South End Residents of Color Clap Back at the Times

by Sharon H Chang

Welcome to Seattle where the rich get richer, Blacks get pushed out, and the Seattle Times prints lazy, racist articles about the South End where many of the city’s remaining People of Color live.

Yesterday, Times columnist Nicole Brodeur published a careless piece on the June 5th shooting in Columbia City. Thankfully, no one was injured. Yet the tone of Brodeur’s article was not particularly thankful. In the longstanding tradition of White journalism about Communities of Color, Brodeur managed to casually pen a piece that zipped from “objective coverage” to racialized damning, White panic, and colonial entitlement.

Columbia City, writes Brodeur admiringly at first, is the “self-proclaimed Mayberry of South Seattle.” It has undergone a “major transformation” in just “the past year” because of the opening of “Rudy’s barbershop, a Pagliacci Pizza restaurant and Molly Moon’s — tent-pole businesses that mark a certain Seattle sense of establishment.”

But, Brodeur warns ominously, the community faces a threat. “Gang members” with guns are miffed that they are being “forgotten” among the positive changes in their neighborhood and want to “make themselves known.” It’s a “tug of war,” she writes, in a place that was “historically a pass-through” but is “now a destination.”

Columbia City Parade
Last year’s Rainier Valley Heritage Parade in Columbia City [Photo: Sharon H. Chang]
The racial code is so thinly veiled here it would be laughable–if it hadn’t been published in Seattle’s largest newspaper.

A little decoding: Mayberry is the fictitious, idyllic White community in the 1960s (white) Andy Griffith Show. It’s a bizarre analogy given Columbia City’s racial diversity and it’s unclear who would self-proclaim such Whitewashing, other than Brodeur herself. The businesses Brodeur dubs “tent-poles” of Seattle establishment? Rudy’s Barbershop: White-owned. Pagliacci Pizza: White-owned. Molly Moon’s: White-owned. Brodeur additionally interviews four Columbia strip business owners (only one of whom is African American)–and the police. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who most readers will then imagine the gang members to be.

Truth. Brodeur got out her bow and played Seattle’s sad violin for all the good White people trying to clean up a distressed Rainier Valley neighborhood being ruined by (poor) Black people. And now Brodeur, intentionally or not, has created a harmful piece that in one thoughtless swoop swiftly invisibilized People of Color, privileged a White occupier’s point of view, and will be read by hundreds of thousands of Seattleites. She has done an incredible disservice to the South End.

If Brodeur had bothered to take the time to learn about the history of Columbia City and the Rainier Valley from more of its long-term residents of color, she would have heard a very different story.

Georgia McDade, 71, has lived in Seattle for fifty years and bought her Columbia City home in 1974. “There were businesses!” she protested of Brodeur’s claim that the area was historically only a pass-through. It was only a pass-through for White people. “There were a number of restaurants,” recalled McDade. “I still remember the man who used to run the shoe shop. He was one of my favorite old people.”                          

Over time the district certainly has seen more activity and business move into the Columbia strip, but not in the way Brodeur describes.

Darryl Smith, 55, moved to Columbia City in 1994. Smith was a huge part of a neighborhood movement to “enliven” Columbia City’s historical district in the nineties. The commercial changes visible today, said Smith, former Seattle Deputy Mayor of Community, happened because of activism across decades. Not, as Brodeur claims, because of white-owned businesses moving in very recently. “It’s not just about the last couple of years,” Smith pointed out with frustration. “We need acknowledgment of the hard work that’s already [happened] here.”    

All parties agree with Brodeur that violence is happening and everyone would like there to be less of it. But, long-time Black residents point out, it is very important how we think about and approach that violence.

Adrian Cowens, 40, has lived in Seattle on and off for a decade, the longest stretch in Columbia City. The network project manager is a Rainier Beach Scoutmaster and has been in community with youth for the last four years. Sure, the shooting is a wake-up call for Columbia City, Cowens said, but he is wary of playing into “that old narrative that Rainier Valley is this place where there’s a lot of shootings,” as Brodeur so easily did.

“There’s truth [in it],” remarked McDade of the narrative. “But they don’t look at the symptoms,” she added of Brodeur’s reductive reporting and so much mainstream reporting like it. “They don’t look at the control they have. There’s a lot of things people in charge could do–but they don’t.”           

Cowens concurred: “We need for the neighborhood to focus on the kids here; on what’s happening to people who are being displaced.” Cowens has been a very vocal critic of the neighborhood’s gentrification. “Displacement, the homeless encampments, and the violence: I really truly believe there is a correlation between all of those things.”

Indeed, White gentrification of Columbia City, which Brodeur so idolizes in her article, is symptomatic of larger upsetting patterns. Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country due to a tech boom drawing transplants in droves and driving housing prices up. But the tech industry is notoriously racist, representing incredibly low numbers of women and people of color.

As newer, wealthier, Whiter populations keep moving in, African-Americans keep getting forced out. The Central District, for instance, was over 70 percent Black in the 1960s but today is less than one-fifth Black and getting less Black by the day. Median income has skyrocketed in the city, but not for African-Americans whose wages fell during the recession and never recovered. People of Color make up the majority of Seattle’s rising homeless population.

Jerrell Davis, 24, born and raised in Seattle’s South End, used to walk through Columbia City after school to hoop at Rainier Community Center. Because there were so many African-American residents at the time “I never thought twice,” he said. But today, Davis said, when he walks through Columbia City, “I’m usually the only Black person in sight.” 

Seattle is now one of the least diverse cities across the nation with Whites comprising two-thirds of residents. Meanwhile the rest of King County has seen rapid diversification and Bellevue has surpassed us as Washington state’s largest “majority minority” city.

Not surprising then that to Davis, a community activist, artist and educator, the changes in Columbia City feel like an invasion. As a Black man, he’s well aware violence exists in the South End, “but it was our neighborhood still and that wasn’t a question.” Today White-owned businesses moving in to make money irk Davis. He sees his neighborhood being taken over and his community being further uprooted. Davis works with Rainier Beach High School students. He said ten of the sixty students of color from their 2016 summer program had to move out of Seattle in just this school year alone.  

To that end, said Smith, newbies to Columbia City have an obligation to learn the area’s racial history. “If you’re here you [need] to know how the Rainier Valley unfolded as it did,” he advised referring to Seattle’s racist covenants and redlining of African-Americans into specific neighborhoods. “And you ought to be really concerned that there’s nothing guaranteeing that the diversity will continue.”

Brodeur, however, does not seem to feel obligated to learn this history out of gratitude for Columbia City’s racial diversity. Instead, she is grateful upon visiting the neighborhood to find diverse public school students happily learning about pizza-making at Tutta Bella (another White-owned business)–which must mean White-owned businesses are going to persevere. Thank god. Never mind that Seattle has the fifth highest achievement gap in the U.S. or that Seattle schools came under federal investigation for unjust over-disciplining of Black students.

Columbia City, Brodeur underscores, is exceptional because exceptional people–and by that she obviously means the White ones–will make sure it stays that way.

SChang bio photo

Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer and award-winning writer. She is author of the acclaimed book Raising Mixed Race (2016) and is currently working on her second book looking at Asian American women and gendered racism.


Featured image: 2016 Rainier Valley Heritage Parade by Sharon H. Chang 


22 thoughts on “South End Residents of Color Clap Back at the Times”

  1. When I was a kid (in the 1960s and 1970s), my dad (an attorney) had his office in Columbia City, in the building right across the street from the library. My optometrist was in the same building. Whenever I had to go to the post office, the one in Columbia City (98118!) was the one I went to. My family’s bank accounts were at banks in Columbia City. During summers, my dad and I often went to Rainier Playfield to toss around a football or (with one or two of my friends in tow) play a bit of baseball. We went to the Columbia City library. When our TV needed fixing, we took it to Claude’s. When I was a little older, I would occasionally ride my bike from Graham Hill to Columbia City and back (especially once Skipper’s opened its doors!).

    Although I have not lived in that part of town since the mid-80s (haven’t lived in Seattle at all since about 15 years ago), I make the trek to the Columbia City library every month for the AAWA-sponsored Writers Read—sometimes sticking around for a bit afterwards to have a late lunch/early dinner (when I’m not feeling skint).

    Yeah. I’m about the whitest white person I know—and I’ve never considered Columbia City a “pass-through”. Then or now.

    1. I think you are missing the point of the article. The author of this article suggests people to learn about the history of Columbia City and the colored-owned businesses and supporting those. As well as increasing awareness of the gentrification happening in our city. It is obvious that not all white people may “feel” like Columbia City is a pass through but your feelings is not what she’s worried about. She is stressing way more about the white-owned businesses taking over Columbia City.

      1. ‘Colored-owned’? Really. And I’m *agreeing* with this article, which criticizes the Times article, which refers to Columbia City as ‘a pass-through’.

  2. Preach Sharon! Thank you for interviewing POC residents of Columbia City and calling out the Seattle Times for their racist reporting.

    1. The tech industry is not necessarily racist, but it does lack diversity. Kinda like saying the NBA is racist since there are few white players.

  3. Excellent article, Ms. Chang. As a White person who has frequented Columbia City over the past decade, I see the changes and know I am complicit in the gentrification. You make a strong case for learning more about the history of the neighborhood and supporting its African-American owned businesses.

  4. “Welcome to Seattle where the rich get richer, Blacks get pushed out, and the Seattle Times prints lazy, racist articles”

    The author only mentions one article. Why the plural? That’s distorting and unfair.

    1. Well, as Ballard resident, who is not a Nimby nor a Homeless hater, I find many of the Times articles incompetent and lazy in that they don’t want to bother with two, let alone more, sides to an issue. I like Columbia City, nice vibe, interesting shops, very nice people. And originality not found elsewhere. It would be too bad to lose that.

  5. Brodeur’s article was awful, and I’m glad to see her racist, dismissive assumptions called out. But this piece doesn’t really tell the whole story either. Columbia City *was* a nearly all-White “Mayberry” town for much of the 20th century. It was only after racial covenants were outlawed in the late ‘60s that people of color began to move into the neighborhood in significant numbers – African Americans first (moving out of the overcrowded CD), and then folks from Southeast Asia, East Africa, and many other places in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. There was a lot of White flight during this transition – and yes, more crime. But there were also White people who stayed, and got to know their new neighbors, who were putting down roots and raising families and opening businesses of their own.

    For a long time articles like Brodeur’s appeared every four or five years – “Columbia City back from the dead!” “Columbia City rebuilding after years of neglect!” There were lots of people, from many different communities and organizations, who worked for decades (as Darryl Smith points out) to create and support institutions like the Farmers Market, Beatwalk, the Royal Esquire Club, and Orca School (now relocated) and to build up locally-owned businesses like the Wellington Tea Room (African American owned, now the location of Island Soul), Lottie’s (White owned, began as a coffee shop before Magic Johnson’s Starbucks moved in), and, yes, Tutta Bella (owned by an Italian American with his own deep roots in the South End). These business owners didn’t always see eye to eye about everything, but they (and many others!) shared a truly generous community spirit that was an important force during those years when Columbia City’s “revival” felt pretty tenuous.

    Some of the changes can certainly be called gentrification: as property values have risen, many POC homeowners, affordable rentals, and POC-owned businesses have been displaced. But there have also been sincere and determined efforts to create inclusive institutions, to reach out across differences, and to maintain the racial and economic diversity of the area. That these efforts are not enough to counteract the predictable and powerful changes brought by the arrival of the Light Rail station is no surprise – we are now seeing denser housing developments and rising housing costs; a wave of younger, mostly White, relatively well-off folks pushing strollers and walking their dogs; and the arrival of businesses aimed at serving those newcomers, like Rudy’s and Molly Moon’s.

    I hope those of us who have lived here for decades can help these new arrivals understand and respect the multi-cultural, community-built history of this place, and invite them to become part of its ongoing story – so we can work together to *continue* to build a thriving, welcoming community for the many different people who love this neighborhood and call it home.

  6. There was nothing racist about the column. There is something wrong with people who need to erase history and cannot face reality. We learn from our mistakes. We do not try to sweep them under the rug.
    It is cowardice, and it is pathetic.

  7. Nice article, I’d love for you to write about South Park. It’s a little behind Columbia City in terms of beginning whitifying. We still have no chain stores. Local pizza (x 2), local restaurants.
    A kid got killed 10 ft from my house in a gang-related hit. Constant thefts during the day from houses.
    Yet a great sense of community,. Many people live AND work in South Park because this is a waterfront community with water-related businesses, and light manufacturing.