Historical Geographies of the Eastside

An Introduction to the Theory and Methods Behind the Research

Image Curtsey Eastside Heritage Center and University of Washington Digital Collections

When first approached with this project of gathering research on the Bellevue-Redmond area, I was drawn to the idea of studying history as a proxy for understanding the culture of the region. As a geographer, I am distinctly influenced by the notion that space and the way people see it are processes, which change and evolve over time. Thus, I felt that undertaking a geographical approach to history would help uncover some of the processes that have shaped Bellevue into what we see today.

Using a geographic approach to study a region is more than simply describing the iterations of a landscape, although the physical environment plays an important part in uncovering more complex issues. Instead, geographers are often concerned with struggles over space and exclusion. David Sibley, a prominent geographic scholar, writes that, “Human geography, in particular, should be concerned with raising consciousness of the domination of space in its critique of the hegemonic culture”.[1] In this viewpoint then, in order to fully understand a landscape, such as the Bellevue-Redmond corridor, we must be distinctly aware of how this space is dominated and by whom. In keeping with a historical analysis, this can be taken further to discuss how space is dominated and changed throughout history.

Furthermore, central to this approach to analysis of history is a working definition of how to approach culture in geographical research. Geographers, as scholar Don Mitchell describes, study geography as a “way people make sense of the world…but it is also a system of power and domination”.[2] In addition, culture is inherently tied to and inseparable from space, as culture is represented in struggles over space and how we make meaning of the places we live in. Essential to this idea, is that of cultural hegemony, wherein geographers make sense of culture by considering how dominant groups control and influence others. To Gramsci, the founder of this thought, cultural hegemony is about the relationships between different groups in a society and how these relationships change and manifest in daily life.[3]

These ideas are central to my research into the history of the Eastside. In particular, I hoped to illuminate some of the cultural struggles that have taken place in the Eastside, and how these struggles can be seen in the evolving landscape. Furthermore, I sought to uncover how dominant cultures—those who hold cultural hegemony—influence and create a particular historical narrative. In other words, how has the dominant white culture in the Eastside written history? Who and what is left out of this historical narrative? At a first glance, the history of the Eastside seems typical, almost uneventful. Yet, complex cultural struggles over space in Eastside paint a more rich and complex history. I hope through my research I can help those who are interested in learning about this area uncover deeper historical issues affecting the area, allowing for a better understanding of Eastside’s culture.

Many of the topics I uncovered were through chance. After superficial background research, I had a preconceived idea of what I would write about. However, after digging through historical documents, images and oral histories, I discovered stories that needed to be told. Often, the lack of information prompted me to look deeper into certain topics. For example, in an effort to research the indigenous peoples of the Eastside, I found that there was little record of their existence. This information (or rather lack of information), led to the formulation of one of my research themes. Many of my other topics were thought of in a similar fashion.

My research includes four themes, which I considered to be representative of important cultural issues and questions. These topics include, the early settlers and their dominance over the cultural narrative, the racial discrimination of Japanese Americans despite their vital contributions to the community, transportation and the development of the edge city and finally Eastside’s public art as the community’s reflection on the past. While of course there were many other topics that could be investigated in detail, I chose topics that I felt would give the reader insight into themes that are not evident from casual research. I used archival research and secondary sources to complete this piece, and have included my sources where relevant so that they can be used for future research. 


            I began this project with a drive along the proposed Rapid Ride Line B route. A native to California, the Eastside was relatively unfamiliar to me. Driving through the route, the landscape looked like any other suburban town. Strip malls and housing developments marked the area’s suburban quality, in stark contrast to the bustling Seattle I am used to traversing. One aspect about the Eastside that struck me was how new it looked. It was quickly apparent that the Eastside is an area rapidly undergoing changes and evolving in the presence of the large corporations headquartered in the area. Upon noticing this, my main question was: so what then was there before, and how did it get to where it is today?

            Answering this question involved looking back into the history of the region, using the physical landscape as beacons to guide my research into deeper issues. My first portal into the history of the Eastside was to use secondary sources such as Historylink.org and Lucile McDonalds, Bellevue: Its First 100 Years. These sources provided me with a background knowledge into the general evolution of the region. The three main stages in the Eastside’s history I uncovered through this research were, dense forests turned into a thriving logging industry, a highly productive farming region, and finally an active edge city. Further research, however, was required to determine what and who created the dramatic shifts in the landscape, and what were the struggles associated with the evolution of space?

            Answers to these questions required further inquiry into primary source documents, oral histories and photographs. These sources allowed me to analyze discourse, struggle and culture through the eyes of Eastside residents. With this enriched knowledge, I was able to return to the secondary sources I previously used and critique their portrayal of events. This critical approach allowed me to consider how and why the historical narrative of the Eastside is written in such a way.

[1] Sibley, David. 1995. Geographies of exclusion: society and difference in the West. London: New York. Introduction x

[2] Mitchell, Don. 2000. Cultural geography: a critical introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

[3] Mitchell, 2000. p 64