Change is coming to White Center, which has become a more-prosperous version of its gritty past.
RIVULETS OF RAIN run off the awning attached to Momma Bear’s Fry Bread, a compact food trailer that beams like a lighthouse against the pallid sky and the pea-gravel parking lot that recently has become its home.
It’s the umpteenth day of rain this year, a cash-register killer for Momma’s, which relies on foot traffic along a busy stretch of road in White Center to pull in customers. Still, co-owner Brady M. Brady waits patiently inside for late-afternoon business, while his mom, co-owner Tamala “Tammy” Lorenz, makes her way down the sidewalk from a nearby bus stop. She steps inside and pulls off her heavy rain gear, revealing a beautiful smile and a chef’s uniform from her 60-hours-a-week day job as kitchen manager at a Pike Place Market cafe.
Lorenz takes the day’s modest till in stride. If hope has a physical form, it is the white trailer with the cutout window from which Lorenz serves her tasty dinner and dessert creations, based on the Native American fry bread she was raised on at the Lummi Nation reservation, north of Seattle.
Since opening for business last year, she has had a few setbacks. But the owner of Bud Nation, a recreational pot store, let her park in the lot behind his shop rent-free. Now, she can weather bad days while building a business she hopes will provide a future for her son, daughter and four grandchildren.
If you’re looking for the soul of White Center — the secret sauce that makes this unincorporated King County neighborhood on the southwest edge of Seattle so appealing, so vital and so fun to explore — look no further than Brady and Lorenz and the other 18,000 people who call White Center home.
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This neighborhood, often maligned by those who condescend by taking its nickname “Rat City” literally, is an incubator of dreams; a place of trials and tribulations; of hard work; and, sometimes, hard drinking. It’s a place of surprises, where the eccentric and iconoclastic can fly their true colors, and where, a few blocks from an industrial cluster, you still can find a tendril of road and a duck pond as pleasing as anything you might find in the backwoods.
It’s also a place with a long history as a cohesive community, despite language and cultural differences. Here you’ll find a population that looks like a United Nations convention, a reflection of the successive waves of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who settled in, joining generations of white working classes who staked claims in what historically has been one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Seattle area.
There is still poverty here. And the area’s homeless population — officially counted at about 100 — is the worst among the county’s unincorporated areas.
But that White Center is being subsumed by a more-prosperous version. People pushed out by stratospheric home prices in Seattle neighborhoods have snapped up houses in White Center, pushing up rents and making new mortgages harder to afford. And the rough edges of the commercial core are softening as new businesses remake the nine blocks that constitute the historic business district, currently home to 137 storefront businesses.
Those businesses, located south of Roxbury, between 17th Avenue Southwest and 14th Avenue Southwest, tell the story of a neighborhood in flux, but still long on characters, long on heart and long on dreams.
WHITE CENTER POET Richard Hugo once noted, “White Center had the reputation of being just outside the boundary of the civilized world.”
Its modern incarnation began in 1912, when a streetcar line established it as a suburb of Seattle. Its historic boundary includes Burien to the south, and West Seattle to the north. Burien nibbled away the southern end of White Center through annexation in 2009. What remains unincorporated could become part of Seattle next year, if the promise of millions in guaranteed tax revenues for six years entices the Seattle City Council to take another run at expanding its southern border.
White Center’s working-class identity was cemented during World War II, when it became home to families tied to jobs at the shipyards and the Boeing Co. During that time, the neighborhood acquired the nickname Rat City, a term of nebulous origin. The White Center Chamber of Commerce says it could be an acronym for the local wartime military establishment, referred to as the Reserve Army Training Center or the Recruitment and Training Center. Or it could be that the area, once thick with bars, was designated a Restricted Alcohol Territory, a place where the military forbid servicemen to go.
Locals since have embraced the name, attaching it to a local women’s roller-derby team, a tattoo parlor and countless T-shirts. The neighborhood has had a hard time living down its gritty past.
“It’s not Wallingford,’’ says Justin Cline, who moved here 12 years ago, when he was building boat interiors and looking to buy a house with Ann Magyar, a high-school teacher and now his wife. And that, he says, is a good thing.
“It’s a little gritty,’’ he says with admiration. And, “There’s definitely a community. There’s families. My friend Johnny lives a block and a half from his store. He bought his grandparents’ house. His mother lives two blocks away. People have roots and community.”
His son, who is white, is a minority at his elementary school, where he’s learning Spanish in immersion classes that also are available in Chinese and Mandarin, with Arabic or Amharic soon to be added, he says.
For Cline, who grew up in Los Angeles, that’s a bonus.
While Seattle remains an overwhelmingly white city, White Center is among the most diverse areas in King County, with 60 percent communities of color, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In addition to English, dozens of languages are spoken, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer/Cambodian, Tigrinya, Thai and Somali.
King County Housing Authority’s $250 million redevelopment of Greenbridge and Seola Gardens into mixed-income neighborhoods with homes for rent and for sale has added beauty and income diversity to what had been rundown, low-income pockets of housing built for a World War II workforce.
The work ethic and prosperity of the immigrant population are reflected in White Center’s diverse businesses and restaurants, where you can find inexpensive Cajun, Korean, Cambodian, Mexican, El Salvadoran, Vietnamese, Chinese and Native American cuisine, as well as traditional American fare. Asian markets, longtime fixtures in the community, have added halal sections for the growing Muslim population from Africa.
If you want boring, go elsewhere.
IT’S NO SMALL IRONY that a man who enjoys White Center for its lack of pretense and its plethora of divine taco trucks is the same guy who spearheaded its gentrification. Nine years ago, Cline and his wife opened Full Tilt, a family-friendly ice-cream store and pinball parlor on a busy stretch of 16th Avenue Southwest dominated by bars, porn shops and “for rent” signs on empty storefronts. With rents going for $1 a square foot, it seemed like a reasonable risk, he says.
“The first day, we had 900 people,’’ Cline says. “It never let up through the whole summer.”
Proletariat Pizza soon followed, along with a rolling assortment of coffee shops and restaurants. A law-enforcement raid in 2011 shut down Papa’s Bar & Grill on drug charges, dramatically reducing the drama associated with the main commercial strip, and making it more attractive to bars/restaurants such as Noble Barton and The Company Store, which were more successful than those preceding them. Soon, White Center was a destination for people outside the neighborhood.
John LeMaster, who opened the family-friendly bar/restaurant Noble Barton with his wife, Vanessa, in 2015, said it’s been hard to shake the neighborhood’s dicey rep, in part because of Yelp reviewers who seem to think they risked their lives in search of the perfect seared ahi burger.
LeMaster, who lives a few blocks from the restaurant, says, “You’ll see this on Yelp: ‘You’ll love this place. You should go there, if you don’t get stabbed in the parking lot.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not that way!’ And so it kind of offends me. It has its crime. It has its problems. It definitely has extreme homelessness, and that part’s pretty sad. But the idea that people have to tack on this caveat … offends me, but maybe it repels people who would listen to something like that, and that might not be a bad thing.”
(An aside: The first day the LeMasters moved here, someone broke into their car, and made off with a first-aid kit. While inauspicious, it was minor drama compared to the burglary of their home in Ballard, which occurred as friends partied in their basement. The guests’ purses and coats were stolen, and the burglar or burglars went to the address listed on one stolen driver’s license and cleaned that house of everything of value.)
Not everyone in White Center is pleased with the changes, though. Someone put a sticker on Full Tilt’s window: “White Hamster Gentrification.”
“I wanted to make a T-shirt out of it,’’ Cline says. “It was hilarious, but it was true.”
Curious, then, to see the mixed reviews of the Starbucks store and training center and an Atlanta-based chicken franchise planned for the site of a former Chevron station at the confluence of 100th Street Southwest and 15th and 16th avenues southwest: It’s either the death knell for everything worthwhile in the neighborhood, or a vitamin shot that will bring in new customers who might not otherwise stop and look around, especially at the independent businesses that have been making a go of it.
LINDA POUA, 70, moved to White Center in 1979, three years after experiencing homelessness as a young mother. In 1976, with her daughter in hand, she knocked on doors in West Seattle until a man let them live in a spare bedroom. When he became engaged, Poua and her daughter moved to White Center and eventually got their own trailer, she says.
Poua worked as a “chicken plucker” at Rainier Poultry, and later ran their gizzard machine. She also worked in a candle factory. Now she lives on Social Security and a small pension from the Amalgamated Meat Cutters union. She gets half off her rent for managing a mobile-home park on the southern edge of White Center, where spaces rent for $400 a month, water, sewer and trash included.
“It’s pretty quiet and peaceful most of the time,’’ says Poua, whose wild mane of jet-black hair and neon-green vest announce her exuberant personality before she even speaks a word.
“I like all the new places,’’ she says, but she will never — let’s make that clear: NEVER — abandon The Locker Room, a working-class bar where the retired welders, Boeing mechanics and assembly workers form the center of her social life. A while back, she crashed her car into the planters in front of the bar when her foot slipped off the brake and onto the gas pedal. Rick Rovegno, who has owned the bar for 25 years, arranged to have the damages paid in installments. But he ripped up the bill before it was paid in full.
Poua was so overcome by the gesture that she cried.
Meanwhile, down the street at Lee’s Produce — a fruit and vegetable stand that is technically in Seattle, but connected to White Center in every other way for decades, Christine Nasatka recounts the help she received from the bartender at the Triangle Bar after the family business was burglarized eight months ago.
“He walked in with a cash register, and said, ‘Here you go. I heard you got broken into.’ We didn’t even ask for help. He just heard about it,’’ she says.
Nasatka’s mother, Nam-Suk Nasatka, 67, whom everyone calls Miss Lee, is nearby, conversing with an employee in Spanish. Born in Korea, Miss Lee moved to White Center in 1978 after marrying a Polish-Italian-American soldier. She began working at the stand in 1983, lasting through three ownership changes before finally taking it over in 1993. Her three daughters have tried to get her to take a vacation — even bought her a trip to Hawaii — but Miss Lee will not take even one day off, her daughter says.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood,’’ Christine Nasatka says. “First there were Asians, then Samoan, then Mexican and Somali.’’ Everybody comes out for the summer festival, Jubilee Days, she says. “That is the best. It’s pretty cool.”
As she talks, Nephele Brown, 54, of South Park, looks over avocados stacked near the register. She used to live in White Center, and remembers Lee’s from when she and her kids were living hand to mouth.
“If you didn’t have anything, you could still come in here,’’ she says. Miss Lee would let her pick out food for free or accept a barter arrangement. Unlike other businesses, Miss Lee also left the dumpster unlocked at night so people could fish out food that was still edible but no longer sellable.
“She didn’t have to do that,’’ Brown says. “She wasn’t cut and dry, and focused on the bottom line. It matters where you spend your dollars, and I want to spend them here.”
POVERTY AND HARDSHIP can be yoked to shame when the economics of a place get out of whack. And things can get mighty dull when everyone and everything looks the same. White Center is not there yet. The people who have made it have, for the most part, done so with a sense of humility. They don’t look much different from the people who are still struggling. They’ve made it, but they’re working for the next generation, and the one beyond that.
Lorenz, who is building her future on Momma Bear’s fry bread, has her foot in both worlds: She’s made it as a successful kitchen manager/chef for the past 11 years, and has put every spare dollar into her business, not only for her future, but for her family’s.
Recently, her boss at the restaurant told her, “Years ago, you needed a job. Now, this restaurant needs you.” Still, he encouraged her, telling her, “Don’t ever give up on your business. It’ll happen for you. Don’t give up.”
The knowledge of the struggle is how Lorenz knows the names of most of the small business owners in town. She shops with them regularly, supporting them the best way she knows how.
It’s what a community does.