The Gulch

The lowland between Duwamish Head and Pigeon Point was known as the Gulch, sometimes Poverty Gulch or Garlic Gulch or Little Italy because of the large number of Italian families who lived there. Nichols remembers that the Seraphina’s, Bertoldi’s, Guntoli’s, Scatina’s, and Valentinetti’s were mostly congregated just south of the steel mill, “so I grew up learning to love Italian food.”

“We were called Gulch Rats,” according to Darla Fox. “We were always called Gulch Rats” while the kids living down on West Marginal Way on the river were called “River Rats.”

Besides being poor, the Gulch could be an especially rough neighborhood. In the 1920’s, a single policeman (O’Neill, a “big Irishman”) patrolled Youngstown. Every hour he would call into the precinct in West Seattle from the police call box on 26th and Andover. There were taverns toward Spokane Street and a whorehouse that children were warned away from. Bootleggers operated from Youngstown, and there was an occasional violent death. The druggist, George Holman, once shot a man who tried to rob him. At Mike’s Meats robbers blew the whole side of the building out and took the safe.

When Prohibition was repealed, Gino Lucchesini’s father, Guido, converted his pool hall into a tavern, across from the entrance to the steel mill on Andover Street. Lucchesini described the tavern as a form of entertainment, with shuffleboard, pool tables, and league play, serving steel workers, shipyard workers, and people in the neighborhood.

There was more than one gang: a “cross-the-creek” gang, the “east side of the creek” gang, and the gang south of the school field. Lucchesini described slingshot wars between the 26th Avenue Gang on the east side of the Longfellow Creek and the 28th Avenue Gang on the west side. “I was too young to have a slingshot—the older kids handled the slingshot—but I used to carry rocks. You used to use garbage can lids for protectors.” He remembers that dads intervened to stop these wars after one boy got hit in the head with a cross-the-creek shot.

In later decades, Davidson remembers a Gulch Gang of young toughs, some of them really crooks, some not. “They stole cars, things off of cars, had a theft ring going.” Because of this reputation for gangs, the cops would patrol Youngstown and would stop kids after 10 p.m., well into the 1950’s. “We’d get back from a football game, and they would ‘roust us out’—make kids get out of cars, spread-eagled, be searched. We were a sure target for the cops.”

The community’s reputation was described by Richard Hugo, one of the Northwest’s best-known poets. Hugo grew up in White Center at the southern end of Delridge and wrote about the communities of White Center, Youngstown, and Riverside in his autobiography, The Real West Marginal Way. Riverside, Hugo wrote, was “a cluster of drab frame houses,” with Slavic and Greek immigrants: “The homes huddle together and climb the east side of Pigeon Hill, up into alders and ivy.” Despite this drab appearance, he found Riverside attractive. “The names, Popick, Zuvela, Petrapolous, were exotic, and the community, more European in appearance than any other in Seattle, always seemed beautiful to me.”

His description of the entire neighborhood was less favorable: “the filthy, loud belching steel mill, the oily slow river, the immigrants hanging on to their odd ways, Indians getting drunk in the unswept taverns, the commercial fishermen, tugboat workers, and mill workers with their coarse manners.”

In contrast, the middle-class communities of West Seattle towered above the gulch. To the west “sat the castle, the hill, West Seattle where we would go to high school. What a middle class paradise. West Seattle…was an ideal. To be accepted there meant one had become a better person.“ (8)

“It was everybody’s dream, I think, to eventually get to West Seattle,” said Mary Alice Willi.

Barbara Iacolucci recalls that everyone was pretty much in the same boat. “We all lived in areas where…there really wasn’t any snobbery because nobody had a lot. The area wasn’t poor, but compared to West Seattle they probably thought it was poor.”

In his middle school and high school years, Fred Hansen became aware of the distinction between Delridge and West Seattle. “This was always considered a lower-class neighborhood. But then we began to take pride in the fact that this was our neighborhood, a tough neighborhood. And when we went to high school, a lot of our kids from here were good athletes and did very well at the high school. Even at the high school we hung around together at the radiator. They called us the Radiator Gang. We were the Youngstown or Cooper Radiator Gang. But it was fun because no one gave you any trouble….”

8. Richard Hugo. The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography. (W.W. Norton, 1986).