Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Introductions are in Order

Many years ago my brother got a job cooking at a small French and Mexican fusion restaurant in a small up-and-coming neighborhood. The restaurant received rave reviews from the Seattle Times but eventually went out of business because apparently the neighborhood wasn't up-and-coming quite fast enough. This Seattle neighborhood was Columbia City.

The first time I drove to Columbia City, directions placed carefully in the passenger's seat, I kept getting the anxious feeling of “ I going the right way?” Having heard rumblings about the Seattle neighborhood tucked away like a secret in the Rainier Valley, I wondered if the rumblings were true as I drove past run-down store fronts that peppered Rainier Avenue on my way to my desired destination. Stopping at the intersection of Rainier Avenue and Alaska Street I could see the surroundings gradually changing. To my right is the sprawling green grass of Columbia Park and adjacent is the historic Columbia branch of the Seattle Public Libraries built in 1909, standing alone like a beacon.

Driving through the downtown shopping area, as charming as it was, I was possessed to continue driving...I wanted to see more than the storefronts that could only share so much. I wanted to see the houses that were homes to Columbia City's residents.

Old craftsmen homes painted pumpkin orange, curry yellow, and oxblood red with carefully overgrown gardens; houses seeping into the plant life with moss growing on
roofs while beat up cars had lost life in their yards; sleek angular condos with
miniature chihuahuas nipping at the windows. My brow could actually see the phrase “up-and-coming neighborhood.”

Parking my car near the New School at Columbia and stepping out I immediately smelled barbecue, this was my kind of neighborhood! Recess in full swing, I walked past the chaotic school yard where I could see children of an array of ethnicities playing rambunctiously. I passed two suburban looking moms, strollers in tow, while two sketchy guys walked on the opposite side of the street.

Turning the corner onto Rainier Avenue I saw the sign for the Columbia City Bakery. Opened in 2005, I had never been to the actual bakery before but had shared a cheese plate at a pub with a friend and I remember a baguette we could not get enough of; “I'm sorry, but can we get more bread, it's delicious,” we pleaded to our server. We later discovered it was from this very bakery in this mysterious neighborhood.

While eating my chocolate chip cookie and sipping rubios tea, I noticed three women in the back baking, two clad in tattoos and bandannas, and the other wearing a hat. I think they were making rugelach. I watched grandmother's bring their grandchildren to get cupcakes and hot cocoa. They supervised, while the children bit into giant chocolate cupcakes topped with even larger strawberries, the kids licking their fingers in between bites. This seemed to be the after school hot spot for late afternoon treats.

I began talking to the woman next to me, Katrina Hess, a graphic designer who rides her bike all the way from Capitol Hill to hang out in the neighborhood and work. “It feels less pretentious, more multicultural,” she explains her reasoning for visiting the neighborhood often. But she worries about the neighborhood becoming gentrified
like the neighborhood she used to live in in L.A. where “poor artists and Mexican families” used to live before the condos took over. She's moving to Columbia City in June and I can understand her intrigue with this diverse neighborhood that manages to feel like a community despite its close proximity to downtown. I'm looking forward to exploring its nooks and crannies, as well as the people that give it its vibrancy.

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