Compiled by Don Fels & Liffy Franklin (July 2009)
The Courtland Action Team (CAT) was formed in 1996 as a proactive attempt to combat a long neighborhood history of criminal activity involving drugs, violence and poverty. From its inception, CAT was dedicated to neighborhood safety improvement through involvement in crime prevention programs, community involvement through outreach, and community improvement through beautification projects. In February 2001, CAT applied for a grant from the new Seattle Arts Commission ArtsUp program, and interviewed artists to work with the community under the program. They chose artist Don Fels. After a summer spent in formal and informal meetings and discussions, CAT and Fels saw the Charlestown Hillclimb as the ideal location for community-building and for art about the community.
The Charlestown Hillclimb has been considered in the community since 1993, when local residents requested that the city install a stairway to link the Courtland neighborhood with the adjacent upper Mount Baker neighborhood. Presently (and historically) the Charlestown street right-of-way is covered with a dense thicket of blackberries through which winds a well-used but dangerous path. The Hillclimb as envisioned by Don Fels and The CAT would have four major components:
• a safe, esthetically pleasing pedestrian passage composed of a path with eight staggered, concrete stairway segments;
• playful artwork related to and divulging the history of the neighborhood;
• landscaping with drought-tolerant plantings and a small community orchard.
• an open gazebo-like structure allowing for a covered meeting space
The Hillclimb will function not only as a passageway but also as a pocket park and a connection between the two participating communities (Cascadia Ridge & Courtland). Amenities will include benches, a water feature to take advantage of the hillside runoff (if the city permits), and art incorporating themes from the local neighborhood history.
In March, 2002, CAT applied for and received a DON Small and Simple grant for a geotechnical survey and conceptual design development for the Hillclimb. Throughout the scoping and development of design concepts, Don Fels worked creatively and successfully to preserve the multi-cultural history and integrity of the Courtland neighborhood. Fels, the noted landscape designer, Richard Haag, and project engineer Bo McFadden worked diligently with the community and numerous departments within the City of Seattle to choose plants and designs for plant placement that are indicative of our neighborhoods history, environmentally appropriate, and congruent with the overall design of the project.
As this work was being successfully completed, exploration of both the archival and physical evidence of the neighborhood’s history led Don to develop an exciting interim project: Don worked with the local John Muir Elementary School, the Rainier Valley Historical Society, and the Burke Museum to conduct Seattle’s first urban archeological dig. It was sited at the foot of the proposed Hillclimb, and was registered with the state archaeology office. Many artifacts including bottles and bowls were recovered and went on display at the Museum of History and Industry. The MOHAI display included texts about the neighborhood written by the John Muir students working with Fels and RVHS director Mikala Woodward. The artifacts are now in the collections of the Burke Museum and the Rainier Valley Historical Society. Don has planned to use casts from elements found in the dig and developed by the participating students to create the art for the Hillclimb.
In September 2002 CAT applied for a Large Match grant for the Hillclimb construction documents and a fundraising campaign. A $10,000 grant was extended in the early spring, but by that time the CAT committee leadership was splintered. Several key individuals had moved away from the neighborhood and one remaining member was adamant that the group could not adequately live up to the City’s expectations for community involvement in the upcoming development phase. In May of 2003, CAT withdrew their application for the funds.
The project had, however been awarded $27,500 by the Washington Insurance Coalition and there was a $30,000 Arts Up grant to support Don’s work (one of only two Arts Up projects to receive the final grant amount). With that funding and a hard core group of neighborhood activists, the work described in the Large Match Grant was actually completed :
• Construction Documents were created- the project was designed so that it could be built in phases as funding became available.
• A fair amount of grant writing was completed
• PLUS the “Periscope Tree”, artwork inspired by the children’s interviews with community elders, was designed by Fels for the very top section of the Hillclimb. It was permitted, fabricated and installed, along with a related bench and Richard Haag’s proposed plantings.
(There was a maintenance plan for the blueberry bushes that were planted during this phase, but the plan was never successfully implemented and over time all of the plants died for lack of proper irrigation. The completed hillclimb will include an in-ground irrigation system, but it was impossible to install only for the upper section).
By the end of that implementation, all of the available funds had been spent and the project went on indefinite hold. A Safeco grant for $10,000 was received and deposited with SEED as fiscal agent, in the hopes that with renewed energy the money could be applied to the next phase in building the hillclimb.
In 2009, Tiffany Hedrick of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture contacted Fels, asking if he were interested in helping move the hillclimb project forward again. He replied that he was, but that the community base had shifted since the CAT had been disbanded. He contacted the Mt. Community Community Club, and Pat Murakami, then president, asked him to make a short presentation about the hillclimb at the next meeting. Along with SEED, the MBCC had been one of the partners involved in completing the space at the top of the hillclimb on 37th. At the MBCC meeting it was decided that the MBCC should look into to restarting the hillclimb initiative.
• This project is a wonderful example of what a troubled neighborhood can do to improve the quality of life and reduce crime through development of a capital project.
• As a result of the preliminary planning and community outreach, the communication and trust are already building between the two neighborhoods.
• The project has and would continue to foster a sense of empowerment and commitment to the community
• The community history was researched in partnerships with several local institutions including the direct involvement of children in the community
• The project promises unification of a very diverse community around a common enterprise
• Encouraging and supporting pedestrian traffic, the hillclimb would also provide a direct connection between shopping and the lake; while traversing it, people would have the chance to learn about the story of the neighborhood and enjoy art based on that history.