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Originally published Saturday, December 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Neighborhood of the week

Top Hat is affordable, close in, overlooked

A diverse, close-knit neighborhood with blue collar roots, Top Hat offers affordable houses, some with great views, less than 20 minutes south of downtown Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Top Hat

Population: Approximately 8,000 (2008 est.)

Distance to downtown Seattle: About 7.5 miles

Schools: The Top Hat neighborhood is served by the Highline School District. The local public high school is Evergreen and a private high school, Kennedy, is in nearby Burien.

Rolling south up to the crest of Myers Way, to the left is a sweeping view of the Cascades, to the right is Top Hat. Literally, there's a giant top hat — or, a sculpture of one perched on the roof of a building that's home to Warner Transmission.

Decades ago, when the repair shop was a gas station (and not far from the famous gas station in Georgetown with its large cowboy hat and boots on top) the hat on the hill rose to prominence as a landmark until "Top Hat" became synonymous with the entire neighborhood, some longtime residents said.

But it was a place where you were more likely to see blue collars than black tuxedos.

"This has always been a working-class neighborhood," said Pat Kinsella, 78, a retired sheet-metal worker who has lived in Top Hat for 65 years.

"People worked at Boeing, they worked at the steel mills, they worked at the shipyards. They were cops, electricians, plumbers. They all had good union jobs," Kinsella said.

About 20 minutes south of downtown Seattle and on the other side of a large swath of industrial warehouses near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Top Hat has largely been overlooked by many homebuyers in the Seattle area.

As a result, home prices are relatively low. Recently, a three-bedroom, one bath, 1,250-square foot house sold for $223,000 while a similar house sold for $265,000. Both were built in 1953 (see accompanying pictures).

The median price for a single-family house in King County was $395,000 in November, according to figures compiled by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Yet, there hasn't been a land rush to Top Hat as there has been toward other, trendier neighborhoods, which baffles some Top Hat residents.

"There are quite a few areas that have awesome views of downtown," said resident Heidi Johnson. She said that on a clear day if you go to the top of Top Hat, up on Fourth Avenue Southwest, "it looks like you're surrounded by mountain ranges."

Johnson, who operates a day-care center, also is on the board of the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council — which represents 10 neighborhoods in an unincorporated section of King County, including Top Hat. Among their recent accomplishments is setting up a program to crack down on graffiti in the area.

Top Hat has been courted for annexation by both the cities of Seattle and Burien, but so far has remained noncommittal.

A number of new businesses have opened in Top Hat in recent years — including Southend Motorcycle Service, which has become a popular gathering spot for bikers.

A favorite watering hole is the Barrel Tavern (with a big barrel on the roof from its previous life as the Hill Top Triple XXX root beer drive-in).

It's a place where Manny's Pale Ale from the Georgetown Brewing Co. is poured forth to loyal patrons and Tuesday night jam sessions attract a number of notable local rockers.

Up the road is Bernie & Boys, a fourth-generation grocery whose shelves suggest the neighborhood has changed over the years.

Dried brown ancho chilis are stocked next to brilliant orange Japanese peppers. You can buy carne asada at the meat counter along with jars of pickled herring; queso fresco or Bulgarian feta.

The produce reflects the diverse tastes of his customer base, said owner Joe Salle.

"We probably have 12 percent of everything — blacks, whites, Hispanics, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders. For us, this is great because you can carry everybody's food," Salle said.

Johnson agrees, calling Top Hat "completely diverse. It's kind of unique, it's not segregated in any way."

She said that despite the changes, Top Hat remains close-knit. When Johnson's car broke down, she walked from home to work.

"People kept stopping to offer me a ride," she said. "I know someone on every block."

Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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