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A new world in South King County

Welcome to Kent, frontline for the forces transforming America's suburbs: poverty and hardship, global diversity, and exciting new energy and innovation.

Kent Station at night.

Kent Station at night. camknows/Flickr

Georgian wines at Kent's Valley Harvest supermarket, where the customers are as international as the merchandise.

Georgian wines at Kent's Valley Harvest supermarket, where the customers are as international as the merchandise. Eric Scigliano

Entrepreneurship for hard times, on Kent's East Hill.

Entrepreneurship for hard times, on Kent's East Hill. Eric Scigliano

The idea of suburbia is so deep-seated it’s become almost a foundational myth: The suburbs are prosperous, tidy, homogenous, and boring. Upwardly mobile families move there to escape urban disorder, crime, and congestion, leaving the inner cities to spin in a downward cycle of disinvestment. In particular, the suburbs are where white people fled in reaction to the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the cities of the North and West in the early and mid-20th century.

It’s an idea that began taking root more than a century ago, when improved transportation made it possible to commute from what had been hardscrabble boondocks; “streetcar suburbs” became beachheads of metropolitan expansion. The post-World-War-II auto suburbs followed, reinforcing the status of suburbia as middle-class enclave; to live there you had to be able to afford a car. The idea of suburbia was so strong it expanded beyond suburban borders: As late as 1991 Joel Garreau could write, in his influential Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, that some in-city neighborhoods were so “beautiful, affluent, quiet,” with their “trees, lawns, and single-family detached homes” they could be called suburban. “For all practical purposes, they look and function like suburbs.”

Maybe. But more and more, across the country and in the suburban rings around Seattle, many actual suburbs do not look and function that way. In once-redlined urban neighborhoods like the Central Area and Columbia City, white flight has long since reversed itself and gentrification has succeeded decay as a prevailing neighborhood anxiety. High housing prices have pushed the poor and near-poor out further, into outlying neighborhoods and suburban towns. Where “suburbanization” summed up America’s social changes in the 1950s, “suburbanization of poverty” has become the new buzzword — nudged along by surprising findings in the 2010 U.S. Census and a much-discussed study from the Brookings Institution.

That term suggests a bleak devolution: Just as hard times are putting the squeeze on everybody, those who most need access to transit, jobs, and public services are getting pushed out to new suburban ghettoes where, as Brookings co-authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube note"the safety net is patchy and stretched thin to begin with.” If so, then the holes should be gaping in Southeast King County, the local epicenter of this new suburbanization.

But a closer look at the situation in Kent, the largest city in the south county, and at the ways both public officials and church and nonprofit service providers are responding to changing economics and demographics, tells another story as well — one not just of need and hardship (which are indeed severe) but of ingenuity, inclusiveness, and community coalescence. Furthermore, the growth in poverty in Kent and neighboring cities in South King County reflects not just push-out but pull-in: South King County and its counterparts in the suburban rings of other American cities have become magnets for a different sort of Great Immigration that may ultimately enrich them.

The changes in the suburban population are certainly dramatic. Between 2000 and 2010, according to census data crunched by the Brookings researchers, the number of poor people living in the suburbs of major cities grew 53 percent, while the number in the cities themselves rose just 23 percent. By 2010, the suburbs were home to a third of all Americans living under the official poverty level — more than the numbers living in cities, smaller towns, and rural areas. The changes have proceeded even faster in Pugetopolis than elsewhere in the country; 68 percent of the poor in the three counties surrounding Seattle now live in the suburbs. And they’ve proceeded fastest of all in South King County.

As the Brookings maps show, the poverty rate rose in 27 South King County census tracts between 2000 and 2010; of the 21 tracts in all of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties where it rose more than 10 percent, 13 are in the south county. The poverty rate fell, more modestly, in just 11 tracts there. By contrast, it fell in 25 Seattle census tracts during the same period, and rose in just 11.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Short version: immigrants have overwhelmed our social service capacity.

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Great piece. Suburbia 2.0 is often a fascinating place.

mhays

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

BlueLight,

My great-grandparents were all immigrants. As are nearly all of us.

For 400 years America has stood for the words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus, 1883

Ross Kane (AKA/ Eide, Ringman, Harcus, Ross)
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 10:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Happy to see this -- the Brewster/Berger gang has always tended to ignore anything on the south end. It probably started back when Eastside Week decided that Renton couldn't possibly be part of the Eastside. Can't sell any diamond rings there. (It also turned out that the hip techie target demographic was an empty category, but that's another story.)

woofer

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

As a resident of Kent for 44 years I have seen the transformation with several waves of new folk joining our community (both immigrant and non-immigrant). For a number of years our city motto was "Kent Cares" which is abundantly demonstrated in this excellent article. I was pleased, along with seven others, to be part of the original Human Services Commission - an unknown city agency at that time. The human service network in South County has matured, developed collaboration and effectiveness over the years. I remember when we aggressively lobbied United Way thirty years ago to tell them there was life and diversity in South County beyond the Southcenter Parking lot! This excellent article clearly demonstrates that truth! Thanks to Eric for a job well done.

marveck

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Ross, What range of social services did your great-grandparents enjoy upon arrival to the U.S.? That poem was probably it.

BlueLight

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 2:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't forget the library - we see everything (and I mean everything). On the good side, we are busier than ever - busiest library system in the country. We continue to adapt to community changes. But a lot of the tensions you mention also play out here in a very real, and sometimes very troubling way.

lib

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

"The only nasty comments I ever see are in the Seattle Times, after there’s a story on immigration,” says Shane Rock"

Must not read the comments in Crosscut.com

GaryP

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

BlueLight,

My great-grandparents came for the chance to Homestead 160 acres. An unprecedented opportunity that does not exist today.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Thu, Dec 8, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, Ross, we are all out of space.

BlueLight

Posted Fri, Dec 9, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, at 5PM "many of the shops (in the "historic district) are closed". But it's worse than that; there are no businesses in about half the retail space on Meeker St. between the BNSF tracks and the (I think) Sounder tracks, i. e., "downtown" Kent. Physically it's a very nice downtown. But it takes money to support neighborhood businesses and while the housing may be very inexpensive (free to some, as I understand it), garb, languages and food may be charming, a concentration of public housing and subsidized private housing can be poisonous to a business district. Mr. S. writes sympathetically about the issue but ignores some unpleasant facts: some people who immigrate can live far better here with no earned income at all than they could in their country of origin. This is not a healthy condition. Note the Somali family who tragically lost four lives in a fire caused by (according to the ST) bedding placed against a light bulb in an enclosed closet. No one in that family was working and they had lived there for (I think) five years (parenthetically, I read the family is suing the Seattle Housing Authority for $10 million dollars for losses in the fire). Immigrants are great; my grandparents on both sides of my family immigrated to this country. Did they live in subsidized housing? did they learn English quickly? did they require public aid? how long did it take them to assimilate? yes, it was different then.

kieth

Posted Sat, Dec 10, 12:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Good piece, very well written. A Scigliano article on Crosscut is a first read every time for me now. Good to see more reportage on Crosscut.

tom_hyde

Posted Sun, Dec 11, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Kent will likely continue to enjoy increasing business from consumers who choose to drive cars.

jmrolls

Posted Sun, Dec 11, 11:42 a.m. Inappropriate

jmrolls, you forgot the Viaduct.

mhays

Posted Sun, Dec 11, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm trying to quit. I thought I would just support it until I needed glasses.

But -mhays there are commuters who will continue to use the mobility of the car to seek out convenient parking that's close to things they want to buy wherever it is. Like crocodiles during the African droughts...just keep seeking out the dwindling ponds until...well, then I guess they would have to ride crocodile busses?

Seriously though there are a lot of shoppers who can get to Kent and other burbs easier than they can get to downtown Seattle and that trend in going to continue for a awhile. BTW, I think Olympia just announced free parking downtown as a boost to Christmas shopping.

jmrolls

Posted Sun, Dec 11, 5:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Re:
"some in-city neighborhoods were so “beautiful, affluent, quiet,” with their “trees, lawns, and single-family detached homes” they could be called suburban. “For all practical purposes, they look and function like suburbs.”

Fred Siegel, senior fellow of another Institute puts out a "now he tells us" warning about "New York by and by":

http://city-journal.org/2011/21_4_snd-middle-class.html

afreeman

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