When I tell people I live in Rainier Beach I get a variety of reactions.
Sometimes people politely nod as if to indicate that they might know where that is. Sometimes they live there too and we try to figure out if we’re neighbors.
But too often I get that incredulous “WHY?!” reaction.
I actually had one person say “And you bought a house there?” while shaking his head. This guy used to go to school in Rainier Beach at a time where crime was much higher. He visited my house once and spent half his time peeking out the window to see if his car was being stolen. His paranoia made me wonder what I was missing.
Should I be afraid? Of whom?
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin in a predominantly white west side neighborhood by a lakeside park, the closest I came to the ghetto was watching Boyz in the Hood on cable.
Like anyone who has ever had any exposure to U.S. media, I learned that the “hood” was nowhere I wanted to be. It was dangerous and in order to live there you had to be dangerous too — or very poor with nowhere better to go. And of course that’s where black people lived.
To this day when people ask me where I’m from, they side eye me when I say Madison. One of my roommates in college upon meeting me for the first time blurted out “but you’re black”, as though my ethnicity was something geographically specific. And now here in Seattle my neighborhood precedes me, giving me some unexpected street cred.
When I first moved to Seattle I lived in the north end in the U-district then later in Wallingford, Greenwood, and Greenlake. During those years I was often the only black person on my block, something that was familiar, but not ideal.
I wanted to live where other people of color lived, but was often discouraged from considering the south end. That was described to me as Seattle’s hood, a place synonymous with drugs and crime.
In 2011 I moved to Beacon Hill. I was still one of the few black people on my block, but rather than being surrounded by white people my neighbors were mostly Asian and Mexican. I loved hearing Spanish spoken on a regular basis.
Beacon Hill felt like a community to me in the way Wallingford — with its neighborhood watch groups and email list serves — never had. I began to question what I had heard.
Yes, there was crime. Someone broke into my neighbor’s car once, but the same thing had happened in Wallingford. In fact when I lived in Wallingford there were a rash of home invasions, car thefts and vandalism, yet no one had ever described Wallingford to me as a scary place to live.
So what makes a place “the hood?”
Most people think of it as the poorest part of any city, the place people of color live because they have no other choice (as though anyone who did have a choice would want to live in a white neighborhood).
That is not how I would describe Rainier Beach.
There is no crack house on my street. I don’t know all of my neighbors, but the ones I’ve met haven’t struck me as gang banging thugs or prostitutes. They wave and say hi if I’m out in my yard or if they pass me on the street.
Mostly they are a mix of first generation immigrants from Mexico, Cambodia, Vietnam, and East Africa and U.S. born people of color, mostly African American.
My neighbors are people with kids, people who get up and go to work every day, who walk their little ones to the school bus and work out at the corner gym. One neighbor is a landscaper, one is a cab driver, one is a retired guy with a fondness for tinkering with old cars. I’ve never seen him in anything but a very comfortable looking blue bathrobe that he wears on his short walks with his dog.
The people who live on the corner are by far the loudest. They like to play Al Green on Saturday afternoons while breaking out the BBQ. Mostly it’s laughter and loud talking — annoying at times like the perpetual siren songstress of the ice cream truck circling the block — but not exactly something to be afraid of.
Yes, the property values on my side of Seward Park Ave are much lower. Yes, people of color live here, but many of us live here not because we have to, but because we want to live around other people of color.
So the question becomes is it still the hood when the people who live there do so by choice?
Recently I’ve began to attend meetings of Rainier Beach Moving Forward, a coalition of my neighbors who have gotten together to be strategic about making Rainier Beach a safe and beautiful community for its residents. They have partnered with Puget Sound Sage and local business owners to host a community art walk, a Back to School Bash for Rainer Beach International High School and to plan a community farm.
What’s unique about Rainier Beach is that unlike the Central District and Columbia City, the gentrification hasn’t come yet. Most of my neighbors bought their houses in the ’90s and have no intention of getting pushed anywhere. Organizations like Puget Sound Sage and South CORE continue to do their part to empower people to stay in their homes.
So I am living in one of the last predominantly mixed communities in Seattle — and while I’m not saying it’s all rainbows and unicorns, it’s home. It’s a place I feel comfortable and a place I feel invested in.
If it’s the hood, then I guess that’s where I belong.