Columbia City and Hillman City Receive Official Arts & Cultural District Designation

by Jacob Uitti

In August, Columbia City and Hillman City received an historic honor: a prestigious Arts & Cultural District designation from Mayor Jenny Durkan. Now forever linked—and not just by Rainier Avenue—the two diverse, multicultural neighborhoods, which are comprised of about 13,000 people, can further showcase their dozens of art and music venues—from the Columbia City Theater to the Royal Room and the soon-to-be-opened Black and Tan Hall. To get a sense of what this new arts and culture designation means for the area exactly, the South Seattle Emerald reached out to Kathy Fowells, Director of SEEDArts, which was one of the many organizations responsible for getting the initiative to the Mayor’s office. Fowells discussed what the future holds for the neighborhoods, what an arts app might look for them and much more.

What does an Arts District mean generally and what does the designation mean for Columbia City and Hillman City specifically?

The City of Seattle started the Arts & Cultural District program a few years ago to activate urban places known for the arts and to celebrate the existing cultural richness in our neighborhoods. The first district was Capitol Hill; since then the Central District and Queen Anne have also been designated. Each district has access to a “toolkit” that supports artists, art spaces, and neighborhoods. The Columbia Hillman Arts & Cultural district will now have access to the city’s “toolkit”—including a $50,000 stipend to help the area reach new goals. We hope that designation will help our cultural spaces survive—and thrive—and that more funding opportunities will come our way now that the area is “officially” an arts district.

What does it mean for two neighborhoods to be joined like this and is there historical precedent?

I think it’s exciting that Columbia City and Hillman City have joined forces to become a unified arts and cultural district! In the past, the two neighborhoods have worked independently to market their distinct characteristics. Columbia City is a Historic District and has a well-established business core. Hillman City prides itself as a quirky, funky, and innovative entrepreneurial strip. We anticipate that the physical gap between the two neighborhoods will be completely redeveloped—and we want to make sure it’s done thoughtfully, with arts as a driver of development instead of an afterthought.

What inspired you and everyone else to work toward this designation and was it difficult to achieve?

It’s been a long but productive process. A resident of Hillman City just reminded me that she first approached the City about becoming a District back in 2014. And we started planning in earnest in 2016. A group of individuals from the Columbia City Business Association, the Hillman City Business Association, SEEDArts, Community Arts Create and arts activists met monthly. We also held several public meetings and produced an Arts Hackathon as part of the process. In total, at least a hundred people helped make this a reality.

What do you hope this designation will preserve for future generations?

Artists have already been priced out of many neighborhoods, like Capitol Hill—frankly, they can’t get pushed much further south than right here without leaving Seattle. We have a golden window of opportunity to create space for artists and their businesses. 

We envision becoming a creative hub where a proliferation of arts spaces, artist services, and creative enterprises can co-exist. A place where artists are supported and where neighbors have access to a variety of arts experiences. I believe that the arts are key to both community and economic development—and that a flourishing creative community makes our neighborhoods more livable, fun and beautiful.  Our mission for the district is to “celebrate and enhance the authentic and culturally diverse soul of Columbia City and Hillman City.”

How have the neighborhoods changed over the years, positively or negatively?

Columbia City has experienced rapid development and growth in the past decade. It’s already known as a music destination and is home to several longstanding arts venues. Hillman City has emerged as a hotbed of innovation and creativity. Rents there are still relatively low, so there’s been an influx of artists and creative entrepreneurs. New cultural spaces like the Hillman City Collaboratory and the SEEDArts Studios have opened. And the Black and Tan Hall is opening soon. Of course, there are good and bad aspects of growth—but now we have an opportunity to shape what growth looks like in our community, especially from an artistic perspective.

Are there plans for neighborhood restoration through artistic means?

Our neighborhoods have embodied the creative spirit since they were founded. We want to ensure that arts continue to be strong presence in our community and that our artists and arts spaces are protected. We know that rapid development is coming to the south end, and that we have a golden window of opportunity to guide this growth so that it is inclusive and supportive of our rich and diverse creative community.

I’ve heard word of an app. Is this true?

We sure hope so! At last year’s Arts Hackathon, we developed a prototype for an Arts Walking Tour app for Columbia and Hillman Cities. If we can get it funded, we’ll make it.

Lastly, can you speak a bit about Black and Tan Hall? One of its leaders, Chef Tarik Abdullah, just won a Mayor’s Arts Award and the Hall feels like it’s going to be an important gathering space for many in the neighborhoods when it finally opens its doors.

Oh my gosh, I was at the Awards Ceremony and was so proud to have Tarik represent the South End. He certainly takes the culinary arts to a whole new level and I can’t wait to be able to eat his food on a regular basis at Black and Tan. And I absolutely love that they’re cooperatively owned by so many people from the neighborhood. They’re one of many places I hope stick around in Columbia and Hillman Cities for generations.

Featured Image: A young man dances to the music of Otoqui Reyes y Los Hijos de Agueybaná, a Puerto Rican music and dance group, during the Seattle Latin, Brazilian, and Caribbean Festival at the Royal Room in Seattle, Washington, on July 27, 2018. (Photo: Carolyn Bick) 


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