Yoga Vita

Musings on Yoga, Life, and the Yoga Life

The Social Politics of Neigborhood Names


I live in a kind of physical and social borderland- – an interesting bit of geosocial real estate in the city of Seattle. If I look at a city map, I can see clearly that my third floor apartment is located well within the geographical borders of the Central District. But if I take a walk around, I can see that this area is in a phase of becoming culturally, racially, and economically more and more Capitol Hill. I never know what to tell people when they ask where I live.

Do I tell them I live in Capitol Hill, and thus associate myself with white punk-rawk hipsters, grown-up liberals with trendy glasses and well-dressed babies in designer organic cotton attachment parenting slings, seedy gay bars, ultra-hip gay bars, overpriced restaurants and coffeeshops, Seattle’s old-money-haunted-mansion enclave, and so forth? (And if they’re geographically savvy, will they know I actually live in the CD and think I’m being snobby?)

Or do I tell them I live in the Central District and associate myself with crack-dealing busts, shootings, low-income housing developments, African immigrant communities, and the only part of town in which Black people were historically allowed to live? (And then, if they see that I live in the spacious third floor of an old Victorian with a view of the Cascades and Lake Washington in a pretty decent part of town, will they think I’m trying to let on like I’m “slumming it”?)


(Central District, 1953)

These questions seem to be shared by all of the many people and businesses who occupy Central District geographical space and Capitol Hill social space. Granted, neighborhood distinctions are constantly shifting, and some people identify more with their smaller neighborhood than their larger district, but I believe that these shifts and various identifications are telling.

The yoga shala, also within the geographical borders of the CD, advertises itself as being in Capitol Hill. And the thing is, it is Capitol Hill–white-dominated, affluent, hip (ish). The somewhat dilapidated Ethiopian restaurant, the car repair lot with the handmade signs, the mosque that operates out of a run-down house, and the Philly Cheesesteak place, all on the very same street, however, are Central District.

The Trader Joe’s here calls itself the Capitol Hill Trader Joe’s, even though it too is in the CD. But the people shopping and working in it are Capitol Hill.

Well within the Central District, there are a number of tiny islands of white affluence- – a two- or three-block section of 34th Street comes to mind. It boasts no fewer than three wildly overpriced French restaurant and a popular gourmet cupcake shop to boot. This area refers to itself only as Madrona. (I haven’t seen a single actual madrona there, so I’m not sure how that particular name came to be.)

The Planned Parenthood of Western Washington main administration office and clinic is also in the Central District- – it’s right next to Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in fact. However, at least one staff member who I’ve talked to here refers to the office as the Capitol Hill location. Is she perhaps concerned about the shady, “back alley” abortion image that may enter (mostly white) people’s minds when they learn where this clinic is actually located? Or does she actually not know the name of the district she works in? She honestly may not.

When Z and I first moved here, he asked a friend whether to tell people we live in the Central District or on Capitol Hill. She said just tell people you live on Capitol Hill- – people know where that is. What people are we talking about, exactly?


7 thoughts on “The Social Politics of Neigborhood Names


    This link may be helpful, but some of it is news to me. I wouldn’t consider Madrona to be in the “Central Area,” but this map says that it is.

    I also wouldn’t consider Montlake or Madison Park to be a part of Capitol Hill. They’re not on any hill!

    I live on Capitol Hill, near Volunteer Park, and work in Madrona. I would say that I pass through the CD to get to work. There are fancy-schmancy houses in the CD, and falling down apartment buildings on Capitol Hill. Both areas have suffered startling amounts of violence in the past month. By believing that you can “associate” yourself with a type of person by admitting the fact of where you live may be part of the problem. I wouldn’t worry about it so much.

  2. I feel like I should clarify a couple things.

    1) I consider myself a resident of the Central District, and tell people so. I may have hinted at this in my post, but I realize made no clear declaration, so here it is. I have no qualms about people making sub/conscious assumptions about me based on where I live or pretty much anything else. I live in a great neighborhood, and that neighborhood is in the CD.

    2) Here’s the main point of my post, in fewer words: Using the example of Madrona, this neighborhood is clearly in the CD- – geographically speaking- – yet the businesses and people who reside there call themselves residents of Madrona *as a social distinction.*

    In other words, certain people choose to distance themselves from the sometimes-real/usually-imagined characteristics of the CD by using different neighborhood names. (In the case of Madrona, they’re choosing one of two correct name possibilities: neighborhood or sub-neighborhood. In the case of CD residents who say they live on Capitol Hill, they’re either confused or using a little white lie for some reason or another.)

    Shabby houses and violence DO happen everywhere, including all over Seattle–thank you, Andrea, for pointing this out. Nonetheless, what neighborhoods are most frequently associated with these things? If you pay attention to local media, “common knowledge,” etc, the CD comes to mind, even though it’s not necessarily true. Even if you don’t believe in the common association one bit, it’s still there. Image exists. People use it. Not judgin’, just sayin’.

    If you are an enlightened being and have transcended all delusions, however, all of this is meaningless garbage- – sorry you read this far.

  3. I’m not sure exactly where you live, but it sounds similar to the area where we live (in the triangle bounded by Madison, 23rd, and Union). Ever since we moved here, my wife and I have had trouble deciding what to call it when people ask where we live. But it’s not so much because of the social implications of saying that you live in Cap Hill vs the CD. The simple problem is that Capitol Hill and the CD are both way too huge to adequately describe the micro-neighborhood where we live. Therefore, we tend to say “in the north end of the Central Area, just south of Capitol Hill.” It’s a bit of a mouthful, but at least people generally know what I’m talking about.

  4. When people ask where you live, just say “under the radio towers.”

  5. Hey Cara, just found your website. Right on, sister. We’ve got a nucleus of Seattle bloggers that rivals the gangs in Encinitas and NY.

  6. Hi Mr. Big Squish. What an idea, a Seattle Blogger Gang. . . People can only watch on in horror as we terrorize the internets. . .

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