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.”
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.
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