballard group on Facebook, and although there’s less information distributed through these groups, there’s also less to be gained from posting something inflammatory. I’m often mindful that, despite my home letting me literally look down upon my neighbors, it’s important to understand the stories and the culture of my surroundings. It’s also worth remembering that many of my neighbors are OK with new neighbors — as long as they park properly.