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Powell Barnett

I recently discovered that the paper archives of the Leschi Community Council (originally known as the Leschi Improvement Council, LIC) are lodged in the Special Collections of the University of Washington Library. One can arrange to inspect them over a video conference call, so I selected one of the four boxes to browse through, with a librarian turning the pages for me.

It was pretty routine stuff until I came upon some pages about Powell S. Barnett (1883–1971), who in 1959 was the founding president of the LIC.

What first caught my eye in the files was a 1967 letter from the then-president of the council to the city’s Board of Public Works. In this document, the council requests that Lake Dell Avenue, which runs down the hill from Leschi School until it becomes East Alder Street, be renamed Powell Barnett Way. The Board of Public Works agreed that Barnett deserved recognition for his “long and unselfish service,” but pointed to a longstanding city policy against naming streets for living persons.

I knew of Powell Barnett’s role as an original organizer and president of the LIC, but there was little documentation on his activities that I was able to find. I got one anecdote from the eldest son of Herb Schneider, Barnett’s successor as president. Herb had related that he accompanied Barnett walking along Jackson Street, hitting up the shopkeepers for contributions to the council. They coughed it up, but there were comments like “How much this time?”

Just when I was despairing of finding more about what Barnett had done in Leschi, I got lucky. Searching through the Barnett papers on location at UW Special Collections, I found two tape-recorded interviews with him from the 1960s. One was done in 1968 by Larry Gossett, who provided me with a copy. Gossett was a friend of mine from our activist days at the UW in the late ‘60s, when he was a leader of the Black Student Union and I was in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). When he interviewed Barnett, Gossett was working at the university’s Suzzallo Library, where the head of the Manuscripts and Archives Division, Richard Berner, had hired him as a student research assistant to gather historical information on African American pioneers in Washington State. Berner himself had interviewed Barnett the year before.

Gossett is, of course, well known as the former King County Council member representing Leschi and beyond. Among his other accomplishments, he was a prime mover in changing the name of King County, which was originally named after President Franklin Pierce’s vice president-elect, William King, a slave owner. Now, as is well known, we live in Martin Luther King County.

Since the interview has not been published, I will quote extensively from Barnett’s remarks about the LIC.

“The Leschi Improvement Council was formed out of the needs of the PTA in the Leschi School. The PTA called a meeting to resolve some questions, and out of that, the need for a club in the district, to represent the people’s interest in the district, developed, and the Leschi Improvement Council was developed as a result of that meeting there. And it’s been going ever since. [Barnett struggles to recall the founding date, and he comes up with 1952, but it was 1958, according to Wade Vaughn’s “Seattle Leschi Diary.”

“The Leschi Improvement Council is one of the most effective neighborhood councils in the entire Northwest. It was one of the first councils to ask for a rezoning of their area from multiple use to single-family residence. The reason was that we became interested in the welfare of the entire community, and we made a study of what we considered the conditions in the community, with the idea of establishing a remedial course of action.

“We found that in the Leschi area, which is an older part of the city, there were a number of older, larger houses that didn’t lend themselves readily to modern-day living. They were too large for the average family of today, and we didn’t want those houses turned into duplexes and triplexes, which would mean the concentration of a large number of people in small areas. In our opinion, that’s where ghettos would start. So in order to protect the homeowner, we thought it desirable to ask the city council to rezone the whole area from multiple use to single-family residence. In 1963, we presented such a resolution to the city council, and it was passed by the council. This meant that the Leschi area, from that time on, is zoned for single-family residence, with the exception of occasional spot zoning. At the present time, we are engaged in a preliminary study as to what areas in Leschi would lend themselves to apartment houses, with the exception of high-rise.

“We feel that the people who live in the Leschi area should have a breathing space around their homes, and not succumb to the lack of housing that we would be expected to let down our guards. I don’t think the council would take very readily to that, because that is not the answer. Many people believe, and we’re inclined to believe too, that open housing is the answer because it gives people an opportunity to spread over a larger area. Absolutely we favor open housing.”

“Open housing” referred to ending racial discrimination in real estate.

The transcript of the Berner interview with Powell Barnett is available in digital form on request from the University of Washington Library’s Special Collection.

Next month: Open housing; Powell Barnett Park.

~Roger Lippman

The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over 46 years in the neighborhood.


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