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    Southeast Seattle, 98118: Yes, my diverse zip code is cool

    Walk through Seward Park and hear a dozen different languages. Thanks to affordability, entrepreneurs, and more, 98118 is both vital and diverse.
    The Columbia City Farmers Market has helped revitalize its neighborhood.

    The Columbia City Farmers Market has helped revitalize its neighborhood. Courtesy of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance

    (This article has been revised since it was first published in response to questions and about whether the Census Bureau has made a judgment that 98118 is the most diverse zip code in the country.)

    A good place to catch the 98118 vibe is to take a weekend walk around Seward Park. Chances are good that you will catch fragments of conversations in a dozen different languages and see people of at least that many hues.

    In fact, a dozen is probably a conservative estimate as 59 languages are spoken in the 98118 zip code in southeast Seattle; there have been a string of reports for months that the U.S. Census Bureau proclaimed it "the most diverse zip code in America." Whether or not that's true (it's not clear whether the bureau even analyzes data to make that judgment) the prevalence of the stories, as well as statements by a Census official to KOMO4 News, suggests that the area is indeed remarkably diverse. After a recent Sunday stroll at Seward Park a friend exclaimed, "It's like the United Nations."

    The 98118 area stretches from just south of the Mount Baker neighborhood in the north to Rainier Beach in the south. The east border is Lake Washington, while the west runs along Martin Luther King Boulevard at times and then over to I-5 in the southernmost end. Just over 40,000 people live in 98118. About 10,000 are Caucasian, 10,000 African-American and 13,000 Asian-American, as well as smaller numbers of Hispanics, Hawaiian Islanders, Somalis, and Filipinos, and many other racial and ethnic groups.

    How did this corner of Seattle become so diverse? No single factor explains it, but the area has welcomed immigrants for over a century, ranging from Irish and Italians early in the 20th century, to Jewish and African-American at mid-century, and in more recent years arrivals from Africa and Asia. Relatively low housing prices (the current average home value in 98118 is $187,500, far below the average in Seattle) plus proximity to downtown have also helped.

    Other factors in making 98118 not only diverse but "a dynamic neighborhood," according to the syndicated columnist on urban affairs Neal Peirce, include the efforts of community coalitions to build the fabric of the neighborhood, a lot of new housing and thus the urban density to support businesses, as well as the recent arrival of light rail, with three stops (Columbia City, Othello Station and Rainier Beach) in the area.

    When our family moved to 98118 in 1990, we did so in part because of the diversity as well as proximity to downtown, but also because of the affordability. Still, at that time much of the area was described by the single word "blighted." Storefronts on Rainier Avenue and in Columbia City were boarded up. Gangs, drugs, prostitution, and violence had given the area a suspect reputation.

    But, at least in many parts of 98118, urban blight has given way to new life, businesses and community vitality, and a generally upbeat and interesting urban scene. Columbia City, in particular, is a lively area with a host of great restaurants and shops. And over on Martin Luther King, now that the light-rail construction is completed, there are lots of new storefronts and businesses. Check out The Joy Palace for terrific dim sum or Huarachitos Taqueria for Mexican. (During light-rail construction, then-Mayor Greg Nickels paid weekly walking visits to merchants in the area to hear their concerns and provide encouragement.)

    Some areas, for example Hillman City, which is farther south on Rainier Avenue from Columbia City, haven't enjoyed quite the same transformation (or gentrification) as others but are still trending upward in vitality.

    An early symbol of the turnaround in Columbia City was the creation of Beatwalk in 1995. Pioneered by current Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith and Serena Heslop, Beatwalk offers more than a dozen live music venues on the second Friday of each month for a single $7 cover (kids free). The next Beatwalk is July 9.

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    Posted Fri, Jun 25, 7:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    Hello Anthony,

    Can you point me to the source for the claim that Census Bureau has called 98118 the most diverse zip code in the US? I've seen this claim in many articles lately, but none have actually pointed to where or when the Census Bureau has made such a claim. When did they say this? Where? Is that based on 2000 census data or 2010 census data?

    Posted Fri, Jun 25, 7:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    Just don't jaywalk.

    Posted Fri, Jun 25, 1:07 p.m. Inappropriate

    That's a good question, John. I'd like to know, too. A quick search on the Census Bureau's Web site comes up with nothing.

    Posted Fri, Jun 25, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    It is my cynical opinion that very few white residents purchase homes in 98118 because they love the diversity. The diversity statement makes a fantastic politically correct argument for why you bought in a neighborhood others might consider "sketchy". Columbia City and other 98118 'hoods are some of the last areas in Seattle where a moderate income household can buy a barely affordable single family home.

    I am certain that a small subset of white residents in the area is very engaged with their non-white neighbors and that they do feel truly enriched by the experience. Mostly I see people existing in their separate worlds. I have long gotten the sense that appreciation of "diversity" is a shallow value paid much lip service by Seattleites. Personally, I don't feel like a better person because I happen to see Somalian women waiting at the bus stop or that I hear the loud speakers from the open-air Mexican evangelical church on Rainier. No, actually I see the daily circling of pimped rides and occasional gun play at the community center and wonder if I'd have to deal with all that if I could afford to live in Magnolia.

    Posted Fri, Jun 25, 4:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    Refreshing honesty, Former_Belltowner.

    However, as a long-time white resident of the zip code I'll say that although I'm no big fan of ghetto behavior, I do actually prefer my non-white neighbors to the newer white residents exactly because I can't stand the dishonesty and hypocrisy of so-called "progressives" who trumpet diversity. With my black and Asian neighbors, I can be perfectly honest about what's going on without having to worry about being called a bigot, because, for the most part, they share the same concerns you and I do about gunplay, noise and clutter.

    I think lots of white Seattlites would be shocked by how ordinary and socially conservative most "ethnic" folks actually are.


    Posted Fri, Jun 25, 10:28 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes, how great it is to live in supposedly the most diverse zip code. But I think you're missing the point from a regional perspective, that this isn't the only place there is immense diversity. There are numerous immigrant neighborhoods scattered nearby. Federal Way, SeaTac, many areas of Burien, Tukwila, and Renton. I also want to add to your point about why these areas attract a diversity of immigrants. Low median home prices have nothing to do with it. It is the tremendous supply of rental housing, both in dense apartments and house rentals and immigrant communities already in existence.


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