Neighborhood Check-In: Rainier Beach and Dunlap

This is the first in our series of articles checking in on the neighborhoods of South Seattle, produced by community members living within them. 

by Ari Robin McKenna
photos by Zion Thomas 


Recently, I joined up with photojournalist and Rainier Beach High School (RBHS) alum Zion Thomas to find out for the Emerald how folks around the Rainier Beach neighborhood were handling their altered lives, given our current global crisis. Though these streets have become familiar to me over the last four years I’ve lived here and in the adjacent Dunlap neighborhood, they were eerily empty of energy, yet we were able to catch up with a handful of people as they socially distanced.

Zion and I found David walking his dog Mochi on the sloped grass past the bath house at Pritchard Beach. He mused about how baking bread and reading Tolkein have helped him keep sane while cooped up in his house.

Jasmine, who was at RBHS with Zion, had just a few days earlier arrived back in Seattle. Her mom had flown out to retrieve her from Emory College after finding out classes were cancelled, and the pair had driven Jasmine’s car clear across a pandemic-stricken United States from Atlanta.

Valerie was parked at Be’er Sheva Park to chill with her friend Emily. The youngest of four sisters, she spoke with undeterred verve about striving to retain her independence even though COVID-19 had waylaid her work life.

Sharron, working the take-out window for partner Andrae Israel —proprietor of Drae’s Lake Route — told Zion and I about how business was in the old town. Warm and commanding, she ends our Rainier Beach check-in hinting at a new normal that may outlast these desolate days.

David, 19 (and dog, Mochi)

“Oh, I’m doing pretty good actually. Sorry, I’m just keeping an eye on [Mochi] — he’s doing pretty good.

“Keeping myself busy doing a lot of hobbies, you know. I swear if I stay in my house for one week I’m going to lose my mind. But … other than that, I’m good.

“Doing a lot of reading, baking. I have a lot of people that used to work in culinary, and I usually text them and say, ‘Soooo I’m stuck in my house. What should I be baking?’ And they say, ‘Oh you should be breaking bread. Bread bread bread! It’s easy to make and it makes your house smell real good!’

“I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy as well … [J.R.R.] Tolkien’s Fall of Gondolin right now. 

“I’m gonna have to say, I’ve been pretty worried about the well-being of my friends that I can’t get in proximity with. Mostly been reconnected with old friends from high school. 

“But I do remain a tiny bit worried … Just the emotional part of it. But, you know all the panic and people saying ‘Oh my gosh you better not get infected!’ and people getting a little bit paranoid and all. It’s never worked for anything. I don’t like getting scared or paranoid in any situation.

“Often when I walk my dog here — I walk him around at noon and around six-ish — I don’t see too many people, but usually when people are out here they’re usually with their families just cooling down.

“I guess I’ve become maybe a little bit more aware of my surroundings. Like it’s not like I’m constantly having a pair of eyes on the back of my head, but it still helps. It keeps my mind calm.

“Usually when I walk around I have my ears plugged up listening to music, mostly Queen. A lot of Queen, actually. But mostly I’ve been walking around just looking around at my surroundings. Well, when I can. God forbid I walk around in the rain!”

David (Photo: Zion Thomas)

Jasmine Walters, 21

“I’m a college student (Emory University in Atlanta) so my school got shut down, and I had to move back home, so that’s why I’m here now. Yeah, so, while I was on spring break they sent out an email and were like, ‘Y’all gotta move out.’ So that was a shock, but I think it’s necessary for safety so I understand. I wasn’t mad or anything. I’m actually happy to be home, but it does suck that this is one of the places that has the most number of cases and most number of deaths.

“I had to drive across the country from Atlanta here. Every other state that we stopped in, people were so careful. Every gas station you’re going in and people are like, ‘Be careful! The virus this, the virus that.’ They’re wearing gloves, masks, everything, and I come here and it’s like nothing’s happening. Like it’s not any different. So, I don’t know if people just don’t care, if people aren’t taking it as seriously here. I don’t know what the issue is.

“I was supposed to get my credits out the way this semester and be ready to study abroad in the fall, and that’s just not happening anymore. Which is like … it’s okay because I can study next spring. I want to go to New Zealand because it’s another pretty diverse place. I’m really interested in Polynesian culture as well. They have one of the biggest Polynesian populations there. I also did some research and found out that it’s one of the coolest places in the world for black people to go. Like it’s one of the least racist places, so I was like, ‘That’d be cool.’ And I can study there for my major [political science] so it just kind of worked out.

“I grew up around here, went to South Shore. I worked at Beach last summer with Zion. I think one of the challenges for me is there’s so many things that I want to do for personal growth and like creative growth and things like that, so I’m like, ‘Let me pick one or two things to focus on during this time that I can really cultivate.’

“And then just worrying about my family. I have such a big family that I’m like … I don’t know, it seems like statistically probable that someone in my family is going to get it, because we have such a big family. That worries me a little, and like my parents are older and they live out here and that worries me a little. But I just try not to worry because there’s nothing I can do about it right now, you know?

“I just got back on Monday. All I’ve really seen is the changes like through social media and like community-based organizations that are providing food and certain local restaurants and catering businesses who are providing food and just other resources for people. Seeing that is really great to me, and honestly it’s expected. I feel like there’s a lot of community organization, like a spirit of that here in Seattle, and especially in South Seattle, as a community. So that’s dope.”

Jasmine Walters (Photo: Zion Thomas)

Valerie Mills, 18

“I’m a 2000s baby so … this is really scary for me. I’m young. I’m very active. I have my own place and I also work. You know, I have bills and responsibilities to take care of. And now I am actually almost ready to get a 14-day eviction notice because I haven’t been working for a month.

“So I just recently got a job that pays weekly, trying to put in some hours right now. I’m working 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. [security at Home Depot], seven days a week in Bellevue. I’m driving or getting on the bus every day.

“With my daily activities and trying to eat and gas, it’s hard to try to … just be a normal teenager, you know? I can’t go shopping, get my hair done, nails done, eyebrows, the normal things people do, because I have bills and I’m not working a lot. Everybody’s telling me to file for unemployment, and it’s like, ‘I’m 18! I’m trying to work and make my own money! I’m trying to do something with my life. I’m not trying to sit here and be on unemployment.’

“And by the end of the day, I’m just making enough to get by, and not to live, fully.

“I understand they want to put everybody on lockdown and try to figure out what’s going on with the virus, but I feel like this is something that has took over people a little bit too much. I understand that it is a very serious virus and people are losing their lives, and people are getting very sick, but I feel like there’s something else that they’re drawing us away from … 

“Putting us on lockdown is an understandable thing, to a certain extent. You know you’re shutting down things that are inaccessible for kids who don’t have anything, who are homeless or get beat at home. They don’t have food at home. They go to school every day just to eat, basically. You know they’re not worried about going to school to learn, they’re there for a couple meals a day, to try and get some kind of attention that they can before they go home to nothing.

“And those things are shut down. Recreational centers where people can spend hours when their moms and dads are running late night shifts … or just be around someone so they’re not home alone all the time. And it’s to the point where it’s nothing really being done, but everybody just has to go home.

“I went to college to be a CNA. I have my certificate. I used to work in a nursing home before Home Depot. And, that was getting basically shut down because the virus was starting to kick in a little bit. There were old people there who have Alzheimer’s and only remember one person, or you know they can’t get up and change themselves, they have animals that need to be taken care of and their visitors cannot come and help them. So they’re locked in their rooms twenty-four-seven. They’re just coming in and out of the rooms for about an hour a day, all in separate groups, and not very much socializing going on. It’s stuff that’s not being noticed, where it’s affecting the most elderly people it’s not being noticed, as much as it should.

“I just moved out of my mom’s house nine months ago. My one year lease is coming up in July. Yeah, I moved out, graduated, all in one week, and … that’s when it happened. Just now starting, not even — I don’t even want to call it living — because right now I’m not. Because I’m home right now and I’m not doing anything. “I’m struggling. And I’m young and I shouldn’t be. I’m very capable to work. I’m very capable to do things, but I can’t, because this is going on.”

Valerie Mills (Photo: Zion Thomas)

Sharron Anderson, 39 (with daughter, Ava)

“Yeah, so, you know, it’s a challenging time. Business has obviously slowed down, but you know there’s some gains to all of this, with some losses. We’ve gotten to reconnect with a lot of our customers who would come and visit us when we were open later. We changed our hours so we’re only open till two, but now that people are home, they’re able to come in and enjoy us. We’ve been very blessed that our community has really supported us. It’s nice that we’re in a community, a family neighborhood, and we’ve been able to get that support from them. This is where I live. At home I’m literally asleep.

“There’s a lot of waste. We’re having to, you know, cut back on our vendors, our employees. You know, we’re a small business, so we obviously don’t have a choice but to put something away for savings, but you never really expect that you’re gonna have to use it. So, you know, we’ve had to cut back on some of the things that we make in our menu. For example shrimp and grits. Really expensive, but I can’t make it and house it if people aren’t ordering it and taking it to go. So our limited menu has definitely been a challenge financially.

“And I would say really just being able to provide service. We are an in-service store. There’s a community. There’s an atmosphere. People come from church. They come because they’re gonna hear old school music, and they want to drink their coffee and their lemonade. So, just all-in-all it’s really just taking a toll on business.

“And just … but the social aspect of it and all of that sort of ties into the financial part of it. We just can’t give the way we used to.

“Two days a week, we have the retired Seattle Police chiefs, like the top chiefs — and a detective — and we also have a retired Metro driver that comes. They are really loyal to us and have been coming for about a year and a half now, since they discovered us, and they obviously are affected, because they can’t be here — they’re older. A lot of them need to take care of themselves and be home, so we understand, but yes we lost a lot of our groups almost immediately.

“We are a very small community — even just this block. There’s four, five businesses, and we’re all affected because we all support each other … Everyone is worried, like it all sort of, brought everyone together. Someone will come and check on us, and we’ll get some information and feedback about, ‘Hey this business loan has popped up, or maybe you should sign up for this or sign up for that, or I heard this about that. Who did you vote for? How does it affect small businesses?’

“It’s bringing up a lot of topics and conversations that we’ve never had before. And we’re definitely strengthening our community, for sure. We’ve all just been really busy, so we don’t ever really get a chance to go and talk to one another, but it’s been really nice and everyone’s been so supportive.”

Sharron Anderson and daughter, Ava (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

Ari Robin McKenna lives and writes in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). He is currently pitching a a novella entitled, On a Moonlit Landing. You can follow him here or there.

Featured image: Ari Robin McKenna