Confronting “the g word” in Columbia City

Columbia City, long celebrated for its diversity, has seen rents, lease rates and home prices rise, changing the character of the neighborhood. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Columbia City, long celebrated for its diversity, has seen rents, lease rates and home prices rise, changing the character of the neighborhood. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

A couple weeks ago I attended “Dismantling Racism: A Community Forum For Southeast Seattle” at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center in Columbia City. The five featured panelists were Black artists/activists from the recent exhibit: “Black Lives Matter: Humanity Not Negotiable.”

When asked to reflect on the top racial issues Seattle faces as a city, two of the panelists didn’t hesitate:

“I just moved to Seattle and I feel like I hear the g-word everywhere,” said Aramis Hamer who hails from Chicago. “I want to put myself in a financial situation where I don’t have to worry about being displaced.”

How we talk about gentrification

Another panelist, Yadesa Bojia, a graphic designer and fine art painter who moved here from Ethiopia in 1995 remembers a warm African community at 23rd Avenue in the Central District replete with barbershops, good food and company.

Now, he said, he’s witnessing the flight of Black families and that warm community fading fast.

The Stranger recently called 23rd and Union “the symbolic heart of the fight against gentrification in Seattle” where the Black population has dropped precipitously from 51 percent to 21 percent over the last two decades.

“I can tell gentrification is one of the problems this city has, especially when it comes to race relations,” Bojia stated bluntly. But, he added, “gentrification is one of those things; it’s hard to nail it down. You can’t touch it. But you can see it.”

For sure. It’s hard to have a conversation about gentrification in Seattle nowadays, even as we’re experiencing tremendous population growth and are ranked one of top ten fastest gentrifying cities in the nation.

So many people, so much density, so much growth, so much money — it raises the inevitable question: who gets to stay and who has to go? So racially coded, so controversial.

Try having a conversation about it and we often end up feeling angry and unheard, or avoidant and confused. In a place that always wants to be “nice” about its racial conflicts, the g-word has probably come to evoke as much mental fatigue as the r-word itself (i.e. racism).

But we do ourselves no favors being “Seattle-nice” and not talking about what is obvious to the naked eye.

Change comes to Columbia City

I stepped outside during “Dismantling Racism” to to take a deep breath and look around. Just east of the 1921 landmark building that houses the Rainier Valley Cultural Center sloped the cool, green grass of Columbia Park. Brick-laid Columbia City Library was perched across the lawn. Up the hill former Columbia Baptist Church, constructed in 1907, and now home to Southside Commons Space for Progress, peeked out from between the trees. Rainier Ave moved a little slower that usual, humming with contented post-dinner traffic.

In the twilight of the summer evening all these longstanding South End fixtures, however, were completely dwarfed by a brand new six-story neighbor — The Angeline Apartments.

The Angeline, a 193 unit apartment building on Rainier Ave in Columbia City, is expected to open it's doors this Summer. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
The Angeline, a 193 unit apartment building on Rainier Ave in Columbia City, is expected to open its doors this Summer. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

The Angeline went up fast with construction beginning mid-2013, but doors on its 193 living units and 30,000 square feet of street level retail already opening this summer. Many expressed shock at the newly advertised apartment rental rates, ranging from $1,755 per month for a studio to $3,265 per month for a 2-bedroom. The building boasts a private theater room, rooftop terrace, fitness center, and anchor commercial tenant PCC Natural Markets — a grocery store with a price point that keeps even middle income families from being able to shop there on a regular basis.

The building’s rapid rise has amplified those awkward conversations about gentrification in Columbia City.

For Randolph Cross, proud member of The Royal Esquire Club, just a few blocks up Rainier Ave, it may not be such a bad thing. The Esquire Club was founded in 1948 by five young Seattle Black men “to promote social and civic betterment in the community, city, state and country.” It moved to Columbia City in 1986. Cross said the club is glad to be part of revitalizing the neighborhood.

“Revitalization brings families and children out into public,” he explained. “People now find this a viable community like the Ballards and Magnolias.”

A Seattle native, Cross grew up in the Madison Valley area, which he loved.

“I remember what [Columbia City] used to be like,” he said, “shady establishments, shady people.”

He’s pleased with the neighborhood changes, and thinks the Angeline is needed development. He says he looks forward to improvements extending further south where he now lives in Rainier Beach.

“They just keep pushing us out”

But other longtime locals disagree. I spoke to one Black woman who went to Rainier Beach high school in the ‘70s and has worked in Columbia City for 20 years. She asked not to be identified for fear of blowback in the neighborhood.

“Suddenly in 2002 they started calling it ‘gentrification,’” she recalled bemusedly, then continued seriously, “All it means to me is pushing Blacks out of one area into another area. They just keep pushing us out.”

She says South End communities get “built up” such that people who were originally living there can no longer afford it. Folks are forced to keep moving south.

She traced the beginning of changes to “Weed and Seed,” a federal program launched by the Department of Justice in 1991 to improve high crime areas in select American cities. “Weed” referred to weeding out criminals and drug dealers, and “seed” referred to social-service programs aimed at nurturing young people.

In 1992 Seattle won a $1.1 million federal law enforcement grant as part of this program. It may or may not have reduced crime, but many cite it as a driving force in displacing the African-American population to smaller cities in south King County. Case in point, in 1990 the City of Renton was around 17 percent people of color (7 percent Black). By 2010 it was 45 percent people of color (10.6 percent Black).

When I asked Randolph Cross about this he conceded, “[Seattle] has a requirement to provide low income housing. But there’s probably not enough and that probably does push people out.”

Is balanced growth possible?

It’s true the Angeline has placed select apartments in a Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) Program, which requires the building to offer some lower-than-market rates to income eligible families and technically qualifies the building as “mixed income” housing.

But look closely at how that program works: It’s an incentive program. The Angeline gets a 12 year property tax exemption in exchange for renting some of its units to households below the city’s skyrocketing median income. On paper this looks good, but in reality it looks like this: developer Security Properties, which purchased the site in 2011 for $7.18 million, gets a kickback for renting studios for as much as $1,300 a month to people who earn up to $53,380 a year.

A Craigslist ad for a 2 bedroom apartment renting for $2930 at the Angeline describes it as "the ideal place for you to live out your ideals." Other units are set aside for middle and low income housing.
A Craigslist ad for a 2 bedroom apartment renting for $2930 at the Angeline describes it as “the ideal place for you to live out your ideals.” Other units are set aside for below-market middle and low income housing.

Last year The Seattle Times reported that while Seattle median income had soared by general measures, those measures grossly masked the fact that at the same time Black median income in Seattle plummeted to $25,700 — the ninth lowest Black household income in the nation.

Moreover Seattle is the 23rd largest city in the U.S. but has the country’s 4th largest homeless population; a population that grew by a whopping 21 percent from 2014-2015 and is majority people of color, though the city itself is majority White.

While pricey Columbia City apartment complexes like The Angeline and The GreenHouse have swung their doors open wide in the last half decade, it says a lot that simultaneously many cultural hubs of the South End Black community like Angie’s Tavern (now replaced by a seafood and raw bar), have sadly shut their doors.

As Seattle explodes and its coveted communities attract more and more attention, it’s probably inevitable gentrification will continue in places like Columbia City.

Still, in an era of growing a racial awareness perhaps not seen since the civil rights movement, a very simple inevitability also remains. We have to talk about what that g-word really means in the context of race and racism, in our city, and in our own back yards.

Another “Dismantling Racism” event will be held at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center on Thursday, July 9th from 7-9 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the year that the Royal Esquire Club was founded. It was founded in 1948, not 1947.

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8 Comments

  1. The Angeline Apartment is unwelcome for several reasons: it is a powerful force for displacement of Rainier Valley’s diverse families with modest incomes; “gentrification” is an odd term: are the people who are moving into the new apartments “gentry?” I also think the building is monstrous and ugly–how on earth was it approved in a Historic District, dwarfing the library, the park behind it, and the shops on Rainier Ave? I should add also that building three third giant apartment complexin Columbia City is making it impossible for families who live nearby to park anywhere near their houses.

    This invasion continues: plans were released recently for a 7 story building at Rainier and Alaska. The post office and child care center will be torn down, replaced by a building with 245 apartments, presumably with the same high rents as the Angeline. The courtyard in the middle of the development will be closed to the pubic, and the entrance to Rainier Playfield dominated by a 66 foot wall across the street.

    At a recent public meeting of the “Area 4 design Review Board,” which was scantily publicized,’most attendants were developers, architects, businessmen and city planning officials; there were very few people there “just” as community residents. Is the the same approval process that gave us the Angeline?

    In closing, two points about names: first, I think it is obscene to name the building housing PCC after Princess Angeline, a Native American survivor of the European American takeover of Seattle. Second: the name of the developer for the lastest huge apartment building on the the Post Office site is “Lake Union Partners.” Doesn’t that say it all?

    https://www.facebook.com/seattleglobalist

  2. I’m pretty sure property developers have been the worst people in Seattle for at least 60 years probably a lot more. I’m a little tired of the dancing around all these racial issues as they relate to gentrification as it doesn’t really seem to lead anywhere. However, I think a focus on the specific developers ruining our city would be very interesting and much more impactful than another diatribe about the problem of gentrification. Name names and call out the rich white men who are creating these horrible buildings and pricing people out of there own neighborhoods. Then shame the politicians that take money from those men and approve those horrible projects. It seems everyone wants to blame culture or something vague when there are actual people behind these buildings and rent increases.

  3. Cultural hubs like Angie’s Tavern? Sharon you obviously never went there prior to it being torn down. Good riddance. I remember Columbia City in 1997 and I would take today’s community over what previously existed without question.

  4. Kudos to Sharon Chang for a frank but balanced look at displacement pressures in Columbia City.

    SEED is proud to have hosted the two events mentioned: “Dismantling Racism: A Community Forum For Southeast Seattle” at SEEDArts’ Rainier Valley Cultural Center in Columbia City (which we co-hosted with the Rainier Valley Historical Society) and the high visibility exhibit: “Black Lives Matter: Humanity Not Negotiable” – held at SEEDArts’ Columbia City Gallery.

    SEED is also actively advocating for, developing, and managing affordable housing in SE Seattle, including Columbia City. The only practical way to solve displacement pressures is to build more affordable housing. We also need to create affordable commercial space to retain ethnic and immigrant businesses, as SEED has done in the Claremont Apartments with commercial condos now owned by such businesses. Displacement affects residents, but also small businesses and their employees. We need affordable housing and we need smart and equitable economic development.

    Lance Matteson
    Executive Director
    SEED

  5. Henry McGee at SU led an excellent study of the displacement of the CD. Summary here: http://www.blackpast.org/…/gentrification-integration…

    In light of the current rave for “social justice” by the urbanist crowd, here’s from the last paragraph: “Most observers in Seattle and across urban America have been concerned about the racial displacement that seems to inevitably follow gentrification. Those concerns miss the mark. The gentrification of the Central District, and much of Seattle, is much more about class than race.”

    MLK said the same thing: “In a sense, you could say we’re involved in the class struggle.” (1968) [source: http://www.isreview.org/issues/58/feat-MLK.shtml, fn 6]

  6. For years, I’ve heard bleeding hearts whining about “food deserts” and how there’s insufficient “fresh, healthy” food in racially-diverse, inner-city neighborhoods. So PCC moves in (which you’re frankly lucky to have), and now the bleeding hearts are whining because the delicious, fresh, healthy, local food that PCC sells is “too expensive”.

    Did the Angeline say they’re not renting to people of color? No, of course they didn’t. If you’ve got what they’re asking (and I’m sure they’ll have no trouble finding renters, because their prices have doubtless been carefully structured to match what the people they want to attract are willing to pay, which is by no means a crime), they’ll happily rent to you.

    I went to junior high and high school in the CD. I attended a high school that was 50% black. What you had were loud, obnoxious, rude black kids who often cut class, were perpetually unprepared and disruptive when they did bother to show up; disrespected and verbally assaulted good, patient, and highly experienced teachers–of all races–on a daily basis; and bullied the nerdy white and Asian kids physically and verbally. They behaved worse than animals. But of course, we’re all supposed to excuse this appalling behavior, and just suck up being shoved around and having our class time wasted because the blacks are an “oppressed minority.”

    The nerdy white and Asian kids are the ones who did their homework, respected their teachers, and showed up for their classes. I’m not talking about rich kids; the white and Asian kids were from poor or middle-class families themselves. And because they worked hard and didn’t waste their public educations at these good schools, they’ve now got jobs where they can afford a nice home, and a couple thousand a month in rent or mortgage. Now, the same loudmouthed, disruptive blacks who were too busy getting drunk and knocked up while the white and Asian kids–at the SAME SCHOOL, and in the SAME CLASSES–were working hard–the same obnoxious, rude blacks who wasted every opportunity handed to them–are whining that nobody’s willing to give them a new, luxury apartment for free or dirt cheap.

    Cry me a river, underachievers. I could not care less. I welcome gentrification. Please, by all means, pack your cheap crap and move to some other ghetto like Federal Way or Kent, and stink it up with your fat senses of entitlement, while we in Columbia City try to turn it into a safe, pleasant place to live — a place that caters to the lifestyles of successful, hardworking people.

  7. Ginger, wow, that escalated quick! Please, don’t let us stop your white boot straps supremacist rage-laced wet dream of a therapy session. Sorry all those undesirable neighbors haven’t moved to their ghettos yet!

    That said, absolutely, gentrification is a complicated issue. We need environment-protecting urban density and mixed-use investment near transit but we also need equitable distribution and minimal forced displacement and sustainable, diverse social capital. I hold onto the belief that all those things are not mutually exclusive.

  8. @Dale: Would it be racist to say that white Europeans ruthlessly brought destruction to the indigenous people of the Americas? Would it also be racist to suggest that Asians are currently the most educated racial demographic in the US?

    I think you misunderstood Ginger. Clearly Ginger is merely stating what she has observed about the behavior of the black people she grew up with. Perhaps she doesn’t convey the best tone about it and that is what upset you about her comment. Otherwise she hasn’t exhibited racism.

    And why is gentrification treated as a bad thing? It has obvious social repercussions but if we want to call ourselves a capitalist society we can’t scorn the very things that create incentive.

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