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

(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.

Another huge plus was the creation in 1998 of the Columbia City Farmers Market which takes place on 3-7 pm. Wednesdays just off Rainier Avenue near the library. The market may be the single best place to catch the colorful diversity of 98118 as residents cruise the stalls of fruit and vegetables, flowers and bread, meat and cheese.

Guest chefs offer cooking classes, with Julie Andres of nearby La Medusa coming over to cook on July 30. Music groups sometimes provide the market a musical background. Shortly after the market got going, the Columbia City Cinema opened in the old Odd Fellows hall, providing a neat neighborhood cinema. Other attractions include galleries, pubs, and even a live burlesque theater.

Another plus was the upgrade of Seattle libraries started during the Schell administration. The enlarged Columbia City and new Rainier Beach libraries are heavily used. In fact, it’s hard to get a parking spot or a computer terminal at either, but both are hubs for the neighborhood’s rich diversity.

There are 10 public elementary schools (several K-8) in 98118, plus one middle school (Aki Kurose) and two high schools, Rainier Beach and the new South Lake Union, an alternative high school. With such cultural, linguistic, and economic diversity, schools in 98118 have often struggled. While such diversity offers wonderful opportunities for schools, it also brings predictable challenges.

Having seen our kids through public schools in the area, my hunch is that here, in particular, schools need strong, capable principals who stay a long time and build the culture of a school. Some schools have had that, but not many, especially as the school cistrict has in recent years moved principals frequently.

One that did benefit from principal competence and continuity was Hawthorne Elementary with the leadership of John Moorefield. But since Moorefield retired in the late 1990s, Hawthorne has cycled principals rapidly and now labors under the unfortunate designation of a “failing school.” How the new neighborhood assignment plan effects 98118 schools will be important to watch.

While life in 98118 is not without challenges and many of us residents still have far to go in adding community to proximity with our diverse neighbors, there is something wonderful and almost biblical (as in Jesus’ words, “The last shall be first”) in this southeast Seattle zip code being talked about not only as a leader in diversity, but “dynamic” as well. Long avoided by many, described as “a not-good neighborhood” by others, 98118 can lift its head and take pride in its new, if unanticipated, prominence and promise.

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