Last week’s column about Columbia City hurt many, due to how the neighborhood was portrayed. Since then, columnist Nicole Brodeur has listened and learned.
Sometimes being called a racist is just the jolt you need.
“It did help you,” Kirsten Harris-Talley told me the other day. “It upset you. It gave you pause.
“Maybe it didn’t feel good when it happened,” she continued. “Disruption doesn’t feel good. But sometimes disruption is the only option we have. The only way to move forward.”
First, though, a quick step back.
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Last week, I wrote a column about Columbia City, spurred by a June 5 shooting on a busy street. The column wounded a lot of people, who felt angry about how I portrayed the neighborhood.
In a piece in The South Seattle Emerald, Sharon H. Chang called the column “lazy” and “racist.”
I don’t want to repeat any of what hurt people. Instead, I’ll apologize.
In the midst of the criticism, I heard from Harris-Talley, one of the administrators of the Columbia City Facebook page.
She said my column played into a larger narrative about what the neighborhood is, and whether it has value in the eyes of the rest of the city — something it has been dealing with for decades.
“There seems to be a sense that Columbia City was broken and people-of-color-centered that made it less valuable than other parts of the city,” she said, adding that it’s only seen as less of a crime area now because more white people have moved in.
It didn’t help, she said, that I called Columbia City “historically a pass-through” that is now a destination, when people have made the place their own for generations. In fact, her family is involved in the development of the Black & Tan Hall, a cooperative, for-profit community-performance space along Rainier Avenue South.
In Facebook comments and emails, people said they resented my highlighting the recent arrivals of Molly Moon’s, Pagliacci Pizza and Rudy’s Barber Shop. Doing so implied that the new businesses “are the saviors that will finally give the neighborhood validity,” wrote Meredith Jacobson, “erasing the cornerstone businesses that have been here for years.” (Jacobson gave me permission to use her comments.)
Take, for example, the Carol Cobb Salon, owned by a longtime resident who served the black community. Cobb had just finished a major renovation in August 2014 when an SUV racing down Rainier plowed into the place.
Cobb bowed out and Pagliacci moved in. Pizza’s great, but many people felt that in losing a black-owned business, part of the neighborhood’s identity was lost.
It was the same when Jones Original BBQ left Columbia City for West Seattle after a rent increase.
My column read to some as a continuation of the slights, the stereotypes and the slurs that they have been dealing with all their lives.
Michelle Perry has lived in Columbia City since 1976 and co-administers the Facebook page with Harris-Talley. We met for coffee Saturday morning at Caffe Vita in Seward Park, not far from my house. (Yes, I live in the area.)
Perry said I put too much emphasis on the June 5 shooting.
“Let it go,” she said. “It’s scary, but let it go. It doesn’t make it safe just because you’re here.”
I kept my mouth shut and listened.
“We don’t want to talk about shootings, we want to stop them,” Perry continued. “We don’t want to talk about gangs, we want programs for them. And jobs.”
All that seems to be forgotten in the wave of newcomers and businesses who are making it hard for longtime residents to afford to stay, or preserve what they’ve built.
Perry can remember the exact message thread that told her how much the area was changing. It was about dog poop.
One neighbor complained that people were tossing bags of dog poop into her trash cans. The thread went on for days. She couldn’t believe it.
“Dog poop? Compared to how to pay the mortgage?” she said.
It is my responsibility to write about that change, and to continue to educate myself about Seattle’s racist history.
Perry recommended I take a workshop called “Undoing Institutional Racism” offered by the People’s Institute Northwest. (All King County — and Portland — classes are filled through the end of the year. Pray for a cancellation.)
“Listen to elders,” Perry said. “Listen to people of color. Ask them what would be helpful.”
But even that is up for debate. One woman who asked not to be named said that asking people of color to school me is another form of racism. I need to do the work on my own.
“Hunker down with humility and learn,” she said.
Delve into the roots of gentrification, she suggested. Racism in America and its Seattle expression. Policies of redlining, “and especially the perpetuation of a culture of racism and whiteness neutrally masked through ‘innocent’ words,” she said.
Others addressed the difficulty of talking about race in a society that seems to get more divided by not only the day, but by the court decision; the act of terrorism; the shooting.
Young Han said it seems easier for people to “double-down on own sentiments, rather than do the hard work of trying to communicate with people we may not understand, or who may refuse to understand us.”
Maybe it’s best to ask questions, Han said.
“Can we talk about race without degenerating? … What does it mean for a community to resist change? … How does it preserve its ideals and aspirations without becoming inward-looking, self-satisfied or distrustful of outsiders?”
Much of this is covered in a new play about race and privilege at Book-It Repertory Theatre called “Welcome to Braggsville.”
My colleague Brendan Kiley spoke to Daemond Arrindell, who co-adapted the piece, and something he said has stayed with me over the last several days:
“None of us is an angel. None of us is a devil. The story allows us to look at ourselves as complex individuals. And even when we think we’re doing the right thing, we can still mess up and hurt people.”
Indeed, these are hard conversations. We don’t understand our own bias. And best intentions aren’t only not good enough — they’re irrelevant.
In taking on the issue of crime and gentrification in a single column, I climbed the journalistic equivalent of an Olympic high dive and failed. I need more training.
“Stay tough,” Perry advised me before we parted the other day. “But stay open. You’re on your way.”
My editor recently asked me whether there was a project I wanted to work on, something long-term. And this just might be it: My own self. My own bias.