Growing up in Union Bay Village

How many of us Union Bay Village kids are left?

You know who you are—because those three words have been part of your family’s private language all your life, just like mine. Union Bay Village. Shorthand for a time and a place in your family’s life. To summarize it as married student housing leaves out a lot, like calling Pavarotti a vocalist.

There was a swamp, a dump, a landfill, just south of where the N.E. 45th Street Viaduct touches down. The place never looked like a launching pad. But there was a time when men and women grew wings there. There was a time when the squeal of bus brakes would bring 26 kids under the age of 5 to full alert. We’d look down the grass court between the two long six-unit buildings, and if a man got off with an armload of books, we’d all scream “Daddy!” and run to see whose it was. That’s when it was called Union Bay Village.

The Village grew out of a swamp overnight. It had to. The GIs were coming. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, coming home from World War II, looking for the dreams and the families they had put on hold. Some had pushed pencils; some riveted airplane wings. Some had walked through hell, on levels literal and personal. Now the war was over, but they were coming home to an America that was not ready for them.

Where were the jobs? Where were the houses and Chevrolets and refrigerators? Guys were eager to get back to living, get back to work, get married, raise a family. They weren’t interested in excuses. They had limited patience, and they had been trained in armed combat.

My mother, Hilda Kahle, has strong memories of those days: “The best idea the government ever had was the GI Bill. It channeled the men into education, gave them the excitement of moving ahead, while easing them back into civilian society. And it spread out that re-entry over three or four years instead of them all coming out in one block.”

The problem with the great idea was how to make it work, and work quickly. Every college and university in the country was strained to the limit to take them in. And everywhere Married Student Housing emerged as a priority issue. These were older guys, some married before they went in the service, others with plans on hold. Housing in Seattle, as in most cities, was priced way beyond GI Bill benefits.

At the University of Washington, the answer was Union Bay Village. Full credit should go to the University, for it beat swords into ploughshares with the speed and relentlessness of the veterans it served. On Nov. 1, 1945, President L. Paul Sieg announced a plan to build a housing project for married vets bordering the Montlake dump, a plan to go from bare ground to occupancy in four months’ time. He asked the federal government to donate now-vacant housing units from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, from the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, from the Renton Boeing plants and elsewhere. Sterile white shoeboxes, prefab bungalows, fourplexes, sixplexes, by barge and truck and crane, they were hauled to the site and set down in rows on the muddy landfill. Four months later, the last weekend in March, the first residents moved in. By November 1946, there would be more than 400 homes.

My father, Joseph, started school in the summer quarter of 1946. He and my mother and my sister Judy moved into the Village in December and lived in the six-unit building on the N.E. 45th Street side.

My mother said: “You had to have two kids to qualify for Union Bay Village. With Judy almost 2 and you on the way, we made the cut.

“The first thing the guys did was close in the ends of the space between those two buildings, to keep the kids contained. That made a big rectangle of grass—well, eventually it was grass—with the sidewalks for them to ride trikes on. Every two buildings had a courtyard like that, there were dozens of them. The 12 families who shared our court had 26 children between them. The oldest was 5. The next oldest was 4.

“We built playground equipment for the kids. Climbing bars out of a couple of ladders. A sandbox. One day I saw an ad in the newspaper for a slide painted like a giraffe with its neck down to the ground. We went and saw it, and I bought it, and Joe put it together.

“It was a very exciting period. The fellows were doing so well, charging ahead. That thing about the kids running, they thought that was what all daddies did. They took the bus to school and then came home with their books and studied.”

The Village was something out of a Frank Capra movie, democracy in a nutshell. In six months, they had elected a mayor and a village council and were writing a constitution. The council met in councilmen’s homes, and debate on the issues sometimes might have to wait until the mayor finished drying the dishes. But within a year, they had established a dairy co-op with milk deliveries, they had a co-op nursery, and they were working with the infant UW School of Medicine to establish what would now be called a well-baby clinic.

Their debates showed how their experiences had marked them. Setting up the dairy co-op, they focused on saving money, yes, but purposefully set their prices high enough to pay the milkman a union wage. A villager who said he was “sold” on co-ops from experience gave a more subtle reason:

“More important than the money is that we’re going to build up some kind of co-op sometime. Most of you boys have been through hell and unless we start doing some cooperating with people from all over, we’re going to have to go through it all again.”

They had debated mud—the whole first winter the UW had three men ditching and draining full time in the village and another three on call for water main breaks and the building subsidence that came with the swampy ground—and they haggled about peddlers and garbage collection and stoplights. Democracy in a nutshell.

The contrast with the upper campus was stark. Students straight out of high school were still concerned with Tolo dances, Homecoming, and Garb Week at the Forestry School, where the guys grew beards and wore plaid shirts and tin pants. Down in the Village, there were ads thumbtacked on the bulletin board for artificial limb repair, and the interim mayor had to step down because of class load and recurring malaria.

“Few of the families had relatives in the area,” said my mother. “None of us knew anything about being a parent, so we learned from each other. The mothers set up a schedule: three mothers out, three inside getting some work done. When the wind was from the south, smoke from the dump would threaten the laundry. All the men wore white shirts and ties, so there was a lot of laundry.

“We relied on each other and made strong friendships. Two couples, Don and Jean Scott and John and Mary Davies, lived in the same building. They bought a portable mangle together for all the ironing. We became close friends with them. We were gone for 16 years, but when we moved back to Seattle, we picked up with them just where we left off.”

The mangle and the play equipment weren’t their only communal activities. The families around that courtyard would save up, and once a month they’d have a keg of beer. The guys played softball. Once there was a heavy snowfall, and they built a giant snowman together.

“One day there was an earthquake. I grabbed you out of your crib and went outside, because I thought that was what you were supposed to do. Just getting down the three steps to the ground was hard. At the end of the buildings, the phone poles were whipping like mad. But Joe made some money out of it. His brother-in-law, Frank Guffy, was a painting contractor with a contract with Shell Oil. He had a shed on south Queen Anne Hill, and the quake caused a terrible mess. He hired Joe to help clean it up.

“Money was always tight. We were lucky that Joe’s parents lived in Kirkland. Joe’s father had a big garden and brought us lots of produce he’d grown, and they took us shopping once a week for cold cuts and good bread for Joe’s lunches. His mother made clothes for the children. They were a great help.

“Joe worked a lot. All the guys did, if they could. It was so hard to get by. Joe’s benefits under Public Law 16 were $116 a month. If we could make it to $200, we’d be OK. So he hustled whatever he could. He built toys for the nursery school co-op. He remodeled houses. He set up a cleaning business on the Ave with another guy doing offices, eventually hired others to work for them.”

Joseph Kahle graduated in three years. In fall 1949, he moved our family to Berkeley, where he earned a master’s of social work. He worked in that field for 30 years, finally retiring as executive director of Family Counseling Services of Seattle. He died in 2009, and left his brain to the Medical School as part of a research project for which he had volunteered.

The temporary wartime housing that was Union Bay Village lasted until 1981. Then aged and sagging, it was torn down and replaced by Laurel Court, closer to the main campus.

A swamp, a dump, a landfill. Now it is a driving range and a Youth Garden, and Ceramic and Metal Arts. Part of the main street, Union Bay Place, has been renamed for Mary Gates. The place never looked like a launching pad. But there was a time when men and women grew wings there. There was a time when the kids screamed “Daddy!” That’s when it was called Union Bay Village.

How many of us are there left, the Union Bay Village kids? We will carry that name, those three words, with us while memory endures.