Collage of pictures depicting various Cultivate South Park activities.

Cultivate South Park: Serendipity, Coffee, and Radical Community Programs

by Amanda Ong

Three years ago, a group of South Park residents and café regulars routinely met at Resistencia Coffee. Now, what started as those open mics and conversations about community building over coffee has become Cultivate South Park, an established nonprofit that is working to build spaces for connection and collaboration throughout the South Park community. The nonprofit’s robust programming provides South Park with innovative solutions in food, environmental, housing, and economic justice, and fortifies existing neighborhood strengths. 

“All these special people are just drawn together through the cosmic forces of the universe,” Crystal Brown, executive director of Cultivate South Park, said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “And so I feel like Resistencia just drew us in; we just magnetized all together. There were already so many beautiful people doing things in South Park. But this was just a new crop that kind of blossomed from this coffee shop.” 

When the group first met, Brown was working at a fitness nonprofit doing restorative trauma care. Dennis “Dene” Diaz was working at Resistencia Coffee and began the “Café con Leche” open-mic series that brought the group together. Diaz is now a teaching artist for local teenagers with Cultivate South Park, under the arm of its Arts and Culture Collective

The collective has organized mural paintings and songwriting circles for its teen programs, which have grown through word of mouth and social media. “We were able to really spread out and just create a platform where these youth could express themselves,” Diaz said in an interview with the Emerald.

In addition to its Arts and Culture Collective, Cultivate South Park is hard at work providing for every aspect of the South Park community. Another initiative is its Urban Fresh Food Collective, which is responsible for the nonprofit’s weekly farmers market, El Mercadito. The Urban Fresh Food Collective aims to increase access to fresh food to combat the neighborhood food desert. “A lot of our vendors at the farmers market are local small businesses,” Brown said. “And eventually, we’d love to stock their items and have a grocery store that’s maybe open six days a week, because neither Georgetown or South Park has a grocery store.” 

The organization also acts as a fiscal sponsor for local businesses and hosts an equitable development initiative. Reconnect South Park aims to create spaces for affordable housing, community-owned businesses, parks, and amenities that serve the people of South Park. Emily Candela McLaughlin, the artist and collective coordinator at Cultivate South Park, stresses that finding space is crucial to all the work they hope to do.

“We are right now in the process of trying to secure a building where we can create more space for the arts, for the food, to purchase community-owned space,” Candela McLaughlin said in an interview with the Emerald. “It would be beautiful to have a space where the arts and culture are an economic engine, a place where people in the neighborhood who make things can sell them more regularly, a commercial kitchen that people can use for their food businesses, and having that lead towards a small-business incubator. It all depends on how much space we have.” 

Candela McLaughlin added that Cultivate South Park has plans to increase programming and hopes to host performances at a local skate park, provide qigong lessons in the park, and overall increase opportunities for the neighborhood to engage in creative activities together. “Cultivate South Park is truly a community and neighborhood-led organization, because food, arts, community spaces, and businesses in a community are so vital to what makes the community and the neighbors thrive,” Candela McLaughlin said. 

While a coffee shop brought them together, Cultivate South Park has stayed together through admirable synchronicity of community values. The needs they address are the needs they, as South Park residents, have seen. South Park is effectively an island — surrounded by the Duwamish River, cut off by State Route 509, and partitioned by State Route 99. Brown asserts that the neighborhood is not connected to any other neighborhood by as much as a simple street. While this has created a food desert, Brown says it also has solidified their community and community identity. If you live in South Park, you have to go out of your way to leave South Park. The neighbors of South Park know each other, and despite many communities having been forced out throughout history, many have also stayed.

“This is the land the original Duwamish people were sitting on. The Longhouse is not technically in South Park, but it’s just down the street,” Candela McLaughlin said. Candela McLaughlin notes that the original Japanese American farmers who started the Pike Place Market were in South Park. Italian American farmers founded the Marra Farm in South Park, which is the last piece of farmland still in use as a farm in the City of Seattle. “There are waves of immigrants later, from Southeast Asia and from all the different wonderful diversity of Latin America. And everything we do we try to have in both English and Spanish, and we would like to expand that to Khmer and Laotian and Vietnamese, especially to include elders for intergenerational arts opportunities.”

The members of Cultivate South Park see a South Park that is beautiful, that is diverse, that has plentiful fresh food and free arts programming and a community of care. Their vision of South Park is radical, and yet they realize the foundation for that vision already exists within the community. 

“You can walk down one street and see the 80-year-old couple, and then the Latinx family next to them. This is literally my street, and then the elderly Asian couple next to them,” Brown added. “On my property, there’s all these fruiting trees, cherry trees, apple trees, pear trees, plum trees. And we got word from neighbors that the Japanese who were here planted all these orchards. And so there are still fruiting trees all over South Park. That’s one of the visual histories that you can see throughout the neighborhood.”

This history gives some residents hope for the future. “Everything I’ve ever dreamed about community, being in high school and middle school and thought was impossible, I’m living it and I’m seeing it happen,” teaching artist Daneca Tran said in an interview with the Emerald. “We can gather the magic. The connections can happen. It gives me a lot of hope.”

Cultivate South Park’s “Paint Yourself Happy: Community Paint and Mental Health Night” will be Sunday, Jan. 30, 6–10 p.m. Its first Welcome Open Jam will be Sunday, Jan. 16, 6–10 p.m. Both will be at the South Park Idea Lab, 1251 Unit B, S. Cloverdale St., upstairs from Resistencia Coffee. The Urban Innovators Youth Art Show will be at Resistencia Coffee Feb. 15–March 14.

Interested participants can email or

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Bottom left: Carlos Snaider, Dennis Diaz, Jamaar Smiley, Victor Puentes, Victory Nguyen (with Kyle Burnett on sound mixer) perform at “Light in the Darkness” Multi Arts Neighborhood Event January 2020; top left: August 2021 Urban Innovators Program interns in Community Arts/Self Expression class at South Park Community Center, (Armando Romero , Alexander Rosario, Tino Mvududu, Cunningham Thach, Annaliese Del Rosario) with teaching artist Daneca Tran and program manager Gari Watkins; top middle: A “South Park Hangs Together “ community mural project art boards by Kema Jones; top second right: Concord Elementary School and YMCA students in the Concord August Art Camp 2021; top far right: Urban Innovators interns Andre Brown and Randall Thach dry their paintings; and bottom right: Daneca Tran, Emily Candela McLaughlin, Mónica Perez, Melanie Granger, Gari Watkins of the Arts & Culture Collective and Cultivate South Park.

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