• Taha Ebrahimi

Cal Anderson Park's surprising past: A forgotten history haunting our present

Cal Anderson Park has been the backdrop of an evolving protest scene throughout 2020, first registering international infamy as the location of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) against police brutality, an experimental but short-lived autonomous "cop-free" zone. Most recently, the park was in the news again after a fatal domestic dispute between two of the campers there. Last week, Seattle Parks and Recreation hosted the second of a series of hotly-debated community discussions about the future of the park. Although the zone was forcibly shut down in July, the community gardens have continued to be a meeting space for marches, and the shelterhouse has been repeatedly occupied and turned into a mutual aid center. Fresh graffiti covers the walls in red, warning: “No Cops.” It turns out this isn’t the first time these words have been uttered about the park. In fact, this seemingly-innocuous municipal spot has a long tradition of being contested, and has served as a source of community intrigue for over a century, if not longer.

Cal Anderson Park shelterhouse initial clearing
August clearing of Cal Anderson Park shelterhouse

Much of the history may have been forgotten but, despite the passage of time, some of the concerns from the park's past share eerily similar themes with conversations we continue to have in 2020, echoes of past ghosts. The long tradition of challenging designs for this plot of land began at the turn of the century before Cal Anderson Park (then known as Lincoln Park) was even developed. Seattle High School at Broadway and E. Pine (later called Broadway High until it closed in 1946) was the growing city’s first high school building. With Seattle’s population doubling between 1890 and 1900, the student body was reflective of the city’s expanding demographics, which included “African-Americans, Asian-Americans, new immigrants from Europe, and the children of Seattle’s wealthiest citizens.” Meanwhile, one block from the school was an undeveloped old construction worksite south of the city’s new reservoir. In a promised bid to beautify the land for later public use, the city optimistically declared it “Lincoln Park” in 1901 and, when Seattle High opened in 1902, the boys of the relatively diverse school began using the empty lot to play baseball. People began to complain.

Broadway High School viewed from the playfield circa 1910 Courtesy Nancy Johnson

Whether it was the sight of certain boys or that they were a genuine nuisance, newspapers began carrying stories about the so-called disturbance. It was rumored that “some of the boys that congregate to see the games are responsible for injury to the city’s property” in the form of “throwing rocks, sticks, dirt, etc. in the reservoir.” The Board of Public Works instructed the Chief of Police to intervene and send an officer to “keep a watch out for the boys and if caught in their depredations to immediately arrest them.” That same year, The Seattle Daily Times declared the city had seen “More Arrests Since January 1 Than Ever Before in a Like Period.”

Left: Lincoln Reservoir c1905, courtesy Rob Ketcherside | Right: Seattle Times, June 28, 1902

One antidote to the increasing crime and urbanization of Seattle was popularly believed to be providing more wholesome outdoor activities for local children. “Children must have recreation," argued a 1903 article from The Seattle Republican, defending the unruly kids. "Force them to find it in the public streets and the moral standing of the future citizen is lowered,” continued the popular newspaper (which also happened to be a newspaper published and edited by Horace R. Cayton--the son of a Mississippi slave and white plantation owner’s d