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A Square Mile of "Ready for Anything"

When Seattle Public Schools announced it was suspending classes in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Lashanna Williams naturally thought about the children in her South Park neighborhood.

About 90% qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. And while the district would provide students with sack lunches during the school closures, that still meant some would be missing that important first meal of the day.

So Williams came up with a plan to offer community breakfasts—scrambled eggs and pancakes, mostly. (She learned soon enough that nobody wanted oatmeal.) In her driveway she set up a tent, tables, hot plates, a griddle. When owners of the popular neighborhood coffee shop, Resistencia Coffee, learned what she was doing, they offered her their space, insisting when she demurred. Uncle Eddie’s sandwich shop, before it closed, gave Williams the meat from its freezer and more people than she could reasonably accommodate signed up to help set up, distribute food, and clean up afterward.

By the time Gov. Jay Inslee ordered residents to shelter in place less than two weeks later, Williams had already pivoted, organizing a network of food stands and sharing tables in neighbors’ driveways—some of them operating 24 hours a day—so people could get supplies anytime they needed them. Fresh produce. Non-perishables. Toys. Books. Toilet paper. Donations, she says, came in “Bernie Sanders-style”— small contributions of as little as $2—from across the country, but many from right there in the neighborhood.

In this gritty, square-mile pocket south of Seattle, residents created a GoFundMe account to help pay rent for neighbors who had lost their jobs when businesses closed following the coronavirus outbreak. They began communal grocery shopping in the neighborhood, where there are few fresh food markets, and a barter system has emerged for people to exchange what extras they have. 

When the local Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group teamed up with the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics, and Environment to translate pandemic health and safety guidelines into multiple languages, residents who spoke Somali, Khmer, Spanish, and Vietnamese stepped forward to create informational videos so their neighbors would have that critical information, too. Such a ready community response in the face of a widening global crisis may not look very different from anywhere else, until you hear South Park’s recurring story of stubborn resilience and you start to think that maybe this neighborhood has been preparing for something like this all along.

“There’s a whole different set of values when you know people have your back,” Williams says. “When you are of communities that aren’t of financial means, the means to support from within are different and enormous. The way you view what is important is through a different set of lenses.” 

Lashanna Williams believes not just her Seattle community, but the nation, will emerge stronger because of what we are enduring now. After moving from Detroit five years earlier, Williams settled in South Park in 2008, where the 4,000 residents make up the city’s most diverse neighborhood. YES! Photo by Jovelle Tamayo.A death doula and massage therapist, Williams moved to South Park in 2008 from another Seattle neighborhood, after relocating from Detroit five years earlier. She and her partner had bought a home big enough to convert into a duplex so they could live separately but easily share parenting duties.  

The neighborhood was an easy place to meet people, and living there has allowed her to engage in community, she says. She dug in almost right away, volunteering with neighborhood groups and providing meditation classes for teenagers in her home studio.  “When you have humans and you have heart, you’re pretty much used to doing what you have to do to make things happen,” Williams says. “And that’s what we do here.” That’s what South Park has always done.

Scrappy Little Neighborhood on the River About 4,000 people live in this patchwork of houses, factories, and warehouses at a dogleg on the Duwamish River; before the new normal, four times as many people worked there. An analysis of the 2010 census showed it was the city’s most diverse neighborhood. Bisected by a highway and in the flight path of the airport, South Park is that neighborhood that remains a mystery even to people who have lived in Seattle their entire lives. It’s home to Seattle’s last remaining working farm, and as the city’s only river community has for years enjoyed a bonfire on the water one night a week. Or used to.  

Shawna Murphy and her husband were pregnant with their first child and looking for a condo 16 years ago when they purchased their first home in South Park—on the same day they looked at it. She describes it as a place where neighbors yell to each other over the fence.  “So we have two children now and I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to raise our children here because it’s like this small town where everybody’s out walking their dog and everyone always says hello to each other,” Murphy says. “And the reason it feels like we were at the ready when this disaster hit is because we are talking all the time.”

From the sidewalk outside her home, on a busy neighborhood corner, Murphy hosts one of the 24-hour neighborhood sharing tables. When the outbreak started and the shutdowns began, she had already started thinking of how she could help her neighbors when Williams called. 

The table is on the corner of her preschool playground, “so we are often outside when people come by,” she says. Some stop to chat, introducing themselves, others prefer anonymity. “I’m trying to feel out the best way to make people feel comfortable.” While some hosts want to provide supplies for children and others want to provide things they think their neighbors will need most, Murphy says she wanted to “normalize the sharing of resources.” So in addition to grabbing things they could use, like the rolls of toilet paper she makes available, people have dropped off supplies, too, like deodorant and shampoo, boxes of toys, or a flat of ripe avocados. “When you are of communities that aren’t of financial means, the means to support from within are different and enormous.”

At the same time, “we have had our fair share of car break-ins and people stealing tools and maybe it’s part of that too that [shows] you have to look out for each other,” she says. “There’s something about the geography I think and something about the kind of neighborhood we are that we already know each other and we are already used to fighting for resources and advocating for ourselves.”

“A Square Mile of Defiance” For centuries the Duwamish tribe that gave the river its name fished the meandering waterway and farmed the region’s flat, rich terrain. Generations of Japanese and Italian farmers, drawn to the fertile land, continued that tradition. In 1905, residents voted to make South Park a city; two years later they voted to be annexed to Seattle so they could benefit from city services. Industry began to develop along the banks of the river after its twists and curves were straightened to allow passage for ocean-going ships and barges headed for Puget Sound. And the presence of Boeing Airplane Co. across the river flooded the little farming community with new residents. 

Over time, South Park developed an air of active resistance. In the 1960s, housewives marched to City Hall to protest open garbage burning at a nearby dump. And in the mid-1960s, when Seattle rezoned the neighborhood to industrial, South Park residents again staged a protest at City Hall to get the zoning changed to low-density residential. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer headline once proclaimed: “South Park: A Square Mile of Defiance.” In the 1980s and 1990s when the drug epidemic gripped urban areas around the country, long-time residents say South Park, isolated as it is, was largely ignored and neglected by the city, politicians, and by law enforcement.

And in 2006, when a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed there, residents fed up with the neglect started making demands: better police response, more gang-prevention, safer streets, better neighborhood lighting, and more activities for bored kids.

The City of Seattle responded in a way it hadn’t before—working with residents to create the South Park Action Agenda, which prioritized a safe, healthy community while preserving its identity and diversity. 

“We Still Have to Speak Very Loudly” Lifelong Seattle resident Robin Schwartz had never heard of South Park when she and her husband moved there from another Seattle neighborhood 14 years ago. But it didn’t take long for her to recognize the “community-driven spirit” that had become its hallmark.  Schwartz serves as development and advocacy manager for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a local organization whose mission extends beyond monitoring cleanup of the river, a federally designated Superfund Site, to being a voice for impacted communities along the waterway. A lot of South Park’s energy and spirit, she says, derives from its large immigrant population, who make it a welcoming place for families and children in a way other Seattle neighborhoods may not. Nearly 30% of South Park households are families with children under 18—some 10 percentage points higher than the rest of the city. 

And while Schwartz, who is also treasurer of the local Parent Teacher Student Association, had served on many neighborhood committees, she says it wasn’t until her children started attending elementary school that she began to see and understand the depth of the inequities the neighborhood faced. “There are a lot of needs down here,” she says. “And for many, many years whatever activism there was was ignored.”

Over the last decade or so, as they’ve gained greater racial and social injustice awareness, governments and courts have been more open to listening. “We still have to speak very loudly for what we need and follow-through is still an issue,” but it’s a little easier, Schwartz says.

South Park residents, she explains, had been so used to having their demands denied or ignored they may not have had the expectation that the system was there to serve them and that they were entitled to what everyone else had. What has helped is collaborations with those who have and are making the kinds of connections that can get the community seen and heard.

“People want a voice and we have 10, 15 people down here who are strong leaders and I think we have needed to step up,” Schwartz says. “When you’re a scrappy community with a lot of needs, you learn to take care of yourself.”

But Schwartz, who describes herself as “a person of privilege and one of the gentrifiers,” recognizes that the advantage she’s had informs her perspective, if just a little. “I do expect the system to serve me,” she says. “And then I came down here and I go ‘wait a minute, it wasn’t like this on Capitol Hill.’ Circumstances demand that people raise their voices.”

“We’re one of those communities that has been resilient for a long time,” says Paulina López, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Residents are activated; they have used their collective community power to clean the river and to resist expansion of the airport, plans for a county jail, and a transfer station. \

Again and again South Park residents would find they needed to do just that. A decade ago, the closing of the South Park Bridge, which connects the already isolated neighborhood to the rest of the city, was another rallying flashpoint. Deteriorating, earthquake damaged, and in need of expensive repairs, the bridge appeared destined to permanently close after a different, more prominent Seattle transportation project was selected for federal funding.  When residents learned that the motorcade of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate’s Transportation Appropriations Committee, would be crossing the bridge, they stood on it—in the rain, holding water-smeared cardboard signs—to get her attention. 

Aligning with some prominent neighborhood forces, like Boeing and King County International Airport, residents organized and fought back even after losing out, refusing to give up. Through it all, “we got together, supported each other and figured out new ways to get things done,” Williams recalls. In the end, funding was secured for a new bridge that opened in 2014, featuring bike lanes and sidewalks.

Over the years, South Park residents have used their collective community power to protest plans for a county jail there; location of a transfer station; the polluted Duwamish River; the dust, traffic, and noise pollution from surrounding industry; and the expansion of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in whose flight path the neighborhood lies.

“We’re one of those communities that has been resilient for a long time,” says Paulina López, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Now South Park has a new fight on its hands. When the coronavirus first appeared in Seattle, López and her team at the DRCC, formed in 2001 after the Duwamish was declared a Superfund Site, knew they had their work cut out for them. 

According to a 2013 environmental analysis, South Park, together with neighboring Georgetown and Beacon Hill, have the region’s highest “environmental vulnerability” ranking, which considers such factors as environmental exposure and public health. Children and adults in those neighborhoods have among the region’s highest asthma hospitalization rates—making them even more susceptible to the coronavirus.

López said people in South Park immediately began reaching out: “What was this new virus? Was it real? Would it affect my asthma?”

In her 14 years in this neighborhood, López has put everything into making it the kind of community where people want to live and raise their children. She and her husband had been in search of a house they could afford in Seattle’s skyrocketing real estate market when they moved there in 2006. Walking around, she heard people speaking Spanish and immediately knew she had found home. 

At least 30 percent of South Park residents speak a language other than English at home. López and her team saw an urgent need to get accurate information about the coronavirus to them. 

A lot of South Park’s energy and spirit derives from its large immigrant population, who make it a welcoming place for families and children in a way other Seattle neighborhoods may not. In addition to the informational videos, the DRCC also developed a program to coordinate weekly food delivery to residents and created an extensive, multilingual resource page for the neighborhood. DRCC is providing face masks to people who need them, mostly those impacted by asthma, she says. And while it is no longer organizing neighborhood group cleanup efforts, López is encouraging people to “continue caring for the neighborhood and the river” as they go on social-distancing walks.

With the outbreak spreading and resources everywhere stretched thin, López has been relentless in her search for solutions for her vulnerable community, reaching out to organizations and government agencies and looking for ways to collaborate. The needs have been evolving—starting with disseminating crucial information early on, then addressing concerns over asthma and the need to provide food. “Now it’s people losing their jobs and needing support,” López explains.

“More businesses are closing and many of our families have someone in the household—if not both—laid off,” she says. “We have been supporting efforts on how we are going to be able to provide rental support because that is the biggest need right now.” López and the others are also considering what’s to come. They know things will get tougher in the coming months.

“As an organization, we can be helping to solve the problem this month, but what’s gonna happen in May? Or June?” she says. “That’s what has been on my mind.” It’s what’s been on all their minds, these tireless sister friends, whose advocacy and activism have moved into their living rooms, onto the neighborhood Facebook page, and onto video chat—strategizing, planning, organizing.

Williams says she believes not just South Park but the nation will emerge stronger because of what we are enduring now. “There’s a reason that catastrophes hit and there’s fallout from that,” she says. “And if the fallout happens to offer ways that we as humans can change, we will most certainly be better off.”

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