A tale of two cities: revisited

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Revelers at Rainier Valley Summer Streets

Recently, Knute Berger noted that the Ship Canal is a “pretty stark divide here in Seattle.” Then he asked a crowd at Crosscut’s Courage Awards breakfast, “How can the two Seattles become one?”

It’s a provocative question that isn’t asked nearly often enough. I lived for 25 years in Southeast Seattle, but have moved just six months ago to Northwest Seattle. During our southeast years, we lived near Columbia City. We now live along the west edge of Ballard.

It is true that the two areas are very different, but perhaps not in the ways that we have conventionally thought. The North-South Seattle stereotypes go like this: Seattle north of the ship canal is mostly white, affluent and well-resourced. Seattle south of the ship canal is heavily people of color, poor and often neglected in the allocation of resources and attention.

There is, of course, some truth in these stereotypes, but less than we might think, at least based on my observation from living in both Seattles. More to the point, the stereotypes may be as great a barrier as anything else to thinking of “one” Seattle.

The most accurate part of the stereotypes is probably the racial/ ethnic one. When we lived in the southeast, we were in the 98118 zip code. Early in the last census the Census Bureau gave some preliminary indication that 98118 is the most “diverse” zip code in America. (Later, the Bureau said this was not the sort of designation they actually report, so the early information was unofficial.) Still, southeast Seattle and 98118, in particular, are a rich and colorful mosaic of cultures and races, with 26 percent of the population African American, and 27 percent Caucasian. Asian Americans and Latinos make up significant percentages as do more recent immigrants from an array of nations and cultures.

Ballard is of course famously Scandinavian, with Swedes, sons of Norway, Finns and even folks from Iceland. According to the 2010 Census, only 2 percent of the population of 98107, the Ballard zip code, is African American, and 86 percent is Caucasian. While May’s Norwegian Day Parade remains a big deal in Ballard, I have the sense that the influx of new residents in apartments and condos is rapidly moving Ballard away from its Scandinavian pedigree. Moreover, with some exceptions the Scandinavians have not been the power elite of Seattle, but more its working-class backbone.

But if the racial divides in housing patterns remain somewhat true to form in the statistics up to now, there are other signs that the old stereotypes are not so accurate. For one thing, there is significant concern in south Seattle about gentrification, which already showed up significantly in 2013 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. And people see it continuing to happen all around them.

There are, moreover, a lot more homeless people living on the streets in Ballard than I ever saw in the Columbia City area. And having worked in downtown for many years, I would say that homelessness in Ballard is as much a reality here as it is in downtown, maybe more.

Why? What explains the concentration of homeless people in Ballard? My hunch is this. Ballard has a lot more industry than in south Seattle, apart from, say, Georgetown and SoDo. The Salmon Bay waterfront is lined with gravel yards, shipyards and fishing-related business. This builds on a long history, as at the turn of the 20th century, there were 10 lumber mills operating in Ballard. The industrial acres and alleys of northwest Seattle afford a more receptive setting for tent-and-trailer encampments than the mostly residential neighborhoods of southeast Seattle or even the Rainier Valley. If you think homelessness is a south-of-the-canal phenomenon, think again.

Here’s another challenge to the stereotype. Over the years, south Seattle has often complained of being short on resources, including parks. But something that is not so often mentioned is the Olmsted legacy in south Seattle. The planning of the Olmsted brothers, enhanced by the subsequent draw-down of Lake Washington, creates a park-like atmosphere in much of southeast Seattle. I am thinking of the areas below the second floating bridge, below Mount Baker, down to Seward Park and south through Rainier Beach. By contrast the shores of Lake Washington, north of the canal, are much more densely built and less inviting.

A third challenge to the stereotype of a neglected south is the presence of Sound Transit/Light Rail all the way through the Rainier Valley. With stops at Rainier Beach, Othello, Columbia City, Mount Baker and Beacon Hill, residents of south Seattle have better transportation options that their cousins in the northern parts of town. In the early stages of Sound Transit construction, some in the south complained that this was being “forced” on the less powerful south end. But the end product is an enhancement.

Meanwhile, if you’re someone who objected to the density-enhancing recommendations of the Housing Affordability and Liveability Agenda (HALA), don’t come to Ballard. It is ground zero for exactly the kind of increased density HALA suggested (and which Mayor Murray somewhat pedaled away from). The closer you get to the downtown core in Ballard, the thicker the four-plex complexes are replacing what used to be single-family homes. Of course, it’s a different story in Laurelhurst, but in this part of the Seattle, this part of the north end, densification is proceeding apace.

Often these days one hears the working class/blue-collar heritage of Seattle lamented. My observation is that Ballard has probably been the center of blue-collar Seattle. By and large, the housing stock is modest. Of course, these days a modest bungalow in Seattle is an expensive proposition, but Ballard does not seem to have Mount Baker's spacious homes and lots.

Another factor in assessing the stereotypes about north and south Seattle is school funding. Many assume that schools in the north part of Seattle enjoy much great financial support because of more affluent parents and their ability to do fund-raisers. What may not be known is that for some time now the Seattle schools have used a weighted formula that awards substantially more dollars per student to schools in south Seattle. It’s far from perfect because it doesn’t adjust for how, with greater seniority, experienced teachers can choose their school assignments. But fund-raisers for schools in the north are generally attempts to fill the gap that can occur in the number of positions that are covered for each school.

My point is that the conventional wisdom about the two parts of Seattle is at best partially accurate. There are parts of Seattle – north and south – that are more affluent. These tend to be along the waterfronts, while the inner corridors of both are messier and less well off. Both Seattles have socio-economic challenges. Both Seattles have their beauty and assets. Would we be better off, and more likely to have one Seattle, if we eased up on the stereotypes and the competitive whining?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.