This South Seattle farm has survived gentrification for a century
For the past few weeks, we’ve been following the path of gentrification from the Central District into South Seattle. As land values go up, people start to feel the pressure to leave.
That’s just starting to happen in Rainier Beach. It’s a community that’s home to a large minority population – and what you could argue is Seattle’s last big family farm.
There were horses on Henderson Street the other day. They headed from their farm right by the Rainier Beach light rail station down to the shore of Lake Washington. They were passing through one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. And they stuck out.
“Oh my gosh, look at that,” said Amos Jackson as the riders stopped near his bench. “Magnificent animals,” he said while petting their faces.
The horses splash into Lake Washington and go for a swim. “This is a beautiful thing right here,” said Telyn Austin, “I ain’t never been this close to a horse before, excepting in a zoo.”
Everywhere, people stop and stare. It’s a reminder how much the neighborhood has changed. This area used to be all farms. Still, Lisa Sferra, who owns the 20 acre horse farm, feels right at home. “We have never lost faith in this area,” she said of Rainier Beach. “We’ve thought it’s been wonderful through all the transitions that it’s been through.”
The Sferra family has owned this farm almost a century. Seventy-eight-year-old Gloria Sferra said it helped her family through the Great Depression. “My own father had a milk route,” she said, “and he had a red flier wagon. And he used to walk around and sell pints of milk to the neighbors.”
The freeway, Boeing field and the development of Rainier Beach – they all came later.
Over time, the farm became an anachronism.
One time their steer escaped and ran down Interstate 5 towards Seattle. The traffic backed up for miles. The steer didn’t know what to do. “He would dart back and forth and you couldn’t get past him,” said Gloria. “You didn't know what lane to take because he was running sideways and doing all kinds of stuff.”
Fourteen-year-old Lisa Sferra and her sister found the steer by following the news helicopters overhead.
They coaxed him into a trailer and took him home. “He had been galloping a long way and he was really fat and he was out of shape,” remembered Gloria Sferra. “And when he came home, he immediately lay down in the barn.”
In the decades since the steer got out, Rainier Beach kept changing. African Americans moved here from the Central District. Refugees moved here from around the world. Millionaires snapped up the waterfront property.
With all that demand, land prices rose. The farm started getting offers from developers. Gloria Sferra remembers a letter that asked: “Why don’t you sell your property? Because, obviously, you’re not using it.”
But the farm faced a bigger threat when it passed from Gloria’s generation to the next. Gloria divided the farm up between her two daughters. Lisa wanted to keep the farm. Her sister was thinking of selling. “Those were really trying times for me,” recalls Lisa. They went through mediation to come up with a fair price. Lisa bought her sister out and the farm was saved, for this generation.
But other residents in Rainier Beach may not be able to stick it out. Light rail has increased the accessibility of this neighborhood. Rents are rising here once again.
Rainier Beach resident Charon Stewart-Silvano recently got a letter from her landlord. “And the letter basically said, ‘Thank you for being good renters. The house is gonna get remodeled and then it’s gonna be sold.’”
Stewart-Silvano and her family will have to move. Over five years, she says she’s contributed $75,000 to keep her family in that house. Now, she feels like she has nothing to show for it. “We have a stake in Rainier Beach, and my kid has grown in that neighborhood and has grown to be a young man," she said, "and we could still be where we were, if we’d owned it. But we don’t.”
One day, Stewart-Silvano saw the Sferra family horses walking through Rainier Beach. She had never seen them before. So she assumed they were part of the gentrification that’s pushing her out.
“I mean, these white women walked by on horses through a black place,” she recalled, “So at that time, it was like, is this a new discovery?”
That’s when I told her – the family and their farm has been in Rainier Beach for almost a hundred years. As she began to understand, a change came over her expression. “That’s awesome. I mean… A hundred years! They stayed, that family stayed. They preserved their land. And they did not sell out. Wow!”
Now, she wants to show those horses to her own kid. Because she thinks it’s cool, that they survived.
But the Sferras know they have to keep working to fit in here. New people are moving in. Online, people have been complaining about horse poop on the streets.
That’s part of the reason the family goes on “trail rides” through the neighborhood, to be seen and to talk to people.
So at the end of their trail ride, they do something a little unusual: They stop for ice cream at the McDonald’s drive through. On horseback, of course.
Drive through window attendant Veronica Nicolas said, “Now we’re serving horses?” The horses didn’t trigger the sensor that turns on the driver through microphone, so she came out and took their order by hand. Five ice cream cones, all vanilla. At first, it was confusing, but in retrospect, she says it wasn’t such a big deal. “It’s OK, we solved it,” she said, “We got it done.”
After ice cream, the Sferras took their horses back to the barn for a well-deserved rest.
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