Southeast Seattle's Hillman City is one of the latest neighborhoods to reinvent itself, helped along by budding entrepreneurs, writes columnist Jerry Large.
Karl Hackett likes vintage furniture and the vintage neighborhood where he sells it. Hillman City, like some of the collectibles Hackett sells, is in the midst of a revival, and Hackett is one of the people helping to add some polish to the neighborhood in Southeast Seattle.
His shop, Jacob Willard Home, is on a short stretch of Rainier Avenue South in the heart of Hillman City where businesses have been blooming like wildflowers over the past year or so, following the path of northern neighbor Columbia City on its way from haggard to hot.
My wife and I walk to Columbia City sometimes to eat, see a movie or buy something from one of the shops there, but we never had a reason to keep walking to Hillman City. A while ago, we started noticing a change when we’d drive past, and one day recently we walked along Rainier poking our noses into new businesses, seeing what they were about.
Each one seemed to have an interesting story, which I guess you’d expect because they’re pioneers of a sort. How many Seattle neighborhoods have gone through stages like this one, from stability to decline to rebirth as places where new businesses can find less expensive space to get started.
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There’s a familiar narrative of residents and business owners pulling together to make something special. Of course, if it works, the growth keeps going and something of the original spunk and charm usually gets left behind, along with the diversity of characters on the street. Ballard, Fremont.
It’s interesting that in a city addicted to growth, so many people felt something for Edith Macefield, who held onto her little house in Ballard even as it was enveloped in new high-rise development. There is something fundamental about the struggle between earthy and shiny, small scale and big, with many people wanting one and bemoaning the loss of the other. When you get to your destination, you won’t be who you were.
Macefield’s house and the conflict it represents even made news across the country.
Hillman City is in that adorable pioneer stage — residents and small businesses making their neighborhood better. My wife and I spent some time chatting with Hackett, and last week I went back to talk more about his experience.
He’s a friendly, talkative guy with a wrestler’s broad chest, a preacher’s son who said his father taught him you get to know people “not for what they can do for you, but for who they can be to you.”
Hackett, 44, and his wife, Annick Sorth, first looked for space downtown, but there wasn’t anything in their price range. They were familiar with Hillman City because they lived nearby in Seward Park, and when they saw a spot in the building was for lease, they went for it.
“We recognized Hillman City was a little rough,” Hackett told me, “but we understood it wasn’t going to stay that way.”
He said the building, at 5600 Rainier, had been vacant for five years before James and Tien Ackley bought it. James Ackley told me in 2013, when I interviewed him for a column on his Columbia City business, Bob’s Quality Meats, that he wanted to help that neighborhood’s success spread farther south.
Ackley spent his retirement money on the building because of his belief in Hillman City’s potential; he also started a business there, Claw and Paw’s Pet Grocery. Income from the meat market subsidized the low rent, but a fire closed the market July 2.
He’s hanging on until it’s back. “We have absolutely incredible tenants in the building, and our success depends on all of us working together.”
The building houses three businesses on the ground floor and nine upstairs. There were only three other tenants when Hackett signed up. He opened in May 2014, and there has been a miniboom nearby since then.
A Seattle neighborhood hasn’t arrived until it has a brewery, of course, but a coffee shop has to come first, and the first tenant in Hackett’s building was Tin Umbrella Coffee Roasters, whose owner has been a guide for Hackett. “Joya (Iverson) convinced me it was worth the effort,” he said.
He says it has been more than worth it. He has an outlet for his furniture-collecting addiction — he enjoys hunting for pieces, researching their history, and talking with people about them. Selling just sort of happened when he filled up his house about three years ago and started having yard sales. That’s what led to the idea of opening a furniture store in the first place.
It’s as much a hobby as a business, and the bonus is that he’s been able to spend time with his son, Jacob, who’s 4 now. The couple also have twin teenage daughters.
But it was Jacob he always took along on furniture-hunting trips, and Jacob spends most days with him in the shop. Hackett named the business for Jacob and for his own father, who’s first name was Willard.
His father, a minister with a psychology degree and a military veteran fluent in Japanese and Arabic, was Hackett’s model of what a man should be. He died just over a year before Jacob was born, and Hackett wanted to connect them somehow.
Hackett has made his own connection through the business, becoming an integral part of the Hillman City family.
Hillman City has a revived business association that meets in Hackett’s store, and the new neighborhood group, Vision Hillman City, also meets there. He’s a part of both. And even when there aren’t meetings, other business owners drop in to sit on a comfortable piece of midcentury modern furniture and chat.
Hackett even moves furniture out onto the sidewalk once a month and invites people to sit and visit. It’s something he and Iverson thought up to get more people out onto the streets.
When he moved in, it was rare to see anyone walking by, but now he says there are mothers pushing strollers down the block. It’s not the rough spot it used to be. The place has a nice shine to it.