South Park, a multi-ethnic jewel just discovered
When I moved from Ballard to South Park not five months ago I had no idea what I was getting into. Maybe a little more crime nearby, maybe it'll be harder to get groceries after hours, but I knew I'd be speaking Spanish more often and I was eager for the change of scenery.
What I found in South Park is nothing short of the most welcoming, vibrant cluster of engaged neighbors I've experienced since my childhood in Maine. Here I am now sitting with some 20-25 of my neighbors, many of whom have lived here and known each other for many years, listening to an old-timer deliver a history of South Park activism while several others hover over a provocative game of scrabble and banter on about last weekend's softball game against Georgetown.
Sounds like a living room but this is one of the scenes at the South Park happy hour, a weekly gathering at the County Line bar that originated as an effort to encourage the proprietors to crack down on the rapidly swelling host of drug dealers and prostitutes that were using County Line property as an office.
The bar sits on the "Sliver by the River," a small slice of unincorporated King County land that was created when the Duwamish River was straightened. It was never annexed by Seattle and had become a bit of a haven for those who might prefer to avoid the Seattle Police.
As a result of these weekly gatherings, some heads-up participation from business and community leaders, and the resulting increase in attention from law enforcement, the County Line is indeed cleaning up its act - the visible criminal activity has tapered off and some of the other businesses along the 14th Avenue corridor are already expressing appreciation.
Nobody expects change overnight in South Park, and it will be some time before we know that these changes are going to stick. But the ability of this small, relatively isolated community to mobilize and tackle the issue is impressive, and bodes well for the future.
From what I hear South Park has a history of bucking trends, thwarting authority, and generally challenging the status quo going all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. I knew right away things were different down here: neighbors walking their dogs stop and chat and fill me in on the latest South Park scuttlebutt; a mother and daughter sell steaming tamales door-to-door; neighbors loan each other tools, care for each other's pets, and generally look after one another; meetings, parties, and petty crimes are announced on a neighborhood e-mail listserve; and the monthly South Park meetings are actually packed and informative. This was clearly not your average Seattle neighborhood - I was thrilled to say the least.
Once the breadbasket of Seattle and now one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the city, South Park is a nutty multilingual mix of social activists, craftsmen, blue collars from Boeing, white collars from downtown, motorcycle enthusiasts, and apparently most of Seattle's musicians.
The community is obviously not drawn together by similar backgrounds; it's the place itself that breeds allegiance. Tucked in between the Duwamish River and the West Seattle green belt, this quiet little oasis feels like a town on its own, and this little town has no interest in Starbucks or Target - just safe streets and schools, things for the kids to do, and a healthy business climate on 14th Avenue for the small local tiendas that keep us fed.
Nobody looks for or expects rapid growth; South Park's population has only doubled since the farming days of 1907. It's been called everything from Little Mexico and River City to New South Fremont, but it's not a stretch to imagine South Park persisting into the future as a small, vibrant, multi-ethnic jewel (and music destination) astride Seattle's only river.
In the meantime a new library is going up, a skate park is going in, Cesar Chavez Park is being completed, trees are being planted, the community center is providing a full menu of resources and activities for all ages, and the neighborhood association is tackling everything from the EPA's cleanup work on the Duwamish to a hugely successful and well-attended Night Out Against Crime that took place recently outside the County Line. There is something great going on down here in the valley, and I only regret that I didn't tap in sooner.
Last week the happy hour degenerated into a beer-sodden, multilingual, karaoke-singing bacchanal of neighborly enthusiasm while the County Line owners beamed (Happy Hour Monday has become one of their biggest nights). The next step being planned is a local band night at the County Line to give those South Park musicians a chance to play some gigs on their own turf. Community-building never had it so good.
South Park resident Joel Clement works for an environmental foundation in (gasp) Fremont, still loves the monorail idea, and has no interest in enormous, revenue-gorging highway projects like the downtown waterfront tunnel.