Many of the alleys in Madison Park — in particular, the alley between 42nd and 43 avenues, north of Madison Street — were all dirt surfaces with big chuck holes. When it rained in the winter, the holes filled with water and froze, which was a total treat for my schoolmates and me to run and slide on until the cows came home.

Most of the small shacks on each side of our alley were houseboats that had been brought to the higher elevation and were filled with families who worked the shipyards and defense plants.

One evening, I was invited for dinner at a friend’s small home on the alley. The makeshift table was covered with a colorful blanket. The parents, two daughters, my friend and I crowded around the small table. I sat on a wobbly wooden chair, and the others sat on apple boxes turned upright.

Some ate with a fork; others, just a knife. Being the guest, I was offered a fork. Conversation was cheerful; the meal was great!

Sheets and blankets for walls separated the rooms. My friend said they had all slept in the car on their way to Madison Park, stopping to take odd jobs.

Madison Park was blue-collar and middle-class. Park-ites were the kind of people who would give you the shirt off their backs and lend a hand at the drop of a dime.

After dinner, I told my mom and grandparents how well this family got by, considering what little they had. It was then mentioned, “You know, we live in a garage!” which brought joyful laughter.

In spite of the war, there was a common bond among all of us. Family members worked, and kids chipped in. There was food on the table, and people were quite happy with their lot in life, all making a similar income.

Getting crowded out

The war brought subtle but appealing changes to the young set. There were just a few houseboats remaining on 43rd Avenue that we boarded by way of rickety planks to engage in cap-gun wars. Six rolls of caps for 5 cents made for costly battles.

The cops chased us off several times as the houseboats were condemned and about to be towed away.

In the late ‘40s, a house was relocated from 22nd to 41st avenue onto an empty lot. Two new houses were built side-by-side on McGilvra Boulevard. In the midst of a shoot-out, the “Blue Meanies” (otherwise known as “coppers”) surrounded us and took names; they even said we resembled the kids who vandalized the houseboats! This drove our battles to the woods of Canterbury, to a dirty, old shack, where we fought rats just big enough for saddles.

The war ended, the shipyards closed and people moved out of the neighborhood, closer to other jobs. The alley changed, with new dwellings and concrete roadways. Houseboats were remodeled or scrapped. Garages with newly painted interiors, carpeting and new appliances made for lucrative rentals.

Most people had just enough money to buy a home but had little or no funds for any remodeling or additions, which kept our neighborhood looking consistently modest for several years. 

My, how things have changed

A gentleman named Hilliker built the triangle-shaped building across from where the Cactus restaurant is now. He also built a house that extended way over the water on pilings on the north side of Little Beach. It was in all the architecture magazines. Condos eventually replaced it.

Apartments all over the neighborhood turned into condos, giving renters the first option to buy. Most moved to Capitol Hill for more affordability.

Madison Park became a very desirable place to hang a hat. Some who left the area in the ‘70s were anxious to move back, mostly because their new digs — with all its space and greenbelts — were being torn down to make way for larger residential buildings.

Many remembered how happy they were living in smaller, one-story homes in Madison Park, with an undeniable neighborhood feel, and desperately wanted to return.

We are now surrounded by mega-mansions, but I’m still a one-story man. We did go up, however — an inch and a half — with a new roof.

I had been impressed with Carmel, Calif., when I was stationed at Fort Ord in the late ‘50s. It ended at a body of water and had a village feel. Madison Park was a poor man’s Carmel, but today, it could be called Carmel North!

RICHARD CARL LEHMAN is a longtime Madison Park resident. To comment on this column, write to