By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
The most diverse zip code in the nation
On any given day, the cacophony of different languages, sight of public art on streets and sidewalks, and wafting smell of cuisines as diverse as the local citizens fill the streets around Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Rainier Avenue South, the main thoroughfares of the Rainier Valley.
“[The Rainier Valley area] has the best selection of foods, music, and culture I think you can find in any neighborhood. It’s got a level of tolerance for difference that I’ve not seen anywhere else in the city [or] anywhere else I’ve lived,” said Jeffrey Taylor of State Farm Insurance in Columbia City.
“It’s an area with mountains and water with several parks in the area. There are lots of activities and events in the area like the street fairs and the Seafair,” said Earl Richardson, executive director of SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), a nonprofit community development corporation striving to create community investment in housing, arts, and economic development.
“I grew up here. This is where the core of the Filipino community is,” said Gerold Castro, owner and operator of Kawali Grill. “That’s why I have my business here.”
The 98118 zip code, which encompasses Columbia City and the surrounding Rainier Valley neighborhoods, has been cited by the U.S. Census as the most diverse region in the nation. Refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and many other countries are included in this demographic area.
The 2000 Census reported that 59 languages are spoken in the Rainier Valley area.
Back to the drawing board
Ten years ago, the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods had a dilemma on their hands. City plans for the Rainier Valley, which were drawn as intended guidelines for the next 40 years, had become outdated after 10 years. The Department of Neighborhoods returned to the drawing board, but this time, with the company of the actual neighborhood. It worked with outreach liaisons, planning groups, and community groups to engage 3,000 local citizens in discussions about social and urban planning. The languages represented at the roundtable included Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Somali, Amharic, Tigrinya, Oromo, Spanish, Khmer, and others. Minorities represented also included other underrepresented groups including seniors and people with disabilities.
“The population in the last 10 years has changed dramatically, and so we wanted to make sure that the underrepresented population was being brought to the table to have a say in what the city was envisioning for the infrastructural future of their neighborhood,” said Stella Chao from the Director of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
Diversity is the reality here
Taylor knows how to calculate risk. Starting his State Farm insurance business in Columbia City required him to find new ways of explaining those risks. He draws on a white board to explain where protection may be needed, such as a house on fire, a burglary, an accident. Aside from helping him sell more insurance, Taylor’s explanations has helped immigrants better understand American bureaucracies.
“Diversity is reality here. The way I’ve tried to survive and thrive is to cater to the needs of my clients and making the complex simple,” said Taylor.
In the 1900s, Rainier Valley was home to many Irish and Italian immigrants. The area was more hospitable during the 1950s to Blacks and interracial couples who struggled in obtaining housing elsewhere. The end of the Vietnam War brought a wave of Vietnamese immigrants to the area. Immigrants and refugees in the area have increased each year with Blacks and Asians now tied with whites, each comprising roughly 30 percent of the population in the area in 2000.
“While diversity presented its challenges, it has also presented huge opportunities, and it really reflects all the good things America could promise. This all gets played out in the Rainier Valley,” said Mark Okazaki, executive director of Neighborhood House, an agency that runs a range of education and community service programs to help immigrants, refugees, and low-income residents achieve self sufficiency.
This agency that worked primarily with Jewish and European immigrants, when it started in 1906, now works with immigrants from countries around the world.
“[Unlike other organizations], we don’t leave these families. We aim to serve as a neighborhood institution with the goal of building a stronger, more cohesive neighborhood that is able to solve its own problems, that is trying to provide social fabrics and resources to bring the neighborhood together,” said Okazaki.
“There is an amazing amount of diversity in the community, from economic diversity to racial diversity. We have prime waterfront property and at the same time we have some of the most affordable homes on the market. You walk down the street or drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Way and we can see and be able to meet people from all over the world,” said Thach Nguyen, the head of his own real estate group. Nguyen created the American Dream project in partnership with the First Place School to help house the homeless.
Change in Rainier Valley
“I lived here in the mid-90s, and it was a little rough down here. You didn’t see a lot of small businesses, didn’t see nice restaurants, or people comfortably walking the streets after dark. It was neglected,” said Taylor. “I think you have kind of a poor element that had taken over it. You had drugs, prostitution, and non-desirable urban activity going on because there wasn’t this love of real estate. The business owners that were down there didn’t have the commitment of changing it.”
Thao Tran, mayoral assistant to Mayor Michael McGinn, recalls a similar experience when he moved to Rainier Valley with his family in 1982.
“It may be because I was very little, and I was intimidated. Everything was very foreign to me. The buildings were dilapidated. There were vacancies and drug dealings. Soon, the southeast Asian immigrants came and started building up the area with small businesses,” said Tran.
“There is a need to improve the negative image of the area,” said Richardson of SEED. “Crimes are a reality, but most parts of the Rainier Valley are not high crime areas. People who live there understand that.”
“There are racial conflicts, but people try to work out their problems,” he continued.
“There are concerns about young people who could use more social and academic or recreational alternatives to running the streets. Neighborhood House and many other community organizations are doing their best to address those,” said Okazaki.
Plans to revitalize the Rainier Valley included building a light rail line through the area which would connect to SeaTac airport. The construction forced many businesses to relocate, with some businesses deciding to close up shop for good. Businesses located near the construction dealt with wrecked roads and blocked storefronts. However, they were able to weather the storm with the help of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund and the work of local advocacy groups.
“A lot of small businesses were impacted. I think it’s too early to tell the positive economic impact. The concern, once the economy improves, is whether speculators will come in and drive away the smaller businesses because there will be more valuable land. There is always the concern for continued gentrification,” said Okazaki.
Beautiful day in the neighborhood
Subsequent to the construction of light rail through Rainier Valley, much of the city’s funds have been directed to a surprising variety of grassroots efforts throughout the city. Rainier Valley’s Community Development Fund supports youth-oriented programs like a hip hop debate, chess club, and an organization called Youth 180 aimed at providing positive role models for young males. The neighborhood matching fund for southeast Seattle supports local community groups aimed at improving neighborhoods and relationships between people. Program funds have helped ensure public safety, improve playgrounds, plant community gardens, teach heritage to youth, and much more.
“By encouraging a lot of community activism and participation, there is a lot more caring for the community. Building relationships between people makes neighborhoods safer because people watch out for each other a little bit more,” said Chao.
The P-patch gardening program in the Rainier Valley includes programs specifically aimed at sustaining immigrants and refugees that come from agrarian backgrounds. Immigrants are given opportunities to use their expertise in providing for their family while learning tools useful in the marketing and selling of food.
Other supported programs are started by immigrants for immigrants. Programs like the Care Project, started by the Vietnamese Friendship Association, conducts research on the assets and needs of the Vietnamese community so they can continue to reach their potential.
A community made of its people
“We came with nothing, just a shirt on our backs and a small suitcase. Through subsidized housing, we were able to afford a place to stay. I had neighbors that were elderly, white, African American, Vietnamese, Chinese, everything,” said Tran.
Tran and his family moved into Rainier Vista, a low-income housing project that has recently been remodeled into a mixed-income housing community. He later served as vice president of the board of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, where he once took his father when he was still a young boy. Tran also worked with the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, helping community members that would be adversely affected by the light rail construction.
“Throughout my whole life, I was socially conscious. I knew that in order for a community that was struggling to thrive and strive, you needed to be engaged politically. When you live in that kind of community, you see a lot of diversity and values, but you also see a lot of inequities and the need for social justice,” said Tran. “That became the sort of emphasis for me to do what I do in addition to my history of how I escaped to America in a little fishing boat.”
Rainier Valley, having gone through its changes, has drawn many visitors since the opening of the light rail line in 2009. However, the area’s impact on its own citizens may be the most notable change. The emphasis on the need for social justice within the city prompted disgruntled citizens and local citizens to be proactive, working alongside the government rather than apart from it. Citizens and local businesses exercised an unwavering commitment to the area, opting to stay and reform rather than pack up and evacuate.
“In the late 80s, early 90s, we were still very fresh immigrants. Although the resources seem abundant now, that’s because we’ve gotten around. The community has matured. We have greater capacity now, but 15, 20 years ago, it’s not as strong. We’re in better shape today,” said Tran. “It has got to be a collaborative effort with the community and government. It has got to be intentional in wanting to preserve that diversity; but on the other hand, I also think that the community is very resilient.” ♦
For more information, visit www.rainiervalley.org.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.