Gentrifying White Center

White Center is an unincorporated neighborhood and cultural melting pot, sandwiched between Seattle proper and the suburb of Highline. Despite grappling with urban crime and the difficulties of providing subsidized housing for low income residents, both Seattle and Burien believe there is hope. Part 1
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A melting pot of commerce — and everything else. (Daniel Jack Chasan)

White Center is an unincorporated neighborhood and cultural melting pot, sandwiched between Seattle proper and the suburb of Highline. Despite grappling with urban crime and the difficulties of providing subsidized housing for low income residents, both Seattle and Burien believe there is hope. Part 1

First of two parts

Young girls in traditional Cambodian costumes — the sheen of bright cloth, the glitter of gold appliqué, off-the-shoulder in the tradition of a much warmer place — shiver in the unseasonable April chill. Spectators sit on folding chairs under a big canopy in the middle of 98th Street, which has been blocked off between 15th and 16th Avenues for the occasion. In front of the audience, a thick blue mat covers the pavement, making it hard for the girls in their elaborate costumes to balance in the movements of Cambodian classical dance.

Up the street, past canopied booths manned by representatives of various social service agencies, health care organizations, and real estate firms, men are grilling thin strips of meat over a fire in a cut-down oil drum. Across from the New Angkor Market stands a halal butcher shop. Around the corner by the bus stop on 15th stands a Mexican carniceria.

This place is White Center, just across Roxbury Street from incorporated Seattle. These people are celebrating last month's Cambodian New Year festival. If you walk around White Center, you see signs in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Khmer. The Salvadorian Bakery stands just down Roxbury from tile-roofed Holy Family Catholic Church. Other cafes sell pho and Mexican food, and the Heng Heng supermarket appeals to customers with signs in multiple languages. The old Chubby and Tubby discount store has closed, replaced by a Latin dance club. The old gray Quonset hut that housed the now defunct Southgate Skate Center is set back off 17th Street, where the Rat City Rollergirls roller derby league originated. In the 1920s and â'ꂬ˜30s, the building functioned as a boxing arena, run in classic old immigrant style, by a Jew and an Italian. The building later became a dance hall, then a roller rink. Driving around, you still find ravines harboring wetlands; once, the whole Seattle area was full of places like this. White Center has developed more slowly than many other Seattle neighborhoods and still retains suggestions of a previous time.

On 16th Street, in broad daylight, two drunks, one white and one black, stand on the sidewalk outside a tavern. "It's White Center," yells the white man. "No," the black man replies. "It's Black Center." Actually, "black center" was never in the cards, but the White Center moniker was far from a sure thing. As the story goes, two early developers of the neighborhood, Mr. White and Mr. Green, flipped a coin to see whose name would title the area. Mr. White won, and the rest is history.

A classic urban melting pot without a city, White Center is merely a part of unincorporated King County. The County wants some city — any city — to annex White Center and the rest of the sprawling North Highline area, as well as nine other unincorporated areas with urban densities. The Growth Management Act says that development in urban densities should take place only within incorporated areas. The County would just as soon unload White Center's expensive problems on someone else. However, both Seattle and Burien may be more than willing to oblige.

Some White Center residents prefer joining Seattle in the belief that it would bring more social services and more money to the area. Others favor joining Burien because it would let the area keep more of its character and more local control. One woman active in White Center affairs says that some Burien residents aren't eager to take in White Center's immigrants and their expensive social problems. Some residents told pollsters that they didn't want Seattle's density or its slow police response times. Most residents most likely favor staying unincorporated from either city. State Representative Sharon Nelson, whose district includes White Center, suggests that while Seattle and Burien negotiate and squabble, White Center's "residents don't even have a seat at the table." A woman who works in the fated neighborhood looks at White Center's would-be annexers and observes, "Everybody wants a piece of the cookie, but nobody wants to help with the baking."

But that's not to say that no one cares. On the morning of this year's Cambodian New Year festival, King County renamed the County park on 102nd Street for Steve Cox, a King County Sheriff's deputy who was shot and killed here two years ago when questioning a gang member and convicted felon about an assault. Cox, who had worked as a deputy prosecutor in several counties, had abandoned his law career and joined the police in order to help the community in which he had grown up.

On the day of his funeral, KOMO-TV reported that Cox's former partner "said that patrolling the community with Steve was like riding around with a rock star. People would yell his name at the car and wave, and when we got out, people would crowd around because they wanted to talk to him." Cox's widow, Maria, said the officer "had a mission. He wanted White Center to become a decent area. He [said] â'ꂬ˜it's going to be clean, it's going to be fixed and we are going to make that happen.'"

These days, many people feel that White Center is worth the major investment — not one's life, perhaps, but certainly effort and a great deal of money.

From the site of the Cambodian New Year's festival, you can look east and see a multi-family development, sections of buildings painted different, almost-primary colors in the current fashion, rising on the ridge. From up there, you can look down across the business district to the Olympics. Conventionally speaking, it's the rich people who live up on the hill, and the poor who live down below. It doesn't work that way in this Seattle area. The landmark Yesler Terrace project on First Hill has a splendid view, which is why some people have suggested turning it into high-end housing and putting the poor people someplace else. Greenbridge replaces the old Park Lake housing project, built in 1964 to replace the "temporary" housing erected there as homes for shipyard and aircraft workers during World War II.

The project, launched in 2001 with a grant from the federal Hope VI program — the same program that has contributed to the redevelopment of High Point and Holly Park — is supposed to include 1,025 living units. That's a lot more housing than Park Lake held, but a lot less of it will be subsidized for the poor. The mix is supposed to include 300 rent-subsidized units, 353 workforce rental units, and 372 homes for sale at market rates. This represents a net loss of 269 rent-subsidized units. Instead of maintaining a large pocket of low-income housing in White Center, the county decided to disperse.

Yesler Terrace owners will build some small multi-family developments in other areas, and also provide rent subsidies so that people earning 30 percent or less of the median can afford apartments in places such as Bellevue and Woodinville. When ground was broken for Greenbridge in 2005, Stuart Eskenazi reported in The Seattle Times that the redevelopment program "has critics because while it strives to decentralize poverty, it fails to create additional housing for the very poor. It also shifts housing authority attention away from the poor and toward people of higher income levels."

By the time the first Greenbridge units were ready to be occupied, most of the old Park Lake population had already dispersed. They had received lottery tickets for subsidized housing as it became available in the new buildings, and 98 percent of the new units are currently occupied by people who had lived at Park Lake.

To create a better environment in the community around Greenbridge, the housing authority asked the sheriff's department to identify the two most gang-infested, crime-ridden apartment complexes in White Center. The County bought them, put $16 million into fixing them up, and sold them to new owners. It also targeted home repair and energy efficiency money in White Center, fixing up some 143 dilapidated single family homes.

In the meantime, no one has broken ground for any of Greenbridge's market-rate homes. The King County Housing Authority built the first part of Greenbridge at the height of the real estate boom, when prices for everything were sky-high. The sale of lots for market-rate housing was supposed to reimburse the county some of the cost. By the time the housing authority offered its first relatively small group of market-rate lots for sale, the market had plunged. Only one developer bid on the land, at a price way lower than expected. Having bought high, the county felt it couldn't afford to sell low. It retracted its request for proposals. For now, the single-family portion of Greenbridge is on hold until the market picks up.

Next: White Center's innovative social programs.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.