Rural by Choice

Vashon

Occasionally visitors to Vashon will wander into the Hardware Store restaurant in the heart of the town’s modest commercial center, scratch their heads, and ask owner Melinda Sontgerath what exactly there is to do on the island. “Well,” she’ll reply with a polite, slightly mischievous smile, “you’re doing it.” Vashon, she enjoys telling them, isn’t a bustling burg of diversions and activities. It’s a refuge from city life, the kind of place where your shoulders relax the minute you step off of the ferry. “It’s a quiet, more thoughtful type of tourist who really understands the benefit of coming over to the island,” Sontgerath says.

So rather than sweat the pressures of staying hip and luring more outsiders willing to spend their travel dollars, the native islanders are doing their best to maintain the status quo. In fact, the only truly modern concept they’ve embraced of late is sustainability—and that’s had as much to do with embracing isolation as it has with protecting the environment. They want locally grown food (and there are plenty of farms to provide it), but they want local jobs as well. “Moving to an island is a very conscious decision,” Sontgerath says. “You don’t do it lightly.”

All Quiet on the Western Shore

Magnolia

It’s hard to think of Magnolia as a best-kept secret, what with its name recognition, proximity to downtown, and stately homes. But that’s just how its residents think of it—and they like it that way. “It keeps us from being overrun,” says Julie Szmania, co-owner of the eponymous eatery in Magnolia Village.

Magnolians have watched fickle Seattleites hop from one hot neighborhood to another while their own little corner of the city has remained relatively unchanged. And that steady-as-she-goes status has helped the community built on wide streets and anchored by Discovery Park maintain a close-knit, family-friendly feel. Some even jokingly call it Mayberry R.F.D. “I wouldn’t quite go that far,” says Loree Schoonover, editor of the Magnolia Voice blog. “But it 
really is a charming small-town atmosphere five minutes from the city.”

The only drawback to all that quiet: It’s almost lulled portions of the commercial core—located on West McGraw Street—to sleep. Stubborn landlords are reluctant to pony up development dough to improve vacant storefronts, and skittish entrepreneurs won’t set up shop in the isolated enclave. The lack of retail action peeves people like Szmania, but not enough to sour them on Magnolia. “We may not be the most exciting neighborhood in town,” she says, “but we have great views, big yards, and it’s safe.”

A Place to Park It

Mount Baker

For being a relatively slim sliver of South Seattle, Mount Baker has an impressive amount of park space. There’s Colman Park, Mount Baker Park, and Lake Washington Boulevard, all in one cluster along the water. And that’s not even counting Genesee Park, which lies just outside the southeastern edge of the neighborhood. It’s the kind of place where people can slow down, walk their residential streets—or even walk downtown if they want—and shoot the breeze with their neighbors. “You know everyone and say hi to them on the street,” says 26-year resident Joyce Moty. “It’s not like people drive home from work and into their garage and you never see them.”

Which makes Mount Baker’s business district all the more confounding. Located at the busy intersection of Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, it hardly has the walkable vibe you’ll find elsewhere in the community. “That’s what I think is holding us back,” Moty says. “It’s more car oriented.”

Change—or at least suggestions for change—may be on the way, though. How to improve the area surrounding Mount Baker’s new light rail station was the subject of a recent national design competition by the Urban Land Institute. Last winter, teams of graduate students from across the country were challenged to design a more pedestrian-friendly center, and the winner was scheduled to be announced in March. “Who knows,” Moty says. “Maybe the kids have some good ideas that we’ll be able to borrow.”