You needn't love lutefisk to love Ballard, the Seattle neighborhood built largely by Scandinavian immigrants at the turn of the century and famous for its celebration of Syttende Mai (Norwegian Constitution Day) each May. But a love of walking, eating, pristine waterways, the green life and community activism is well served in this older neighborhood with a small-town feel.
In fact, Ballard was once its own town – and not so small. When it incorporated in 1890, it was the third largest city in Washington with more than 10,000 residents. A need to provide fresh water to all those residents led to Ballard's incorporation into the City of Seattle in 1907.
In the past decade Ballard has become decidedly more cosmopolitan than its working class, fishing village origins. As expensive condos, chic shops and world-cuisine restaurants have moved in, middle- to upper-income residents have become the norm. The average price of a single family home in this area reached $527,000 in late 2007, with condo prices not far below at an average of $408,000. Yet there remains an underlying love for the seafaring cultures of northernmost Europe.
Nordic roots show in the statue of Leif Erikson at Shilshole Bay Marina and along Ballard's residential streets and commercial corridor, where homes and businesses are more likely to carry a tell-tale red or black Norwegian "post" box than a good ol' U.S. mailbox. You'll see the flags of Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark along with the American flag at homes and businesses. And the Nordic Heritage Museum (3014 N.W. 67th St.) – a popular stop for families with school-age kids for its life-sized displays of Scandinavian immigration – offers a host of events each year to keep the Nordic flame alive in Ballard.
But while history is important to residents, meeting the needs of a new generation is equally valued in Ballard. Support for Ballard High School sports teams, the Beavers, is legendary, and public schools in this area are well supported by parent volunteers and active PTAs. In fact, there are very few K-12 private schools located within Ballard neighborhood boundaries.
On a municipal level, this town seeks to serve kids of all ages. The neighborhood has a definite lack of parks, but two big inroads have been made. With the development of The Ballard Commons Park (5701 22nd Ave. N.W.), the region got an award-winning park with a skate bowl that draws teens and young adults from all over Seattle. It's part of the new "municipal center" in Ballard, which includes the Seattle Public Library, Ballard branch (5614 22nd Ave. N.W.), and the Neighborhood Service Center (5604 22nd Ave N.W.). All three venues opened in 2005.
In late March, the city of Seattle, at the urging of Ballard residents, reached a preliminary agreement to buy a 39,000-square-foot site at 7028 9th Ave. N.W. The city plans to use Pro-Parks Levy funding for the purchase and to develop the parcel as a park and open space, based on community input. As one of the largest city acquisitions in some time, residents say the new park will help to balance Ballard's density and dearth of green space.
Green and Family-Friendly
The library, with its solar panels, green roof and construction using recycled and recovered materials, is a fine example of Ballard's green streak. Another is Sustainable Ballard (www. sustainableballard.org), an organization that has gained regional attention championing environmental causes and the "eat local" movement. The group gathers for a family-friendly potluck meeting every fourth Monday of the month at the Sunset Hill Community Center. Sustainable Ballard's annual Eat Local Now dinners and Sustainable Ballard festivals are can't-miss events for tie-dyed and true-blue greenies.
Green is the central color at the year-round Sunday Farmers Market on old Ballard Avenue. Inaugurated in 1990, the market is one of Seattle's most popular. Here vendors supply a wide array of organic goods from Brussels sprouts to cherry strudel, goats' milk to lamb shanks, bath products to hemp fashions – in other words, everything from soap to nuts.
Ballard offers families a smorgasbord of activities and attractions on a walkable, open grid. Shilshole Beach and Golden Gardens Park, located on Seaview Avenue at the west end of the district, are popular picnic and play destinations. The Hiram Chittenden Locks at the other end of Seaview, at 32nd Avenue N.W., is one of Seattle's central tourist attractions. A new walking/running/riding path connects the two, offering beautiful views of Shilshole Bay Marina, Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. A walk with kids from Ballard's tip to tail – from the east end of N.W. Market Street to Shilshole at the west end – takes about 1.5 hours.
N.W. Market Street, the district's main drag, is a beltway of shops and restaurants of interest to kids and parents. For the best food bet, stop at the Hi-Life in the old Ballard Firehouse at 5425 Russell Ave. N.W., just off Market. Check out the great children's and young adult sections at The Secret Garden Bookstore. Me ‘n' Mom's Consignment Boutique, Gymboree, Stone Gardens rock-climbing gym and the independent Majestic Bay Theater cater to families. On classic, brick Ballard Avenue N.W., find the classy toy and clothing shop, Clover.
If your kids have outgrown pull toys, consider a visit to Sonic Boom on Market Street with its thousands of new and used CDs and albums. Sonic Boom is known for sudden in-store appearances by local and national artists such as Sleater-Kinney and Harvey Danger.
The heart of Ballard is community – residents are outspoken and activist.
The purchase of the new park space, pushed by the local parks and habitat preservation organization Groundswell N.W. (www.groundswellnw.org), exemplifies the region's community action orientation. And where else in the world would you find local residents scrambling to save an old Denny's restaurant?
When the 25-year-old diner, located on the corner of Market Street and 15th Avenue, was sold to a developer and slated for demolition to make way for more condos this year, residents stood up. They pushed the Landmark Preservation Board to declare the location an historic landmark, tying up the project in a lengthy legal battle.
Local activists had less impact on the decision to close Sunset Bowl in 2009, also on NW Market Street. The big, brightly colored alley closed at the end of April, to the chagrin of avid bowlers and local families. Still, a handful of residents have organized a petition drive to save Sunset Bowl, and there is now talk that the developers may include a bowling center in the residential-retail complex they have planned for the site.
You might say that the civic spirit in Ballard is linked to janteloven, a Scandinavian ideal about equality and participation in community. The heart of janteloven is that "there should be no tall poppies." In other words, no one person should stand out as better than another.
In a neighborhood where residents old and young get involved to save Denny's and build a skateboard park smack in the middle of retail zone, there are indeed "no tall poppies."
Cheryl Murfin is a Seattle-based freelance writer.