Downtown Neighborhood and the Lettered Streets
Downtown Bellingham has a unique culture and rhythm that draws people from all backgrounds and continues to develop and evolve. In the late 1980's many of the large businesses left downtown for the greener pastures of the Bellis Fair Mall, and the smaller business stuggled amid the empty downtown buildings. Times for downtown were bleak but times have changed. Today downtown has many unique businesses, restaurants and eateries that draw people back to the city center. There are numerous small business success stories downtown that are amounting to a collective renaissance for the district. New buildings are replacing dilapidated buildings and turn of the century buildings are being upgraded. Condos and apartments in downtown are becoming more sought after and the old apartments above old businesses are becoming modern apartments with loads of character. Downtown is still in the midst of this change. There are plans on the drawing board that will continue to improve life downtown, and by far the largest is the Waterfront Redevelopment Project.
Until recently, the bayside edge of Bellingham was dominated by the Georgia Pacific Pulp Mill, the last and largest vestige of Bellingham’s mill-town past. In 2001, Georgia Pacific announced that the mill would be closing, and has since closed in several stages. This was staggering news for those who worked there and the many businesses that supported the mill, but at the same time it offered an opportunity that will change the character of Bellingham for generations to come. The vision is still forming for the 228 acres that separate downtown from the bay. All the ideas and plans envision a well designed mixed-use community that will integrate the shoreline environment, parks, business, schools, marinas and homes, bringing the bay to the feet of downtown. Someday this district will be the gem of Bellingham and will be the home of the best condo units and office locations in town, but for now it’s still a vision with all the challenges of big ideas.
As for now, downtown Bellingham has some real gems that need to be mentioned. Eating, shopping, entertainment and learning something new is what downtown is good at. Here are just a few suggestions. On Saturdays, for the warmer nine months of the year, check out the farmers market on Railroad Avenue for fresh produce and unique local handcrafted items. For breakfast try Old Town Café or the Little Cheerful Café or for a fresh Bagel, any time of day, the Bagelry is the best place to go. Bellingham is a town that lives by the credo ‘Buy Local’, so you could go to Starbucks for your coffee, and we do have a fine Starbucks downtown, or you could try the local alternative, the Woods Coffee House. There’s no better pizza than La Fiama with their wood fired oven, for fish and chips at the Shrimp Shack would be a good choice. Cajun cooking is best at Bijou on the Bay and fine dining with a great water front view is found at Anthony’s and the separate Anthony’s Hearth Fire Grill. Bellingham really likes the way the Anthony’s people do food. For the best in local beer, and the food and music that should accompany good beer, there is the incredibly popular Boundary Bay Brewery and the new Chuckanut Brewery. There is only one place in town for ice cream, sorry everyone else but Mallards is that place. These are just a few of the eating establishments downtown, I'm sure that I missed quite a few others that I will have to come back and add someday.
There are also some entertainment gems downtown that need to be mentioned. When with kids, try out the Bellingham Children’s Museum and the Mind Port Learning Center, both are great places for kids and adults to interact with a variety of interesting, odd and ingenious exhibits. Then go down to the waterfront and visit the aquarium with a great variety of local fish and other marine live including an octopus. Then walk on the path around the marina and spend some time at Zuanich Park where there’s lots of room for the kids to play. Another option is the Pickford Cinema, Bellingham’s independent movie house that plays a wide selection of films. One of the unexpected finds in Bellingham is the American Museum of Radio and Electricity. The museum has a wide collection radios and early electrical devises that still function. Many people are literally shocked by what they find here. The Whatcom Museum of History and Art is also a well deserved stop to learn about Whatcom County history, with a good collection of Native art and artifacts.
Bellingham’s oldest neighborhood is on the western edge of the downtown core. The Lettered Streets neighborhood is where the very first settlement was on Bellingham Bay, where Whatcom Creek meets the bay. At the foot of the Lettered Streets Neighborhood, by the bay, are the oldest homes and as you travel away from the water the homes become more recent. There are some examples of large grand homes from the 1890’s in this neighborhood, but mainly the neighborhood has a good selection of middle class houses. There are many examples of 1890’s and early twentieth century architecture throughout the neighborhood with more current homes and apartments also scattered around.