America's most diverse ZIP code, the Census Bureau reports, is 98118 — the Rainier Valley neighborhood five miles south of downtown Seattle, writes columnist Neal Peirce. Moreover, it has positioned itself smartly to set gain a place in the sun of its regional economy.

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America’s most diverse ZIP code, the Census Bureau reports, is 98118 — the Rainier Valley neighborhood five miles south of downtown Seattle.

And for good reason. 98118’s mixed population of immigrants from across the globe includes speakers of 59 languages — Chinese to Somali, Spanish to Vietnamese, Tagalog to Khmer. Yet close to a third of the population is African American, an influx that started in the 1950s, and another third white, including remnants of the Irish and Italian immigrants of the early 1900s.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, 98118 was troubled by dilapidated buildings, drug dealing and prostitution — not a neighborhood you’d feel comfortable strolling after dark. But the recent immigrant waves have brought entrepreneurial juice — new restaurants and shops, upgraded real estate and new urban flavor.

There’s public art on the streets, wafting smells of many cuisines, colorful varieties of dress. Rainier Valley “has the best selection of foods, music and culture that I think you can find in any neighborhood,” plus a very high “level of tolerance,” a local insurance agent told the Northwest Asian Weekly.

Plus, 98118 has a strong group of community organizations and is regionally connected with a stop on the new Sound Transit light-rail line that runs from the Sea-Tac Airport to downtown.

In short, it will likely shine as one of America’s “Dynamic Neighborhoods” — a new way to analyze urban neighborhoods developed by Robert Weissbourd and his colleagues of the Chicago-based RW Ventures firm for Living Cities, a foundation-corporate-government alliance focused on boosting and financing development in challenged urban areas nationwide.

It’s a big (though frequent) mistake, says Weissbourd, to think of neighborhoods as static places, with a set character to defend at all costs. Even some well-intentioned community-development groups make this error, he suggests, constantly working to expand local affordable housing and social services when the growing poverty in America isn’t in cities at all — it’s now in suburbs.

The secret to strong neighborhoods, Weissbourd argues, is positive mobility — understanding that neighborhoods are in constant motion, turning over with people and businesses coming and going. “Neighborhoods need to attract the residents, the businesses, the investments they want — or they’re dying,” he insists.

Played right, he argues, a neighborhood’s location will become an ever-greater asset in a less suburban-focused era that puts top value on diversity, density, proximity to downtowns, active idea exchange and a full range of urban services including expanded public transit.

But how do neighborhoods figure out how they tap their regional economies, position themselves best? The “Dynamic Neighborhoods” project created a “taxonomy” of neighborhood types, analyzed over the 1986-2006 time span, in four cities — Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland and Dallas. Neighborhoods were classified as “truly disadvantaged” to “stable low income” to “ports of entry” (like Rainier Valley) and from there up the urban food chain to “close, cool and convenient” and “Fortune 100.”

By analyzing clusters of like neighborhoods, ranging from young singles’ to retirement-oriented areas, the analysis shows not just trends but different priorities on every issue from homeownership and housing prices to physical safety, work-force development to proximity to supermarkets and transit. The idea is that smarter and profit-tapping decisions can then be made by neighborhood groups, city halls or businesses, based on the system’s fine-grained, over-time analysis.

For isolated neighborhoods, for example, the best investments might be work-force training and better transit connections. For “ports of entry,” ESL and work-training centers. For retirement communities, the top focus might well be on crime protection and having retail and other necessary services within walking distance.

But the “Dynamic Neighborhoods” process taps not just preferences but statistical evidence of what’s actually worked well, with the result that significantly smarter, businesslike decisions can be made.

It’s an exciting shift. Suddenly, with the new, and now less expensive computer-driven analytic tools, neighborhoods themselves may be positioned to think as strategically as — for example — the big national retail and food chains that cavalierly move facilities in and out of the neighborhoods in order to extract the most local wealth.

Rainier Valley didn’t have that degree of systemic analysis at its command. But Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, recognizing the rapid change in the neighborhood, did work with outreach liaisons and community organizations to engage 3,000 local citizens in discussions about Rainier Valley’s options and future courses.

Add the cutting-edge analytic tools and any neighborhood in America should be able to position itself more smartly to set priorities and gain a place in the sun of its regional economy.

Neal Peirce’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is