Monday, January 25, 2010
Why I Live in Belltown
OK, it's time I talked about this. After all, I've been living here for almost 20 years. I mean, what can possibly make me want to stay in one of Seattle's more notorious neighborhoods? Read on. Maybe my reasons will make sense to you, maybe they won't. First a little background.
I grew up in Edmonds, a pleasant town a little north of here. If you ever wanted to do something, you had to walk to it. The store was 20 minutes away, downtown Edmonds was thirty minutes and the mall was forty minutes. The streets were extremely pedestrian unfriendly; there wasn't a single sidewalk within a half mile of our house. Life was pretty quiet. In fact, nothing ever happened. It was downright dull. Many people seemed to like it there, but it wasn't for me. Even after I got my license, things didn't get any more interesting. At the time, the City of Edmonds was on a crusade against anybody under 30, so I spent a lot of time looking out for cops, who would pull me and those of my age group over for no reason at all. It seemed so silly that my driving privileges depended on the whims of local law enforcement, but the reality was that if I got tickets, I'd lose my wheels. And if I lost my wheels, I'd have to walk to work and school and have no social life, etc. I guess it was about that time that I vowed that I would eventually live someplace where a) things happened, and; b) I didn't have to depend on having a car in order to survive.
Several years went by. I lived abroad for a little while, then tried Ballard on for size. It was slightly more exciting than Edmonds, but it still wasn't right. Finally, one night when I was lamenting my predicament, a friend recommended the Rivoli in Belltown. It was being renovated (after decades of neglect) and the rent was cheap. My first studio in 1990 went for $255 a month. I have a one bedroom now. Rent has climbed over the last two decades, but it's still affordable, if you don't mind that your place is on the smallish side.
Belltown's main selling point then is as now: you can walk to everything. For me, that is a huge reason why I stay here. You walk to work, you walk to a restaurant, you walk to the store, you walk to the movies. And you don't have to walk far to get to anything, because places are close. Full disclosure: I do own a car. I keep it in order to visit family in the area. They're all situated out of reach of public transport. I've done the cost-benefit analysis numerous times and for me, car ownership and garage costs are actually less than what I'd pay either renting a car two or three times a month or with a Zip car.
Sure, this neighborhood gets its share of bad press; it's a crack-soaked hellhole infested with crazy people and party animals who scream and yell at all hours while sirens and car alarms blare. That reputation is way overblown. Most of the time, my section of Belltown is quite peaceful. OK, maybe "peaceful" isn't the right word. I think that maybe "guardedly calm" works better. I'm only one floor above 2nd Avenue, so if it was truly as terrible as they say, I'd have left long ago. I mean, who needs that kind of aggravation? And because of that perception, people who move to Belltown and want to party 24/7 are often terribly disappointed. Sure, there's action here, but not all the time. Most party people I've known end up moving to Capitol Hill - or if they're super-serious about that lifestyle, they move to New York. But honestly, despite the crack, crazy people, drunks, noise, occasional bad smells, graffiti and all that, it's a very livable neighborhood.
A few years back, I experienced something that reminded me why I was still living in Belltown. I was house sitting with my girlfriend for a week out in the Crown Hill section of Ballard. It's a nice neighborhood with tidy, solid houses nestled along cute, narrow streets. By day three, I was going bonkers. I felt like I'd been abandoned by civilization. The closest store was 15 minutes away on foot, but I never, ever felt like walking. The street was so quiet that a passing car was a major event. Almost no one walked anywhere. Maybe the worst thing of all was that the view never changed. You looked out at the house across the street and they looked at you. It was always the same. From my 2nd floor perch at the Rivoli, I look out directly at the wonderful Darth Vader building, a restaurant, a tattoo parlor, the sidewalk across the way and up at a myriad of large buildings. The view is always changing; I'm always seeing this neighborhood in a different light.
After a week in Ballard, I was so relieved to be back in Belltown. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Ballard, but it is what it was over two decades ago: not for me. For as long as I live in Seattle, Belltown will be home. True, it's not the prettiest neighborhood in Seattle - some spots are downright ugly - but it still feels like the right place.
(Cross-posted at the P-I blog)
Posted by Igor Keller