Art Walk Seeks to Transform Rainier Beach Narrative

Whether testified to by Albert Camus in his Nobel Acceptance speech, when he stated its supremacy as a tool to edify humankind, or the endless succession of works from writers, artisans, and musicians that have kindled imaginations and propelled human agency in directions never dreamed, much less comprehended, art has been imbued with the belief that it wields the  power of transformation. It is under this premise that the Rainier Beach area will play hosts to musical acts that leave no genre untouched, art installations that are certain to spark thought provoking discussion, and original paintings that serve as candy for the eyeball, as  it presents its 4th Annual Art Walk in an effort to profoundly alter the stubborn perception the area has been unable to discard.

Since its inaugural celebration in 2010, the burgeoning two day music and arts festival – which kicks off this Saturday near the Rainier Beach Community Center- has seen rapid growth in attendance, going from barely a couple hundred attendees in its first few years of existence to anticipating over 5000 people at this years event.

Despite the name, the event is hoping to avoid associations with the image of genteel beatniks hopping from gallery to gallery as they mull over existential matters, as it seeks to become South Seattle’s counterpart to the Capitol Hill Block Party and Fremont Festival.

For many residents, the Art Walk– with an aim towards galvanizing an often discordant Rainier Beach  community- could not arrive at a better time, as a familiar, and in the minds of some residents, lazy narrative of the area functioning as the uniquely dangerous and squalid section of the city has once again reemerged. This has mainly been due to a spate of violence the community suffered over the span of a few weeks.

“This event really gives an opportunity for people from other neighborhoods to come out and see what we’re really all about as a community. Rainier Beach gets a bad rap, but this enables people to come and see for themselves what we’re all about. They get to see how beautiful this side of town is and how well we mesh together as a community.” Said Su Harambee, the Past President of the Rainier Beach Community Club who intends to set up a booth at this year’s event.

Even as the festival has experienced impressive growth in its brief tenure as Rainier Beach’s premiere event, it has encountered some struggles- with the areas wide assortment of racial and ethnic diversity that is unlike any other in the city- in attracting the entirety of the community’s population.

“I’ve seen the posters hanging around for it and I’ve heard about it, but to be honest I kind of look at it as an African-American Event. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Says John Aaron, a Rainier Beach resident.  “It’s just that it does kind of cross your mind for a second, you know. It’s like, am I really welcomed there?”

Conversely, many community members don’t see why that should act as an impediment to the festivals continued success.

“(Rainier Beach) is one of the few areas in the city with a marjority-minority population, and I think that community events should be representative of the community they’re in- even as those communities start to evolve and change. Let’s face it, most of the events that happen (in South Seattle) end up being in places like Columbia City and may not feel super inclusive. Ballard still has the Scandinavian Festival.  Capitol Hill has the Block  Party.  Georgetown has the whole industrial vibe with a power tool race for their festival.” Said Masil Magee, who volunteered at last year’s event.

To their credit, organizers and  past festival participants do not appear oblivious to the hesitancy from certain community members to embrace the festival, and continue to emphasize  the importance the event plays in community building.

“We want to see everyone here!” States Merica Whitehall, the Art Walk’s lead organizer. “Rainier Beach is African American. It’s Asian. It’s White. It’s Jewish. It’s East African. It’s Italian. It’s Latino.  Our community is made up of many shades, and it’s our obligation to have all represented here, as it should be.”

Adds Hurambee: “Each year, from the booths to the entertainment presented, this festival is indicative of diversity of this community. It’s one that isn’t found in most places in the city.”

If any further underscoring of this point was necessary, the festival line-up, a mixture of heavy hitters and local performers, appears to contain no omissions from the musical dictionary as Jazz, Funk, R&B, Rock, Latin, International and Pop along with  a heap of other genres will all be represented.

“Most of the people in our group are from this community and we really just wanted to give back to it, by putting on a really wonderful show for them that leaves them grooving, and allows them to have fun.” Said Mike Barber, who will be performing with his group Shady Bottom at the festival.

Though easy to dismiss as just another festival for those suffering from event fatigue in a summer that seemed to feature one on just about every day that ended with a y, the importance of the Art Walk and its significance to the Rainier Beach community shouldn’t be overlooked claims Magee:

“Events like the Art Walk give this  place a sense of community. It’s a time when people can come out and join the rest of the community in enjoying an event together. People always talk about how diverse this area is, but in the day to day, there aren’t a lot opportunities for everybody to get together and mill about, and experience each other.”

“I realize that (being in Rainier Beach) we’re so close to a really dynamic part of the city that it’s easy to be a bedroom community to downtown, especially when we have so many ways to get there now.  But, this event kind of makes a statement that we are a dynamic part of the city in our own right.  We have artists and community right here. We can show the rest of the city, as well as our own community- which is the main thing- that we do have positive community events in the south end!”

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