Friday, May 20, 2022

Seattle's Victory Gardens

This post is a product of the Seattle Community Gardening History Project.

Victory Garden at Seattle Children's Home, 1944. Courtesy MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Photograph Collection, 1986.5.7817.3, photo by Ed Watton.

From victory gardens to p-patches, Seattle has a long history of community gardening. A straight line links the victory gardens of old with the p-patches, community gardens, and pandemic gardens of today. In particular the idea of vacant land as an untapped resource continues, although such unused plots are harder to find today than they once were.

During World War II a cooperative “Victory Garden” was developed in the heart of Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, not far from today’s Ravenna Community Center. According to a piece in The Seattle Times, the garden was “serving seven families for a cost of only $3.58 each.” What that amount represented or how it was calculated is not stated.

Victory Gardens abounded around the Seattle area, as they did throughout the nation at war. Framed as a way of easing the strain on the country’s agricultural resources while ameliorating the privations of war on family households, gardening was equally a way of channeling patriotism – something that could be done on the home front.

Most gardens were small scale, home-based efforts which served to supplement household provisions during a time of food rationing. Such was the garden of the Gibbon family in the Pritchard Island neighborhood of Southeast Seattle. However, Americans were also urged to make use of vacant lots, a project that would no doubt take several families working in cooperation, such as that at Ravenna.

Rosetta Gibbon and son Gary tend their victory garden on the shores of Lake Washington, c. 1943. Photo courtesy of Rainier Valley Historical Society.

Victory gardens cropped up on corner lots, in schoolyards, at public housing projects, and on army bases. Some corporations sponsored gardens next to their plants. Japanese Americans planted victory gardens in the camps where they were incarcerated during the war, while their farms and greenhouses back home in the exclusion zone were turned over to others to raise essential vegetables for the war effort.

An ambitious suggestion for a victory garden plan, courtesy of the state of Illinois.

In 1943 Orrin Hale, chair of the Seattle Civilian War Commission’s Victory Garden Committee called for registering vacant parcels throughout the city:

“There is a great deal of vacant property in Seattle that could be made available for victory gardens to people living in apartments, or homes built on small lots. We are appealing to owners of this property to turn their lots over for cultivation this year.”

The World War II Victory Garden was not a new idea. Similar efforts were made during The Great War although on a smaller scale. The terms “war garden” and “liberty garden” were used often at that time.

Women's Work

While all able-bodied civilians were encouraged to support the war effort, the target demographic for war garden work was women, particularly housewives and mothers who were less likely to become Rosie the Riveters. Government agencies, the media, and businesses all found a new appreciation for women as part of the war effort and as consumers. Seattle was no exception

“Women are being urged locally to interest themselves generally in the movement for more and better gardens. While gardening under normal conditions is essentially a man’s job, and every man with the right spirit and with facilities for gardening will roll up his sleeves and get busy, much depends on the women of this city and of the nation to make the greatest success of the movement for ward gardens.” (SDT March 17, 1918)

The tone changed little two decades later. Newspaper advertisements featured attractive slacks-clad women planting and hoeing under headlines such as “Every Practical Housekeeper is planting a 1943 Victory Garden.”

Nurseries and “seed dealers” were quick to jump on the bandwagon, offering to “instruct housewives in growing vegetables in home gardens” and coming up with creative packages of seeds, tools, and instruction booklets for the patriotic gardener. And, of course, fashion could not be neglected. A 1943 “article” advertised Frederick & Nelson’s “At Home Week” (“A Thrilling Event Keyed to Victory”). The article features a photo of a smiling young woman wielding a hoe in Frederick & Nelson’s miniature victory garden (third floor.) “Wearing nail-head studded denim jeans, gay plaid shirt and sturdy Mexican huaraches, Mrs. Philip Bronson ‘digs in for victory’.

Seattle Daily Times, March 19, 1943.

Interest in home-grown produce waned after the war as women returned to traditional gender roles and food shortages decreased. However, by the 1960s a back-to-the-earth movement brought a resurgence of community gardening and laid the groundwork for the start of Seattle's P-Patch Program in 1973.


Farming Revival in the Rainier Valley

Today the landscape of Seattle is dotted with tiny gardens called P-patches, as well as several larger urban farms and orchards. Rainier Valley is no exception; a number of vacant lots and underutilized spaces have been converted to meet the growing desire for freshly-grown produce and the need for food security. Some of these spaces are dedicated to the newer groups of immigrants and refugees who have settled in the valley.

The City of Seattle, through its P-patch program, and the Seattle Housing Authority have made concerted efforts to provide gardening space for newcomers. Many of these families come from farming backgrounds and a space to plant and harvest familiar foods is a way to ease the transition to their new home. The big housing communities at NewHolly and Rainier Vista each offer several parcels of land for gardening. In addition, each community provides a farm stand where gardeners may sell their extra produce.

Rainier Valley also boasts a new community garden called Wetmore Farm sponsored by the nonprofit The Common Acre on an undeveloped street end just off Rainier Avenue, a demonstration orchard in Hillman City, and the Rainier Beach Urban Farm, developed on the site of the city’s old Atlantic City Nursery.

                                            Aerial showing the old Atlantic City Nursery. 

                    Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives, Don Sherwood Parks Collection.

Rainier Beach Urban Farm 2022

More than a dozen P-patches are scattered around the valley. Climbing Water, named for the adjacent hill-climbing Cedar River pipeline, is a narrow, terraced garden sandwiched between apartments that recalls the hillside gardens of the old Italian residents of Garlic Gulch. The Thistle patch, one of the oldest and largest in the city, provides 77 plots for East Asian immigrants in Rainier Beach. And the smaller NewHolly 29 Avenue garden serves East African, Southeast Asian, and Chinese American residents of the NewHolly community.

Longtime gardeners Plekeao and Mansak Douangdala came to Seattle in 1981 from a refugee camp in Thailand after fleeing communists in their home country of Laos. They first started gardening on a plot of land provided by Our Lady of Mount Virgin church. Many years later, Mansak discovered an overgrown parcel of land on Estelle Street and began to mow the city-owned property. Now the couple cultivates a large garden plot at the Estelle Street P-patch where they raise bitter melons, eggplants, yam root, taro leaf, onions, peppers, corn and mustard greens.

                                            Whimsical art at Climbing Water P-Patch

Bradner Gardens is much more than a P-patch. Originally set up to provide space for Mien refugees from Laos in the 1980s, the Mount Baker garden overcame a serious threat. Long-time gardener and activist Joyce Moty described how the neighborhood banded together to protest the city’s decision to sell the land in the mid-1990s: “
The Southeast Atlantic Community Association – we had a two-year battle with city hall over trying to save this piece of land from being sold for market rate housing. And we went to the mayor's office, talked to city council people, trying to say this is really not a good idea to sell this land, but we were just citizens.” (2021 oral history) Ultimately, the group was instrumental in getting an initiative titled Protect Our Parks passed; the 1996 law states that the city may not sell park land without replacing it in the same neighborhood. Today Bradner Gardens Park is much more than its 61-bed P-patch. The space offers a children’s garden, demonstration beds, a bee colony, art installations, and basketball hoops.

                                                            Bradner Gardens, 2021

This post is a product of the Seattle Community Gardening History Project.

What's in a Name? The Kirke Park and P-Patch

Every garden has a story. Tucked into a quiet neighborhood of Ballard is a garden with a particularly unique back story: The Kirke Park and P-Patch.



Those with a basic understanding of Germanic languages will recognize that the word Kirke means “church.” The park was given a Norwegian name to honor the Scandinavian heritage of the Ballard neighborhood. However, there was a more specific reason for the name: Kirke Park sits on the site of a religious community that once occupied the property for nearly 80 years – not a traditional house of worship as one might find in many neighborhoods, but the residence of a millennial sect known as the Seventh Elect Church in Israel. Founded in 1922 by a 77-year old preacher, the church dictated chastity, vegetarianism, unshorn hair, and an unquestioning obedience to the authority of its founder, Daniel Salwt. Tall, imposing, with a long-white beard, Salwt ruled over a group of several dozen adherents who handed over property and money to his use, including a parcel of land on Ninth Avenue Northwest Avenue in Ballard.

Thanks to research carried out by the late Barbara Hainley and other neighbors, we know quite a bit about Mr. Salwt, a charismatic, itinerant preacher from the Midwest who arrived in Seattle in 1910 at the age of 65. Attracting followers from among the mill workers and other laboreres, he gathered the “elect” to the Ballard property. To house the faithful, he moved (or possibly tore down and rebuilt) a wooden hotel or rooming house to the site, a structure he had also been given. A second, smaller building followed. There, with promises of eternal life, his followers lived communally, turning over their wages to the church and growing vegetables on plots assigned to them. Members also tended fruit trees, berry bushes, and ornamental flower beds. A tradition of gardening and self-sufficiency was established.

When Salwt died at the age of 84 in 1929, church members, believing he was an incarnation of Jesus and that he would rise again, refused to turn over his body to authorities until threatened with legal action. In the following decades a dwindling number of men lived on the church property, the last two dying in the millennial year 2000. The gardens were maintained, at least sporadically. An article in the Seattle Times from 1970 noted that while the church buildings were “somewhat run-down, the extensive flower gardens are neat and well tended.”[i]

            The name SALWT, laid out in bricks, was still to be seen when plans for the park got underway. Photo courtesy of architect Clayton Beaudoin.

End Times

The world did not come to an end, as Salwt had predicted; however, his church did. By 2008, the legal entity that was the Seventh Elect Church was heading for dissolution and the heir to the property was ready to sell. Neighbors had had their eyes on the property for some time and successfully lobbied the city to purchase the land for a small park. With funds from the 2000 Pro Parks Levy and the 2008 Parks & Green Space Levy, the decrepit buildings were torn down and a multi-use park designed by landscape architect Clayton Beaudoin of SiteWorkshop. The park includes a playground, an open meadow, a 31-plot p-patch, a large giving garden, a communal strawberry patch, and many “secret” nooks and crannies.

Kirke is one of our city’s newest parks, dedicated in 2012, but its history is evident in more than just its name. A plaque explains the unusual story of the property. Several concrete foundation walls that were to support a temple that was never built have been reshaped and repurposed to create the illusion of a walled secret garden. The garden shed, designed and built by neighbor and gardener Jennifer Hammill, mimics a picturesque chapel. A few shrubs and trees original to the church’s garden have been retained, including an espaliered apple tree and roses. Beaudoin recalls that “there were many elements that created a sense of ‘ruins’ and we heard many requests to maintain the magic and mystery of the place.”

Friends of Kirke Park, a group of neighbors and gardeners, coordinates garden activities – both work parties, including a Spring Cleanup, and purely social events such as the annual summer Hot Dog Party. Interested community members are invited to contact the Friends by sending a message to

Kirke Park is located at 7028 9th Avenue N.W. in Seattle.


This post is a product of the Seattle Community Gardening History Project. A version of this story was published in the GROW P-Patch Post, Spring 2022.

[i] Seattle Times, May 6, 1970, A9. Other sources for this story include an oral history interview with Jennifer Hammill, correspondence with Clayton Beaudoin, and an article by Barbara Hainley titled “The Seventh Elect Church in Israel: Seattle’s ‘Long-Haired Preachers,” published in Communal Societies, Journal of the Communal Studies Association, 35:2 (2015).

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Losing Ground: Seattle's Lost Patches

Over the course of a half century, Seattle has developed well over 100 p-patch gardens. Not all have survived. Too often, patches have suffered by being labeled “interim use.” The pressures of urban development coupled with rising property values brought down a number of gardens. Other succumbed to social conflict, both external and internal, and other factors. Today we will look at a few of the patches that were forced to close permanently and the circumstances behind the closures.

This post is a product of the Seattle Community Gardening History Project.

Jackson Place

In 1995 the Jackson Place Community Council applied for and received a modest grant from the Department of Neighborhood’s Matching Fund Program to establish a p-patch. The grant application spoke of “the opportunity to beautify our community, take advantage of one of the numerous vacant lots, and have a focus for developing and fostering neighborhood friendships and pride in our community.” The street corner lot was located at 16th Avenue S. and S. Weller Street on the western slope of the city’s Central District. Former P-Patch Program Manager Rich Macdonald remembers it as “a little garden with a little view. It was really pretty.” Unfortunately, only six years later the owner of the property, a food processing company, terminated the lease likely due to dissolution of company assets preparatory to becoming inactive. Today the corner is a parking lot.

The loss of Jackson Place did provide an added incentive for the build-out of the creatively designed and named Climbing Water P-Patch, just two blocks to the south on a steep slope adjacent to the Cedar River pipeline. Climbing Water was established in 2006 on land leased from HomeSight, an affordable housing developer, and with the support of the Jackson Place Community Council.

                        The short-lived Jackson Place P-Patch. Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives.

                                            Steep and narrow Climbing Water P-Patch

Beacon Avenue P-Patch

On Central Beacon Hill, around the corner from the Beacon Avenue thoroughfare, a small community garden sits tucked away from the street behind heavy shrubbery on S. Graham Street. The land is owned by the adjacent Bethany (formerly Beacon Avenue) United Church of Christ. The property had been gardened for some time by members of the church, but -- in an effort to expand the gardening base in 1993 -- the church agreed to turn over management of the garden to the P-Patch Program. The relationship endured for thirteen years, but ultimately came to an end in 2005. The garden faced obstacles that included its placement between private properties and lack of any street frontage, making it difficult for patchers to deliver materials to the garden. Layered on top of this were ongoing personality conflicts between several gardeners whose disputes were left to program staff to mediate. Ultimately the city decided these difficulties and the resulting fall-off of interest in gardening made effective management impossible.

Some years later, in 2016, the garden space was turned over to a nonprofit organization, Nurturing Roots, which has created a small urban farm complete with gardening workshops, communal meals, chickens, and a commitment to social and environmental justice. Nurturing Roots leases the property from Bethany Church.

Chickens at Nurturing Roots Farm


Perhaps the most heartbreaking loss was that of Angeline P-Patch, a garden that existed for a scant 18 months. Angeline and Ferdinand were two gardens established by the city in the summer of 1982 on vacant land under power lines on Beacon Hill. The patches were intended to serve Southeast Asian refugees, many of whom had settled in the area. Families from Laos and Cambodia had been violently uprooted from their homes due to fallout from the Vietnam War. The new patches were the city’s first effort to find land for these one-time farmers to cultivate and grow some of the vegetables of their homeland. Angeline was offered to ethnic Mien families.

Unfortunately, the best laid intentions ran afoul of culture clash. A few neighbors of the Angeline patch orchestrated a campaign against the garden, calling it a public nuisance. The Beacon Hill Community Council became involved. Concerns ranged from children playing in the street to vermin to newcomers washing their cars on the street and asking for favors from residents, such as use of a telephone (in the pre-cell phone era). One neighbor complained that the garden was messy and weedy, likely not recognizing Asian vegetables or understanding the Mien practice of letting plants go to seed in order to preserve the seeds for future planting. Possibly the greatest concern was the habit of the Asians to work in their plots late into the evening, even after dark with the help of flashlights. From the perspective of 40 years, it becomes clear that cultural practices on both sides were in conflict. A few isolated incidents, compounded by language barriers, likely led to an overblown reaction from a few neighbors.

P-Patch staff spent most of 1983 struggling to address the concerns of the neighbors while also working with the gardeners to curb some practices. In the summer of 1983, one of the most disgruntled neighbors hired an environmental consultant firm to test the garden for suspected vermin infestation, harmful bacteria, and human waste. None was found. Unfortunately, it was too late to save the garden. By autumn, the efforts were abandoned and the garden was set for closure at the end of the year.

For the 1984 growing season, families who wished to continue gardening were assisted to find plots at the Ferdinand patch a few blocks away or at the more distant Thistle P-Patch in Rainier Beach.

Site of the Angeline P-Patch returned to nature

NE 75th Street and 27th Avenue NE

In 1978 the P-Patch program was able to lease a parcel of land downhill from Eckstein Middle School in Northeast Seattle for the low low price of $85 per year. Sometimes known as Hillside, sometimes as Ravenna Hillside, but generally referred to now as that garden where the skinny houses are, the 16-plot patch lasted for a decade. The land was owned by a retired couple who lived in Okanogan County. Upon the death of the husband, the wife made the hard decision to sell the land noting that she was “sorry to see the Pea [sic] Patch go.” 

The tale of 27th Avenue demonstrates the risk of siting p-patches on private land. With only a short-term lease (generally one to three years), gardeners run the risk of being uprooted at almost any time.

Plan of the Ravenna Hillside P-Patch

Sand Point

Some of the gardeners from 27th Avenue were able to acquire plots at the Sand Point P-Patch approximately two miles east along Sand Point Way. This property, too, would fall to development, in 2001 making way for a new facility for Seattle Children’s Hospital, the owner of the land. However, unlike some gardens mentioned here, the Sand Point P-Patch did not die, but was moved wholesale across the street to Magnuson Park. The story of that heroic effort will be told another day.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Echoes of Seattle's Garlic Gulch

Our church was Mount Virgin church. We had several Italian grocery stores at Atlantic Street, Italian pharmacy, Italian barbershop. The residents were mainly east and west of Rainier Avenue going all the way up to Beacon Hill. As far south as – oh, a little south of McClellan Street. We had the ballpark. We had the Vacca Brothers farm. And we had the Italian language school here, at Atlantic Street.

Thus did baker and businessman Remo Borracchini describe the neighborhood of Seattle’s North Rainier Valley that came to be called Garlic Gulch due to the large number of Italian families settled there.

A Garlic Gulch home and garden. Patricelli family. Mary Grace Briglio Patricelli and Michael Patricelli. Courtesy Rainier Valley Historical Society.

 Little Italy

The main wave of Italian immigrants to Washington’s “shores” came at the turn of the 19th century. Many came to work in the coal mines in South King County; others were farmers who set up truck farms in the Rainier and Duwamish Valleys. By 1910 some 2,000 Italians congregated in the Rainier Valley. They were not always welcomed by the existing population; language, cultural, and religious barriers led to stigmatization and discrimination.

A sociology graduate student at the UW, Nellie Roe, wrote her 1915 thesis on “The Italian Immigrant in Seattle.” Despite clear biases in her narrative, we can thank Roe for hand-drawn images of the North Rainier area, including this one.

Sketch by sociology student Nellie Roe in 1915. 

While poverty and overcrowded conditions may have been the norm in Garlic Gulch during the early years (as it is in many immigrant communities), the Italians worked hard and created a vibrant community centered on institutions such as Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church and School. For several decades beginning in 1911, Mount Virgin and revered priest Father Ludovico Caramello were the heart of the Italian community in Seattle. Long-time resident Ralph Vacca recalled: 

The church in the Italian community, at least in that generation, was the center. And Father Caramello was God in America. You could take a string or measuring stick and go out whatever distance from Mount Virgin Church and there would be a lot of Italian names and families.

Small grocery stores sprang up to serve the Italian families, as well as the German and Greek families that were also a part of the social fabric. Families that may have originally lived with friends and relatives in ramshackle houses and boarding houses built sturdier homes, planted vegetable gardens, grape arbors, and fruit trees, and often added Italian traditions such as wine presses and bocce ball courts. 

Winemaking was an important tradition and the center of many family and community celebrations. “Sometimes the wine was good and sometimes it wasn’t,” remembers Croce.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to see those early days through a rosy hue. Bill Ferrari recalled: 

It was a fantastic neighborhood. It had different cultures of people. There were Italians, there were Jewish people, Japanese, Chinese. All mixtures within the neighborhood. Anglo-Americans, a few of those. But everybody got along. 

The pillars of the community

If Mount Virgin was the spiritual heart of the Italian community, Borracchini’s was its stomach. The popular bakery and Italian delicatessen was a part of Seattle’s culinary scene for nearly a century, beginning with a small delivery business in 1922 and continuing in 1938 with a huge retail establishment designed to look like an Italian villa. The specialty cakes and imported delicacies were enjoyed by generations of Seattleites, not just Italians.

But Borracchini’s was not alone in achieving lasting renown. A relative late-comer, Oberto Sausage Factory, was founded in 1953 on Rainier Avenue. The New Italian Café, opened in the early 1930s, was a gathering spot at the hub of the community, Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street. Add to these institutions a macaroni factory, several Italian barbers, an Italian druggist, and a singing shoemaker and you have the ingredients for a thriving ethnic community. 

The children of Garlic Gulch were sent to Italian School, an after-school program designed to teach them the language and reinforce the culture of their parents. Lucy Salle remembered the experience:

I went there a couple of years at least. I must have been about seven years old. A friend of mine from the neighborhood went with me and we went down to Atlantic Street…to Valentine Place. And there was this little place, a garage or something. And they had desks in there and that was the Italian School. It was called Scuola Italiana Dante Alleghieri. We always put that at the top of our paper, so it’s in my mind.

Atlantic Street Center began life in 1910 as the Deaconess Settlement House at 1519 Rainier Avenue South. The Methodist deaconesses who founded the charity wished to serve the unmet needs of the many Italian immigrant families in Garlic Gulch. 

Several fraternal and athletic organizations maintained and strengthened ties among Italian families and businesses.

Children at Atlantic Street Center, undated. Courtesy Atlantic Street Center.

Beginning of the End

In 1940, the highway that would become part of Interstate 90 sliced through the heart of the Italian community in North Rainier and tunneled through the Mount Baker neighborhood to reach Lake Washington and the first floating bridge. 

Despite this incursion, the resilient Italian community clung to its traditions and institutions for some time. Dino Patricelli recalls his childhood growing up in the heart of Garlic Gulch in the 1960s:

They had the New Italian [Cafe] right there. And then my brother Louie had an ice cream shop right there on the corner of 23rd and Rainier. And then there was a meat market and then the New Italian and then around the other side from my brother was Tony LaSalle Shoemaker. And he did shoes, you know? So everybody on the weekends always kind of gathered at the New Italian. 

I was just having fun, you know, just like the youngest one living there, never had to worry about eating because there was plenty of food everywhere. And if we didn't eat, we could walk down the alleys and stuff. They had plenty of fruit, you know, or somebody would call you in and say, come on and eat.

A few decades later, despite community protest, the highway was elevated to freeway status, many homes in the heart of Garlic Gulch were demolished, and South Atlantic Street, the locus of many Italian businesses, was vacated between 22nd Avenue South and Bradner Place South. Garlic Gulch was never the same. 

By this time, farmland in the valley had largely succumbed to urban development. World War II caused additional disruptions. Many families moved south to the still rural areas of King and Pierce counties. Others moved to the Eastside. Demographics shifted and new waves of immigrants moved into the Rainier Valley putting their own stamp on the landscape.

End of the End

For decades journalists and others proclaimed the demise of Garlic Gulch. Residents grieved when the New Italian Café was razed in 1986. The following year, Eric Scigliano wrote his definitive piece “Good-by Garlic Gulch” for The Weekly. Yet pieces of the old enclave persisted. Today, however, it feels that the last nail has indeed been hammered into the coffin. Beloved Rainier Avenue institutions Borracchini’s Bakery and Oberto Sausage Factory closed permanently just this year. (Oberto Sausage Company still operates out of headquarters in Kent. Borracchini’s fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.) And now Our Lady of Mount Virgin Church, along with St. Mary’s to the north, teeters on the brink of closing and perhaps sale as the Catholic Archdiocese makes difficult decisions for the allocation of scarce resources. 

Remnants of the gulch can be found if you know where to look. Here and there are plum trees, fig trees, and grape vines planted by the early Italian families. The Atlantic Street Center’s 1927 Italianate style building stills stands on South Atlantic just at the edge of the vacated portion of that street. The agency has adapted to the needs of new immigrants. Big John’s PFI (Pacific Food Importers, founded by John Croce) offers Italian and other Mediterranean specialties at the corner of Dearborn and Rainier Avenue. And, Florentine style Mount Virgin still occupies its own little gulch in the shadow of the Mount Baker lid, although it has been decades since it served a predominantly Italian congregation. 

Change is inevitable. Demographic and landscape transformation is part of the urban dynamic. While tempting to look back at an era with fond nostalgia, we must also accept the present with all its assets and failings -- and perhaps celebrate the multi-cultural community that is the North Rainier Valley today. Garlic Gulch is gone, but the ever-changing immigrant-built city lives on. 

All quotations are taken from oral histories in the collection of the Rainier Valley Historical Society. For more information on the term "Garlic Gulch," see my post Deciphering Garlic Gulch.

Rainier Valley Historical Society display at San Gennaro Festival.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Deciphering Garlic Gulch

"Gulch" = a deep or precipitous cleft RAVINE (Merriam-Webster)

Two women in Garlic Gulch, undated. Courtesy Rainier Valley Historical Society (RVHS)

The term "Garlic Gulch" is thrown around often to describe the large Italian community that nestled at the north end of the Rainier Valley from the early 1900s until the 1960s and perhaps beyond. But where did the term come from and how was it received? I offer no concrete answers, but a lot of theories and speculation.

Did it all start with Big John Croce?

I [wonder] if I originated that term, because the reason that it got famous was I had this buddy, a little tiny guy that got drafted in the army. He went to Korea, right? That's a buddy of mine. So when he comes back from Korea the paper, the PI, said we have a veteran Italian kid immigrant returning to Garlic Gulch, his home and so on. And that's where we became famous. (John Croce RVHS Oral History)

Croce, founder of Pacific Food Importers and a well-known figure in the Italian community, may well have had a hand in popularizing the name. A newspaper article -- no doubt the one he refers to (although not the P.I.) -- backs up his story:  In an article titled "Throng Greets Troop Transport," (February 9, 1953) the Seattle Times took note:

Vincenzo's best friend, John Croce, waved a huge sign, declaring a welcome to the soldier from 'The Gulch.' Not everyone understood the significance of the big placard. 'Why, that's Garlic Gulch!' exploded Croce. 'Everybody down around Rainier Avenue and Atlantic Street is Italian." 

However, even Croce admits that the term was used well before the 1950s, "but just around the neighborhood or something."

Sociology student Nelllie Roe, in her 1915 thesis "The Italian Immigrant in Seattle," appears to be entirely unfamiliar with the term. However, an item in the collection of the Rainier Valley Historical Society proves the existence of a "Garlic Gulch Athletic Club" at Franklin High School as early as 1935. 

Clearly some members of the Italian Community adopted the name with glee. The sentiment was not shared by all, however. Some viewed the term as degrading. Interviewed in 2011, Lucy Salle, who grew up in the valley, at first denies all knowledge of the term, then admits that it is used "by people who don't know any better."

So what about political correctness? 

Is the term "Garlic Gulch" a slight or slur? Or is it an affectionate nickname proudly adopted by the Italian community? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. An informal poll conducted on a local social network finds answers running the gamut from "Something that the men's club and bar patrons used with endearment" to "the ultimate racial slur." One person commented "My father still cringes when he hears the term." Others say it reminds them of the anti-Italian sentiment during World War II.

But, for some, the name conjures up fond memories of Italian cooking and gardens "full of garlic, which gave off a lovely smell while growing."

What does seem clear is that the name gradually faded from use as the Italian community fractured and dispersed. 

Where was the Gulch?

So what and where exactly was the "gulch?" Was it the chasm between Beacon Hill and, roughly, the Mount Baker neighborhood which defines the north end of the Rainier Valley? Was it, as some have postulated, related to the dump that existed where Judkins Playfield is now and which was derisively referred to as a gulch by those who considered it a nuisance? Or was it simply a conveniently alliterative metaphor to describe a contained geographic area and the folks therein?

Ironically, the opening of the first Lake Washington floating bridge in 1940, and the build-out of freeway approaches that followed in the next decades, opened up another "gulch," one that effectively separated the northern section of the Italian community around Judkins Park and Dearborn from Atlantic Street and points southward.

Mary Patricelli standing on the edge of Interstate 90 from the vestige of Atlantic Street. Undated, Courtesy Rainier Valley Historical Society.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Santa Barbara's Mission Creek in Words and Pictures

This is the story of a creek -- Mission Creek in Santa Barbara -- told in pictures. Mostly. Mission Creek (once called Pedregosa - "Stony" - Creek) runs through a storied landscape from the Santa Ynez Mountains down to the Santa Barbara Harbor. On the way it passes through the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, Rocky Nook Park, the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, and the Santa Barbara Mission, before winding through residential neighborhoods and alongside Interstate 101 and diving under State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard, emerging into the surf just south of Stearns Wharf. Or is that East? -- the Santa Barbara shoreline runs roughly horizontally East-West for much of its stretch.

This, however, is not the end of the story. After pooling out into a muddy lagoon at the shoreline, Mission Creek backs up into town again for a few blocks due north, ending at the freeway. In earlier days, this area was called El Estero, the estuary.

In the 1877 "bird's eye" view of Santa Barbara one can trace the course of the creek as it approaches the sea at Stearns Wharf and then veers inland again. With no freeway to block it, the stream continues out through the lowlands until it nears the hills.

Various structures, mostly of stone, were built on and around the creek in the early 19th century, providing access for pedestrians and also harnessing the power and resources of the waterway. Creek waters were squeezed into aqueducts and pipes to serve human needs. The bulk of this work was carried out by Native Americans, members of the Chumash tribe, in service to the Franciscan padres during the Mission Period of California history. While people like to shy away from the word "slavery," to describe this system, we can at least label it peonage, a form of forced labor. More than that, the Indians who served the Mission fathers were forced to live in close proximity to the Mission and under strict rules and restrictions, defiance of which could result in corporal punishment. Some have called the system penal servitude.

Later, in the mid-20th century, parts of the creek were channelized and armored to prevent flooding. Today new efforts at flood control, habitat restoration, and beautification are being carried out in the lower reaches of the creek.

We'll take a look at the creek and some of the historic sites associated with it. All photos are by the author unless otherwise indicated.


A walk through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden provides a close-up look at remnants of the old Mission water system built two hundred years ago.

With apologies to the folks at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, a section of their plaque on the Mission water systems.

A remnant of the old wooden aqueduct as seen from the pedestrian bridge.

The Lassiter Boulder, as indicated by the plaque, commemorates a career army man who retired to Santa Barbara and served on the board of the Botanic Garden. Major General William Lassiter died in 1959 and is buried in the Santa Barbara Cemetery.

Modern walkway over the creek.

Pools of water in the creek.

More remnants of the old wooden aqueduct.

Artistic seating area.

This filter box at the Botanic Garden and another adjacent to the reservoirs near the Mission grounds used charcoal and sandstone to filter impurities and sediments from the creek water.

The filter box.

Twisted oak creekside.

Natural History

Below the Botanic Garden, Mission Creek flows across the grounds of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, providing an idyllic opportunity for educating visitors about stream ecology. Colorful plaques, including the one below, can be found throughout the museum grounds. 

Mission Creek has historically been home to a run of Steelhead Trout. Unfortunately, there has been no sign of the anadromous fish in recent years. Stream restoration efforts aim to bring back the species.

Masonry rock walls contain the creek through the museum grounds.

The Mills of God

A plaque adjacent to the lower reservoir details the workshops and water-powered mechanisms at the Mission, now abandoned: an aqueduct, grist mill, two reservoirs, a filter house, a pottery, tanning vats, and the lavado or lavanderia (laundry basin).

A shady path runs along the grist mill, upper and lower reservoirs. Waters from the Rattlesnake Canyon Aqueduct, which ran roughly parallel to Mission Creek, were diverted to power the mill wheel which ground wheat into flour for the Mission's bake ovens. Meanwhile, Mission Creek waters were passed through a second filter box to the Lower Reservoir for use by the local populace.

The grist mill stood between the upper and lower reservoirs. Creek water powered the water wheel which turned the millstone to grind grain into coarse flour. The sign indicates the mill was constructed in 1827, though sources vary.

A view inside the upper reservoir, January 2020.

Views of the upper reservoir, January 2020.

The lower reservoir was built in 1806 or so....January 2020.

The Lower Reservoir, now capped, was used for a time by the Santa Barbara Public Works Department for water storage. In 1993, it was retired. January 2020

Stony remains of aqueducts can be seen adjacent to the reservoir and across the street along the sidewalk flanking the Mission's cemetery, January 2020.

The lavandería is a striking landmark on the grounds in front of the Mission proper. Waters from Mission Creek supplied the trough and the adjacent fountain, as well as nearby gardens and orchards. January 2020

A historic image of the mission and lavado (or lavandería), circa 1885. Courtesy Gledhill (W. Edwin) Glass Plate Collection. Gledhill Library, Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 1965.232.113.

The inscription attached to the lavandería tells us that it was built by Chumash workers in 1808 and calls our attention to the original mountain lion head spout and the bear carving (a replica of the original).

A plaque at the Presidio historic site in downtown Santa Barbara indicates that an aqueduct from the creek diverted water to the pueblos garrison over a distance of one and half miles. The exact route of this aqueduct is unknown. James G. Mills, writing for the summer 1995 issue of La Campana, the journal of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, speculated that the watercourse must have come from Mission Creek (then Pedregosa Creek) near the Mission grounds, the closest upland point where creek waters could be accessed. If the 1783 date is correct, the Presidio aqueduct preceded construction of the Mission itself and its accompanying waterworks. Photo above taken November 2021

The Middle Stretch

As Mission Creek trickles into the more populated sections of the city, it meanders through residential neighborhoods and along the freeway on its way to the sea. When the highway (State Route 1) was built in 1934, parts of the creek were channelized by lining with concrete to prevent flooding. 

The creek arrives at De La Vina Street and Vernon Road from the east and begins to turn south toward the freeway. The picture is taken adjacent to Handlebar Coffee Roasters, November 2021.

A number of wooden bridges have been built over the creek bed in the residential areas of town.

Bridge over the creek on West Islay Street, between Castillo and the freeway, November 2021

No water is seen from the Islay bridge, November 2021.

The creek bed with rock retaining walls at West Pedregosa Street, November 2021

Concrete armoring of the creek adjacent to the Mission Street freeway underpass, likely the original channelization efforts completed in the 1930s. Fallen tree limbs dam up most of the water squeezed through the concrete channel, November 2021

The Lower Reaches

A new concrete bridge has been recently completed at Hayley Street and De La Vina,  November 2021.

An ornate storm grate adjacent to Mission Creek as it passes under Haley Street, November 2021.

The stream bed choked with vegetation at Hayley and De La Vina, November 2021.

Riparian images etched into the sidewalk of the new bridge at Haley and De La Vina, November 2021.

After paralleling the freeway and running through neighborhoods and culverts, the creek emerges at the ocean front, widening out into a man-made lagoon which  makes a pleasant addition to upscale condos and hotels before squeezing under State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard. This photo and the one below were taken in January 2020.

Controlling the Flow

Looking down at the creek at many times of the year, one might wonder, as did a passerby "Why do they need to fix up a creek that never has water in it?"

In fact, flooding has long been a problem in Mission Creek as it passes through prime real estate on the way to the sea. Several catastrophic flood events have occurred in just the last couple of decades. Visitors might do well to heed the words of the song:
Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I've often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California, but girl, don't they warn ya?
It pours, man, it pours
(Albert Hammond/Mike Hazlewood)
In earlier times, the creek backed up into a large saltwater lagoon off Cabrillo Boulevard, which, taken at the flood, might reach as far north as Anapamu Street. Flood control measures have faced decades of controversy between city planners, the Army Corps of Engineers, environmentalists, and local residents and business owners on all sides of the debate over money and methods. A major project to rebuild bridges and armor the banks of the stream has been underway for some time. However, in 2017 winter storms brought the creek up to flood levels and wiped out a good share of the new construction.

New flood control measures underway, November 2021. A much different scene than that above, taken two years earlier.

The Creek meets the Sea

Once it reaches the sea, just east of Stearns Wharf, Mission Creek pools out into a silty lagoon. Oddly, creek waters (if any) do a U-turn at this point and back up into the town as far as the freeway. Photo taken in January 2020.

The lagoon at the mouth of the creek. The apparatus pictured is used to distribute dredged sand to other parts of the beach. Photo taken January 2020.

Route of Mission Creek courtesy of Google Maps.