May 27, 2010 in Washington Voices

Vinegar Flats area ready for revitalization

Jacob Albert
Christopher Anderson photo

Interstate 90 bridges frame the north end of Vinegar Flats, a neighborhood that could be ready for revitalization.
(Full-size photo)

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In an article titled “What Makes a Neighborhood,” in 2003 in The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel, Lynda Lambert lists the elements of a “stable” neighborhood: “Businesses at a central location, within walking distance for the majority of residents … its own elementary school, a library, a rec center, a park.”

The recent revitalization efforts of Spokane neighborhoods Browne’s Addition, South Perry, and Garland District have proven successful both for the neighborhoods and Spokane as a whole. East Sprague, Hillyard, and West Central are on the docket. But who’s next?

Vinegar Flats.

First of all, the name is unique and speaks to its colorful history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, local apple farmers delivered their product to a plant in southwest Spokane to be processed into vinegar. As workers built homes and cottages nearby the plant, one of Spokane’s earliest “creek” neighborhoods was born (Peaceful Valley is the best known existing creek neighborhood.) The new community that blossomed around the vinegar plant became known as Vinegar Flats.

The vinegar plant is long gone, but the houses and history remain. With its location at the foot of a steep, sandy bluff, along with the construction of railroad and freeway bridges, Vinegar Flats was effectively severed from the bustling downtown only a mile away. As stately homes filled the South Hill ridge above, Vinegar Flats sank into a quiet existence. As the years passed, small businesses appeared then disappeared, homes were built along muddy roads, Wentel Grant Park was laid out, and Vinegar Flats crept up the winding Latah Creek until it was pinched off where Inland Empire Highway meets the U.S. Highway 195.

In recent years, a giant supermarket, golf courses, restaurants, churches, and sprawling housing developments have risen in the southern end of Hangman Valley. Despite this activity, Vinegar Flats kept to its anonymous self, its rocky walls and rooftops glimpsed only briefly by the cars zipping past on U.S. Highway 195.

But times are changing. A number of recent developments show a desire of Vinegar Flats to step into the growing limelight of vintage Spokane neighborhoods. High Bridge Park was cleaned up and saw the installation of new bike and hiking trails. Wentel Grant Park, in the heart of Vinegar Flats, had new playground equipment and restrooms installed. Historic dwellings like the Dovecot House and Camp Grande Cottages have been restored. Plans to rehabilitate the banks of Latah Creek through public and private funds are currently under way.

But the complete revitalization of Vinegar Flats is still a long way off.

The fundamental successes of South Perry, Garland District, and Browne’s Addition are their centralized business cores. Within each neighborhood is an intersection anchored by older businesses around which newer businesses opened and prospered. Vinegar Flats lacks this centralized core, but the neighborhood is small enough that shops, cafes, and restaurants scattered among its streets are still within the necessary walking distance noted by Lambert. The presence of abandoned commercial buildings in the neighborhood offer a realistic chance of this happening.

Wentel Grant and High Bridge parks, along with Latah Creek and existing trails along the bluff, offer plenty of recreational choices for residents and visitors, along with activities like picnics, SYSA sports, and weddings. But what about the school, rec center, and library that Lambert also required for a “stable” neighborhood?

As proven by Perry, Garland, and Browne’s, the combined presence of these three elements is not a deal breaker. A park offers the same opportunity for outdoor activities available outside a school. The urbane presence of a library can exist in a café or bookstore with customers perusing paperbacks or sipping lattes over laptops.

That leaves a rec center, with its availability for neighborhood meetings, fundraising bake sales, holiday festivals, and “Wizard of Oz” productions. With Spokane’s varying climates, not all of these community-related events could be held at Wentel Grant. On the other hand, between a school, library, and rec center, the construction of the latter would seem most plausible. Time will tell.

Lambert describes a neighborhood as a “cohesive whole.” In my opinion, this is the most important element for the existence of a “stable” neighborhood. Fortunately for Vinegar Flats, this rather intangible quality already exists in spades. Save for Peaceful Valley, no other neighborhood in Spokane is as clearly defined as Vinegar Flats: hemmed in by bluffs, cliffs, creeks, bridges, and highways; inheritor of a colorful history and an enviously hip name; shy enough to have emerged unscathed by the hasty development that has gutted so many other Spokane neighborhoods.

Vinegar Flats sits nestled in its unassuming northern corner like a diamond in the Spokane rough, and it is absolutely worth this city’s while to recognize that before it’s too late.

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