The 2000 Census: Minorities ride wave of shifting demographics

Changing ethnic makeup is the story behind one Seattle neighborhood's identity

Monday, March 26, 2001


Chea Pol takes a break to slurp instant noodle soup while her husband, Heng Hay, pours 79-cent cups of java and bags palm-sized apple fritters for customers lined to the door.

Three Somali men sip coffee at one of the shop's 11 tables, chatting in their native language, while two African American men at a table of their own debate finer points of the 1960s civil rights movement, but not loud enough to disturb the elderly white man scanning the morning sports page.

Comfortably spread over half the sparsely decorated shop, a dozen Filipino men talk politics and pension plans. Their constant chatter in Tagalog drowns out the nasal tones of Sally Jessy Raphael from the flickering television. It's midmorning at the King Donut, a bustling crossroads of the new Seattle, a local gathering place for Rainier Beach locals, a cozy hangout for Filipinos, African Americans, Somalis and Vietnamese who come for conversation and for doughnuts soft and huge.

King Donut is at the heart of Rainier Beach, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in an increasingly diverse city. Thirty years ago, whites were the overwhelming majority here. Now, whites account for about 22 percent of the residents in a neighborhood that is 32 percent black, 30 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 9 percent Hispanic.

Though King County's minority communities are still concentrated south of the Ship Canal, the 2000 Census shows that the same demographic shift that has occurred in Rainier Beach is spreading, albeit at a slower pace. From Northgate to Ballard to Queen Anne, Seattle neighborhoods gained a greater percentage of minorities since the 1990 count. And increasingly, they're finding homes in north Seattle neighborhoods, such as Northgate, Shoreline, Greenwood, the University District and Wedgwood.

Census figures also show that minorities are more likely to live outside of Seattle, particularly in Tukwila, Renton, Skyway, Kent, SeaTac and Federal Way.

But the wider dispersion of ethnic groups in the region doesn't cut across all racial lines. Seattle's black population remains concentrated in Rainier Valley and the Central Area, fueled in part by emigration from Africa.

And Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, White Center and the International District -- traditionally Asian neighborhoods -- continue to attract Asians and Pacific Islanders, though growth also occurred in Asian/Pacific Islander numbers around Bellevue, Redmond, Kent and Bothell.

For many residents of Rainier Beach, racial diversity is part of the attraction.

A retired chemist with King County, Romeo Aquino reared four children in the neighborhood, which he describes as so racially mixed that "even the gangs have diversified."

When his family came to Seattle from Manila in 1966, they moved into Rainier Valley and found comfort among others like them. Aquino and his fellow Filipino Americans are at the doughnut shop so often they're known as the "King Donut Boys."

"I'm more accepted here in the south end," the 52-year-old said. "I'm more at home in this community. You want to be exposed to more."

Not all of these demographic changes sit well with some longtime Rainier Beach residents. Sitting nearby, Pete Witkowski bit into a jelly-filled doughnut and explained that his white neighbors fled the neighborhood in the 1970s at the same time many blacks began moving in. He stayed in Rainier Beach, but said many of his neighbors left because of bigotry and fear of crime.

As the decades went by, he said, people got more used to each other, and he doesn't mind the change.

"It didn't hurt me," said Witkowski, a German immigrant who came to Seattle in 1960. "They didn't take my job."

But Witkowski complained that many of the newer immigrants don't speak English.

"People should try harder to speak American," the 69-year-old retired welder said. "You hear people yapping in their language. Come on, sooner or later you've got to learn it."

When he immigrated here, he learned the language, became a citizen, assimilated.

"The people have changed"

Rainier Valley has long been a haven for newcomers. Once called "Garlic Gulch" for the Italian immigrants who settled there, including former Gov. Albert Rosellini, it changed dramatically in the 1970s, when blacks moved there from the Central Area.

Then came Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotian immigrants who opened noodle shops, nail salons and grocery stores -- many bearing signs only in their native language. The new faces are East Africans, Mexicans and other Hispanics. Many are drawn by lower housing costs, availability of social services and, in many cases, minority communities that already have a toehold there.

The story of how Chea Pol came to own King Donut is the classic story of Rainier Valley, and of an immigrant finding a piece of the American Dream.

When Cambodia collapsed in 1975, Pol, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter fled on foot, traveling at night and walking single-file to avoid land mines. After several years in refugee camps, her sister sponsored her immigration to Seattle in 1979. Eight years later, she and her husband bought King Donut from a fellow Cambodian.

From 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., Pol and her husband preside over a revolving door of expectant customers, mostly regulars who know them by name.

"All kinds of people come here," said Pol, who begins baking racks of old-fashioneds and maple-glazed bars at 3 each morning. "The people have changed. There's more mixed people coming in.

"I like it, but it's too much work, too," she said. Still, the shop has provided her family a decent living.

Located at 9710 Rainier Ave. S., King Donut anchors a sleepy business district next to a Filipino-owned coin-operated laundry, a Vietnamese jewelry store, a Mexican restaurant, a Japanese teriyaki shop and what's commonly called the "ghetto Safeway."

Around here, King Donut is more than just a place for pastry. It is such a beloved local hangout that when an electrical fire recently shut it down for eight months, patrons were devastated.

"It was really hard for the community when she closed," said Danielle Jackson, 37, an African American clerical worker who drops in three times a week and sips hot chocolate with a friend. She adds, "I've been to a lot of doughnut shops but this is the best doughnut."

After the fire, the King Donut Boys met in a nearby restaurant, but they didn't feel welcomed there because they talked too loud.

"We're the majority here," said Rey Tamayo, 53, who first started coming to the shop in 1977. "We come to see our countrymen. We have a different kind of culture and we really love to speak our own dialect. You don't have to think when you speak your own language. All you have to do is talk, talk, talk."

Rudy Davis said he isn't bothered by high-volume Tagalog. He wished he knew the language, too.

"They come here every morning like clockwork," said Davis, 65, an African American who hangs out there about four times a week. "I've gotten to know them. They're friendly."

"Our friends"

Yet for all the friendliness, several patrons observed, people of different ethnic backgrounds still tend to stick together. The Somalis sit with other Somalis, Filipinos talk with other Filipinos, whites with whites and African Americans with African Americans.

"Everybody is doing their own thing," said Abdulrahman Roble, 26, who chatted with two Somalis one morning. "I don't have a problem talking to everyone else (but) it's easier to talk about everything with (other Somalis). Everybody speaks the same language and does the same thing."

That's part of human nature, said Ben Patawaran, a retired King County worker. But "these people are our friends," he said, pointing to the other tables in the shop. "If they weren't comfortable, they wouldn't come here."

Whatever tension there may be, Davis said, the mood is changing.

"When they first came here, they stuck together," Davis said of the newer immigrants in his neighborhood.

"As time goes by, they venture out. The kids have a lot to do with that. There's been a great change in the last 10 years because the kids go to school. They make friends and their relationships don't end there. It carries over into the community. That's helped to ease -- if there was to be any -- tension."

Davis moved to Rainier Beach 18 years ago, following a steady trail of other African Americans who sold off homes and settled in the South End. At the time, he said, many black families were unable to obtain loans to restore their homes so they sold them to look for more affordable housing.

His departure from the Central Area foretold an exodus of minorities, particularly blacks, that continued during the last decade.

New census numbers confirm what realtors have witnessed for several years: Whites are moving back to the Central Area, and blacks are leaving.

The Central Area and parts of First Hill and Capitol Hill saw the percentage of its minorities, particularly blacks, drop since 1990. In one census tract that covers the area around the Garfield Community Center at 23rd Avenue and Cherry Street, there was a 27 percent drop in the number of black residents since 1990.

Surrounding Central Area tracts saw similar drops.

Meanwhile, one Skyway neighborhood just west of Tukwila saw almost a 50 percent gain in the number of blacks since 1990.

Although he laments losing the feeling of a centralized African American community, Davis said Rainier Beach's racial mix is what makes the neighborhood so appealing.

"There are a lot of areas in the city where you won't find this," he said. "I think other parts of the city are missing this."

At least for now.


About 32 percent of Seattleites are ethnic minorities, up from 26 percent in 1990.