Part 3: The Geography of Cityship

“West Seattleites identify themselves as West Seattleites.  Not necessarily as Seattleites. [...]  I live in West Seattle, I don’t live in Seattle.  It really is interesting that that sense of identity is so profound.”

            - Patti Mullen, West Seattle resident since 19891


             “What’s a place like that doing in a city like this?”  That was the question I asked at the beginning of this essay.  And Mullen’s quote above makes it clear that the two places aren’t so readily conflated into a single city.  The truth is, West Seattle hasn’t always been a part of the City of Seattle.  And once it did become a part, it has often threatened, even if only half seriously, to secede.  This segment, “The Geography of Cityship,” takes up this question, and in the process reveals a long history of incorporation, annexation, and secession around Elliott Bay.

            The most serious secession attempt on the part of West Seattleites takes us back before the high-level bridge was completed, or even started for that matter.  The decades-long debacle over bridging the Duwamish River did not float well with many West Side residents.  In their eyes, the City of Seattle was failing miserably in scrounging up the funds, plans, and political clout to build the high-level bridge.  By March 1978, after another round of delays and increases in expected costs, some West Seattleites had had enough, and decided to take matters into their own hands.  The March 29 issue of the West Seattle Herald declared, “West Seattle floats petition to dump city: Will the Duwamish become a moat?”2 

Secession was in part an act of disgust with, and rebellion against, the City of Seattle’s tepidness.  As the West Seattle Herald reported, “a few [of the petition sponsors] look at the petition as a humorous gesture, a few, even, are against a new high-level bridge, but a lot of others say they are genuinely angry at the city and are prepared to ram their case down the city hall throats”3.  But probably more importantly, the move was seen by many as a way to solve the dilemma of the high-level bridge once and for all.  As the official secession petition noted (see Figure 17), the plan was to “separate West Seattle from the City of Seattle making the Spokane Street corridor an intra-city road.”  And being an intra-city road, the high-level bridge would be eligible for state highway funds, theoretically overcoming the problem of bridging the Duwamish. 

Figure 17: Recreation of “Petition to Secede” in 1978.

Source: Eals (1987), p. 283.

By June of 1978, about 13,000 people had signed “West Seattle’s declaration of independence,” almost half of the number needed to get the measure on the ballot in November.4  But secession was not to be, and as fate would have it, the collision of the freighter, Antonio Chavez, into Bascule Bridge No. 1 took the wind out of the campaign’s sails.  With more than a little help from U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson, Seattle was able to secure $110 million in federal emergency funds, which brought a high-level bridge within grasp. 

It is somewhat ironic that West Seattle was attempting to disconnect from the rest of Seattle in one way (via secession) only so it could (re)connect in another way (via the West Seattle Bridge).  Indeed, this moment highlights that historical tension between West Seattle and the rest of the city, as the relationship between the two places is constantly being (re)negotiated.  It also raises an interesting question: would West Seattle’s status as an independent city have fostered as strong a sense of uniqueness?  Or would it have lost a crucial political and cultural connection to its foil, and faded away to become just another anonymous Seattle suburb? 

There is something peculiar about the sense of a place that is at once a part of some larger whole and also an isolated entity within that whole.  As a Seattleite, knowing that West Seattle is a part of your city, but also knowing that it is “over there” and somewhat inaccessible, sets the place apart as different.  It is simultaneously a part of any Seattleite’s identity in virtue of the shared municipal circumscription, but is still “out of reach,” or better yet, “out of place.”

On the other hand, a separate city is expected to be exactly that: separate.  The hypothetical City of West Seattle, as a politically defined body, could still be counterposed to the City of Seattle, could still be a unique place when compared to the City of Seattle.  But it is no longer a unique place of the City of Seattle.  The point of reference has changed, and as such, our understanding of its “placeness” must change too. 

It seems paradoxical that West Seattle could theoretically maintain a stronger sense of place when sharing a municipality with the rest of Seattle than if it incorporated as its own city.  But as mentioned at the beginning of the “Geographies of Transportation” section, some form of connection, some shared variable, is necessary before the differences are meaningful.  In this case, it may be that “belonging” is a precondition to departure. 

Some West Seattleites disagree, arguing instead that secession would “exacerbate these tensions around connectivity and connection/disconnection.”5  “It would intensify it,” Eals argues.  “[W]e already are separate, we’re already bounded on three sides by water.  So it’s not like it would change it so much as it would intensify the separateness.  Maybe this is not the best analogy, but it’s sort of like a marriage.  You know, if you’re committed to a marriage, you’re going to work things out.  But if you get a divorce then you’ve given yourself a lot more license to fight.  And West Seattle has a lot more motivation to cooperate with the rest of the city and vice versa given […] that we’re part of the same city.”6

But this debate isn’t merely hypothetical.  At one point, over seventy years prior to the 1978 secession campaign, West Seattle was its own city.  However, in the early 1900s, and the handful of decades before, West Seattle’s “unique sense of place” manifested itself somewhat differently.  During the early years of white settler development, West Seattle (which was then largely confined to the neighborhoods we now know as Alki and Admiral) was in a race with Seattle to become the metropolitan hub on the Puget Sound.  In fact, the first general store in the area was established at Alki by Denny Party member Charles Terry, just after their landing in November of 1851.7  It wasn’t long before Terry found himself virtually alone on the West Side as most other settlers established houses across Elliott Bay.  They established businesses too, including their own hardware store, sawmill, and post office.

Terry was already feeling the pressure from the competition across the bay.  As a matter of fact, from the day that the rest of the Denny Party crossed the bay to settle on the east side, “there started a battle for survival between Terry’s town and the town of Seattle that would last for the next five years.”8  But apparently Terry was up to the challenge.  As the September 11, 1852 issue of the Olympia-based newspaper, the Columbian, advertised, Terry’s store at Alki (then New York) was a “well known stand in the town of New York, on Puget’s Sound, where they keep constantly on hand and for sale, at the lowest prices, all kinds of merchandize usually required in a new country.”9  And when Terry changed the name New York to Alki in 1853, the Columbian wrote Terry “has made an excellent change of name for his flourishing town at the entrance of the Duwamish River”10 (emphasize mine).  

Indeed, by that time, Alki boasted its own sawmill, post office, and barrel-making shops, much of which was developed at the behest of Terry.  Speidel notes the leaps and bounds being made at Alki, writing, “[w]e are inclined to think Seattle had the edge from the start.  Nothing was farther from the truth as long as Charlie Terry was the moving force at Alki.  He outmatched Seattle project for project […] Alki was clearly the metropolis of Elliott Bay for the first couple years.”11

But by 1856, “it was clear that Seattle was the better place for a city,” and Terry sold his property at Alki and moved across the bay.12  Development on the West Side moved in fits and starts for the next two decades, with Freeport (a small town on the east-facing waterfront of Elliott Bay) proving to be the most promising catalyst for a thriving city13 (see Figure 18).  However, Seattle seemed to have a consistent and prominent lead by this time, and in 1869, three years before Freeport’s leading industry, shipbuilding, started to boom, Seattle incorporated the land on the east side of the bay. 

Figure 18: A drawing of Freeport in 1872.   By this time, the shipyards at this location were the west side’s most prominent industry.  Source: Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries.

By 1885, Seattle had grown to the point where finding suitable home sites on the east side was a real problem.  The solution proved to be a boon for the West Side: the Alki/Admiral areas were platted for residential development, marking “the beginning of a new era on the West Side.  The district’s connections to Seattle would grow stronger each year”14 as West Seattle’s reputation for real estate attracted many Seattleites.  As is clear from these developments, the relationship between the east and west side changed during this era.  The West Side’s growth was shadowed by that of Seattle’s, but business and real estate interests at Alki and around the northern tip renegotiated the area’s relationship with the city across the bay.  Rather than folding up the project of developing a booming city on the peninsula, stakeholders found that serving the interests of Seattleites kept West Seattle “on the map,” so to speak.  Indeed, the name “West Seattle” was first applied to the peninsula in 1885 when the area was platted.15  The name itself captured the changing dynamic between the two places: the settlements on the West Side were now formally referenced in relation to Seattle, a reference which marked Seattle as the dominant force on Elliott Bay. 

But private interests still saw large potential to make a buck from West Seattle development.  The West Seattle Land and Improvement Company (WSLIC) formed in 1888, and quickly bought up much of the land in the Admiral district, hoping to turn a profit from the real estate business.  Understanding though that any growth in West Seattle would depend on drawing Seattleites from across the bay, the WSLIC had to invest in transportation as well, and a number of bridge, ferry, and cable car projects, some of which are discussed in Part 2 of this essay, ensued.  These projects seemed to be paying off, and by June 1891, “the town boasted a livery stable, pavilion, fieldhouse, Chinese laundry, saloon, blacksmith shop, post office and two grocery stores,”16 and soon afterwards, a school and church. 

Rumors emerged in 1899 that the WSLIC was going to finance a cable road and electric line across the mudflats to Seattle, and was setting aside land for a Union Pacific Railroad terminal.  By 1902, though, none of these rumors had come to fruition, and West Seattleites were feeling neglected by the private venture.  As West Side Story notes, “[i]t was time for the community to chart its own course, they decided, and an election was called to decide whether West Seattle should incorporate as a city.”17  As a city, franchise requests could be made, which residents hoped would fund “the improvements and services that had been so sorely lacking under the WSLIC’s reign.”18  So with a vote of 97-68, West Seattle incorporated in 1902, with most of the land north of what is now SW Lander Street hemmed in by the city limits (see Figure 19).

Figure 19: A map depicting West Seattle’s incorporation and annexations.  Source: Eals (1987), p. 38.

            Again, it is ironic that West Seattle incorporated as a separate city in part to better connect with Seattle.  Developers and West Side boosters had few if any aspirations at this point of overtaking Seattle as the urban hub around Elliott Bay.  Instead, strategies were adjusted over the last several decades from one of competition in a “life and death struggle for existence”19 between the two places, to one of capitalizing on Seattle’s (superior) amenities.  And, paradoxically, incorporating as a separate city was one step toward realizing those new ends.

But incorporation didn’t guarantee success, and “West Seattle’s dream of becoming a modern, independent city was not coming true in storybook fashion.  After more than a year on its own, the town still had no public transportation, a suspect water system and no electricity.”20  To solve the problem stemming from the undependable sources of water on the West Side, annexation to Seattle was proposed as a solution.  According to the editor of the West Seattle News at the time, “[t]here is no city in the world with a better water supply [the Cedar River] than our big neighbor across the bay.”21  Expanding Seattle’s city limits to include the West Side would not only supposedly solve the water problem, but also grant West Seattleites free access to the Seattle Public Library and extend Seattle’s park system into the peninsula.

Opponents of annexation argued in response that “if West Seattle annexed, the Seattle council would be under no obligation to provide Cedar River water; that although the council might promise water service, it would not be binding on the city; and that even if Cedar River water were granted, West Seattle would have to pay a steep price.”22  A column in the West Seattle News noted, “[i]f annexation will bring us a streetcar, Cedar River water, police and fire protection, then, I say, by all means, let us have annexation.  But if not, we are better off as we are.”23  Although the annexation movement momentarily lost steam, West Seattle found itself growing by other means.  In February of 1904, with a vote of 42-20, West Seattle annexed its own chunk of land, an area just to the south of its previous city limits (see Figure 19 above).

For the next three years, West Seattle continued to bolster its status as a growing city by attempting to annex more land on the peninsula, a feat that could only be accomplished with approval of residents from both the annexing district and the annexed district.  Two votes to annex much of the land to the south and east of the city limits in 1905 passed easily in West Seattle, but the first meet defeat in the areas proposed to be annexed, and the second, while passed, ultimately was invalidated because of legal debates concerning West Seattle’s dubious status as a city of third class, a status that was required before the city could expand its borders to encompass more than one square mile (see West Side Story, pages 38 to 41 for an excellent synopsis of the ins-and-outs of this debacle).  West Seattle then turned to the east, and attempted to annex the Alki district in 1906.  But Alki had established a strong sense of independence by this time, largely fueled by its burgeoning reputation as a beach getaway, and voted against annexation.

The movement to annex to Seattle also (re)arose in 1906, spurred on by the increasing likelihood that a streetcar would soon connect West Seattle with Seattle.  At the time, West Seattle had its own municipally owned streetcars, and as such the rails could not be extended beyond the city’s limits.  Expanding the lines across the Duwamish River into Seattle was therefore not an option so long as the City of West Seattle owned the tracks.  The lines were consequently sold to the privately owned Seattle Electric Company after voters approved of the transaction on October 5, 1906.

The same day as the vote on the streetcars, West Siders also voted on West Seattle’s annexation of three districts on the peninsula: Alki Point, Youngstown, and Spring Hill.  The ultimate goal was to annex to Seattle, but expanding West Seattle’s own city limits was the first step in that process.  As West Side Story notes, “a petition asked the council to ‘define its attitude toward annexation of Alki Point, Youngstown and Spring Hill with a view of annexing to the City of Seattle.’  In response, the council resolved ‘that if the districts named will annex to the City of West Seattle, the council will expedite the calling of an election to annex to the City of Seattle.’”24

Unfortunately for annexation proponents, the vote went down to defeat, largely because Youngstown overwhelmingly voted against the proposal.  Two forces in Youngstown worked in tandem to reject the vote.  One was the Seattle Steel Company, which pulled a considerable amount of political and economic weight being the major industry in the district; they opposed annexation because of the expected jump in tax rates.  And the second were the saloons in Youngstown, “which enjoyed the fact that they were in a sort of no-man’s land between Seattle and West Seattle and consequently subject to very little legal constraint.  When the Oct. 5, 1906, election came up, the saloons openly recruited enough voters to turn the tide of the battle.”25

The same can’t be said of the next vote instigated by West Seattle to annex those same neighborhoods, held just a few months later in the spring of 1907.  “As before, the ultimate goal was to annex to Seattle,” explains West Side Story.  “Technically, West Seattle could have joined Seattle without first annexing Youngstown.  (Seattle’s tidelands already bordered West Seattle’s, fulfilling the state’s requirement that all territory within a city be contiguous.)  But to get power and water from Seattle, West Seattle needed a corridor, and Youngstown stood geographically, as well as philosophically, in the way.”26

Unlike in 1978, when some West Seattleites attempted to secede from the city in order to better link the two places, this time around, annexation to Seattle was seen as the best means to overcome the geographical barriers.  Proponents of the 1907 measure argued remapping Seattle city limits to include the peninsula would secure water service, electricity, and police protection for the West Side.  The sense of urgency and determination of proponents was clear (see Figure 20).  Opponents countered that the West Seattle City Council simply wanted to expand its own municipal reach by annexing the whole peninsula, and would not then follow through on its promise to fully unite with Seattle.  Nonetheless, the vote fell in favor of annexation this time (see Figure 19 above), and the city council promptly called for a vote to annex West Seattle, now the whole of the peninsula, to Seattle.  A month later, in June of 1907, the measure passed easily, and West Seattle became a part of the very city it was trying to outgrow just a few short decades earlier. 

Figure 20: A poster promoting West Seattle’s annexation to the City of Seattle in 1907. Source: Eals (1987), p. 45.

Despite the spatial disjunctions, many then and now argued the union of the east and west sides was “natural” and even inevitable.  A Seattle centennial project called “From Many, One: 1907-2007,” a project that commemorated 1907 (the “year Seattle became a real city” by more than doubling its land size from its various annexations, including West Seattle),27 titled one of the documents in the series, “West Seattle: The City Reclaims its Birthplace.”28  Quoting from an uncited source, Dorpat writes Seattleites and West Seattleites “were ‘plainly designated by nature to form one community.’  It was, they asserted, their ‘manifest destiny.’”29

But nonetheless, the West Side hasn’t seem to forgotten its heritage as the city that once rivaled Seattle for dominance on the Puget Sound.  And at certain moments over the last century, West Seattle could not help but remind the rest of the city of its independent streak and desire for self-determination.  The West Seattle Commercial Club, for example, worked tirelessly since its founding in 1921 to boost the image and reputation of the West Side.  In the 1920s the club, now the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, seemed to caution the City of Seattle against underestimating the West Side’s autonomy, marking their publications with the motto, “West Seattle: a growing city within a growing city” (see Figure 21).

Figure 21: A notice from 1926 advertising West Seattle as “A growing city within a growing city.”  Source: Eals (1987), p. 52.

At several points over the next century, coalitions on the West Side mobilized to once again make West Seattle a growing city alongside a growing city.  The Seattle Times notes that “[t]here has been talk in West Seattle of seceding from Seattle for decades. Many grievances are cited: school busing, lack of police protection, too few libraries, and […] urban villages.”30  Such talk is largely tongue-in-cheek though, and amounts to little more than a community conversation.  “West Seattle doesn’t get a new bus line, and they say ‘Oh we’re going to secede.’  If the utilities go up, West Seattle says ‘We’re going to secede,’” notes Patti Mullen.  “It’s more of a political statement than an actual process that anyone’s gone through.”31  But the political statement is still a meaningful one, as it captures that spirit of independence the West Side is known for.  Mullen adds, “West Seattle used to be its own city.  So there is some historical precedent set that West Seattle could do that having been there before. […] [T]here’s some very strong sentiments that its been underserved and underloved.  And different enough that it should be its own city.”32

However, there have been a couple moments in the West Side’s history where secession movements did make headway.  As mentioned earlier, the movement to secede gained much steam in 1978 when the City of Seattle stalled for too long on the question of bridging the Duwamish River.  In the 1980s, another secession movement sprung up to protest attempts by the Seattle School District to use bussing as a means to achieve racial integration, a plan which opponents argued would have disrupted “families that had strong, generational ties to local schools”33  on the West Side.

And in 1995, when the City of Seattle moved to implement high-density urban villages in various Seattle neighborhoods, including four on the West Side, some West Seattleites rose up in protest.  As the Seattle PI noted, “[t]he villages are designed to concentrate growth in certain neighborhoods and reduce the need to drive to work and to go on shopping trips and recreation trips,”3435  Senator Mike Heavey, the sponsor of the secession bill claimed “[t]he only people who objected to [the secession] bill are tax-hungry Seattle politicians who want to hang on to West Seattle for its tax base and then use it as a dumping ground for urban villages.”36  Others agreed that the City of Seattle was unresponsive to the needs of the West Side, with residents arguing “[w]e're tired of having things shoved down our throat.”37  The state governor ultimately vetoed the secession bill. but West Seattleites claimed “urban villages will shatter West Seattle's small-town charm by bringing in more people, traffic and crime.”

However, in many other instances, West Siders took advantage of the juxtaposition made possible by their shared municipality with Seattle to underscore the unique amenities found on the peninsula.  The advertisement in Figure 21 promised tourists to the West Side “a thriving, happy community embodying much of the best spirit of this great city and with room for many more homes – a part of the city, yet with many of the advantages of suburban life.”38  Promoters elsewhere claimed one could “fully enjoy the quiet of rural life combined with the comforts and convenience of the city, and feast on the soul-inspiring scenic charms which in matchless grandeur surround one on every side.”39

            In any case, whether those living on the West Side used their ties with the city across the bay to bolster their own image or worked to cut those ties, whether they found themselves in competition with Seattle or cooperation, West Seattleites consistently projected an air of independence and insularity.  In fact, the neglect the City of Seattle seemingly impressed all too often on the West Side went a long ways in fostering a unique sense of place and community that West Seattleites ultimately prided themselves on.

  1. Mullen, personal communication.
  2. Finn (1978).
  3. Finn (1978).
  4. Eals (1987), 117.
  5. Elwood, personal communication.
  6. Eals, personal communication.
  7. Eals (1987), 18.
  8. Speidel (1967), 22.
  9. Advertisement.
  10. Change of Name.
  11. Speidel (1967), 30-31.
  12. Eals (1987), 20.
  13. Eals (1987), 21-22.
  14. Eals (1987), 24.
  15. Eals (1987), 24.
  16. Eals (1987), 31.
  17. Eals (1987), 34.
  18. Eals (1987), 34.
  19. Speidel (1967), 52.
  20. Eals (1987), 36.
  21. Eals (1987), 38.
  22. Eals (1987), 38.
  23. Eals (1987), 38.
  24. Eals (1987), 42.
  25. Eals (1987), 44.
  26. Eals (1987), 45.
  27. 1907: The Year Seattle Became a Real City.
  28. West Seattle: The City Reclaims its Birthplace.
  29. Dorpat (1984), Vol. 1, Feature 2.
  30. West Seattle Secession Bill Merely Eases Options
  31. Mullen, personal communication.
  32. Mullen, personal communication.
  33. Keene (1995).
  34. Kelley (1995).
  35. Keene (1995).
  36. Secession Effort Gets Governor’s Veto (1995).
  37. Keene (1995).
  38. Eals (1987), 52.
  39. Dorpat (1984), Vol. 1, Feature 2.