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.

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Walking at Kent Station

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

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.

The results: Four South King County cities — Burien followed by Kent, Tukwila, and SeaTac — have the largest shares of residents receiving Medicaid (35 percent in Kent’s case) in Pugetopolis. Proportionately more of their residents, together with Tacoma’s, receive food stamps than any other city’s. Half the kids in Kent and more than half in neighboring Auburn and Renton receive free or reduced-price school lunches. Kent’s per capita income, $26,470, is just 70 percent of the statewide average. Its official poverty rate, 14.5 percent, is half again as high as King County’s and, reflecting an average over the five years from 2005 through 2009, doubtless lags behind today’s distressed reality.

The effects show in Kent’s storefronts. Some in the sprawling, economically and ethnically mixed East Hill section of town are boarded up. Below the hill, the City of Kent has worked hard to spruce up and invigorate its downtown, with the Sounder commuter rail station as magnet and centerpiece.

Next to the station, the Kent Station “lifestyle center” (shopping plus a community college satellite campus) entices commuters and car-bound shoppers. The storefronts in the adjacent original downtown, marked by “Historic District” signs, are mostly spruced up, and planters and benches decorate the sidewalks. But at 5:10 p.m. on a cold but dry Thursday, the sidewalks were empty and many of the shops closed. The most brightly lit establishment was the Children’s Hospital Thrift Store; the busiest, the dismal Pied Piper Pub. Three scruffy-looking guys carried on an animated conversation at one corner; the homeless have become a fixture in Kent, as have their camps in the sprawling parks outside town and along the Green River.

The Kent Station center is much livelier, but even here a chill has set in. Tami Sleeman used to operate a hobby shop in the mall with her husband. But after the recession hit their business withered, and they shut down. She says five of the six local, non-chain stores in the mall did also. “We were the only ones who didn’t file bankruptcy.”

Oldtimers still recall a Kent Valley that was nearly all white, native-born, and jealously parochial. But that recollection will soon be as faded as the hop fields that once grew in the rich volcanic/alluvial soil, and which gave the valley its name (after Kent, England, home of the classic Kent golden hops). For more than a century, overseas immigrants, from Chinese traders and laborers in the 1870s and ’80s to Vietnamese boat people and the survivors of Cambodia’s killing fields and Ethiopia’s famines in the 1970s and ’80s, tended to settle in Seattle, along a swath that spread from the International District down Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley.

That changed with the arrival of thousands of religious refugees from the disintegrating Soviet Union, who clustered in the south county, especially Kent. Even now at the Valley Harvest supermarket on SE 104th Street you’ll find a smattering of Californian, Bulgarian, and Moldovan wines, more Romanians (though Vampire Vineyards’ “Dracula Red” is actually from California), and a wide selection of Georgian vintages.

You’ll also find nopales, lemongrass, chayote, and nearly any other exotic produce or baked good you can imagine. Galletas de nuez share a case with bánh mì. I stood at the register behind a tall turbaned Sikh, a woman wearing bright beaded West African market-day regalia, and an Eastern European gent tapping his feet to the mariachi music on the loudspeaker. The rundown strip mall across the street is home to Punjab Sweets, Pacific Market Halal Meats, and, squaring off against the Henna Beauty Salon, the Khoobsurat Boutique and Beauty Parlor. Plus the usual pizza parlor, smoke shop, sports bar, and Pawn Xchange.

Up the hill, various Burmese minority groups use Kent Covenant Church for their Sunday services and seasonal festivals. Last year's Kachin festival was an irresistible spectacle. Many of the women wore traditional skirts and tunics of richly patterned ikat. The men wore western dress — save that their trim sport coats were sewn from the same cloth. The elders made speeches and the youngsters played searing rock versions of Kachin songs.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the refugee resettlement agencies found themselves priced out of Seattle’s booming housing market and looked south. Waiting lists for public housing ran around the metaphorical block. Tukwila, which was cleaning up seedy Pacific Avenue S. (renamed Tukwilla International Boulevard), and its landlords welcomed refugees in place of drug dens. Kent had even more to offer: five big King County Housing Authority projects and many more private apartments, built cheap in the 1980s and ’90s to take advantage of inexpensive land on East Hill. These included something rare elsewhere in King County, says Jason Johnson, the City of Kent’s human services coordinator: three- and four-bedroom apartments, readymade for large families with limited budgets.

Then, in 2006, the gates opened. The federal government loosened the clamps it had locked on refugee admissions after 9-11 and hundreds of thousands who had been warehoused in far-off camps began pouring in: Iraqis, Somalis, and Iranians. Ethnic Nepalis forced from Bhutan, where they’d lived for decades. The “1972 Burundians,” who’d been cooling their heels and growing up in Tanzanian camps since fleeing a nearly forgotten genocide.  And especially, ethnic Karens and Karennis and Chins and Kachins and Shans uprooted from Burma/Myanmar, suddenly the largest source of refugees coming to America. Unlike bank robbers, they went where the money wasn’t, and the cheap rents were.

The result, according to the census: In 2005-2009, nearly 26 percent of people in Kent were foreign-born, compared to a little over 17 percent in Seattle and 12 percent statewide. A third spoke a language other than English at home, nearly double the share of Seattleites who did and triple the statewide share. According to Kent city data, a fifth of all the refugees arriving in Washington in a recent six-month period settled in Kent. And a quarter of all the city’s foreign-born residents, including those long established there, were living in poverty.

King County demographer Chandler Felt estimates that from 2000-2010, “about half of King County’s population growth came from immigration, with only slight net migration from other parts of the United States. I think that’s even more true for South King County, but I can’t quantify it.

There’s been some backlash from the old Kent, of the very mildest sort. Punjab Sweets proprietor Harpreet Gill, who founded the annual Kent International Day Festival, recounts that when high school students cleaned up a trash-strewn East Hill lot and erected a mural commemorating the new Kent, showing people of various races and ethnicities, “a lot of people complained, ‘Why are all these people here who don’t look like us?’ and ‘Why aren’t there any white people here?’ ” (Some were in fact shown.)

Otherwise, Gill and just about everyone else I talked to lauded the welcome that Kent citizens and officials alike have extended to the newcomers. “The only nasty comments I ever see are in the Seattle Times, after there’s a story on immigration,” says Shane Rock, the executive director of the Jewish Family Service of Seattle and Kent, which resettles (non-Jewish) refugees there. “It restores your faith in humankind.” Gill is endeavoring to get 104th Street designated and promoted as a new International District. If the old hop farmers could only see it now.

The Kent School District, the fourth-largest in the state, was like others in the area caught somewhat flat-footed by the arrival of students variously speaking more than 100 languages at home. But it’s hustled to catch up. In 2006 the state Department of Social and Health Services convened a session on how to prepare for the refugees who would arrive with the lifting of the post-9-11 restrictions.

“We were the only district to attend,” says Clare Chean, a teacher who heads the district’s innovative Refugee and Immigrant Transition Center. (Neighboring districts are by now seriously engaged with refugee issues.) His project functions as both an intake and all-purpose referral center and an afterschool homework haven. Immigrant students arrive throughout the year (21 in the previous two weeks) and wait days, sometimes weeks, to get registered and placed in schools. Chean’s center gives them a head start in the meantime; he seems to have a particular passion for this part of the mission, recalling how, arriving from Cambodia at 14, he spent his first two weeks in America in a church basement.

The center also collects donated clothing — a box arrives as we speak — for those caught short in this hostile new clime. Tonight, 85 kids of all ages troop in, giggling and chattering, have a snack, and fan out between two classrooms and a computer room. Volunteers arrive to help with homework. Six hundred ninety-five students have availed themselves of the help so far this year.

At first the Kent district was skittish about taking help from churches. "We had to show them we weren’t coming in to take over,” says Karen Evans, who heads the community service at Mountain Vineyard Christian Fellowship just south of Kent. Mountain Vineyard has adopted a mixed-income community called Cedar Valley, which looks like one of Seattle’s old low-rise housing projects set in the deep woods, as a special concern.

Church staffers set up a food bank ("pantry" for dignity's sake) at Cedar Valley Middle School and met with kindergarten teachers at the elementary, a failing school under federal standards. The problem they discovered: Children arrived from around the world with radically varying degrees of preparedness. Some had been entirely sheltered: “There are kids coming from some — not all — parts of Mexico who are at a two-year-old level,” says Evans. “They don’t know how to feed themselves or put their own coats on.” The teachers and church reps settled on an innovative strategy: a three-week day camp-cum-prep school for all children about to enter kindergarten. It and other measures seem to have worked. A year later, Cedar Valley Elementary was no longer failing.

The City of Kent likewise seemed well prepared, as mid-sized cities go, to meet the human fallout from the economic crisis. More than 20 years ago, the city took the then-unusual step of dedicating a share of its budget — 1 percent, now about $900,000 a year — to human services, on top of block grants and other funds from the state and federal governments. “A number of suburban cities have adopted that since,” says Mike Heinisch, the veteran director of the nonprofit Kent Youth and Family Services. That guarantee functions like seed money, explains Heinisch. “It helps when we go to funders to be able to say, Yes, there’s support from the city.”

Kent was also early in establishing a Human Services Commission to allocate these funds. In 2008 the commission undertook what its chair, Tami Sleeman (the former Kent Station merchant), modestly says proved a “brilliant” innovation. Before, she says, “we put the money only into silos — this is strictly for the food bank, this is for housing. We were watching a lot of waste, money sitting not being used, getting surplused. So we got creative. We put the funds into a cloud and gave the nonprofit groups some leeway, said, 'We’re not going to tell you how to spend. This is our requirement, what can you do? If you can do more by giving people bus passes, do that. Helping them stay in houses, do that.' It required more reporting and accounting on their end. If we didn’t get it, they got temporarily unfunded.” At the same time, the commission undertook a harsh triage, cutting off some worthy but vulnerable agencies that probably wouldn’t survive even with city funding.

The result, say Sleeman and several of her counterparts on the nonprofit side: a more flexible, efficient response to changing needs. Alas, those need are growing as well, amidst state cutbacks and slow-grinding economic decline. “Our numbers have gone up constantly in the last few years,” says Kathy Simmons, who helps run the Storehouse, a church-sponsored food bank in Covington, the next town over from Kent. “They’ve doubled. A lot of people have never been in this situation before.”

“I’ve been working here since 2002, and it’s never been this severe,” says Dinah Wilson, the Kent Department of Human Services’ community development block grant coordinator. “We’re meant to fund organizations, not to provide direct service. But most of the agencies spend those funds quickly. If you don’t call at the beginning of the month, but the second or third day, all those funds are gone. And when the nonprofits don’t have enough to go around the people come to us” — to what was only supposed to be an administrative office, at city hall.

Most often they come seeking help with housing or utilities, to stave off eviction or a shutoff. “If it’s a department in the city we can intervene in some circumstances, but there’s no guarantee,” says Wilson. “You have to make sure your resources are spread around as much as possible, so the greatest number of people are able to get help. We can only provide so much. Usually we can only help them one time in a year, even with our bus tickets.” You can get up to four bus tickets a year. In an emergency.

“We try to brainstorm with them, to think of places they can go. We’re increasingly suggesting they turn to friends, community members, someone from out of state who might be able to help them.

“It’s pretty dire, because you know in your heart there’s no good solution for them.”

America's suburban idyll is over; it was never that idyllic anyway. There are no easy happy endings, for suburbs like Kent or for the people washing up here from around the world. But between the two of them, they're creating some interesting possibilities.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.