Next to Burger King and TJ Maxx on Kent's East Hill, Philly's Best Steaks & Hoagies occupies a former Skipper's Seafood 'n Chowder House. The owners of Philly's Best branched out from their original location at 23rd Avenue and East Union Street in Seattle's Central Area, opening their Kent store just down the road from Punjab Sweets and the Ukrainian Assembly of God in late 2001.
On a Monday afternoon, post-lunch rush, the customers are mostly African American, from a hip-hop kid to a grandmother in sensible shoes. To Charles Humphrie, the affable 39-year-old who co-owns Philly's Best with three other Philadelphia transplants, the fact that there are a lot of black people now living south of Seattle is old news. He'd rather talk about his sandwiches.
"Food has no color barriers," he says, explaining that he's converted lots of people in the neighborhood—whites, Asians, Hispanics, even local King County cops—to his hometown's cuisine.
A short cruise down many of the Federal Way, Kent, or Renton strip-malled arterials reveals one of the most striking demographic trends in King County's history: Sprawl and diversity have become quite comfortable bedfellows, transforming the south county into an accidental social experiment by which much of white Seattle, not often exposed either to the suburban or the African-American experience, literally pales in comparison. Every city and unincorporated area in South King County saw tremendous development and population growth of all kinds in the past decade and now account for a slightly greater total population than Seattle itself. These places also have shown huge gains in numbers of African Americans.
The Puget Sound area has never been and probably never will be home to the large numbers of African Americans found in other American cities and suburbs. Charles Humphrie's brother, hearing that Seattle's total population was about 500,000, commented, "What? There are 500,000 black people in Philadelphia alone." But the demographic change in outlying areas, taken with foreign immigration, is creating more diverse neighborhoods across a broader swath of Western Washington than ever before. Because of lower real-estate prices, fair-housing laws, personal preference, Seattle's gentrification, and other factors, South King County has become a complex and rapidly evolving place, in spite of the fact that most urbanites associate its strip malls and housing developments with grinding homogeneity.
Meanwhile, Seattle, traditionally very segregated, remains so, even though blacks no longer are restricted to a few neighborhoods by discriminatory laws and practices. Although less-trendy and traditionally white neighborhoods like Lake City are showing some increase in black population, gentrification in southeast Seattle is a far more dominant trend.
FEWER SEATTLE BLACKS
Of the roughly 91,500 African Americans in King County, about half live outside Seattle. Of the African Americans living outside the city, more than 80 percent live in the south county, resulting in the distribution of about 37,000 African Americans from Seattle's southern borders to the Pierce County line and east to the Cascade crest. In many places, their proportion as a total of the population roughly equals Seattle's black percentage but obviously is much more dispersed. And just as in Seattle, the range of black people living in the suburbs varies widely, from single mothers pushed into SeaTac or Tukwila by high Seattle rents to double-income, home-owning families in Kent or Federal Way.
Putting aside for a moment the huge impact of Asian, Latino, Russian/Ukrainian, and other immigration on South King County, consider these figures: Between 1990 and 2000, Kent saw its black population rise from 3.8 percent to 8.1 percent of the total, a 350 percent increase within the African-American community itself. Federal Way's proportion rose from 4 percent to nearly 7.7 percent of the total, for a 144 percent increase in black population; Renton went from 6.5 percent to 8.3 percent, for a 55 percent increase; while the numbers of African Americans in smaller places like Auburn, Burien, Des Moines, SeaTac, and Tukwila all more than doubled.
Geographic boundaries in rapidly developing areas have little to do with the new demographic, which stretches almost to Thurston County. There are signs that Tacoma, whose percentage of African Americans exceeds Seattle's, is starting to become gentrified just as many small towns in Pierce County have seen growth in numbers of blacks. In the Puyallup South Hill area, according to the Tacoma News Tribune, the African-American population increased 566 percent between 1990 and 2000. (The city's school district recently settled a lawsuit with the families of black students who faced harassment—in one instance a white student showed up in blackface—and death threats.) McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis draw many African Americans to this area in the first place.
At the same time, Seattle's black population has diminished—not dramatically, but measurably. In 1990, African Americans accounted for 10 percent of Seattle's total population. By 2000 that percentage was down to 8.3, representing about a 10 percent decrease of the black community.
While only a few places in the suburbs can claim the concentration of blacks living in the Central Area or southeast Seattle neighborhoods, South King County figures are thrown into sharper relief when compared to Seattle neighborhoods north and west of downtown. There are more African Americans living in Tukwila alone, a city of only 17,000, than in the combined zip codes of 98103, 98107, and 98115—which roughly correspond to Fremont, Wallingford, the southern half of Ballard, Bryant/Ravenna, Wedgwood, and much of Laurelhurst and View Ridge, whose total populations add up to 103,500.
NO MORE KENT JOKES
Another way to measure the extent of Seattle's segregation compared to the suburbs is to use a demographer's tool called the dissimilarity index. According to The New York Times, this figure "captures the degree to which two racial groups are evenly spread among census tracts in a city. . . . The index ranges from 0 to 100, giving the percentage of one group that would have to move to achieve an even residential pattern—one where every tract replicates the group composition of the city. A value of 60 or above is considered very high segregation." A value of 40 or below is "a pretty low rating," according to demographer William Frey, a University of Michigan research scientist and a senior fellow of demographics at Santa Monica's Milken Institute. While a place like Saginaw, Mich., rates 76 for black/white segregation, Seattle rates 64. Tacoma is 40, Renton is 36, Kent is 31, and Federal Way is 30.
Just as telling in these demographic changes is another fact, reported in 2001 by The Seattle Times: Whites are now more numerous in the Central Area than blacks, with African Americans at 32 percent and whites at 42. The prickly convergence of white gentrification and black migration became news last summer and fall in the controversy concerning Seattle's historic First AME Church at 14th Avenue and East Pike Street. Noting that 50 percent of his membership lives in South Seattle and beyond, the Rev. John Hunter floated a plan to sell Seattle's first black church, built in 1886, to developers, who would tear it down. The church could invest the windfall profit to build a big facility, debt-free, in the Southcenter area. After a firestorm of protest within the congregation, the idea has been dropped in favor of a plan to study the possibility of opening a satellite church in the south county.
If black Seattleites have observed firsthand the migration to what the Rev. Leslie Braxton of Mount Zion Baptist Church calls "the southern tier," white Seattleites largely haven't seemed to notice. Except for an occasional expedition to Ikea, Southcenter, or Emerald Downs, many Seattleites don't have much reason to venture into South King County. So it's little wonder that the popular image persists: Boeingville and Bubbaland, peopled by white, working-class, boring, low-brow plane-factory types, or white truck-driving guys with bad teeth and worse attitudes about life.
"This is no longer the place made famous by Almost Live," says 40-year-old Kent resident Bessie Walker, an unapologetic suburbanite, referring to the 1990s local late-night comedy show. Explains John Kiester, the show's co-host: "We used jokes about Kent the way that Laugh-In used jokes about beautiful downtown Burbank." Co-host Pat Cashman, who points out that even a decade ago the sketches were exaggerated for the sake of comedy, remembers a satire called "Kent Cops": A woman is pulled over and ticketed for not teasing her hair into the legally required state of bigness. In those days, too, Cashman wanted to write a book called Women Are From Mercer Island, Men Are From Kent.
"Does that community still exist? In some ways and some places, yes. But it's not everybody, not nearly. This city has changed, and it's time to acknowledge that," says Walker.
THE YOUTHFUL SUBURBS
"You might say Federal Way is suburban because it's not part of Seattle, but in fact, it is its own urban center," explains Federal Way resident Diane Turner, a warm woman with an easy contralto laugh who is communications director for the city's school district. Turner says Federal Way students speak more than 75 languages and children of color account for at least a third of enrollment, noting, "We find ourselves dealing with urban problems."
In addition to black migration, it's clear that foreign immigration makes it difficult to categorize South King County suburbs, least of all in the dismissive terms in which urban observers, including most journalists, generally describe any suburb. Writing in The American Prospect in 2001, Jennifer Bradley voices a typical view: "Cities create and encourage heterogeneity, otherness, and fortuitous interaction between different types of people, while suburbs preserve privacy and discourage chance encounters with the unexpected."
Keep that in mind while spending a summer afternoon at Renton's Gene Coulon Park, at the south end of Lake Washington, where you are likely to hear at least four and probably more of the following languages: Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, Korean, Arabic, Somali, Chinese, Tagalog, Punjabi, and Vietnamese. As you stroll the beach, you'll see women in chadors and women in bikinis, East Indian men in turbans and black men in ball caps.
In many South King County places, Seattle visitors will also find more diversity in another area: age. Nationwide, Seattle is second only to San Francisco in kidlessness. Only 15 percent of Seattle's population are children age 17 and under (about 12 percent of white residents and about 26 percent of nonwhite residents). But in Federal Way and Kent, kids 17 and under account for more than 25 percent of the population. In Renton, the figure is 20 percent. Significantly, in the biggest suburbs, Federal Way and Kent, more than 35 percent of the African-American population is 17 and under.
In the suburbs, black and white kids are much more likely to be growing up together. Three-quarters of Seattle's nonwhite students live south of downtown, while two-thirds of the white students live north of downtown, according to Michael Madden, a lawyer for the Seattle Public Schools who has been defending district policies against Initiative 200, which seeks to end racial preferences in school assignments. Some suburban areas certainly are more densely populated with African Americans than others, but it is impossible to find such a large-scale proportional example of segregation among children in Renton, Kent, or Federal Way.
In the old days, black people and white people in the Puget Sound area didn't make contact except in certain narrowly circumscribed boundaries and ways. Now, in the suburbs, there's a lot more contact—kids growing up as neighbors and riding the same bus to school, for instance—and, chances are, a lot more to come, even if the percentages of African Americans remain relatively small. What this means for racial equality and harmony remains to be seen.
By one economic indicator, median income, blacks do the same or better in the most-populous South King County suburbs as they do in the city, earning between 64 percent and 77 percent of white median income, as compared to 64 percent in Seattle.
By another measure, percentage of home ownership, African Americans do slightly worse in the southern tier, although this might change as time passes. In Seattle, roughly 70 percent as many blacks own homes as whites do. In the suburbs, the proportion is about half. Three of the five areas that show the least disparity between black and white home ownership are in South King County. The top two are Seattle neighborhoods—Capitol Hill and the Madison Valley, prime targets for gentrification.
Obviously, this data suggest that desegregated doesn't necessarily mean equal. African Americans' success still is defined by gaps, whether in educational achievement, home ownership, or median income. Those gaps between blacks and whites remain significant in the suburbs and the city. In part because of their penchant for voting men of color into higher office, it is easy for local whites to pride themselves on attitudes about diversity while ignoring racial inequities in housing, education, income, and representation in the criminal-justice system.
This complacency might stem from the fact that many Northwest whites don't recognize their own discriminatory attitudes, according to some African Americans interviewed for this article and other sources. "Is racism a problem in this area? Yes, because this area has never been forced to deal with its 'isms,'" says Walker. One of eight children of a single mother, she grew up in a small, segregated New Mexico town where she says 80 percent of the population fell below the poverty line. She credits the dedication of her mostly white schoolteachers for a remarkable record of achievement among her African-American and Latino classmates. She slides easily between the seamless phrasing of a speaker trained in broadcast journalism to the seamless phrasing of rapid-fire black English.
"In the South, things have been negotiated, and people know where they stand," she says. "You know where you are welcome and where you are not. Here, in this neoliberal, postmodern age, there's a naﶥt頡bout racism. I've worked with people who think they don't have an issue with racism, then certain situations arise and it's clear they do—they just don't use the same vocabulary. Educated professional blacks around here run into it all the time. After a short conversation, you'll be told, 'Well, you're not like other black people.' Or here's another one: 'You're so articulate.' People have no idea that what they just said was offensive."
But she believes that nothing will improve before there is "an honest conversation: not me as a black person telling you as a white person what you ought to do, and not you as a white person telling me as a black person how I am supposed to feel."
SKYWAY: 25 PERCENT BLACK
The streets around Mount Zion Baptist Church at 19th Avenue and East Madison Street are full of cars on a fall Tuesday night, as last-minute arrivals rush to a packed Central Area Arts and Lectures forum, "How Central is the Central District to Seattle's Black Community?" An African-American man walking by asks what's going on. When he finds out it's a panel discussion about African Americans moving away from the Central Area to the suburbs, he laughs and says, "They takin' the money and runnin'."
Although real-estate agents can certainly point to examples of families who've sold in the Central Area and bought larger homes to the south, the phenomenon cannot numerically account for the population gain in the south county. But the popularity of this theory—that pots of Central Area equity are lining Kent streets with gold—gives it a mythic quality that is difficult to dispel.
Inside the church, many on the panel lament the changes in the Central Area and offer ideas about holding on to the African-American community's core. When the microphone is opened to the audience, however, the comments become a collective howl. One woman is angry because she can't afford to buy a home in Madrona where she grew up and has been forced to buy in a suburb of Tacoma—a sentiment that any white Seattle native now excluded by high real-estate prices can surely understand, but perhaps not as acutely: For many years, blacks were restricted to a few neighborhoods, around which they developed a deep sense of identity and cohesion.
Equally bitter comments come from people who've remained in the Central Area. One woman complains that her "white, European" neighbors do not say hello to her or each other as they pass on the street walking their dogs. Another asserts that two white neighbors came over to tell her to mow her lawn.
The Rev. Leslie Braxton, pastor of Mount Zion, is a pragmatist, saying, "Migration is as old as primitive man. The challenge of the church is not whether we can reconstruct a bygone era. It's a spiritual purpose, a mission to serve people where they are. . . . We need to be thinking about satellites so that when our children are old, Mount Zion won't become an artifact."
When Braxton moved here three years ago, he says, he and his wife had hoped to buy a home within walking distance of the church, but he found, even with his healthy salary, he couldn't purchase the kind of home he wanted. Where did he and his family end up?
"Near Skyway," he says, adding a joke, "along with my members." Skyway is the unincorporated area in the borderlands between South Seattle and Renton. Its multicultural makeup mirrors the Rainier Valley's. About 25 percent of its residents are black.
HELPING THE IMMIGRANTS
The Martin Luther King Memorial Baptist Church sits on a slice of unincorporated King County that cuts into northeast Renton, where open fields with split-rail fences and collapsing barns coexist with old cottages and ranch-style and split-level housing. On a major arterial near the church, a new development—four- and five-bedroom homes on zero-lot lines with the obligatory kitchen islands and double- or triple-car garages—is going in, to complement the clusters of big new houses already pocketed within the neighborhood.
According to the pastor, the Rev. Herbert Carey, a native Chicagoan with an MBA and a background in computers who left corporate America to become a minister, the church's membership includes about 500 families, who live not only all over the south county but in Seattle as well. With members from as far away as the Central Area and Auburn, Martin Luther King may be as much of a destination church as those in the Central Area. (For anyone unfamiliar with the south county, the congregation's geographic spread could be hard to visualize: Seattle's Seward Park is closer to the church than is Federal Way.)
The church's most visible member is Auburn resident Carl Mack, who recently became the Seattle NAACP chapter's president and who has led marches both in the neighborhood and in Seattle—where he was arrested—to protest the shooting of a black man by a white off-duty King County Sheriff's deputy last April east of Renton.
In the neighborhood, however, the church is more well known for the Margie Williams Helping Hands Center, its food and clothing bank named in honor of the woman who founded the church in her East Renton home in 1977. Opened in May 2001, the center now serves almost 300 families and has seen a steady increase in clients.
"Just because you are poor doesn't mean you can't have pride and dignity," says Renton resident Karen Patterson as she sorts clothes one Saturday morning. Patterson is the center's Sally Nordstrom, culling choice items to make outfits for clients. The mother of three who works long hours as a discharge- planning nurse at Valley Medical Center, she sent her oldest daughter, a senior at Seattle's Holy Names Academy, off to Tennessee on this morning to check out Vanderbilt University.
Very few of the Helping Hands Center clients are black. Most are immigrants, others native-born-American locals. New clients are greeted warmly; regulars are swept up in good-natured joking. "How y'all doin'?" says a volunteer to a knot of teenage girls from El Salvador, who translate for their mother. When asked where her mom is, a young white girl replies, "Oh, she went hunting." An elderly Vietnamese woman smiles and bows as she leaves with full bags, while a large group of Ukrainians in kerchiefs, dark skirts, and industrial-strength shoes run practiced eyes over clothing.
The volunteers have recently received some help interpreting. Andrei Svidenko is a young Baptist refugee from the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, now the most repressive of the bygone Soviet states in Central Asia. Svidenko lives in the neighborhood and wanted to see "what goes on at the church," and was surprised "that black people treated me well. One told me that between white people and black people, there is a sore point."
Svidenko joined the church, where, he says, "I really found family." In their spare moments, food-bank volunteers explain the finer points of American life to him, covering everything from the World Series and the Super Bowl to the pros and cons of microwave cooking.
Perhaps one reason Svidenko feels at home here is that he, as an ethnic Russian and Baptist in a Turkmen-nationalist state, knows what it feels like to be in the minority. Margie Williams' daughter, Crystal Bolts, the site director of a before-and-after-school program at a local elementary, grew up nearby and is used to breaking ground. "I've had so many people say to me, 'Black people are like this, black people are like that, but not you, you're different.' They think they know; you have to educate them." Bolts' husband and her best girlfriend, whom she sat next to in first grade, are white. "That aspect is cool. You get to see both worlds."
But there's one world that's not so cool for Bolts. A truck drove by one day as she was walking near her home, and "someone yelled, 'Nigger, go home!'"
"That's OK," she says angrily. "You just let me know who you are and I will cross the road to avoid you, because I don't want to be near you. Just as long as I know who you are."
'TAKE CARE OF YOUR LAWN'
"I was wondering whether I should put my black face on my business card," says 53-year-old real-estate agent Johnny Hunter, who has worked from Renton for eight years. "But then I decided, 'Hey, I'm going to.'" Part of his confidence came from experience: In 13 years in the business, he believes that only once did racism come into play, a record that was not matched by other agents interviewed for this story.
"I used to live in the Central Area a long time ago," Hunter says, but he most recently moved from Mount Baker to Renton's Fairwood neighborhood. Four years ago, he "saw a house and really liked it. It was a lot more house for the money."
He says, "It was weird initially, because there weren't as many blacks as there are now. The place I moved into was Ozzie and Harriet land. But people were so nice and generous. They came to the door, they said, 'Don't forget about the barbecue,'" specifically held to welcome him to the neighborhood. His neighbors, "really nice people who've become good acquaintances," were mostly retired.
"It was nice to be looked upon as just another person moving in. The attitude was kind of 'I don't care what color you are, just as long as you take care of your lawn,'" he says, laughing.
Hunter became president of his homeowners association, which has given him the chance to see an "influx of minorities" firsthand in the neighborhood of nearly 400 homes. When told that many whites in Seattle perceive the South End as redneck, he says, "Get out! You're kidding me."
Hunter spends plenty of time in Seattle, where he takes care of his rental homes and has many friends. But he goes to church in Kent. Speaking "from my own small corner," he says, "it's all good. People are just people. They accept you for who you are. I see a lot of that here. I like the South End."
Bessie Walker has lived in South King County since 1994, after a stint as a single mother in the Madison Valley and, later, in Des Moines. She doesn't miss the urban life. Although her east Kent neighborhood is only a half-hour drive in good traffic from downtown Seattle, it's horse country—there are corrals nearby, and it's not uncommon to see people riding on local roads.
"When I go into Seattle, it's always for a play, a musical. Everything I need is in Kent. I'm a country girl. I have friends who are more city-oriented. But I don't like the traffic or the fact that I can't find parking. Once I find parking, I don't like paying for it."
A striking woman who was recruited by a TV station to work as an anchor before she could finish her degree in broadcast journalism, Walker is sitting in the light-filled dining room of her four-bedroom, two-bathroom home, which she, her teenage son, and her husband, who works in construction management, moved into last February. They'd seen the house when it was priced at $289,000, but managed to buy it for $208,000 in the months following Sept. 11, 2001. Even with $25,000 to put down, she says, "it took four lenders before we could find terms we could live with"—proof, she believes, of how mortgage rating systems work against blacks.
In general, people in her neighborhood have been "very pleasant. We've been welcomed. That's one of the nice things about South King County. There's more of a sense of community across cultures, more interaction with neighbors. We get to talking about our kids."
Walker has been involved in the Chamber of Commerce and is active in the Kent School District, working on diversity and academic achievement. She speaks of the difficulty of mobilizing the African-American community, saying that the south county is ripe for programs normally targeting urban African Americans, especially young people. As a single mother, she knew that "survival consumed everything" and can appreciate why people struggling to stay afloat don't have anything left over for the community. On the other hand, she believes that more people could be involved under better leadership, both in the Central Area and in the southern tier.
She also has strong opinions about the black community. "We have to deal with some family business. Immigrant communities come here, organize around their interests, and thrive. We are the only people who can't come together as a collective voice until our existence is threatened. Of course, slavery played on our differences. It kept us divided to keep us down. But . . . instead of saying that the white man is oppressing us, at some point we have to look honestly at ourselves."
Just a few doors down from Frederick's of Hollywood, at the Sears end of SeaTac Mall, the Federal Way School District maintains a community-outreach office, where you can surf the Net, register your child for kindergarten, or pick up a host of materials about school policies and programs, most printed in English, Spanish, Korean, and Russian. SeaTac Mall, by the way, pretty much is downtown Federal Way.
Diane Turner, sitting at her desk in the back of the office, has got a lot on her plate, explaining the many steps the district is undertaking in the wake of a study last year to measure "equity and achievement." The study showed that a disproportionate number of students "being disciplined, ending up in special ed, and lagging behind academically are kids of color. Tom Murphy, our superintendent, said, 'We are not going to shy away from discussions of race. And no one is colorblind.'"
Murphy quickly organized an initiative called "Closing the Gap," which outlines concrete goals and timelines and dovetails with the district's "Every Student, a Reader" program. The district has worked to involve the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, the city manager, and the police chief.
Turner, who uses terms like "cultural competence," says that planning "Closing the Gap" was "a real awakening. We couldn't identify institutional racism. But we found a lot of people without knowledge, information, or skills." The most telling example that Turner can recall involves an African-American student's first day in an honors class. Turner believes that the teacher was well-meaning when she asked, "Are you sure this is the class you need to be in?"
Turner is a big advocate for Federal Way but definitely feels the desire to interact with a larger black community. She and her husband raised two sons here, both now graduated from college, the older one from law school. When the family first moved to Federal Way 20 years ago, she and her husband thought, "Where are the black people? Then my husband heard about this place called 'the C.D.' We said, 'We've got to go find the C.D.' But when my kids went to school, we mostly took them to Tacoma to be with folks." Her youngest son went to a historically black college, while the oldest did not.