Neighborhood Check-In: Beacon Hill

by Jessie McKenna

This is the second in our series of articles checking in on the neighborhoods of South Seattle, produced by community members living within them. Read our first, a Rainier Beach and Dunlap check-in, here.

Per the new norm in the era of COVID quarantine, I don’t see people out on Beacon Ave as much or at the coffee shops, restaurants and grocery stores like I normally would, and I miss my community — our interactions and checking in with each other, sharing news and resources. I miss being connected to my neighborhood in a way that feels organic and authentic (vs. awkward and/or virtual). 

I’m grateful for the online realm where my friends and neighbors are sharing stories and information, but nothing beats face-to-face conversation and we’re not getting as many of those these days. But I caught up with some neighborhood folx to check in on them one-on-one (virtually), and then later we arranged a time for me to snap their pics from a safe distance. 

Carlos Nieto squints in the glorious afternoon sunshine outside of Nikos Gyros while he waits for his dinner. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)

Carlos Nieto is a 25-year-old poet and all-around creative and talented person. He’s also a barista at The Station coffee shop. I remember when I first started seeing him there. He was pretty quiet but always super sweet. Over time, he started to open up and his personality came flowing out and it was like a dam had come down. And what a phenomenal person I got to know! I miss seeing him around as I’ve been staying home as much as possible. Carlos is still working amid COVID-19 — the Station offers take-out and they’re encouraging gift card purchases (plus there’s a community food pantry!) — but things have changed a lot, and it weighs on Carlos. 

“The people coming in raise my spirit. I feel like people are putting the effort to be extra kind these days. And that helps me to stay positive. The Station has been like half as busy as we’d usually be. It sucks,” says Carlos. “I’m kinda sad about the world right now. I’m trying to stay busy, checking in on people. I’m trying to stay productive.”

He says sometimes he worries about whether or not The Station is going to be OK. It’s a beloved coffee shop and community and activism hub to not only Beacon Hill residents but to people from all over the city and beyond. “But I try to focus on the things I can control,” Carlos says, pragmatically.

Carlos used to do more performing and poetry slams, but nowadays he’s not as into it. He says that while being in front of people used to be fun, at some point something changed and it actually makes him kind of uncomfortable now, so he’s shifted to collecting his poetry in book form. He’s already put out one collection of his work, a book titled Translations, and he’s working on another one he says he plans to make available on Etsy. I’m relieved when he tells me that the shutdowns haven’t impeded him as an artist. When I ask him if he feels like his art or creative process has changed since all this coronavirus stuff began, he says not really. 

“I feel like I’m writing more about my goals, my family, things that are important to me. I don’t think it’s changed much. My process is still writing until I feel I have something. Then editing it into a poem.”

You can find Carlos slinging Beacon Hill’s (and possibly Seattle’s) favorite Mexican mocha at The Station, where you’ll probably also find him selling his book of poetry when he’s ready to share it. 

The Maxwell family (Photo: Jessie McKenna)

Adi Maxwell is a 40-year-old mother of three, quarantined at home with her family. Things are challenging for her right now. “Before COVID-19, we were an active, busy family of 5,” she says. “My husband and I both work full time and our 3 kids were in full-time school/aftercare and daycare.” With extracurricular activities like sports and piano, she says, they were always on the go. “We’re also a very social family … so our weekend days were full as well.” Now all of that is gone. “We are all home, all the time, and I am struggling with balancing my work and my kids’ needs,” says Adi.

“These days it feels like I’m both always working and never working,” Adi says of the balancing act. Her biggest challenge is switching between “mom-mode” and “work-mode.” She has to work in chunks and with “constant interruption.” And, she says, “weekends aren’t really restful anymore.” She feels lucky to be working, but the burden of “home schooling” (her quotes) the kids while continuing to work is “extreme.”

Some days are better than others. She’s had to lower (or let go of) many of what she calls her “pre-pandemic standards.” For instance, “My kids all have way more screen time than would ever have been allowed before,” she says.

Adi’s a runner and isn’t currently able to run with her running friend, or even to run alone, she says. “It’s very stressful to be out in the world right now so I try to avoid it.” Her family has been making an extra effort to exercise together, which, she says, is “necessary for maintaining sanity.” 

What do the kids think of all this? “They love it!,” Adi says. “They think sleeping in, being home all day, and getting to watch a lot of TV and play video games is the best.” She keeps thinking they’ll get bored of it, but not so far. She worries about the long term effects on them and how they’ll remember this time. “It’s strange to constantly remind your kids to stay far away from people when we go for a walk, or be so insistent that they wash their hands for the full 20 seconds EVERY TIME we come in from being outside.” She likes to think the kids will bounce back better than she will. “I feel worried about what this is doing to my own mental health in the long term — when will I feel safe out in a ‘normal’ public setting again? 

“We live in a close-knit neighborhood, so it helps that we can still wave at our neighbors or have a socially-distant conversation when we walk by.” But two of her sons go to Kimball Elementary and play soccer, her daughter is in daycare, and they’re used to frequenting local businesses and visiting with extended family. “I miss everyone!” says Adi. “I really miss each person in our family having their own communities and their own life outside of our home. It’s hard on us adults to have lost our social connections, but I think it’s hard on our kids as well.” 

“We’re so lucky to have each other and our kids and to genuinely all like each other,” says Adi. “Overall, we are all healthy and we are both still working so I’m aware we have so much to be grateful for.” 

Curt Ligot selfie from his Facebook page, where he encourages folx to support local biz

Curt Ligot is a super positive and fun 44-year-old who grew up on Beacon Hill in a family of Filipino descent. He started his own gym, Roundbox Fitness, in 2012 at the junction of Beacon Ave and South Alaska Street, sandwiched between Seattle Super Market and Mimi’s Bakery and Floral. He’s been building up his business from scratch ever since. Not only does he offer an innovative approach to fitness and training, he designs and makes his own workout equipment and his family’s company, Lasermach, Inc., manufactures the products. But when the COVID-19 shutdowns went into effect and he had to close his gym studio, “it was a huge blow,” he said. He says he’s doing OK, “but it’s definitely been a rollercoaster.”

No loans or grants he’s applied for since the closure have come through. “Honestly, day by day I go from calm and determined to worried and panicked about the unknown,” he says. Curt worked hard to grow an online community over the years and he’s been able to leverage social media to keep the heart of his studio beating. “I was able to sell home workout kits (our equipment) and online training,” he says. And, always the innovator, Curt added, “We actually came out with two brand-new inventions just for home workouts.”

Curt is father to a six-year-old kindergartener. He and his wife are homeschooling their daughter since schools have been closed. Curt’s wife, Mary, does the homeschool heavy lifting, he says. “I’m lucky she’s got my back.” 

Curt says he used to train from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the Roundbox studio, then work from home on the business, and hang with the fam until 5, when he went back to Roundbox to train until 8 p.m. His days are completely different now. It’s wake up, social media, video content, then he drives to Woodinville to Lasermach to fulfill orders and work on new designs, he says. 

Curt’s grateful to have something to pivot to. He’s been really vocal on social media in support of other neighborhood businesses and he’s been out and about showing that support to them and setting an example for others, like in a selfie he took, wearing a hat from El Quetzal Bar & Lounge (and a face mask), outside of Foulee Market where he was grabbing lunch. He posted a home work-out video wearing a Clock-Out Lounge shirt and gave a shout-out to the venue and to Breezy Town Pizza, housed within. He uses his platform to encourage people to support local businesses any way they can. And he and Juan Montiel, co-owner of El Quetzal (with his wife Elena), have been cross-posting, promoting each other’s businesses. 

Debra Coleman takes a break from a late-afternoon walk to pose for a picture. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)

Debra Coleman is an active and upbeat 54-year-old Beacon Hill resident who’s been on the hill since 1991. She knows all her neighbors and their dogs, some of whom she stops to visit on her daily walks. I asked her how she’s holding up. 

“I am doing well,” she says. “It has not been a super big adjustment for me since I already worked from home quite often and I love being home. I have been cleaning and organizing as well as yard work and gardening.” Debra has an awesome 360-degree garden surrounding her house. We met in person (we’d met in neighborhood Facebook groups previously) last summer when someone’s pet bunny took up part-time residence in her garden, and we teamed up to try to catch it (long-story-short: bunnies are really, really fast; faster than us). 

“The hardest part for me,” Debra said, “is seeing the decline of love, citizenship and togetherness as well as the complete failure of this administration as the death count increases. There are of course pockets of goodwill throughout the nation and many communities are coming together — but as a nation we have failed and COVID-19 is exposing how great a failure it is.” She went on to say that “Every day is a day to be grateful and thankful, to speak out and to work for justice and equality.”

Normally, Debra would be working out multiple days a week at CrossFit RE (the RE stands for Rugged Elite) in Columbia City. She misses her gym community and she’s not getting her workouts in at home. “For me, a gym is a place to work out — everything is there — the equipment, the space. And with CrossFit — the camaraderie and coaching and motivation. I just have to show up, no thinking, everything is programmed. Now, I have started walking a loop morning, noon and evening.” The walking outside, she said, has helped boost her spirit and adrenaline. “I don’t go far,” she said, “hence the three times!” She takes her mask with her when she walks but says it’s really uncomfortable to wear when she’s exercising. She has it tied around her neck and if she approaches someone she pulls it up. She’s planning to up her fitness-at-home game in the near future. “I’m going to start adding in some push ups, squats and sit ups, and kettlebells and dumbbells.” 

I meet Debra to snap her picture from a safe distance while she’s out on one of her walks. We have to text back and forth several times to figure out where we’ll catch each other as we’re both out and about on the hill, her exercising and me meeting folx to take pictures for this piece. I’m at 21st and Forest, she says. I’m headed west on Hinds toward 16th! I tell her. I’ll double back after I take a pic of Adi and family. OK, I’m done, where are you now? I’m heading up McClellan toward Beacon, she says, I stopped to say hi to Bella. Is that the little barky one, I ask? Ha ha, no, that’s Bruno! Bella is the St. Bernard. 

I finally catch Debra across the street from the Beacon Hill Library and we chat for a minute before we head our separate ways. Debra’s energy and spirit are contagious (too soon for that metaphor?), and I tell her this. The day after I first reached out to her, it was gorgeous out, and I went for a run for the first time in as long as I can remember. My neighbors are inspiring.

Dan Hurwitz is a comedian who works for PCC and lives near the Red Apple Market across from the Beacon Hill light rail station. He’s a “young 36,” he says, and hosts the Beyond the Tippe: Comedy Showcase. It’s “Beacon Hill’s second-favorite comedy show,” the event description quips, at Tippe & Drague Alehouse on Beacon Ave on the first Saturday of every month (or, he did, rather, before the shut-downs). He’s also a member of The Disabled List, a variety show that features performers of various art forms, including but not limited to stand-up, poetry, and burlesque — and all of the performers have disabilities.

When I ask him how he’s doing, he says, “I’m holding up okay. Probably better than most, since I’ve been working, and haven’t shown any symptoms. I think everyone has been feeling heightened anxiety, existential dread, and of course concern for all the people we know who have gotten sick. I definitely feel the weight of all that, as we go through this collective trauma.” I ask him how many people he knows have come down with the virus. Several, he says. “Yeah, one of my good friends, another local artist, and her husband got pretty sick. Also a local storyteller,” he says.  

Dan works at a grocery store where he comes into contact with many people every day. I wonder if it’s a source of anxiety for him. He says the staff are all wearing masks, but many of the customers aren’t and that, yes, that’s a source of anxiety, but he’s employing a strategy of good old cognitive dissonance in order to keep it from getting to him. 

We discuss how the pandemic and quarantine have been an emotional rollercoaster for us both. I tell him staying busy was good for me at the start too — I had a temporary gig on top of my other work that had me leaving Beacon Hill to go to Renton five days a week and continued during the shut-downs as I was deemed “essential” because I worked for essential workers. Dan hears this and calls me a “second responder.” His comedic timing never ceases to delight. 

“It’s weird because my life is probably as normal as a life can be under these circumstances,” he says. “I’m working 40 hours a week. I interact with people everyday, face to face. I’ve been healthy … ”

I ask Dan if he’s still doing comedy, like virtual shows or anything else. “Comedy is weird,” he sas. “It’s weird in the best of circumstances — now it’s even weirder.” He hasn’t done stand-up since early March, before the shelter-in-place order. “I actually had one of my better sets, at Jai Thai. Since then, I’ve done my friend Howie’s weekly pandemic-themed talk show, and then last Friday I did The Disabled List, both via Zoom. I’ve also done my monthly Beacon Hill News segment for Joketellers Union, which usually is at Clock-Out, but now is on Facebook.”

“All of these,” he says, “are akin to stand-up but not quite stand-up, so I haven’t really done a stand-up set, strictly speaking, since we’ve been social distancing.” He says in some ways it’s been a nice break, “kind of a comedy cleanse,” says Dan. “But I do miss being on stage, and, more than that, I worry about what stand-up might be like post-pandemic, which businesses might not make it, etc.”

I ask Dan what he misses most since the shut-downs. “Baja Bistro,” he says, “and friends, I guess.” I’m not sure if it’s meant to be funny, but local favorite Mexican and LGBTQIA+ bar and restaurant Baja Bistro coming in a hair ahead of friends in the “what I miss most” category makes me LOL, and leaves me just a little bit wistful.  

Jessie McKenna is a marketing and communications specialist with a focus on South End nonprofits and small business. She began working for the South Seattle Emerald in 2017 as a volunteer and eventually as a content contributor and content manager. She lives in Beacon Hill on unceded ancestral lands of the Duwamish people.

Featured image by Jessie McKenna.