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Sunday, June 23, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Places

Island Of Tranquility -- Forget The Stereotypes. A New Wave Of Families Finds Mercer Island An Antidote To The Disturbing Urban '90S.

KAY CLARK, A REALTOR, steers her gold Mercedes along Mercer Island's main street, past the old-fashioned street lamps, the wrought-iron benches and the German deli where the police chief breaks for goulash.

She slows often so her client, Randy Halter, a 34-year-old frozen-foods executive from New Jersey, can get a good first glimpse of the suburban isle he heard about all the way across the United States.

Halter's easy laugh can't hide his serious task. After all, his quest is the nation's: to find a trustworthy place to raise a family.

Clark heads out of the business district, then turns south until the road begins to curve. Houses appear, partially secluded by steep dips in the land. Halter draws a breath just as the sun steals through the clouds and tosses glitter on Lake Washington.

"It's really beautiful," he says as she slows the car to a stop.

THE ISLAND IS BEAUTIFUL: wooded, shady, peaceful from hilltop views to lakefront lawns, blessed with a 475-acre mix of groomed and rugged parks and some of the best back-side Seattle skyline views on the Eastside. But the island's identity really isn't its beauty.

It's not even money, as outsiders love to jest, tossing names like Mercedes Island at the well-placed hamlet of 21,000, where the average household income is $94,000 a year and billionaire Paul Allen lives with his mother in an 18,000-square-foot compound with a basketball court and a movie theater.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are plenty of families who really do bait their rat traps with Brie. But what really defines the island isn't the line of freshly washed Jeeps and BMWs at the drive-through Starbucks.

As the nation wrings its hands over its growing ills, and aches for a time gone by, what makes Mercer Island unique is that the good ol' days never left. And this isn't a quaint country town, where miles of farmland and country roads dilute the stains of urban life. This place is six minutes on a clear day from the biggest city in the state. Six minutes from homelessness and graffiti. Six minutes from 50 murders a year.

On Mercer Island, mothers still add food coloring to the frosting on Valentine's Day cupcakes and stay at school all afternoon to pass them out. Residents vote yes for school levies. The neighbors will watch the kids while you run to the store for a loaf of bread. And there's still no movie at Hollywood Video that compares to the thrill of an end-of-season, Friday-night varsity basketball game on the wooden bleachers at Mercer Island High School.

I should know. I was at Mercer Island High School in 1985 when longtime coach Ed Pepple led the Islanders to their first-ever state championship. I remember wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a plastic lei like all the other crazed Islander fans. I remember what a thrill it was to cheer and honk from the Seattle Center all the way home.

Frankly, none of this is easy to admit. Growing up on the island, I learned early to mumble whenever the words Mercer Island passed my lips. Even now, after more than a decade of living across the country and across the lake, I still tend to swallow the name.

It's sometimes easier than dealing with those hard-to-shake assumptions people attach to inhabitants of The Rock. You know, that everyone is wealthy, snobby, pampered and sheltered.

Even the mayor, Judy Clibborn, knows what I mean.

"Yes, you have to be careful," she laughs. "Mayor of Mercer Island - in certain places, it's like a joke."

But if they're talking about Mercer Island in New Jersey, this is as good a time as any to set the record straight.

First of all, to really understand Mercer Island, you have to toss out the cliches. Cast aside the stubborn image of palatial estates you see from the bridge and picture neighborhoods full of pale, low-slung ramblers worth 20 times more than when they were built.

Picture a place more small town than suburb, where the local paper prints the honor roll every semester and everybody knows everybody's business. It's a place where you have to go grocery shopping at off hours unless you want five conversations between the lettuce and the check-out stand. Where a woman called the mayor when her mail didn't arrive and city council members invite their biggest critics to lunch.

Smack between two urban centers, in a nation obsessed with crime, Mercer Island is a city that's never had a murder.

To its residents, it's better than a gated community, a castle with a sparkling moat. Not even suburban sprawl and strip-mall traffic jams dare rear their ugly heads. Challenge the status quo and you're asking for a fight. Islanders know what they've got and might go head-to-head with anyone who tries to take it away.

IT'S VALENTINE'S DAY afternoon and a dozen women, in red sweaters and red dresses, mix 7-Up and cranberry-juice punch, arrange frosted pink cupcakes and count out crossword puzzles on magenta paper.

"Mercer Island moms in action," one jokes.

When the party goods are ready the mothers fan out, two here, three there, into the classrooms of newly remodeled Island Park Elementary School. Robin Holland mouths hello to her oldest son, Trey. The tick-tick of knitting needles fills the room as fourth- and fifth-grade boys and girls practice Colonial handicrafts.

Holland smiles. This is what she and her husband, Bryce, left Magnolia for last fall, this freshly painted school with computers in every room and volunteers around every corner. At Island Park, students raise their hands before speaking and turn in their homework on time.

No sign here of the anxiety that grips the nation. No trace of the funk President Clinton says we're all in. In this little school of vacuumed carpets and smiling teachers, the children's paintings on the wall depict colorful flowers and green, green grass.

More than 200 parents volunteer on a regular basis at the school of 550 students. A father who's an orthopedic surgeon talks to a classroom studying the skeletal system; a mother teaches candle-making.

The volunteers are mostly mothers, some who shuffle schedules or work at home so they can be at school. About 40 percent of the Mercer Island mothers with children under 6 worked outside the home in 1990, compared with two-thirds of those mothers in Seattle and Medina.

In the past two years, more than 300 unexpected new students have enrolled in Mercer Island schools, the biggest jump since the island's original boom in the 1950s and 1960s. For the first time in a long time, schools are operating at capacity.

Some newcomers are from Spokane or Texas, but many are from Seattle, longing to find their future in the past, when people believed in public school and the bogeyman didn't lurk on every corner.

Mercer Island School Superintendent Richard Giger has to struggle to find trouble in his 3,765-student district. The district hasn't failed an operating levy since the 1950s. While voters in Seattle, Kent and Highline were rejecting first-round levies this year, Mercer Island voters approved theirs by 79 percent, the highest percentage in King County.

Mercer Island school officials say their dropout rate is less than 1 percent, compared with about 24 percent who leave the Seattle School District without a diploma. Standardized test scores are consistently among the highest in the state, and 93 percent of high-school graduates go on to college.

The Hollands searched their souls before packing up their three boys, 11, 9 and 6, and leaving their pretty Magnolia brick Tudor with a view.

Magnolia may be one of the safest places in Seattle, but the Hollands didn't let their boys roam free in the neighborhood or ride their bikes to a friend's house. The boys' private school wasn't down the street, but a long car ride away. They wanted to give Seattle schools a chance, but found dingy paint and a leaky roof at their sons' designated elementary.

While they agonized over the decision, the Hollands joined the Mercer Island Country Club, just to dip a toe into the community. The last thing they wanted was to uproot their boys and settle in a community of snobs.

That's not what they found.

"It's like the 1950s," Holland says. "It's genuinely nicer, kinder people than I expected."

THE ISLAND'S EARLY HISTORY belies its present popularity. Once upon a time, long before floating bridges and shopping malls, the lake that now keeps outsiders away kept everyone away from the six square miles of densely forested terrain. Duwamish Indians, island lore has it, believed the place was inhabited by an evil spirit.

The island was named in 1860 after one of the famous Mercer brothers, but no one seems to know whether it was Asa, Thomas or Aaron who left his name on the island that is shaped like a footprint without toes. About a decade before a glue pot caught fire and burned Seattle to the ground, Charles and Agnes Olds paid $156.43 for a 123-acre waterfront homestead and settled down to raise their two children, unknowingly launching an evolution from obscurity to Eden.

In 1940, the first cars crossed the world's largest floating bridge, but a shortage of building supplies during World War II delayed large-scale development.

One of the first housing developments was a collection of 300 homes on a long, gradual slope from the top of the island to its eastern shore. Developer Russell Emrich advertised the Mercerwood homes in the Mercer Island Reporter in 1954 for $20,000.

Come one, come all: Boeing workers, dentists, school teachers, engineers and insurance salespeople, for three-bedroom ramblers with narrow hallways, low ceilings and a back yard for the German shepherd. These were American Dream neighborhoods, minutes from the office by car and minutes from school by bike, where housewives could prepare a pot roast without worrying about the kids.

In 1950, the population was 4,500. By 1970, it had more than quadrupled to just under what it is today. The families were mostly white, young and middle class, just like their counterparts settling near the new shopping center in Bellevue. The difference was islanders had an island, an identifiable community and a beach on every side.

FOR A TIME THE LAKE turned brown and reeked of sewage, but Metro built treatment plants and the lake once again beckoned children for swim lessons at the Beach Club or water-skiing off a friend's dock. Others learned to play tennis at the country club or ride horses in the labyrinth of dirt paths on the south end.

The Jewish Community Center in Seattle determined the exact center of the region's Jewish population to be the middle of Lake Washington, and in 1967 chose Mercer Island as the logical place for a new building. Hundreds of Jewish families joined the influx to the island.

In 1967, Life magazine published an article about Mercer Island to exemplify the growing gulf between parents and their children nationwide. The players were teenage malcontents who hung out at the Island Plaza Coffee Shop and bragged about their drinking and complained of a lack of authority in their lives.

Sandwiched between a photo essay of Jackie Kennedy in Cambodia and a recipe for roast glazed loin of pork, the article shocked Mercer Island into a frenzy of letter-writing and introspection. Feeling singled-out and exposed, the islanders adopted a defensiveness that's still palpable today.

My parents moved to the island in the early 1960s. Eager to start a family, they rented a Shorewood apartment until they could afford a one-story, one-bathroom house on a flat street near the high school. The house I remember best wasn't that one but the next, tucked into the woods with a carport for the sky-blue Plymouth wagon. School was an uphill shortcut away, through thick woods and huckleberry bushes. Eight families made up my secluded neighborhood, with enough kids to cover all the bases in kickball.

In the days of Afterschool Specials, corduroys and Tang, our carefree lives weren't much different than those of our counterparts around the state. It's just that many of the other places seem to have changed.

I DIDN'T KNOW IT BUT islanders had already begun their fight to protect the way we lived. The state had proposed expanding Interstate 90 to 14 lanes, high above ground with a tangle of overpasses. The highway would have ripped through the north end of the island. No way, residents said in lawsuits, letters and hearings in the early 1970s.

Then-Mayor Aubrey Davis took the island's message to the top. He met with state Highway Director George Andrews in a Tukwila restaurant to report that islanders wouldn't accept that kind of freeway.

Today the northern section of the island is 22 acres of rolling bike paths, groomed athletic fields and an almost constant stream of dog-walkers and joggers. A massive concrete lid paid for by the state conceals the freeway. Islanders are immune even to traffic jams thanks to the deal - solo drivers can use HOV lanes to zip past rush-hour traffic and reach their exits.

Islanders had learned an important lesson. They didn't have to accept anything they could see, hear or smell.

It came in handy in the summer of 1994. A hearing drew more than 350 rowdy islanders to City Hall to protest a proposal for townhouses on the south end. Residents shouted expletives, booed supporters and predicted renters would signal the beginning of the end. The idea was shelved.

Last summer, the owner of Taco Loco faced the storm when he announced plans to paint the Jack-in-the-Box he had acquired in bright red, orange and yellow. A city planner suggested he change his color scheme to beige or brown. Twenty people showed up at a hearing and a planning commissioner told Roy Warren, who is African American, that his color scheme looked more "South Central," as in Los Angeles, than Southwestern, according to the Mercer Island Reporter. He painted the restaurant beige. It went out of business several months after it opened and still sits empty.

IN A COUNTRY that's increasingly diverse, both ethnically and economically, Mercer Island's population has remained stubbornly the same. The Asian population has grown gradually to about 10 percent, about the same as the county. The African-American population is still tiny. There is only one African-American student in the eighth grade, six in the senior class at the high school.

While there are some families who struggle, nearly 80 percent of the residents own their own homes, with an average value of $364,000. More than 60 percent over 25 have a college degree, and the majority of those employed are managers or professionals.

Being an island of essentially like-minded souls is what gave the island its strength. But the homogeneity is also the island's biggest weakness.

"It's kind of a sheltered place," said one student working on the high-school newspaper. "If I walk on the streets of Seattle and see someone with yellow hair, it freaks me out."

Last year, an emergency-assistance fund run by a family-service organization helped 46 island families who couldn't afford to pay the rent or buy food. Most were single mothers with young children living in apartments on the north end of the island. Some lived on the island before a divorce and didn't want to move their children away; others moved there for the schools.

But poverty on the island remains so hidden that when a wayward homeless man fell asleep on one of the benches in the central business district, it made the local paper. "They grow up with an idea of normal that's not normal," says Sarah Stuckey, who counsels high-school students with drug and alcohol addictions.

Filled with high-achievers and go-getters, Mercer Island can be an unforgiving place to be average. The cracks are wide for those unconcerned with sports or grade points or popularity. Every high-school class had its group of so-called 13th-graders, who graduated on paper but never moved beyond the lure of drugs and high-school beer parties.

A survey at the high school this year found 38 percent of 894 students had an alcoholic drink in the previous 30 days.

It's not that island teenagers are doing anything different than their counterparts across the lake or their predecessors three decades ago. It just seems easy for parents who want the best for their children to be in denial.

"Parents hoped there would be a positive payoff," said Stuckey. "They are perplexed: Why would my kid want to do cocaine?"

MORNING HAS EDGED INTO afternoon and Randy Halter's tour has moved to the flat center of the island, into one of the countless neighborhoods of two-story houses with picture windows and centerpiece rhododendrons. Two little girls ride by on pink bikes.

"I like the consistency of this kind of neighborhood," Clark says as Halter nods. He looks slowly, left and right across the streets. Nothing for sale here: These houses are snapped up as soon as they're listed, sometimes for close to $400,000.

It's a high price for a fantasy.

Too high, in the end, for Randy and Laura Halter, who visit the island several more times but eventually settle instead on a bigger, newer and less-expensive house in an East Bellevue neighborhood.

The streets there are just about as safe, they decide, the schools just about as good.

Susan Byrnes is a Seattle Times staff writer. Jacqueline Koch is a Seattle photographer.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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