Emerald Voices: Darryl Smith

by Sharon H. Chang

DARRYL SMITH, former Deputy Mayor of Community and founder of Columbia City Beatwalk, is not only a heartfelt but eloquent man. His words are smooth and dedication is profound in everything he says. More importantly he’s a community man, deeply invested resident and long time organizer. Simply put he cares. And, Darryl explains, he’s never known any other way. Born and raised in Englewood, New Jersey, in a racially diverse and political neighborhood called the Third Ward “I grew up in a household where my mom was the campaign manager for the first African American mayor in Bergen County,” he says. “It was normal to have Jewish friends and we all went to Quaker-run sleepaway camp…I just grew up like that.”

Which is one of the reasons why when he and his wife moved to Columbia City in 1994 and saw its socioeconomic struggles they weren’t deterred. Instead they worked with the neighborhood for change. And that modest civic beginning launched a pretty incredible, multi-chaptered  journey for Darryl; a Seattle southender with a story you definitely need to know.

The morning of our interview Darryl suggests we meet at Tutta Bella where the coffee is good and blueberry muffins are delicious. He’s calm and collected, asks if I need anything, then reminisces right to the point. “You know people think Columbia City today,” he reflects back to when he first moved here, “it was of course much different then.” Darryl glances around the sleek restaurant. “The building we’re sitting in right now had plywood on it and had been so for twenty years.”

In fact Columbia City in the ‘90s, he tells me, was “pretty moribund” with the district mostly boarded up and people driving through at fifty miles per hour. “Everyone who lived here was basically getting in a car or getting on a bus to go do something, anything, outside of this neighborhood.” There weren’t many services plus Rainier Avenue was troubled by crime and a lot of police activity. Darryl points out many U.S. urban neighborhoods of color really suffered in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s with crack cocaine entering the scene in the ‘80s and that the Rainier Valley was no exception.

Nevertheless Darryl, who identifies as Black, and his wife Andrea, who is white of Irish descent, moved here because of its diversity and loved it right away. The pair had met at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco where Darryl trained as an actor and Andrea as a jazz vocalist though she ultimately graduated from U.C. Berkeley. They married and after a time moved to Los Angeles but didn’t find either California city very welcoming. “Being an interracial couple we found lots of haters frankly in San Fran and a few in Los Angeles too actually, which didn’t feel good,” says Darryl sadly. But he brightens thinking of South Seattle. “Moving here we felt like we had landed in a place where we would be welcome, where we could raise a kid and feel good about that.” Their biracial daughter was born in 1996, he shares proudly.

The fact that South Seattle has been such a rich place for his multiracial family is another crucial reason why Darryl never accepted its suffering state. He still loves this place, appreciates everything he’s been part of here, and puts it firmly, “I’m not leavin’.”

Darryl recently at #SeattleHigh5, Leschi Elementary School, Sep 16 2016: celebrating Black lives, changing the narrative and encouraging limitless potential in children of color [photo by Sharon H. Chang]

It all began grassroots back in the 1990s with regular renter and homeowner meetings in the basement of the Columbia City library. These gatherings became the Columbia City Revitalization Committee (CCRC) which Darryl ended up chairing for a couple years. Darryl concurrently got a real estate license in 1995 and focused on selling moderate homes in the area to everyday, creative people while changing the narrative about the neighborhood.

The main focus of the CCRC was how to enliven the Columbia City business district. At their first first town hall residents wanted things like a farmer’s market, garden tour, and lawn chair cinema (all of which later happened). “I stood up and said, ‘I come from a jazz musician family,’” Darryl recalls, “‘I think we should have music in a few of these places.’” He decided to call his idea Columbia City Beatwalk. Volunteers found and booked their own musicians; went door-to-door to promote; charged five dollars for entry. “The first Beatwalk over 200 people came out to this five-block stretch of Rainier Avenue,” Darryl tells me, his face written with warm memories. “That was unprecedented probably since the ‘40s that people would be on Rainier Avenue at night.” Darryl produced Beatwalk for three years before handing it off. It’s now in its twenty-first season.

“So the narrative, slowly but surely, started to change,” says Darryl, “At least about Columbia City.” This success came to be viewed citywide as an inspirational urban rebirth story. The next chapter of his journey began to unfold. Darryl was appointed a member of the Seattle Planning Commission. “I got asked to speak in a variety of venues whether it be Skyway or Central District about, you know, ‘Tell us the Columbia City story. How the heck did you guys do it?’” He served on the Planning Commission for three years until 2003 when he decided to run for Seattle City Council. Darryl challenged Judy Nicastro, who was Housing Chair at the time. “I was doing real estate and seeing the trend in house pricing,” he says, “ how already even then it was getting more and more difficult for people to actually be able to afford to stay in Columbia City and in the Rainier Valley.” Darryl campaigned for three quarters of a year, challenging Nicastro on housing policy.

But on filing day Jean Godden jumped in the race. “She was the famous person and kicked my butt,” Darryl laughs. “I lost.” Yet while those sentences were ending more was flowing to the page. Darryl’s campaigning efforts had made a lasting impact. Easy to listen to and nice to be around, people remembered him, appreciated his groundedness, and well – just liked him. The Municipal League rated him “outstanding” (the only outstanding rating in his race) and The Stranger called him “Everybody’s Favorite Loser” (that gets an ironic smile out of Darryl). “So there was a little bit of like what’s going on with that Darryl Smith guy?” he explains, still smiling about that Stranger headline. “What’s up with him?”

Another chapter had unexpectedly begun. Darryl met with Mike McGinn who was Chair of The Sierra Club when Darryl ran for office. “[McGinn] was doing some of the same sorts of things that I was doing in the south end except he was doing them in Greenwood,” says Darryl. The two hit it off.  Shortly thereafter McGinn started a nonprofit called the Seattle Great City Initiative, an advocacy group with the goal of making Seattle a better place to live. Darryl had served as board chair for three years when Mike McGinn decided to run against Greg Nikels for Seattle Mayor. “[McGinn] believed that Greg was on the wrong track and that he was beatable when nobody else did basically.” Darryl helped McGinn campaign, particularly in the south end, getting to know a lot of the communities and connections that he himself had made. Lightning struck. McGinn won, went to City Hall and asked Darryl to serve has his Deputy. Darryl was appointed Deputy Mayor in 2009.

“Deputy Mayor of Community was my full title,” Darryl is careful to point out. “The first in Seattle’s history that had community in the title.” McGinn’s administration felt many incredible people lived in Seattle who were not getting to be at decision-making tables and believed strongly in getting out and listening to the community as much as possible. Darryl’s high level leadership position was purposefully crafted as externally facing to that end. “I had responsibility to work with five city department directors,” he says, “but I was also charged with [being] a massive ear to the ground and making all of those connections.” In four years Darryl and McGinn did a massive amount of outreach: 150 town halls, walking tours and community forums.

However politics is a piranha and the press is not kind. “We got a lot of crap about it from The Seattle Times and other outlets,” Darryl says with palpable frustration at being misunderstood. “It was like ‘why is Mayor McGinn always out?’…[and] ‘‘oh all the Deputy Mayor does is go out to events and meet people and shake hands and stuff.’” At the same time Darryl admits Mayor McGinn was not a normal politician, folks were mad at him a lot, and that Darryl himself was connected to some controversial issues. Notwithstanding Darryl remains proud of his service and says he’d run through a wall for McGinn’s values which are “spot on” in being about and for the vast majority of people.

Darryl at his home in Columbia City hosting the Center for Social Inclusion’s September Benefit with his wife Andrea [photo by Sharon H. Chang]

Today, the chapters of Darryl’s well-worded (and never dull) story have lead him to a new place. He is currently site director at Year Up, a nonprofit that works to close the opportunity divide by giving young adults hard skill training and then sending them out for internships at great companies. In his position Darryl works day-to-day with young adults as a coach, runs an “amazing” staff of about thirteen, and oversees the organization’s new site housed at the Bellevue College North Campus. His wife Andrea is a Development Strategist who works with nonprofits like Rainier Valley Corp. His daughter is a twenty-year-old college junior and empowered artist activist in her own right.

I ask him how he feels about Columbia City now which has suddenly raced from grassroots rebirth to hot commodity in two decades; gentrifying at a pace that may threaten its beloved historical diversity. He nods knowingly, “It bugs the heck out of me.” The pressure of continually rising real estate prices in the neighborhood worries him, “Will we lose the essence of what we love about this place?” But he still has hope calling the Columbia City story an “unfinished story” that could have a happy ending if intentional choices are made.

In the meantime Darryl will do what he’s always done: be the incredibly likable, well-spoken and sincere guy who never gives up on his community. He sees the chapters of his story so far as different, yes, but also connected in meaningful ways. “I feel like all of the things I’ve worked on whether it be civic stuff in the Valley or working in the Mayor’s office and having that word community in my title, which I was super proud of, leads me to the work I do now,” he puts it wisely. Opportunity, says Darryl unequivocally, should not be defined by your zip code, the color of your skin, your parent’s bank account or who the heck they know or where they work. “Being able to have kids from this community, from Kent and Rainier Valley, Everett, coming to Year Up…getting great jobs, continuing their education,” he reflects, “in some small way is a continuation of the work I’ve always done. It feels good. Really, really good.”

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