If you were to stand in the center of North Monroe and suddenly be transported roughly one hundred years back in time, the street you would see is one you might very well recognize from today. Even when Spokane was a fledgling city and Native Americans still lived in teepees
along the slope of the North Hill, North Monroe led directly to and from the downtown area, straight as a Roman road, connecting the neighborhoods—then only scattered clusters of houses, a few schools amid the trees—to the growing urban center. The road was wide enough to accommodate horse and early automobile traffic but existed primarily as a conduit for the most popular mode of transportation at the time, streetcars.
North Monroe soon evolved into much more than a thoroughfare. It became a commercial corridor in its own right that simultaneously functioned as an extension of the vibrant downtown business area. All manner of shops and services sprang up along the streetcar line, taking advantage of the convenient on/off access it afforded their customers. Buildings like Spokane Fire Station No. 3
(1912) and the Jenkins Building (1910) at the southern end of the road and, further north, the mixed-use Hoban Building (1907) and nearby Carnegie Library
(1904) are among the many lasting architectural legacies of that period: modest and earthy, though not without elegance or functionality.
By the 1920s, cars began to operate more frequently alongside the trolleys, finally displacing them altogether in 1936
, but North Monroe’s identity as a thriving area for socialization and commerce remained intact. It boasted a variety of retailers, supermarkets, apartments, churches, restaurants, entertainment venues and much more. All this activity was within a few blocks’ walk from popular green spaces like Corbin Park and Drumheller Springs. For decades this convenience and diversity made North Monroe a premier destination for businesses and customers alike.
One long-running presence over the years was Safeway. In fact, for a time the supermarket chain operated multiple locations on North Monroe. From the 1930s and into 1950s, one of its stores was located in the building that is now home to Napa Auto Parts (formerly Upscale Home Furnishings). In 1956, a much larger, blockier structure was built for the supermarket at the corner of Monroe and Montgomery where, some decades before, Craftsman houses and a cornfield once stood.
Two years later, in 1958, North Monroe itself was officially designated an arterial, which signaled a shift from 3 to 4 lanes of traffic. At the time, though, it still resembled its turn-of-the-century appearance with no parking bays and no center turn lane. Safeway's relocation to a larger building and North Monroe's arterial designation are indicative of the changes that were taking place across Spokane as a whole during the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1976, the area alongside and around the North Monroe corridor between Boone (to the south) and Cora (to the north) was officially recognized as Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood, named after two elementary schools. What followed marked a further period of change for both North Monroe and the neighborhood it continues to call home. Between 1977 and 1978, slim parking bays were installed along the street and it was re-striped to accommodate a center turn lane. Although this was presumably done in the heady days following Expo ’74, the redesign also narrowed the travel lanes and shrank the sidewalks, significantly altering the feel and accessibility of the street.
Both of the neighborhood’s historic school buildings were demolished in 1981. Garfield was rebuilt on the same site in the same severe concrete style as several others across Spokane; Emerson was not rebuilt and the land instead became a park. However, other vestiges of the area’s rich history did not go unrecognized. The Carnegie Library, the Hoban Building and Corbin Park were utilized as well as preserved. In 1989, the old Safeway supermarket at the Montgomery intersection—it had been refitted into Safeway’s regional data communications center in the meantime—was purchased by Community Colleges of Spokane and remodeled as the Adult Education Center.
By the mid-1990s and early 2000s, there were signs that the corridor was beginning to show its age. The Emerson-Garfield Neighborhood Council and the North Monroe Business District each began exploring ways to recapture some of the street’s earlier warmth and energy. They drafted plans and held discussions with City officials, which ultimately led to tentative revitalization proposals and public feedback sessions. Unfortunately, funding on the necessary scale was unavailable at the time.
Today North Monroe remains a varied and vital business corridor. The legacy of its streetcars is still celebrated in a mural on the wall of the Empire Office Machines building, and its history is writ large across its many restored or repurposed brick buildings. Yet the relative consistency of the street over the past century shows how much the neighborhood, the city and the world around it have evolved. Attitudes toward roads as simple vehicle conduits have shifted. Priorities have realigned to achieve a healthier balance between residents, visitors, businesses, motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation riders; safety, visual appeal and utility — a balance that was lost over time.
Nearly two decades into the 21st century, North Monroe and its business district are now preparing to enter a new phase, one that pays homage to its past while looking to its future as a unique and desirable area in which to live, work, shop, socialize and eat. It will be safer and more pleasant just to travel through — though its convenience and charm will make it even more ideal for a quick stop at one of its many businesses.