Troubling: Report says neighborhoods along Sound Transit line should stay the same ethnically

A Sound Transit train chugs into a station. Credit: Sound Transit

Puget Sound Sage, a community based labor organization, recently released a report on the impact of light rail on poor communities of color in the Rainier Valley. The report has been given mixed reviews by the Seattle Transit Blog's Martin Duke and my former colleague at Sightline Eric De Place.

I say mixed because both reviews praise the report's intentions while only mildly criticizing its most troubling assumption, the idea that profitable and legal real estate transactions that result in demographic changes are a bad thing. This concept of “displacement” needs more of a critique that it has been given thus far.

Duke, who edits the Seattle Transit Blog where I often write, raises a stronger level of concern about displacement, finding that the “emphasis on the relative proportion of various racial groups as opposed to their absolute numbers [goes] well beyond avoiding displacement.”

The emphasis on proportion leads to this shocking statement in the report:

Southeast Seattle neighborhoods should remain majority people of color.

I say it’s shocking because what if a report was published that said this:

Northeast Seattle neighborhoods should remain majority white people.

This stood out to me like a red flashing light. What is the problem that the report is truly trying to address? Racism? Poverty? Is light rail to blame for those things?

Racism exists in our society and we should seek to end it and reverse its impacts. Poverty exists and we need to figure out how to better create economic opportunity for everyone. 

But locking a neighborhood into a permanent ethnic mix? That’s an extreme idea, and one that I suspect the authors of the Sage study might want to attenuate, rethink, or rephrase.

It is important to remember that light rail came to the Rainer Valley because communities of color wanted it. The argument then was that to have light rail skip the Valley would have deprived a community with economic challenges of a chance to benefit from the economic boon of light rail.

Not long after advocates emerged saying that surface light rail would kill the Valley, wiping out local businesses and destroying the character of the neighborhood. “Build a tunnel or nothing,” they argued. In response to these and other concerns, a fund with millions of dollars was created to offset the impacts of construction and plans were put in place to support local women and minority-owned business getting as much of the work associated with light rail as possible.

Now light rail is again the focus of concern, as a negative thing. The Sage report sets out to ask the question, “Who will benefit?” from light rail. The answer in the '90s was communities of color and small local businesses; that’s why putting light rail through the Valley was so important. But today, light rail is, according to the report, “forcing out” people of color who are lower income.

Light rail in the Rainier Valley has succeeded in doing what it was intended to do: provide an important start to regional light rail. It has also increased economic activity in the Valley. Both of these things have increased underlying property values and attracted more people seeking a place to live to the Valley. These aren’t bad things.

The answer to economic disparity among people of color — which is real — isn’t to put the Rainier Valley under glass, keeping property values low and imposing an ethnic mix on neighborhoods. Our society values mobility and change — usually. Often, however, change can be disturbing. What we should be focused on is not limiting the success of light rail. It’s working. A symptom of that success is neighborhood change.

And these changes are typical. South Park for example used to be a rural community of Italian farmers who trucked their produce to the Pike Place Market. Today the neighborhood is a largely Latino single and multifamily neighborhood surrounded by industrial use. Were the Italian farmers “displaced?” Calling the change in South Park displacement is simply a pejorative term for inevitable change over time as the economy and demographics of the region change.

We could look at economic and demographic changes in who lives in one part of the city and see a bad thing. But in the longer term the question should be what are we doing in the whole city to improve economic opportunity for everyone so that people will want to live here? What are we doing to make this city and region an open and welcoming place to people of all races and all levels of income?

Part of making a great city is putting things we need closer together; that makes them more affordable. The more we push uses and people together, the shorter distances they have to travel regardless of what mode they use. And it acquaints us with each other, forcing us to embrace differences in language, traditions, and lifestyles. Imposing racial and economic quotas on neighborhoods won’t create jobs or economic opportunity, but would cut against the basic values that the authors of the report, to their credit, hold most dear: equal access and opportunity for everyone.

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