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The University District

180px-Seattle_Map_-_University_District.pngThe University District is a neighborhood in Seattle, Washington, so named because the main campus of the University of Washington (UW) is located there. The UW moved in two years after the area was annexed to Seattle, while much of the area was still clear cut forest or stump farmland. The district of neighborhoods grew with the university to become a microcosm (for better and worse) of urban American cities.

The U-District is bounded on the west by Interstate 5, beyond which is Wallingford and Northlake; on the east by 25th Avenue in the north, beyond which is University Village and Ravenna-Bryant, on the east by 35th Avenue and by Surber Drive east of the UW campus, beyond which is Laurelhurst; on the south by the Lake Washington Ship Canal, across which are Eastlake and Montlake; and on the north by NE Ravenna Boulevard and NE 45th Street, beyond which are Roosevelt, Ravenna, and Ravenna-Bryant. Its main commercial street, University Way NE, is known throughout the city as "The Ave" in the "U-District".


The U District was first surveyed in 1855, and its first white settlers arrived 12 years later. In 1890, that part of the neighborhood due west of the present UW campus was laid out as the Brooklyn Addition. One year later much of the land north of the Ship Canal, including Brooklyn, was annexed to Seattle, the UW moved from Downtown in 1893, and the first university building was built in 1895.

The name "Brooklyn" began to fade soon thereafter. Electric trolley tracks had been laid up Columbus Avenue (later 14th Avenue) in 1892, and the neighborhood soon began to be called "University Station" after the heated waiting house at the corner of what is now NE 42nd Street (1895). The name is not lost, however, for Brooklyn Avenue NE runs parallel to University Way, one block west. The now-obscure University Heights neighborhood was named for the elementary school (1903–c. 1988, now the University Heights Center for the Community (1990), host for numerous activities small and large.

But for the trolley, in early decades of the U District Downtown was a trek, a boat, and a horsecart ride away. Considering early transportation difficulties, the U District was largely self-sufficient, with area businesses for people with ties to the University. Construction of family homes increased in the early 1900s, as did churches, theaters, stores, and a YMCA. The district's first bank and the first local public library opened in 1906, the modest library organized by local merchants.

As a result of a contest held by the University Commercial Club in 1919, 14th Avenue (by then already known as "The Avenue" or "The Ave") was renamed University Way, and the neighborhood was renamed the University District (1919). The neighborhood's principal arterials are the Roosevelt Way and 11th Avenue NE one-way pair and lower 15th Avenue NE; University Way, Brooklyn Avenue, and others are collector (tertiary) arterials, north- and southbound. NE Pacific, 45th, and part of 50th streets are principal arterials east- and westbound, NE Campus Parkway is a minor arterial.


The U District is characterized by the indigenous annual May U-District Street Fair, first of its kind in 1971, started by Japanese-American merchant and dedicated peace activist Andy Shiga in 1970, and the University District Farmers Market, Seattle's first (1993) and largest local farmers-only neighborhood market. Andy Shiga (1919-1993) of Shiga's Imports and local attorney Calmar McCune (1911-1996) long supported development of the alternative character of the U District. The ASUW Experimental College, founded in the college culture of 1968 by a group of UW students seeking education in areas not found in the traditional university environment, is now the largest nonprofit student-run program of its kind. Open to all, it has contributed to the cultural ambience of the U District ever since. The Blue Moon Tavern has become an unofficial cultural landmark, since 1934. Big Time is Seattle's original brewpub (1988). Six theatres (including the Neptune since 1921, the Varsity since 1940; the Grand Illusion since 1968, now owned and run by dedicated volunteers); and the largest video store on the West Coast (and locally-owned) further characterize the neighborhood. The U District is second only to Capitol Hill as an epicenter for NoCat Free Wi-Fi with the global Seattle Wireless project.

The neighborhood's skyline landmarks (other than the UW campus) are its tallest buildings, Safeco Plaza and the Meany Hotel (now the Best Western University Tower). The former is the headquarters building of Safeco Corporation, located at the corner of Brooklyn Avenue NE and NE 45th Street. Built in 1973, it is 22 stories high and is the city's tallest building outside Downtown. The latter is Art Deco (1931, restored). The architect Robert Reame gave every room a corner window. A jewel of the neighborhood is the formal Neo-classical Carnegie Library (1910) on Roosevelt Way at 50th Street.

In recent decades, the University District has suffered commercial decline, due at least in significant part to the more competitive planning, capital investment, and popularity of the University Village shopping center east of the campus, and Northgate Mall about 1-1/2 miles (2-1/2 km) north beside I-5. From 2002 to 2004, the city and the neighborhood have made some steps countering this trend by giving the Ave a repaving facelift including the addition of benches, bus bulbs, and period lighting. The addition of benches represented the reversal of a decades-long neighborhood trend away from providing free places to sit.

Due to the size of the UW Greek system, fraternity and sorority members make up a sizeable portion of the local cafes' and bars' clientele, especially such establishments as Earl's and Tommy's, though well outnumbered by the Seattle campus student body of more than 39,250. Other bars have a wider base of patrons, including the College Inn (since the Alaska-Yukon Exposition in 1909) and the Irish Emigrant. The University District is home to all of the UW's fraternity and sorority houses, most of them clustered along 17th Avenue NE between NE 45th and 50th Streets ("Frat Row" or "Greek Row"). On Thursday (when many Greek parties are held to deter high-schoolers) and Friday nights, it is not uncommon for parties to spill out into the local streets within the area. This reputation draws many crashers, and most of the recent instances of gun violence, injury, and property damage at UW student parties have been due to party crashers getting ejected, in the context of readily available alcohol (and recreational drugs) at large student parties.

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