by Beverly Aarons
I first discovered Hillman City Collaboratory in 2016 while working with housing activists to save a Central District family from displacement — the collaboratory was a space where we could strategize and discuss. The second time I engaged with the space was when I attended a clothing swap in the main mixing room. High-quality clothes were neatly folded into stacks — anyone could grab some pretty decent threads and it didn’t matter if they had money or something to trade. And then there were the films and the talks and the discussions and the various events — social, political, cultural, artistic, and business-related — that I attended at the collaboratory throughout the years.
But as I approached the Hillman City Collaboratory headquarters on April 30, I could see, even from across Rainier Avenue, that the social change incubator that once teemed with life was completely deserted. This was the final day of the community hub — they had to vacate the premises. An older man, who looked to be in his 60s, stood about 30 feet from the entrance. He smoked a cigarette and peered down the empty sidewalk. As I tugged on the collaboratory door, the man took a final draw on his cigarette and approached me. I wanted to know more about the closing of the collaboratory, I explained. He nodded in understanding as if he had been expecting me and we went inside.
He introduced himself as Victor Straub and gave me a brief tour. The Hillman City Collaboratory is located on the main floor of a red brick building at the corner of South Orcas Street and Rainier Avenue South. The community hub consists of a large main mixing room that can fit a hundred people comfortably. On the other side of a wall and glass doors are several office spaces and small meeting rooms, and in the back of the space is a full kitchen.
Straub is a long-time Hillman City Collaboratory volunteer who dedicated the past four years to running a homeless drop-in center in the space. Unhoused people could come to the collaboratory, get a meal, and hang out, something Straub said is especially important when it’s raining or extremely hot or cold outside. And this type of resource for unhoused people is rare in South Seattle. “According to the 211 directory, we [were] the only registered [homeless drop-in center] south of I-90,” Straub said.
An immigrant from the Soviet Union, Straub has had his own personal struggles with homelessness before getting help and finding permanent housing, an experience that compels him to give back. He was a long-time volunteer at the Rainier Valley Food Bank, and when he came to the collaboratory the homeless drop-in center was organized by someone else but nearly closed because of a lack of volunteers. “I just picked it up and continued to run it by myself,” Straub said. But it hasn’t been easy or cheap: “90% of funding for the drop-in center was my own money.” And now that the Hillman City Collaboratory is closing, Straub said that finding a new space that will welcome the homeless may be nearly impossible.
But there are some people still trying to save the collaboratory.
“We’re going to try and figure out how to get this building.” Benjamin Hunter, a co-founder of the Hillman City Collaboratory, was resolute and confident as he described his efforts to save the space during our videoconference interview. “Things are happening. Things are moving, not just in the community but in the city, that might make it accessible to buy that building.” Hunter said that the property owner, Dr. Mary O’Neal has an asking price of $3.9 million for purchase or a 50% rent increase to lease the space. “I want to be clear. I don’t think that Dr. O’Neal deserves $3.9 million for this building. I think that’s outrageous. And it is a disservice to the community, because only a certain person can buy that building. And what does that do to the future of this building in this neighborhood, in this community that has already been affected so badly because of gentrification?”
Hunter, a graduate of Whitman College and a musician, was just a few years out of college when he met John Helmiere while working in a local coffee shop. It was 2011, Hunter had just founded the nonprofit Community Arts Create, and Helmiere had founded Valley and Mountain.
“We got to talking and got to, you know, recognizing each other,” Hunter said. “And we became kind of like friends at the coffee shop and at the bar. And he would come over to my house for barbecues. We both realized that as our organizations were kind of growing, we needed the ability to have space.”
Hunter and Helmiere reached out to other community organizations that needed space, but as they began their search, other orgs were unable to participate for various reasons. “It was kind of just left to John and I,” Hunter said. “And when we found that building at 5623 Rainier Avenue South, we couldn’t turn away. I mean, it was this beautiful old brick building. It had this portico entrance. It was on Rainier Avenue. It was in Hillman city, which was kind of this diamond-in-the-rough area. It wasn’t Columbia City, but it wasn’t far. And it had its own little charm and history.”
That’s when the idea of finding space for Community Arts Create and Valley and Mountain expanded and morphed into the Hillman City Collaboratory, a social change incubator and coworking space Hunter and Helmiere would eventually co-found in 2013. That space would go on to host a variety of events, businesses, artists, and cultural workers, as well as activists — something that Hunter said he and Helmiere could not have imagined when they were first looking for space.
“We had all these ideas and we weren’t business people,” Hunter said. “We weren’t necessarily even like budgeters. We didn’t really know what it meant to balance a budget necessarily. But we knew that we wanted this space, and we knew that people would flock to it because we knew that there were people just like us, individuals trying to, you know, do [their] work, but needed to have a space.”
For Anessa Novasio, a family law and immigration attorney, the Hillman City Collaboratory made it possible for her to run her law practice and offer affordable rates to her clients who are mostly located in the neighborhood. “It’s possible that I might’ve just given up entirely,” Novasio said during our videoconference interview, describing what might have happened if she hadn’t become a coworker at the collaboratory. “I had actually gone into debt keeping my business afloat, and because it was so cheap to maintain the lowest level there, I could keep it going.”
When Novasio graduated from law school in 2011, she wanted to “provide access to justice for people who can’t afford an attorney.” But when she went looking for work at legal aid organizations, she left her job search empty-handed.
“A lot of those organizations have lost funding …” Novasio said. “I never meant to go into business for myself, but that was kind of my only option.” Today, Novasio provides sliding scale and pro bono legal services to clients who might be unable to afford standard attorney rates. But affordable rent wasn’t the only reason Novasio chose Hillman City Collaboratory. She joined and stayed because she says that it provides the kind of social connection that would be almost impossible to find elsewhere.
When one of Novasio’s clients was going through a divorce, Wasat, a Muslim organization located in the collaboratory, helped the client with food, babysitting, and emotional support. It was a moment that stood out as special to Novasio.
Then there was Joe, someone both Novasio and Hunter spoke fondly of. Joe was a consistent figure in the collaboratory.
“Joe was there from the beginning when we first signed the paperwork, and he was always out front sweeping the leaves,” Hunter said. “And he worked at the funeral home, just down the street.” Hunter would eventually discover that Joe was sleeping at the funeral home before they “tore it down to put in condos.” Every day Joe would come in and play the piano for 10 or 15 minutes, Hunter said.
“It was an upright piano,” Novasio said. She laughed as she reminisced. “And, you know, they were always switching the piano — like, upgrading it … there were always these free pianos. I saw like three or four pianos go through there.”
And after teasing out brief bursts of jazz and blues tunes on the piano, Joe would get a cup of coffee, sit amongst the coworkers and visitors, and tell the same story, Hunter said. “He would talk about how he was a mortician … and he would talk about so many of the young people that he prepped … he’d always say, ‘It’s scary out there.’ … And yet there he was, this ex-army vet, this beautiful piano player, this musician so soft and so kind — and so hard. You could tell that he had a bit of a tough exterior, but he was a teddy bear and he would sweep those streets every day, come in for coffee, and play music.”
Novasio’s voice softens as she notes that Joe passed away recently, but his memory lives on even as the collaboratory space is closed.
“I have a lot of different feelings,” Novasio said of losing the Hillman City Collaboratory. “A mixture of sadness and anger [and] frustration. I’m also engaged in trying to find a way to somehow save the collaboratory.”
As Hunter muses about what he might do to save the space, he wonders if he could have done some things differently.
“I think I would’ve spent more time trying to invest in capital gaining so that we could buy this building,” Hunter said. “But, you know, at the same time that’s the problem, right? It’s [a problem] because all these nonprofits are competing for this small, limited amount of money. … I’m sure if we had a little bit more business savvy, we could have done some other things too, to make it a little bit more successful. But I think in the end, from a cultural and a community perspective, the fact that we have an email chain right now, about 50 people that are talking, trying to figure out solutions to save the space, speaks to the effect that it had on so many people that use that space on a regular or semi-regular basis.”
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!