Seattle's 'Diverse' Neighborhoods Are Surprisingly Segregated | KUOW News and Information

Seattle's 'Diverse' Neighborhoods Are Surprisingly Segregated

Apr 7, 2016

Seattleites know they live in a racially segregated city.

White people live north; black people and Asians live south. 

But there are a handful of neighborhoods that have become increasingly integrated in recent years – namely, Columbia City and the Central District.

But University of Washington sociology doctoral students found that those neighborhoods may not be so diverse when you analyze the area block by block. Tim Thomas, one of those students, started thinking about this after Columbia City was named the most diverse ZIP code in the country. 

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“When we actually go and visit some of those blocks, we see a starkly different story where parks are different, where stores are different, even just blocks away,” Thomas said. “And the people who interact within those stores may be different clientele.”

Thomas, and his colleague Ryan Gabriel, found that in Columbia City, 25 percent of the African-American population lives on 5 percent of the land. 

“Within a diverse neighborhood such as Columbia City, there’s definitely a mix of groups all around, but there’s also evidence of clustering and isolation,” Thomas said. “That begs the question, are these people actually interacting with each other on a daily basis?”

A slide from Tim Thomas's presentation on the demographics of three Seattle neighborhoods. Columbia City may be diverse, he found, but neighbors tend to frequent separate shops and parks.
Credit Courtesy of Tim Thomas

He said that neighbors may live near each other, but they may not shop at the same places.

“Even as neighbors, a lot of people don’t know each other, and they don’t interact with each other and they kind of isolate themselves to various small pocket locations of the neighborhood,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that Rainier Avenue is a dividing line. The area grows increasingly white as you move east toward the sweeping views of Lake Washington. 

The Central District is also racially diverse: 47 percent white, 30 percent black, 8 percent Asian. The CD has been the historic heart of the African-American community since the 1940s.

But since the 1980s, the neighborhood has grown increasingly expensive and white. Today, the least expensive home in that neighborhood is a townhome listed for $430,000. (It sold in 2013 for $163,000.)

The Central District, the historic heart of black Seattle, has grown increasingly white and expensive since the 1980s.
Credit Courtesy of Tim Thomas

But whites and blacks are segregated within the neighborhood, Thomas said.

“You have the lake, you have these beautiful multi-million dollar homes with immaculate lawns, and you can travel 500 feet and you’ll see overgrown ivy, streets that don’t lead to the east side of that tract; you’ll see razor wire on some of the buildings, you’ll see graffiti,” he said. “Technically that’s a diverse tract. But the images, even the churches, are completely different within that same area.”

History has played a large role in this segregation. There were more than 400 housing covenants that were spread throughout the city.

The Japanese internment also impacted how the city grew racially. Japanese-Americans were forced to leave their homes in 1942. Japantown was on the southern edge of the Central District, and many African-Americans moved into those empty homes.

The UW researchers found that half the African-Americans in the Greenwood neighborhood lived on two blocks where there is public housing.
Credit Courtesy of Tim Thomas

Thomas and Gabriel examined Greenwood, a North Seattle neighborhood that reflects Seattle demographics.

Greenwood is 68 percent white, 6 percent African-American and about 11 percent Asian. But Thomas and Gabriel found that 50 percent of blacks lived in public housing on two separate blocks.

“Which is great, and it allows them to live in a city that has good social services, that has amenities and education and a better way of life and ability to have their children grow up,” Thomas said. “But it still is a marker that a lot of the non-white population is struggling with a lot of poverty. And their opportunities are not necessarily equal compared to the other residents surrounding them.”

Thomas paraphrased a quote from a book:

“We’re OK with poverty as long as we believe that economic mobility, class mobility is possible," he said, adding, "but in reality, a lot of the research shows that class mobility is becoming more and more difficult,” he said. “It’s important to understand why that’s happening and not to stay in a bubble.”

Produced for the Web by Isolde Raftery.