7 places to feel the pre-Amazon vibe in South Lake Union

By: Anika Anand and Mónica Guzmán

What was South Lake Union before Amazon moved in, and where can you go to experience it? That’s what reader Janice Wright wanted to know when she sent in her burning question about the neighborhood.

“I feel like all we know about South Lake Union is that there’s a lot of Amazon and a lot of brand-new condos,” Janice said. “And those sorts of things don’t sound like very much fun… There has to be stuff that’s older than Amazon, that has more of a story to it.”

There is. But those places are getting increasingly difficult to find. “Virtually all of SLU is wiped clean of old culture,” said Greg Lundgren, a local artist, designer, and curator. “There are very, very few parcels that haven’t been entirely transformed.”

Amazon opened its first building in South Lake Union in 2010, and ever since then, some Seattleites have debated whether the neighborhood has any deep culture or soul.

But it’s there. You just have to squint a little.

“You uncover one layer, and then there’s another one and another one,” said Leonard Garfield, executive director of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.

So without further ado, and with a few apologies to the neighborhood-boundary purists among you, here are seven places where you can kinda sorta feel South Lake Union’s pre-Amazon groove.

Cascade Park
84 years pre-Amazon (1926)
When people think of old South Lake Union, they often think of a historic blue-collar neighborhood called Cascade. Cascade Park “really was the center of the community,” Leonard Garfield told us. In some ways, it still is: Plots in the adjacent p-patch garden go back years, and neighbors meet at the park or the nearby Cascade People’s Center for all kinds of community events.


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You can go back, but you may be mobbed.

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Nollie’s Cafe
Two years pre-Amazon (2008)
Want the homey neighborhood vibe in a sea of condos and office buildings? Owner Dan Munro has been in town for 55 years, his wife, Sue, is known for remembering their regulars’ names, and their baker, Karen, makes some delicious cookies. Pop in during business hours — it’s open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Public Storage
97 years pre-Amazon (1913)
You’re scratching your head, but give us a minute. Before this huge building on Fairview Avenue North held all our neighbors’ extra stuff, it was the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant — Ford’s first assembly plant west of Detroit. You can’t exactly experience that now, but the next time you’re in a car crawling toward I-5, you can give a nod to a place that helped put you there. 


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2018/08/10 ~ S Lake Union #PublicStorage #Building #Seattle

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20 years pre-Amazon (1990)
This nightclub’s a “cherished home for grunge punks, misfits, weirdos, drag queens, poets, freaks, and celebrities” and hosts everything from burlesque to the World Extreme Pencil Fighting Championships (really). Purists will say anything south of Denny Way is technically not South Lake Union, but this is the last place that would care.


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about last night: 🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈

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Cheshiahud Loop
Two years pre-Amazon (2008)
A six-mile paved path circles Lake Union. Eleven years ago, it was named after Cheshiahud, a Native member of the Duwamish Tribe who built canoes, befriended Seattle city founder David Denny, and struggled to stay by the lake he loved while his people were pushed out.

Seven years pre-Amazon (2003)
“Soul Night is hands down the best night of every month,” gushes one fan of this club on the east edge of the neighborhood. She’s talking about Emerald City Soul Club, which goes down every second Saturday at this showcase for DJs, poets, and all kinds of performance art.

Center for Wooden Boats
34 years pre-Amazon (1976)
To see one part of South Lake Union that hasn’t changed much, go to the water. The Center for Wooden Boats has been getting people off land for years, and is pretty generous about it. Show up by 10 a.m. on any Sunday — rain or shine — for a free public sail.


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Seattle, I’m falling in love. #seattle #lakeunion #boats @centerforwoodenboats

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Thanks to Greg Lundgren, Leonard Garfield, Davida Marion, Matthew Richter, and Michele Gould for helping us find some good spots to feature in this story.