South Park is a complicated neighborhood of contrast and community, a gritty square mile cut off from the city, sandwiched between a polluted river and a trash site, hemmed in by industry, bisected by a highway and in the shadows of an airport. Now, the most recent census gives South Park yet another stamp: Seattle's...

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It’s late on a Saturday morning in South Park, and in an area of this Seattle neighborhood they call the Sliver on the River two women stand chatting just outside their homes.

Carol Anderson, who has lived here more than five decades, is still in her house robe.

On the street, two boys — one white, the other of mixed heritage — toss a soccer ball between them, every now and then scampering out of the path of an oncoming car.

When Anderson married and moved here, her husband’s family owned three houses next to each other.

Back then, most of the people living in South Park were, like her, white.

These days, it’s different. Up and down her street, Anderson points to homes where new faces have moved in: A Hispanic family up the block and, next to them, a Vietnamese family. Four doors down, a mixed-race family — the family of the boy tossing the ball.

“Our little Norman Rockwell area,” declares Ahlyshawndra Means, the woman chatting with Anderson.

If the late-20th-century painter conjured up an image of anything resembling South Park, it’s unlikely he ever put it on paper. South Park is a complicated neighborhood of contrast and community, a gritty square mile cut off from the city, sandwiched between a polluted river and a trash site, hemmed in by industry, bisected by a highway and in the shadows of an airport. It is that neighborhood most Seattleites — even lifelong residents — don’t know, often getting lost trying to find it. A place of dead-end signs, tree-lined streets and homes in varying stages of upkeep, it is a poor community besieged by one challenge after another — crime, drugs, gangs — but just as resilient in addressing its needs.

Now, the most recent census gives South Park yet another stamp: Seattle’s most diverse neighborhood.

The designation surprises no one here, least of all Sokha Ouk, who has lived in South Park 26 years and sees diversity all around her — on the streets, at the community center where she works and in the classrooms of her children.

“Every culture is down here,” Ouk says.

It’s midafternoon, on a weekday during spring break, and Ouk, a mother of three, is sorting through a group of squirmy boys jockeying for position at a foosball machine in the center.

“All these kids, Asian, Latino, African-American, it doesn’t matter,” she says. “Community is community.”

Seattle’s only river community, South Park was settled in the mid-1850s and was a town for a few short years in the early 1900s. For centuries before that, the Indian tribe from which the river takes its name fished the meandering waterway and farmed the region’s flat, rich terrain. Japanese farmers later joined Italians, taking their produce of radishes, lettuce and corn to the Pike Place Market in Seattle, eventually bypassing middlemen and commission houses to sell directly to consumers.

While most of the neighborhood is in Seattle city limits, the sliver falls within unincorporated King County — a jurisdictional division that over the years has been the source of confusion and hassle.

The little neighborhood was further dissected in 1967, when the state built Highway 99 right down its middle.

When the drug epidemic gripped American cities in the 1980s and early ’90s, South Park, isolated and vulnerable, became a haven for drugs, gangs and prostitution.

“Because the city never came down — not the police, not the building inspectors — there was this attitude that you could do what you wanted to do,” says Bill Pease, a longtime neighborhood activist.

South Park was like a house full of teens left home alone.

But in the past decade or so, the neighborhood has gradually changed.

As the housing market skyrocketed in most parts of Seattle, South Park started drawing more middle-class people who didn’t mind a little grit, could afford the homes here and were willing to pitch in to make things better.

Small as it is, South Park has at least half a dozen parks, a visitor center, one of Seattle’s two skate parks, three boxing clubs, a yacht club and the city’s only working farm. And one night a week neighbors gather for a bonfire down by the river.

Today nearly 4,000 people live here, a fraction of them live-aboards in the South Park Marina. In addition, more than 17,000 people work in the neighborhood.

From pet-food manufacturers and luxury yacht-makers to copper recycling and winemaking, more than 450 businesses operate here. While much of the industry hugs the neighborhood borders, homes and factories jockey for position on some streets.

Homeowners, renters and businesses have grown up in South Park together, but their relationship over the years has been an uneasy one. Fouled by a century of industrial use, the lower Duwamish River has been declared a federal superfund site. Pollution comes not only from the river but from the ground and air; heavy trucks rumble through the streets, and airplanes from Boeing Field drone overhead.

Children and adults in South Park and neighboring Georgetown are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma as people in any other part of King County.

“In this neighborhood, you can find business owners that would like this to be all industrial and residents who want it to be all residential,” says Ron J. Cook, president of the South Park Business Association.

“I want to get to the point of where we don’t have polar extremes.”

Dagmar Cronn, a retired chemistry professor who heads the South Park Neighborhood Association and lives in a waterfront house in the sliver, says she and her husband like the mix — the racial and ethnic blend as well as the mash-up of industrial, commercial and retail with residential.

When they discovered South Park through friends who’d moved in 13 years ago, they found what they were looking for — something different from the homogeneous neighborhoods where they’d lived in Maine and later Michigan.

“The thing that keeps us here,” she says, “is that it’s a real neighborhood in the classic, old-fashioned way of people working together to make the place a better place to live.”

When Paulina Lopez and her husband came down here six years ago looking for a home, she didn’t notice the things that detract — graffiti on buildings, empty store fronts, the litter and occasional rundown house.

She didn’t notice there was no bank, no full-service grocery store, no post office, either.

Lopez says her family came to South Park for the same reason others have: Even during the housing boom, its homes were more affordable than most anywhere else in the city.

“We were walking around and heard people speaking Spanish,” she remembers of that first day they came down to check it out.

Latinos comprise the largest ethnic group in South Park, and the neighborhood has the largest concentration of Latinos of any in the city.

“The people we met were so friendly,” says Lopez, who now chairs the South Park community action committee. “We knew this was where we wanted to be.”

Desirae Cunningham, who lives on the west side of Highway 99, where there’s less traffic, noise and crime, came because she could find a place affordable and big enough to hold her brood.

Cunningham, who moved here with her five children from Wenatchee five years ago, says, “I don’t have to worry so much about the children playing outside.”

She likes that her children are able to mingle with others of different races and ethnicities in the neighborhood and at school.

“It’s teaching my kids to respect and not to judge others,” she says. “It keeps you curious and interested in people who might be different from you.”

Up and down 14th Avenue South, the neighborhood rumbles to life.

This is the face of South Park.

Latino women with children in tow pop into the Guatemalan bakery or stand at the bus stop outside SeaMar’s medical center.

Headquartered in South Park, SeaMar Community Health Centers has a major presence here, quietly promoting programs for the locals; it sponsors an annual Mexican independence day celebration and a soccer team for kids.

Down the block, patrons roll into Loretta’s Northwesterner, a popular local tavern, chatting up the bartender while all around them neighborhood gossip flows.

Fourteenth Avenue is the corridor that connected the neighborhood via the South Park Bridge to the rest of Seattle. Last summer, the county closed the aging bridge after it became unsafe for traffic.

From commuters, to businesses to everyday residents, the closing of one of the only links to the city caught South Park off guard. But the neighborhood, united, began reaching out for help. The kind of activism and prodding that eventually secured funding for a replacement has long been the hallmark of this neighborhood.

In the five short years it was a town, South Park voted in and out three mayors. In the mid-1960s, when Seattle rezoned the neighborhood to industrial, 4,200 South Park residents staged a protest at City Hall and got the zoning changed to low-density residential.

Over the years, residents have galvanized over a third runway for nearby Boeing Field, the prospect of putting a county jail in South Park, the plan to clean up the Duwamish and the design of the replacement bridge.

Neighborhood activists have taken on noise pollution, dust, traffic, crime, flooding and the location of a new transfer station.

“It got to the point — of course it will go to South Park. Where else would it go?” says Pease, who moved to South Park 11 years ago. Pease, who is president of the South Park Bridge Group and a manager at the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, grew up in Massachusetts in an area he says had a similar industrial/residential mix and from the beginning was drawn to the neighborhood.

Seated in his cramped offices in the neighborhood center, contact information for an army of volunteers tacked to a white board, he comes across as a solid guy with a kind face. But don’t mistake him for a chump. There’s a reason Pease sits on virtually every committee in South Park. He’s a warhorse and fiercely loyal to South Park. Just ask any government representative who has had reason to cross paths with him.

“This neighborhood had been underserved for so long,” he explains, “after a while we stopped expecting help and began demanding it.”

That was the case five years ago, when a 16-year-old Latino boy was shot in a drive-by as he left the South Park Community Center.

It wasn’t the first slaying in South Park, and it wouldn’t be the last. Just two years ago, a man sneaked into a home, raped and stabbed the two women who lived there, killing one of them. When the boy was killed, Paulina Lopez had been in the neighborhood only a few months, and the killing happened not far from her home. As one of the first bilingual people on the scene, it fell on her to inform the boy’s mother that her son had been shot.

All of a sudden, for her, the feel-good veneer of the neighborhood was shattered.

She was pregnant with her first child and began questioning if this was the right place to raise her family.

But the neighborhood rallied and again made demands: Better police response and involvement. More gang-prevention efforts. Safer streets. Better neighborhood lighting. More activities for bored teens.

This time, the city responded.

Former Mayor Greg Nickels and then-police Chief Gil Kerlikowske promised their support.

Working with city departments, the neighborhood formed a series of committees to address areas of concern. Neighbors — including Lopez — hosted meetings in their living rooms to hash out the details of a plan that eventually emerged as the South Park Action Agenda, a blueprint of sorts that outlines 162 recommendations for improving the neighborhood.

Says Cronn: “The city stepped up after 100 years of not doing so.”

These days, there’s a feeling of fresh energy and hope on the streets of South Park.

Keith Anderson, who spends a good deal of time at his girlfriend’s house in South Park and had been coming down here for years, says neighborhood pride is palpable. “A lot of the riffraff moved out.”

A different sort showed up.

“The art crowd came. Architects moved in and started fixing up the housing stock,” Pease says. “It began becoming more gentrified.”

Fourteenth Avenue has been repaved; new sidewalks, street lighting and trees are in. Even some new money for social services has come this way.

A new library has opened, too, and the Port of Seattle has built a riverfront-access park.

A new skatepark, a decade in the making, has opened on land donated by SeaMar.

On Friday nights now, dozens of South Park teenagers and young people gather at the community center for Night Out.

In the winter, South Park hosts the Art Under $100 show that features the works of many local artists and draws a healthy following from across the city.

South Park even has a new motto: “Catch the Culture,” and a logo with the profile of a salmon, its curved body leaping from the river.

In two years the bridge will reopen. “In another two, three years, South Park will be just an amazing jewel,” says Edward Marquez, who with a friend moved into the neighborhood a few years ago and volunteers in the library.

Still, there is more work to do. For all its diversity and all its activism, South Park does not enjoy a sense of full community engagement.

Lopez is trying to bring more Latino involvement by creating a cohort of Latina women in the neighborhood who could step up.

It’ll take some doing. Job and family obligations mean that many people can’t be as involved as others. There’s also the language barrier, cultural differences and immigration issues that might prevent some people from rolling up their sleeves and digging in.

Longtime resident Gloria Jacquemart notes that at senior-center events, Asians sit at one end of the table and talk to each other while white residents sit at the other end.

“We all get along,” says Jacquemart, who’s 74. “We nod a lot. It’s a process. I think the kids all going to school together will be able to bridge that gap.”

It’s happening already.

On a recent Saturday at the South Park Neighborhood Center, Jazmayne Carlin, 10, is looking through racks of donated clothes in the basement with her mother. She’s noticed and liked the diversity in her class at Concord International Elementary School.

“I get to meet new friends,” Carlin says brightly. “Almost the entire school is my friend.”

Lornet Turnbull is a Seattle Times staff reporter. She can be reached at 206-464-2420 or Times researcher Justin Mayo contributed to this report. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.