(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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