I Took a Walk: The U District

The U District isn’t just “rough around the edges.” It’s straight-up rough.

Homelessness is rampant. Drug dealers set up shop outside the neighborhood’s Jack in the Box. A transient who spent his time on the neighborhood’s main drag was recently arrested for a murder he allegedly committed in 1976. And criminals routinely target drunk college students wandering home from weekend parties; a handful of robberies and assaults have raised a few eyebrows over the past month or so.

But, for all its troubles, the U District isn’t without quirks and charms. Great restaurants and quality used bookstores are just two reasons I enjoy the neighborhood so much. It’s home to a few independent movie theaters. The University of Washington campus is gorgeous.

It’s also where I spend 40 or so hours each week, so I’ve become pretty familiar with the good and bad.

Nursing a cold but unwilling to stay home as the sun came out, I took a walk through the neighborhood on Saturday and snapped a few photos along the way.

This particular building used to be the home of Tubs Seattle — a business that, at one time, rented hot tubs by the hour. Let that sink in for a second.

The building was sold, and Tubs closed in 2007. The building was to be demolished, laying the groundwork for a condo development. That plan hit the skids when the economy cratered the following year. The property’s owners, bless their hearts, invited local taggers to run wild, and they’ve covered nearly every square inch of all four sides with colorful graffiti ever since.

It’s an ever-changing canvas; what appeared on the building Saturday might not be there Tuesday and definitely won’t be there next month. I recently read that the building is finally scheduled for demolition. The U District will lose a landmark when it happens.

From there, I walked over to the University District Farmers Market. Pictured above is the top of the fascinating archway that welcomes shoppers.

The market hosts more than 50 vendors selling fruits, vegetables, bread, shellfish, and other tasty-looking items. I’ve been a few times and have prepared a handful of dinners with help from the market’s outstanding, fresh selection.

This is the Ave. Any discussion of the U District isn’t complete without discussing the Ave.

Technically, it’s University Way NE. But literally no one calls it that. It’s “the Ave.” Why? I have no idea. I’ve yet to hear any reason that makes an ounce of sense, though most people I talk to are far less interested in the etymology of the street name than I am.

Anyway, it’s the heart of the U District. It’s stuffed with banks, stores, restaurants, theaters, and more. College students walk alongside businessmen and women, who step over homeless people and avoid panhandlers. It’s one of the last true melting pots of Seattle. As local hip-hop group Blue Scholars put it, “Fuck class, get your education on the Ave!”

Foodies have plenty to love about the Ave, which is home to a plethora of inexpensive restaurants. Sandwiches, wings, pizza, pho, gyros, crepes, pub fare, Greek, teriyaki, sushi, Mexican, Brazilian cuisine … it’s all available on the Ave. The worst of it is still merely pretty good.

The best of of the best, though, is Thai Tom. It’s pretty cramped; most of the restaurant’s seats are bar stools that surround the cooks, who prepare your dish in front of you. And the menus are wood blocks. It’s not anyone’s definition of “elegant,” but that’s what makes Thai Tom such an experience. The flavors are surprisingly complex, and the peanut sauce is pretty rich. Your only complaint will be about the lines out the door during the dinner rush.

The Ave isn’t immune to the U District’s problems and, in some ways, casts a spotlight on those issues by virtue of being such a bustling area and a public transit hub. But leaders have made the effort to improve the stretch. I love the neighborhood’s artful light posts, each of which is intricately — and uniquely — decorated for the enjoyment of pedestrians who stop long enough to look up and notice.

And that was it for my trip around the U District. Not wanting to prolong the effects of this cold any longer, I headed home.

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