Can a coffee house rebuild Hillman City?

Economic hardship and personal loss could have killed Tin Umbrella; could have nipped it right in the bud. Instead it's a stepping stone to neighborhood vibrancy.
Economic hardship and personal loss could have killed Tin Umbrella; could have nipped it right in the bud. Instead it's a stepping stone to neighborhood vibrancy.

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.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at