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All Over The Map: Seattle’s other ‘temporary protest place-names’ before CHAZ

Welcome to Free Capitol Hill, Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or just “CHAZ,” Seattle’s latest protest place-name. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

Nearly everyone in Seattle and even around the United States this week is talking about CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, an area comprising of a handful of square blocks around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct.

While everyone from President Trump on down is weighing in on it, this isn’t the first time that part of Seattle has been given a temporary protest name. And some of those earlier once-temporary names have ending up sticking around.

It seems lately that we are living through history. And, regardless of how you might feel about the politics of it, it’s safe to say that the evolution of the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” is something that will be studied for decades.

The process by which geographic names are chosen offers fascinating glimpses into the times and into the people choosing the name. So much can be learned about our cultural and social history from what we call places and things, and especially from how and why names are chosen.

Technology and social media provide simple tools to examine the development of the “CHAZ” name that geographers and linguists can only dream of having for earlier examples of temporary protest place-names in Seattle (or anywhere for that matter).

It isn’t clear who came up with the name Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, and if they even considered the acronym CHAZ, but the process seems to have taken less than a day. The name now echoing around the world appears to have morphed from a handful of variations before congealing as a phenomenon on social and traditional media throughout the day on Wednesday, June 10.

Over a time span of less than an hour on Tuesday, June 9, the area was referred to as “Cop Free Zone,” “Capitol Hill Free Zone” and, finally, “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” by Seattle area journalists on Twitter.

The next day, the more generic “Seattle Autonomous Zone” was trending on Twitter; it makes sense that for people far away, “Seattle” would be enough location information (“Capitol Hill” would be too granular at that point).

The Wikipedia page for the CHAZ was created just after midnight (believed to be Pacific Time) or early Wednesday morning by a Wiki user named “Juno,” but most of the edits and additions to the page on Wednesday were made by a Wiki user named “Mt.FijiBoiz.” It seems that the “CHAZ” acronym came into use either late Tuesday or early Wednesday.

On Thursday afternoon, signs at the unguarded entry points said “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE CAP HILL” and nearby orange barricades where graffitied with “CHAZ” and “WELCOME TO FREE CAP HILL.” Multiple places on the sidewalk in the area had also been spray painted using a stencil that says “FREE CAPITOL HILL.”

Earlier examples of temporary protest place-names go back to at least the 1930s.

During the Great Depression, Seattle had a number of encampments called “Shacktowns” on previously vacant land in the city. The largest was not far from the Starbucks headquarters, which was the Sears-Roebuck building then.

This encampment was called “Hooverville,” after President Hoover who was in office when the Great Depression began, and who was criticized for not doing more to shore up the economy. Similar Hoovervilles were found in big cities all over the United States; Seattle’s was one of the largest.

The homeless camp better known these days as the Jungl on the edge of Beacon Hill near I-90 was also there during the Depression. It was called “Republican Heights” by some, which is a more generic slight to President Hoover’s party.

Hooverville, Republican Heights, and pretty much all homeless encampments around Seattle were gone by the early 1940s, as authorities burned down the shacks and other wooden structures to make way for wartime use. Near full-employment meant a booming economy, and measures such as construction of temporary housing for defense workers meant more places to live (though even then, commuting was a necessity for many Seattle workers).

Summer of 1934 saw the West Coast Waterfront Strike. One encampment of strikers on Harbor Island was known as “Smithville.”  This name was for one-term Seattle Mayor Charles L. Smith, who ordered a series of crackdowns to break the strike that led to multiple violent confrontations between police and strikers. Mayor Smith earned various nicknames that summer, such as “Tear Gas Smith” and “Machine Gun Smith.”

In March 1970, Native Americans from around the Northwest and West occupied parts of the old Fort Lawton in Magnolia. Within a few weeks, they were calling themselves “United Indians of All Tribes.” That name stuck for the organization (with the addition of “Foundation”) and they eventually built and still operate Daybreak Star Cultural Center in what’s now Discovery Park.

In October 1972 activists — described in the Seattle Times as “Chicanos” — occupied the vacant Beacon Hill School on Beacon Hill. In November, they renamed the school “El Centro de la Raza,” meaning “The Center for the People of All Races.” The name and the organization are still going strong in the renovated Beacon Hill School.

In November 1985, African-American activists occupied the old Colman School near I-90 not far from the west portal of the Mount Baker Tunnel. It’s unclear if that group had a name, but their goal of creating a museum in the old school was realized in 2008, with the opening of the Northwest African American Museum.

In September 2008, activists and homeless people established a camp on the west side of the Duwamish River near the First Avenue South Bridge. They called it Nickelsville, for then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who had authorized sweeps of homeless camps earlier that year. Nickels lost in the primary in his 2009 bid for a third term.

The Nickelsville group now operates “tiny house villages” at 22nd and Union and at Northlake near Lake Union. According to their website, the residents are known as “Nickelodeons.”

In a bizarre side note a dozen years on, the original website for Nickelsville is now a listing of the “Top Dentists in the Seattle Area.”

The CHAZ feels very different from these earlier examples.

Seattle’s earlier temporary protest place-names came in the pre-social media era and they remained mostly a local thing. The CHAZ is different because it has quickly gained national attention – both positive and negative — and the backstory of the vacated East Precinct and then the food, medical and security being managed peacefully (so far) by protesters is unlike anything else taking place in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Chances are, if the CHAZ has an official website or if one is created for it soon, it’s not likely to be a place anyone will ever go to find somewhere to get their teeth cleaned.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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