A Day at Civic Boot Camp: Livable Neighborhoods With Kayla DeMonte

By Kayla DeMonte of Seattle Chamber

South Lake Union, I owe you an apology. I thought I knew who you were as a neighborhood, but I had much to learn. As a participant in the most recent Seattle CityClub Civic Boot Camp program, I, along with a group of about 30 other locals, took a deep dive into both the history and current state of South Lake Union. Our goal? Consider what makes a livable neighborhood and what we can do to support the livability of our Seattle communities.

The day took us on a winding tour of South Lake Union and Cascade, starting with a rousing introduction at MOHAI by Executive Director Leonard Garfield, and continuing on to places such as Immanuel Community Services, the MadArt space, and street corners where we would stop to hear about the history of particular buildings (like the Firestone Tire building, which maintains its original art-deco architecture). We even popped in to a local coffee shop, Caffe Torino, where the owner shared some delicious samples with us and gave us his take on what it’s like to be a small neighborhood business in a place like South Lake Union (he loves the area and the locals who live there!)

Of the variety of groups that we heard from, the one that stuck with me the most was an organization called Historic Seattle. Brooke Best of Historic Seattle served as one of our guides for the day, pointing out buildings and sharing the fascinating history of spaces I had never really looked at. She also shared with the group how certain historic buildings become designated with landmark status—of which South Lake Union has many such locations.

As Seattle’s population increases by the day, the balance between growth and preservation is at a critical point in our city. On our tour, we learned about how places like Rigoletto (an Italian restaurant set in a historic Stackhouse building) have preserved historic architecture and honored the building’s origins, all while creating a modern business that adds value to the neighborhood. I loved getting to hear about ways people are thinking about our changing city on this small level, and it makes me consider what more I can learn to support Seattle as a vibrant, modern city while preserving its rich history.

My biggest Civic Boot Camp takeaway? Take time to intentionally walk around our neighborhoods. Look around, step inside businesses you haven’t been to and ask questions. Say hello to people on the street. Learn about the history of the buildings. South Lake Union was just ONE neighborhood, and I was amazed to discover how much there was to learn – and how much people wanted to share when they had an audience willing to listen.

While there are countless ways to get involved and engaged in our communities, one small thing we can all do to keep Seattle’s neighborhoods friendly, vibrant, and livable is to be present and show up with eyes and ears open. Thank you, Seattle CityClub, for offering such an important and interesting way to learn about our city.