Even in an era when we are used to boarded-up storefronts, the street looks grim.
The bulk of one side of a block in the heart of White Center’s business district is boarded up with a mix of signage both hopeful and weary. Signs like “We Will be Back, Hope to Feed You Soon” and “We Are Still In Business,” with a number to call for an alternate location, are mixed with less hopeful messages reading “Temporarily Closed Due to Fire,” and in the blackened and burned-out shell of what was the Locker Room Tavern, a handwritten sign reading “Nothing left. No alchole (sic). No nothing.”
The vibrant, proud and diverse White Center community is no stranger to challenges, but a string of fires, vandalism and the ongoing pandemic have pushed businesses and residents to the brink.
The most recent fire, on Sept. 13, destroyed the Locker Room as well as neighboring businesses. It was the second fire to hit the business this year.
The fires, plus ongoing window smashings and burglaries, have left White Center businesses devastated and in a “state of emergency,” said Helen Shor-Wong, program manager for the White Center Community Development Association, at an Oct. 8 meeting between business owners and King County leaders.
In the meeting, numerous business owners spoke about trying to cope with the impacts of all the damage. Ana Castro, co-owner of the longtime White Center stalwart Salvadorean Bakery & Restaurant, talked about paying $4,000 to have her plate glass window repaired after it was smashed, and her staff not feeling safe to come to work.
But it’s not just the series of destructive events that are frustrating business owners, it’s what they say is the lack of response from county officials and other elected officials to their plight.
At the meeting, business owners presented the county with a petition asking that they do more to help.
“The lack of timely and effective action from our elected officials, County staff, and the Sheriff’s Department have and will continue to impact our community negatively for many years to come. We are alone in rebuilding our businesses and community,” the petition reads.
Some of their demands include $2 million in emergency relief to support fire victims and assist equitable rebuilding; providing one-on-one professional assistance to businesses to help with salvage, insurance, permitting and re-entry; greater transparency and accountability between the community and the King County Sheriff’s Office; investment in private security; and support for a position to help existing and new businesses.
Many of the measures would help Kevin Bui, owner of Huang Xua Deli, a beloved neighborhood fixture for bánh mì and other Vietnamese food. Huang Xua is next door to Locker Room and was destroyed during the effort to put out the bar fire.
“I pretty much lost everything,” Bui said. Between the water, the fire retardant and the roof being demolished, he wasn’t left with much to rebuild. With the business closed, Bui has been working a night job to support his family. He said he has so far only received $9,500 in emergency relief and like many other small White Center businesses, his insurance policy had a low coverage limit.
The fire happened nearly a year after a high point for his business, when his prized roast pork bánh mì was dubbed the best in the Seattle area by Seattle Times food critic Tan Vinh. Bui said after the story came out, people would line up outside the deli for a chance to snag the sandwich.
But now, he doesn’t know what is next.
White Center is an economically marginalized community, with a poverty rate six points higher than Seattle. It is also incredibly diverse, with over half of the population people of color. White Center is in unincorporated King County, and many of the businesses that have been hurt are owned by immigrants and people of color.
According to the White Center petition, community fundraisers have raised over $290,000 for the damaged small businesses but $165,000 was just for the Lumber Yard, the neighborhood’s first LGBTQ+ bar that was destroyed by a July fire that was ruled an arson. In contrast, the GoFundMe for Bui’s business has raised $19,500.
But just as GoFundMes should not be how we deal with our astronomical medical bills, they should also not be our go-to emergency response fund either.
For its part, the county held a meeting last week with many of the same participants as the earlier meeting to talk about their plans to improve public safety in the neighborhood. According to a release sent after the meeting, the county said they had channeled $108,000 in grant money to fire-affected businesses.
In the release, King County Executive Dow Constantine said they were doing everything in their authority to help businesses, and would, among other efforts, hire a technical assistance coordinator to help fire-affected businesses.
“We have been, and will continue to work with everyone in the community,” Constantine said. “The county has a role to play, but I want to take a minute to acknowledge the incredible way the community has joined together to support the affected businesses through crowdfunding efforts and fundraisers.”
Many White Center business owners want to see more action.
Affected businesses want to rebuild and provide longtime residents and families the thriving and culturally rich business district that has long made White Center special. They do not want to see their misfortune turn into an opportunity for greater gentrification and displacement and they want to see the government that they pay taxes to, respond to their needs.
As bakery owner Castro said in the Oct. 8 meeting, “We have been forgotten … we deserve better.”