Beacon Hill Blues: 3 local artists ponder the "G-word"

By Jake Uitti
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Beacon Hill's five-year-old Station coffee shop is a gathering place for locals.

By Jake Uitti

We met at the Station, a coffee house on 16th Ave. South in Beacon Hill. The small, unassuming shop feels like the epicenter of a neighborhood at a crossroads. We sat together around a small table by the door: the rapper Gabriel Teodros, 206 Zulu founder King Khazm, rapper and Cleveland High School teacher Chevas Gary and me. Our two-hour-long talk about Beacon Hill’s changing face gave me a glimpse of the neighborhood through the eyes of these artists, who’ve lived here most, if not all, their lives.

Beacon Hill is a diverse, working class neighborhood in South Seattle dotted with small shops and modest homes and boasting some epic views of the city and mountains. Like many parts of Seattle it has experienced a surge in development, population and income levels in the last 10 years. A 2013 piece in Seattle Met magazine noted that Beacon Hill now has more than 35,298 residents — up from the 26,881 reported in the 2010 U.S. Census — and about 78 percent are “nonwhite.”

Not surprisingly, the three artists and I were discussing, among other things, gentrification — the “G-word,” as Chev put it. Just sitting in the Station it was clear which patrons were used to the neighborhood and which ones were new. Veterans came in calmly, often shaking hands with Gabriel, exchanging a “how’s life” and walking up to the counter with a smile. Almost everyone had a nickname. Newcomers rushed straight to the counter, exchanged a quick “fine, how are you?” before taking their coffee to go.

Luis and Leona Rodriguez own the Station, which has been in the neighborhood for about five years now. They have employed many neighborhood folks, Gabriel explains, many of them musicians — from producer WD4D to rapper (and Bitter Barista) Spekulation. The coffee shop sits on top of the Hill and right between two very important plots of land in the neighborhood. Look through one window and you see the El Centro de la Raza building; look through another window and you see a great deal of construction, which will eventually yield a planned mixed-use theater, store front and low-income apartment building called Plaza Roberto Maestas.

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Credit: Naomi Ishisaka

“If it’s all those things, then I think yes, the construction will be good,” says Gabriel (left), about the scaffolding and cranes in the big dirt plot nearby. “I’m always a little skeptical, though. When you’re dealing with a changing neighborhood and with gentrification in Seattle, there’s a lot of people who say the plans are good for the community. But historically, high income crushes low income.”

To build the theater, construction workers had to dig up a parking lot on land owned by El Centro, which is heading the efforts with the understanding that they will have control of what happens in the Plaza. El Centro itself is another mixed-use building that is home to a food bank, a social-justice-minded preschool and many community outreach programs. Some 40 years ago, the El Centro building was an abandoned structure. Squatters took it over and monitored it 24/7. Thy city eventually gave them the building and ever since it has been used to foster community development.

Further down the road is the new Beacon Hill light rail station, which displaced a beloved neighborhood restaurant, South China, and many residents. “The light rail stations were all underground until you hit Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard,” says Gabriel, who has lived in Beacon Hill since the third grade. “That station they put above ground and pushed everybody away. My family grew up on South China and now it’s gone too.”

The "G-word" is often hard to parse. An influx of new money and new people can be a good thing if there is strong, two-way communication between the longtime residents of an established neighborhood and the newcomers. Folks should be introduced to one another, businesses consulted, hands shaken and names exchanged. Otherwise any semblance of home or neighborhood can be lost. “The Station’s only been here five years,” says Gabriel, “but what makes it different is Luis and Leona have been in the neighborhood for years and they invest in the community.”

“When new businesses move, they often don’t try to understand the people who are here, their way of communicating and acting toward one another,” says Khazm, who’s family has lived in Beacon Hill for generations. “They aren’t focused on building communities; they’re interested in investing in property.”

“There’s a fundamental difference between the type of people who would go outside and talk to their neighbors about a dispute and the people who are quick to call the cops,” says Chev, a Beacon Hill resident, on and off, since 1991. “Gentrification isn’t a black and white issue, but often when the cops are called, it turns into one. In Seattle, which is largely a white city, it’s hard to talk about gentrification because you can easily alienate white people.”

A few blocks from the Station is another coffee shop, which Gabriel has visited only once. “I feel bad admitting this,” he says, “but I had to take a really early flight one morning and the Station wasn’t open and I went in there for a coffee. Man, there were all these new faces, I didn’t recognize anyone. It felt like I was in another city. And who were they? Amazon employees.”

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Credit: Federico Peixoto

This lack of both recognition and familiarity is the heart of the issue. “Let me put it this way,” Khazm (left), a home owner in Beacon Hill, says, “behind my house is a big grassy field where the electric towers are. The City, they never asked us, [they just] put a paved trail in right along my back yard. We had no notification and, besides, it wasn’t until all this money came in that people started changing things.”

“Yeah and if they start raising the rent, my ass is moving to Sea-Tac, or some place,” Gabriel adds. He turns to me: “There’s a ton of hip-hop artists that live in Beacon Hill but most of them moved here in the last four or five years. The voices that have been here the longest often have to move, or are the quietest.”

Gabriel says that what’s happening in Beacon Hill — people getting pushed from their homes, new businesses replacing old ones that had history in the community, and an influx of impersonal strangers — is what happened 15-20 years ago in Seattle’s Central District, another traditional neighborhood of color. He recommends watching this video:

“I first saw the CD start changing in 1999,” he recalls. “In fact, I was taught the [G-word] word by Wyking Garret. He worked in this art spot on 23rd and Jackson called Nu Tribes that Theaster Gates helped run. I worked there and Wyking had a small office in it. One day his locks were changed overnight. We had a rally outside the building with kids holding signs saying, 'Stop Gentrification.’ That’s when I learned what the word meant.”

There's a spark in Gabriel's voice, but a sense of weariness too, as if he’s in the middle of a long, drawn-out fight that he knows he can't win. I couldn't help noticing a quiet sense of here we go again, another outsider wanting to write their story. But as the four of us continued to talk, things got better. Smiles crossed faces, jokes about learning to use chopsticks and memories of meals together were exchanged.

“The Shell station over there,” Gabriel points, “is hood famous. People love their catfish, but you have to know when to get it.”

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Credit: Brandon Petitt

“Yeah, you can’t just walk into a gas station and get whatever food is there in the window,” says Chev (at left), smiling. “You gotta know the right times.”

“Sometimes it’s all old and just been sitting there,” Khazm agrees. “But sometimes it’s so good!”

One positive change in the neighborhood, says Gabriel, is the recently renovated Jefferson Park. It used to be a reservoir. “I love the fuck out of that park,” Gabriel says. “You used to not be able to go over there because of the barbed wire and shit. Now it’s hella beautiful and there’s kids playing all around.”

Speaking of kids, I want to know what one piece of advice Chev, a teacher, would have for young people growing up in Beacon Hill who are experiencing the change all around them but who haven’t necessarily learned about the tricky politics involved.

“I’d tell them to play outside," says Chev. "The more people are outside, the more the presence of the neighborhood is being felt. Don’t only let space be taken up by other people who may not share your history in the region. Any time voices are heard — and not just complaining or expressing your needs — but your actual voice being heard in the world, that’s a good thing.”

About the artists

In addition to his work for 206 Zulu, King Khazm helps run the record label Fresh Chopped Beats.

When he's not teaching at Cleveland High School, Chev Gary makes music. Hear his latest EP here. And his debut album, Charles, here.

Gabriel Teodros’s "Just Another Day" video — with collaborators Mic Flont, Khingz and Jills Laxamana — is all about Beacon Hill:

Watch his "No Label (Esma Remix)" video, shot completely on Beacon Hill, here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti is the co-founder and Managing Editor of The Monarch Review. He plays in the band, The Great Um, and works at The Pub at Third Place.