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Central Seattle: Rent, Crime Top Concerns in District 3

Tyler Reedus (right) and Joshua Thomas at the Madison Pub in District 3
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Tyler Reedus (right) and Joshua Thomas at the Madison Pub in District 3

On a map of Seattle's new City Council District 3, one street stands out. That thoroughfare slashes diagonally through the street grid like a samurai sword: East Madison Street.

Decades ago, you could take a streetcar down Madison from downtown to Lake Washington. Today though, we’ll walk.

This tour is part of KUOW's exploration of the new council districts. District 3 includes neighborhoods like First Hill, Capitol Hill, the Central District and Madison Park. While it has quiet nooks like the Japanese Garden, it is surrounded by freeways, with 520, I-5 and I-90 forming three of its borders.

LISTEN: District 3 Candidates Speak About Their Area

We start at First Hill, also known as Pill Hill for its many hospitals. Traffic seems to be on everyone's mind here. 

“It affects us the same way it affects the patients,” says Shontel Harris, a medical assistant from Swedish’s Birth Center. She’s eating lunch on the street with her coworker, Sarah Trajano. “We’ve had situations where patients weren’t able to get here adequately… due to traffic,” Trajano says. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Swedish Birth Center's Sarah Trajano and Shontel Harris say once in a while, a baby's born in an ambulance while stuck in traffic.", "fid": "118260", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201506/first_hill_madison_st.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Babies have been delivered in traffic on the way to Swedish, she says.

A Swedish spokesperson later told me that’s rare, and besides, the hospital doesn’t have a way of determining why babies were born in traffic: Whether traffic or due to a quick labor. 

Regardless, congestion is a sign of Seattle's increasingly robust economy, with economic activity concentrated in a small area.

And now, with so many people looking for a place to live within city limits, development in the form of new buildings marches northeast up Madison Street.

Those new buildings have higher rents. That’s significant to this area, because the percentage of people here who rent is the second highest of any district in the city: 61.6 percent. District 7 has the highest number of renters at 63.6%

Related: Compare Seattle neighborhood rents 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Viva Capital Hill, one of the new developments marching northeast up Madison Street. With many parking lots and single-story structures along Madison, it's a corridor that can expect a lot more growth to come.", "fid": "118262", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201506/madison_development.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]That brings us to our second stop on Madison, the Madison Pub, a gay bar. 

Fifty or so men have gathered to watch the finale of a television show, "RuPaul’s Drag Race." It’s kind of like "America’s Next Top Model," but with drag queens. It’s a community celebration – but for a community whose members are being priced out of this neighborhood.

“This is our Super Bowl,” says Tyler Reedus, who joined a friend for beer here after his shift at H&M, the clothing store. He says cost of housing is a big issue.

“We have an apartment complex that’s going up here where a studio bedroom is – what was it, $3,500? For a little studio," he says. "Who makes that kind of money? You know it’s so catering to the Microsoft and the Amazon crowd that has really boomed in the past few years.”

I couldn’t find any studios renting for that much money. But I did find some for $1,800 a month.

Even so, it’s clear that people here feel threatened. “Capitol Hill doesn’t accommodate us anymore,” says Lector Morales, down at the other end of the bar. “We need some kind of rent control.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Lector Morales, at the Madison Pub, believes Seattle needs rent control. ", "fid": "118263", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201506/madison_pub_2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

Morales says his rent recently doubled.

“At some point there’s going to be that point where I’m saying, ‘It’s too much.’ Especially when I know that I could live in Tacoma for a quarter of the ... and just drive up here. Or even take the bus system up here to get to work and come back. It’s just too much.”

Reedus says many newcomers don’t have respect for gay culture. Which brings up another issue that people have talked about in District 3: violent crime.

Reedus says that one night after performing in drag at a local club, he was assaulted by a stranger. “I just turned around and I knocked him as fast as I could,” Reedus says. “You would think that eight-inch heels would be enough of a defense mechanism. But I carry a little knife in my purse now.”

Get To Know Your City Council District

From the television screen drifted the words of RuPaul: “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

Traveling east on Madison, we pass through another community that’s seen a lot of turnover: the Central Area District. African-Americans once were the majority. Now they make up about a fifth of the population.

Some of the churches and stores that served that displaced community remain on Madison Street. But fewer people live close enough to walk to church now. They drive in from out of the neighborhood.

Our trip concludes at the end of Madison Street, in the wealthy lakeside community of Madison Park. Once upon a time, this was also a working-class district, full of metal workers who commuted to jobs downtown via streetcar and across the lake to Kirkland by ferry.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Once a haven for single people living an inexpensive beachfront lifestyle, Madison Park has become one of Seattle's exclusive neighborhoods.", "fid": "118265", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201506/madison_park.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Richard Lehman lived here in the 1930s. He stands on the dock, where he once dove up to 40 feet deep for coins tossed in the lake by ferry passengers. “Penny, nickel, dime, get it every time. That’s what we yelled,” he says.

Looking back at Madison Park, where family homes often sell for more than $2 million, Lehman says the changes to the neighborhood have been mostly good. “But I do miss the old days,” he says.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Richard Lehman, now 80, stands at a dock where he once dove for coins tossed by passengers departing on the ferry to Kirkland. Lehman lived in Madison Park starting in the 1930s, moved away, then returned later in life.", "fid": "118264", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201506/madison_park_dock_2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Lehman remembers the 1960s, when it was really cheap to live there. “You could rent anything you need around here for $60 a month," he says. "It was a haven for single people.”

People who couldn’t afford that rent could find even cheaper rent on Capitol Hill.

“Now, they can’t even live on Capitol Hill. So where you gonna go, Sumner? I mean, there’s no place to go,” Lehman says. “Who the hell can live in 500-square-feet, you know?”

Apparently many of the tech workers flocking to District 3 can live that way.

And in 20 years, they’ll be the ones telling the history of this neighborhood.

Zoom in on the map to see the services available in your district. Click on the top left menu button to see the key and select the layers you would like to focus on.

Correction 7/16/2015: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the district with the highest percentage of renters.