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Garlic Gulch Under the Microscope

The Rainier Valley’s Italian community has long been a focus of interest and curiosity. In 1915 sociology graduate student Nellie Roe made Garlic Gulch a focus of her master’s thesis “The Italian Immigrant in Seattle.” Her approach was clearly that of the anthropologist studying an arcane culture. The UW Social Sciences student describes the Italian families she visited as “like children in their simplicity, ignorance, and optimism.” A product of the Progressive Era, Ms. Roe can’t help but wish these families would accept help and instruction from charitable agencies, such as the Charity Organization Society, in order to assimilate into the dominant culture. Notably, Ms. Roe did not use the term “Garlic Gulch,” although she did remark negatively on the smell of garlic and cabbage pervading the homes.

Nearly a century later, another UW student, Richard Gilbert made the community the focus of his 2004 master’s thesis “Garlic Gulch: Interpreting the History of Seattle’s Rainier/Atlantic Neighborhood, 1903-2003. An urban planning student, Gilbert honed in on the negative transforming effects of highway planning on the community. Along the way, he picked up some revealing anecdotes from residents past and present, such as this possible explanation for the name Garlic Gulch from Al Bianchi.

"In the 30s, there was a big gully that started a little south of Jackson Street, and went all the way to Atlantic Street. Now by big gully, I means that was about two blocks wide and I’d say, over 100 feet deep. I think that’s where we derived the name Garlic Gulch, I’m not sure….But the city decided to make a dump out of that area. And that really disturbed the people. But we were told, ‘You’re standing in the way of progress; we have to have a dump somewhere, and we’ve chosen this spot.’ But you can’t believe how that was. The smell, the rats, the seagulls….The rats were as big as cats.”

Meanwhile, Eric Scigliano wrote “Italian Seattle: Good-by, Garlic Gulch,” an in-depth, illustrated account of the rise and fall of the community which was published in the Weekly in 1987. And Wenda Reed offered a series of articles in the Beacon Hill News/South District Journal in 1980 entitled “The Italians,” based largely on interviews with diehard Italian businessmen such as Art Oberto, Tony LaSalle, John Patricelli, and Nick Paolella, Jr.

The City of Seattle explored the influence of this community in its 2004 North Rainier Context Statement and, more recently, in the Southeast Seattle Community History Project, a series of web-based articles and resources, including an in-depth piece on Garlic Gulch by historian Mikala Woodward.

So what more is there to say? We know now that Garlic Gulch as a cohesive community is not coming back. Yet there are remnants still. And there is still a generation or two of folks who grew up in or near the community. Our own project, Remembering Garlic Gulch, is an effort to collect the memories and images of Garlic Gulch for the use of current and future researchers. And, perhaps, along the way we will uncover new insights into the role the community played in the Rainier Valley and the city.


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