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Can a coffee house rebuild Hillman City?

About 120 years ago, two villages a mile apart took root in the middle of what we now call the Rainier Valley, nourished by lumber from the forest and the now extinct rail line that joined it to the metropolis to the north.

One was slightly bigger than the other, but both promised prosperity. Citizens built a library, an opera house, saloons and stores. Early in their lives, both towns, Columbia City and Hillman City, became part of Seattle and slipped together into a similar history. But as they entered their second century of life, their paths diverged.

Columbia City bloomed, as if it had been storing all of its energy for decades. The ingredients for its transformation were always there: vintage, pedestrian-friendly architecture; large, commercial blocks; plentiful housing stock, grand homes set atop a ridge. The new century brought a new rail station less than a quarter-mile away.

Investment attracted more investment; development attracted more development. The commercial core flourished. There is, today, a theater that shows first-run movies, a jazz club, upscale restaurants, professional offices, bars and boutiques. At present, there is a giant hole on Rainier Avenue South, next to the Columbia City library, that will eventually become a PCC Natural Markets store and a 200-unit apartment building.

This is a neighborhood where needs are met: French pastries, vegan and gluten-free cafes, landscape architects, interior designers, acupuncturists, titanium strollers with pneumatic wheels pushed by women wearing imported boots.

Meanwhile, Hillman City has mostly languished. The one landmark that kept it on the map, a boxing gym that trained a few fighters of modest repute, closed years ago.

Together, the two neighborhoods make up about half of the 98118 zip code, often unscientifically claimed as one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the country, home to immigrants from eastern Africa, southeast Asia, the south Pacific and central America, and to one earnest woman from the suburb of Kent, Washington.

About 10 years ago, just as Columbia City’s transformation was gaining stride, a young woman named Joya Iverson moved into Hillman City because it was close to her online marketing job in Renton. Three years later, she purchased a shingled, 1930s cottage nearby, a few blocks off Rainier, where last summer she opened the neighborhood’s first and only coffee shop.

Tin Umbrella anchors the corner of Findlay and Rainier, across the street from the former boxing gym, which is now a martial arts school, and a decommissioned gas station.

Tin Umbrella's exterior. Photo: Joya Iverson.

Serious coffee aficionados might consider going to Hillman City just for the coffee, made from beans roasted by Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. Olympia is one of a growing number of third-wave coffee purveyors (which I wrote about to greater extent in an April article) who source their beans directly from growers in small lots, and roast small batches.

Tin Umbrella’s daily drip is exceptionally sweet and delicate, the opposite of the toasty, dark roasts that put Starbucks and Seattle on the map. This is another hallmark of third-wave coffee — a drink made from a fruit that actually tastes fruity.

The quality of the coffee at Tin Umbrella is among the highest I’ve tasted and puts it in a small league of shops in town, like Milstead in Fremont. Tin Umbrella is not, like many of those other coffee shops on the beaten path, highly capitalized, so feels very homespun and improvised. Its location is not yet an asset. The small shop struggles to break even.

To hedge her bets, Iverson also installed a commercial roaster behind the shop and hopes to start selling beans by the end of the year, ever mindful that perhaps “there’s a reason there hasn’t ever been a coffee shop in Hillman City,” she said.

Her near-term goal is to get her shop on the mental radar of nearby residents, to become, she said, “part of their routine.” Her path to becoming a business owner was an accidental one, literally, and a nearly fatal one. She survived but was severely injured and had to come up with a Plan B that became Tin Umbrella.

When Iverson moved into the neighborhood she had no aspirations for her place in it. Quite the contrary.

She was most in her groove when she left home. In the fall of 2008, she quit the only job she had ever known to work as an independent contractor. Her expertise was charts and data. Typically, she got paid to sort through and interpret vast icebergs of information for large corporations. She had the right mental circuitry for it and was compensated well.

Unencumbered and thirsting for a feeling of connection her job did not give her, she decided to leverage the fact that she could work remotely.  She spent winters relatively close to home, based in a shared cabin near the Mount Baker ski resort so she could snowboard whenever she felt like it.

Joya, hiking in the Enchantments before her accident. Photo: Dylan Vanderhoof.

When the season ended, she took her job with her to places like Mexico, New Orleans, Indonesia, the Netherlands, France, Turkey, Ethiopia and Nicaragua, for weeks or months at a time, living like a local.

Ethiopia most captured her imagination, and in the winter of 2012, she decided to return there, not just to visit, but to live. She gave herself at least a year, perhaps two. “Start there,” she told herself, “and be open to whatever happens.”

She arranged to rent her house, to give away most of her possessions, to put her entire life online so she could tend to her affairs from abroad. She began composing a goodbye email to friends. She purchased a one-way plane ticket.

“I remember saying, ‘Nothing can stop me now,’” Iverson said. And then, a week later, something did.

On the night of Feb. 25, 2012, she drove up a mountain highway covered in snow, on her way to meet friends at her Mount Baker cabin. To pass the drive, she sang a traditional bluegrass song, a funeral dirge sung in the voice of a young, dead woman trying to comfort her grieving mother from beyond the grave, a disquieting coincidence given what would happen next.

The driver of a car speeding in the opposite direction lost control and the two vehicles collided head on. The passenger side of Iverson’s vehicle took most of the impact.

The wreckage of Iverson's car. Photo: Joya Iverson.

The cars were demolished, but miraculously no one died. Iverson did not break any bones or even lose consciousness. She did not know at the time that she suffered a traumatic brain injury.

At first she did not understand her sudden and frequent episodes of panic, confusion and fear. She was depressed and exhausted. She slept more hours of the day than not and spent many of her waking hours wearing an eye mask, lying on her couch. She could not concentrate on work. She did not have the energy to socialize.

To make things worse, she got into another, less serious car accident one month after her first. A car rear-ended her. Four months later, she was struck by a car while on foot. She was stunned, but not seriously injured. The second and third accidents compounded the psychological trauma of the first.

Mundane scenarios, like walking into a crowded supermarket, paralyzed her with terror and reduced her to tears. Noises overwhelmed her. She could not comprehend more than one voice at a time. The only food she could stand was rice and mangos and cupcakes. Anything else made her vomit. She thought she was losing her mind. In a way, she had.

She felt strong and confident one day, only to fall to pieces the next.

“The recovery is not linear,” she said. “It will go up and down, and back and forth.”

Her doctors understood right away her brain was going to take some time to heal, but it took Iverson a few months to admit what that meant. Ethiopia was out. She was too tender to travel. She called the year after her accident, her “year of un-adventure.”

She convalesced at home, going to physical therapy once a week, unable to work most of the time. When she did work, it took a toll, draining her mentally and physically. She spent her savings on medical bills (she had high-deductible health coverage) and a rental car. She has yet to receive an insurance settlement from the accident.

As she let go of the life she had once imagined for herself, she kept coming back to the coffee. Ethiopia was where she learned to love coffee, to recognize its different flavors. It was an everyday product that connected her to people in faraway places. The owner of the house she rented in France ran a coffee co-operative in Nicaragua, which formed the motivation for Iverson’s trip there.

“I looked at the things I loved,” she said, “the things I’m good at and passionate about. I love connecting with people and traveling. I’m good at data and marketing, and, oh, by the way, I can’t really leave my house."

“Every doctor tells me I’m going to get better, but I don’t know when… I asked myself, how do you make a living with what you have now, with what you know of yourself? How do you make this awesome? So one day, I texted a barista I knew and asked, 'What do you think of great coffee that can save the world?'”

She chose the vacant storefront at Findlay and Rainier — she lives three blocks away — for its numerous windows and its position as the southerly gateway to the neighborhood. Long ago, it was a furniture shop; more recently a gambling hall. The shop’s neighbors include a nail salon, barber shop and a nightclub.

The Seattle myth that outsiders are familiar with does not really include the southern half of the city. The clichés and cultural abbreviations that are familiar around the core and to the north do not apply in the south. It is to Seattle what Queens and outer Brooklyn are to Manhattan. If there was such a thing as a tourist map of Seattle, the bottom of it would probably end at South Jackson Street, or maybe South Dearborn (thanks to Macklemore), where the Seattle Goodwill store is located.

The gentrification of Columbia City is an exception to the story of the south end — one that will be challenging for Hillman City to duplicate. Hillman City’s architecture is less stately. Its commercial space is a fraction of Columbia City’s. The homes in Hillman City (named for the real estate developer who created both neighborhoods) tend to be smaller, of lower value and there are fewer of them.

“What the Columbia City experience has shown us, is that for a neighborhood to prosper you have to have dedicated property owners who want to improve neighborhood,” said Susan Davis, executive director of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, and an unflagging believer in Hillman City’s potential.

The corner outside Iverson’s shop used to be an unauthorized, neighborhood dumping ground, the place people would discard old furniture, broken appliances, dead pets. The building’s newest owner, Iverson’s landlord, made an effort this year to restore the structure. He painted, replaced windows, upgraded the electrical system. Iverson set out chairs and plants on the sidewalk that once attracted refuse.

In addition to Tin Umbrella, the neighborhood recently got its own micro-brewery, called Spinnaker Bay Brewing, also owned by a woman, two in this case, Janet Spindler and Elissa Pryor. Just before Halloween, the Union Bar opened across the street from Tin Umbrella, continuing the steady march to Columbia City’s gallop.

Bars are places of the night. Coffee shops are places of the day, and as such tend to have a more powerful catalyzing effect on neighborhoods. Tin Umbrella opens at 7 a.m. The food offerings, bagels, a few baked goods, are limited. The wi-fi is reliable. Two large and two small tables seat a dozen or so patrons in mismatched chairs. A salvaged workbench stands in as a table for utensils, napkins and cream.

Photo: Joya Iverson.

The counter is wrapped in corrugated metal. Call it garage-sale charm.

Last week, Iverson applied for a business loan, putting up her house as collateral. She decided to rent it after all, not so she can live a world away, but to free up more money for her business down the street. She’ll live in a small apartment in the meantime.

As events conspired to keep her home, she conspired to make her neighborhood feel more like home.

Tin Umbrella's interior. Photo: Joya Iverson.

The shop, she said, is “a toddler, and it needs love, attention and time, and quite a bit of money. It’s meaningful work. It matters to people more than I imagined a coffee shop would or should.”

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