Love Thy Neighborhood

Meet five volunteers who are bringing meaningful change to their beloved corners of Seattle.

Sean Conroe, founder of Alleycat Acres

Photo by Hayley Young

If you cruised down East Union toward the Central District this past summer, you may have noticed something different on the northeast corner of 22nd Avenue. Tucked between Cappy’s Boxing Gym and a gas station mini-mart were beds of verdant greens, planter boxes dripping with tomatoes, and rows of gigantic corn, squash and countless other veggies, all on the cusp of being picked.

Sean Conroe is the 28-year-old founder of Alleycat Acres, a volunteer-based farming collective that’s bringing neighbors together with fresh produce—and with each other. Since last spring, Conroe, a landscaper by day, has worked with dozens of volunteers, with funds from private donations, to develop urban farms from scratch. Since then, Conroe and fellow “alleycats” have secured 8,000 square feet of private land in the Central District and Beacon Hill, and produced an estimated 2,000 pounds of produce.

Farmable land in the city is in high demand, says Kenya Fredie, who works with Seattle’s other big community-garden nonprofit, P-Patch. The fact that Alleycat has been able to secure private land that might otherwise sit vacant is “huge,” says Fredie, who often refers eager gardeners on P-Patch’s waiting list to Alleycats.

For volunteers, the produce is free and plentiful; anything left over is delivered to local food banks via bicycle. “If everybody did this, we could put the stores out of business,” said 87-year-old Lillie Mae Graham on a recent trip to the farm on East Union. Like many of her neighbors, Graham swings by the farm about once a week during the summer to work a little, grab some corn or a few tomatoes and to chat.

Eventually, Conroe hopes to grow Alleycat by acquiring more farm spaces in Seattle, and offering community education programs about farming. “People often ask, ‘What [business] model are you using?’” says Conroe. “We’re figuring it out as we go.”

Dagmar Cronn, president of the South Park Neighborhood Association

Photo by Hayley Young

“Million-dollar view” doesn’t begin to describe what Dagmar Cronn sees from the backyard of her South Park home. Across the blue-brown waters of the Duwamish River, she has a picture-perfect view of the South Park Bridge, an aging, double-leaf bascule bridge deemed so unsafe that it has been closed to traffic since June 2010.

That’s about to change, thanks in part to Cronn’s quiet efforts. President of the South Park Neighborhood Association since 2008, Cronn played an integral role in finding funding to repair the span as part of the New South Park Bridge Coalition. “She did the sort of research and homework you’d expect of a former university professor,” says Larry Brown, legislative and political director for the aerospace machinists union who cochaired the coalition. “She was also a voice for the community and advocated for South Park and social justice at every opportunity she had.”

In fact, Cronn is a former university professor, having taught in Rochester, Michigan, after earning a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry from the University of Washington. Upon moving to South Park in 2007, Cronn hit the ground running as a community advocate eager to “shrink her sphere of influence” to the community around her. She started showing up at City Council meetings and signing up for work parties. She was tapped by King County Executive Dow Constantine to serve on a coalition to find ways to fill a $130 million shortfall in funds needed to replace the bridge.

Now, with the new bridge on track to be completed by mid-2013, Cronn has her plate full with a new set of projects, all aimed at helping her adopted neighborhood. “I probably get what I do through prudent persistence,” says Cronn. “None of the good ideas are mine. I just connect people, and the community sets things in motion.”


Julie Pham, chairwoman of the board of the Martin Luther King Business Association

Photo by Don Pham

Even well-seasoned Seattleites can have trouble pinpointing exactly where the Martin Luther King (MLK) corridor starts and stops. Julie Pham hopes to change that. “When people think of MLK, they think of Columbia City, but that’s only four blocks long,” says Pham, chairwoman of the board of the MLK Business Association. The Rainier Valley native is spearheading an approach to economic development that centers on cultivating a distinct identity for the four-mile-long business corridor.

Since 2009, Pham has overseen a marketing and branding overhaul that’s included everything from a new logo and overhauled website ( to an e-mail writing campaign requesting that Yelp acknowledge MLK as its own neighborhood. This past spring, she helped launch Plate of Nations, a restaurant promotion inspired by Dine Around Seattle, which brought an estimated 500 new customers to the neighborhood.

It helps that Pham, who grew up in South Seattle, learned early the value of building relationships with business owners. A trained historian with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, Pham left academia in 2008 to work for her family’s semiweekly Vietnamese newspaper, Nguoi Viet Tay Bac (Northwest Vietnamese News), where she now serves as managing editor. In that role, she’s honed her ability to connect with both business leaders and the broader political community—and that’s been key to the MLK Business Association’s success, says board member Asari Mohamath. “She really helped us get the word out [about the neighborhood] to the rest of the city.”

With one eye on the big picture, Pham also keeps it hyperlocal. Whether it’s picking a personal dry cleaner or hiring a local designer for association projects, Pham believes supporting local business is crucial—it’s good for commerce and good for building personal relationships. “That’s the way you connect with businesses here,” says Pham, “not through e-mail or social media.”


Charles Redmond, pedestrian advocate

Photo by Hayley Young

Charles Redmond has a reputation for putting his best foot forward—literally. The community activist is committed to improving walkability in West Seattle, serving on “too any boards and committees to count,” says Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog.

“Chas,” as he’s known around the neighborhood, is the driving force behind West Seattle’s new pedestrian-friendly “wayfinding” kiosks, developed by Feet First, a nonprofit that works to improving walkability. (Redmond serves on its board.) The kiosks—which use maps developed by Redmond—-were built to promote walking in and around West Seattle.  

A transit nerd long before biking and buses were chic, Redmond began advocating for pedestrians when he and his wife moved to the neighborhood in 2003, after years of living in Washington, D.C., where the nearest subway stop was a minute’s walk away. “When we came here, the monorail was politically on top,” recalls Redmond, so the couple found a home minutes from The Junction (downtown West Seattle), betting that a monorail would soon follow. Redmond volunteered as an advocate for the Seattle Monorail Project.

West Seattle’s monorail never panned out, but volunteering for the cause gave Redmond, a former NASA public affairs spokesman, the chance to get to know residents, business owners and politicians. He quickly moved on to his next cause: improving pedestrian walkability in his neighborhood.

Years of assessing and explaining satellite images gave Redmond an eye for analyzing maps. In 2006, Redmond applied for and secured a $4,500, grant from the City of Seattle, enough to print 20,000 pedestrian maps that were designed with help from local residents. Updated maps have been released annually since 2007.

“I don’t know of another individual who has his passion for creating alternatives for getting around,” says Patti Mullen, CEO of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who has worked with Redmond on transportation projects since 2004. “I don’t know of another resident in Seattle who is as passionate about pedestrian access."


Dylan Ahearn, chair of Beacon BIKES

Photo by Dan Bennett

He may be new to Beacon Hill, but Dylan Ahearn knows the community like the back of his hand. “I’ve ridden every inch of this neighborhood,” says the 37-year-old father of two, who puts his street cred to use as the chairman of Beacon BIKES (which stands for “Better Infrastructure Keeping Everyone Safe”). The grassroots bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group is pushing for safer bike routes in a South Seattle neighborhood known for awkward intersections—which have become even busier with the opening of a new light-rail station.

Ahearn started commuting by bicycle while earning his Ph.D. in hydrology at the University of California, Davis. When he moved to Seattle in 2005, “I put my bike in the basement,” he says. “There are bike lanes and things here, but everything is designed to connect neighborhoods with get people from Beacon Hill out of Beacon Hill.”

Ahearn’s bike didn’t stay packed away for long. In 2009, he teamed up with Beacon Hill community advocate Frederica Merrell with the goal of building a neighborhood “greenway,” a residential bike path incorporated into existing residential streets. With Ahearn’s guidance—and lots of dedicated volunteers—Beacon BIKES has worked with the city to develop a network of neighborhood greenways—residential streets that emphasize cyclability and walkability between destinations such as grocery stores, libraries and schools. The most visible result of this project (slated to be completed by the end of the year) will be several bicycle boulevards on residential streets that run alongside major car corridors. Simple signage will designate the location of bike paths.

An environmental consultant and professor at Edmonds Community College, Ahearn is no stranger to thinking about the complex relationship between people and communities. His goal now is to improve safety and access for bike riders—and pedestrians—of all skill and fitness levels, including beginners and children, and especially those for whom financial, health and cultural concerns might be a deterrent. Biking is for everyone, Ahearn says, not just the superfit and the daring. “We’re not the spandex-clad folks,” jokes Ahearn, who quickly adds, “but we respect them, too.”

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue's University Bookstore to Close, but the East Side Keeps Its Edge

Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s
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Berger supervising a photo shoot of Bill Gates and Brian "The Boz" Bosworth in 1988

The news that the University Bookstore is closing its downtown Bellevue location next month is hardly big news. Bookstores have had to close, move and adjust to changes in the book biz. Elliott Bay relocated from Pioneer Square and now thrives on Capitol Hill. Amazon—blamed for driving many small independents out of business—has opened a dead-tree bookshop in University Village and another in Portland. Change happens.

Still, the news spurred memories of the not-so-distant past when the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the early ‘80s was part of a wave of urbanization—you could call it the “Seattleization”—of the Eastside suburbs. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bellevue became of the focus of what became known as “Edge City” city building. Skyscrapers popped up, much to the surprise of Seattleites who looked east and saw high rises. Between them and the Cascades.

There were other signals. Microsoft moved to Bellevue in 1979, before settling in Redmond, and became the vanguard of the Silicon Forest. In 1976, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Bellevue, and today the oldest Starbucks in Bellevue sits in a strip mall across from Bellevue Square on NE 8th and just around the corner from the U-Bookstore. Crossroads shopping center revamped as a kind of suburban mall-meets-Pike Place Market with a newsstand, bookstore, public chessboard, and a catalyst for social services. The demand for “third places” in the suburbs—often criticized as a desert of “no place” cul de sacs—was growing.

That growth was nurtured by other developments. In 1976, Bellevue got its own daily newspaper, the Journal-American, so Starbucks goers had first-rate local news and columns to read over their lattes each morning. In the late ‘80s, the statewide magazine I worked for, Washington, which had launched in Bellevue in the mid-80s, did a cover story on the fact that two major national celebrities were based on the Eastside: Bill Gates and Brian “The Boz” Bosworth. One seemed to reflect a new braininess in the ‘burbs, the other a kind of brazen, bleached Seahawks celebrity whose attitude suggested an in-your-face approach far different from quiet good guys suburban dads like Steve Largent. It seemed like the Eastside was an Edge City gaining some edginess.

In 1990, Seattle Weekly launched a sister paper on the Eastside. I was the editor and publisher and we arrived because we saw the changes of the ‘70s and ‘80s—the spread of cafes, the yearning for arts, the demand for urban amenities and services—increasing. An essential part of that was reflected in moves by chains like University Bookstore were a sign that a new kind “psychographics” was emerging, a population that wanted something more than split-level, bedroom community isolation. A population of readers, for one thing, that didn’t want to have to cross a bridge for culture, or good coffee.

The trend has been a steady, prosperous for Bellevue and the Eastside. Bellevue is in many ways more “urban” than Seattle now—certainly, it’s racially more diverse, which is complete flip from the white-bread suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It is now a majority minority city—the largest in the state!

Bellevue used to be Ronald Reagan country, but has been shifting “blue” politically since the early ‘90s. Light rail is coming, the cranes are still building, and the Edge City is now a big city in its own right. The seeds for that vision were planted long before the University Bookstore came to downtown Bellevue to serve hungry minds.

But the U-Bookstore’s move to Bellevue in the ‘80s was like an indicator species signaling to Seattleites and Eastsiders that the Puget Sound ecosystem was shifting. And boy, have they.