When I tried looking for the historic South China Restaurant on Beacon Avenue South, I forgot that Ron Chew told me that it had moved from the neighborhood a couple of years ago to re-settle in Bellevue and is now named Perry Ko’s South China Restaurant. But, in the process of searching for this landmark of Asian American entrepreneurship, I realized this long commercial strip is already well stocked with several other Asian mainstays.
Something else struck me as peculiar when I put more time into walking around the commercial and historical core of Beacon Hill: the Hilltop Red Apple Market is the only chain grocery store there. No Safeway, no QFC, no Albertsons. Residents are mainly served by no-frills, independently-owned stores that cater to either Asian or Hispanic tastes. Case in point is Tienda Mexicana, located near that busy intersection at 15th Avenue South and Beacon Avenue South, nicknamed “Beacon Junction”, and Foulee Market at the south end of Beacon Avenue, hanging off of South Columbian Way.
Within barely 100 years, Beacon Hill has turned from a predominately White neighborhood to a predominately Asian neighborhood. Outside of the Chinatown/International District, Beacon Hill has the highest concentration of Asian Americans living in King County. After World War II ended, more and more Chinese and Filipino people started filtering out of the traditional Chinatown and Central districts and into the Beacon Hill neighborhood in order to take advantage of more room and cheaper housing to start families.
As immigration laws were liberalized and families became established, younger generations of Asian Americans, African Americans and Hispanics started enrolling in schools in significant numbers. In the June 1984 Beacon Hill Community Study, it reported that in 1962 “two schools – Beacon Hill and Kimball – already had 58 percent minority enrollments. The minority enrollment at Maple was still small, only 13 percent. By 1972, the minority enrollment at Beacon Hill and at Kimball had increased to 83 percent and 82 percent. Maple’s minority enrollment had increased threefold to 36 percent.”
However, as the city of Seattle began modernizing its transportation system, especially after constructing Interstate 5, and economic recessions hit the area in the 1970s and 1980s, Beacon Hill saw its fortunes fall a bit. Frederica Merrell and Mira Latoszek, authors of “Seattle’s Beacon Hill”, summarized some of the causes of this downturn in their book: “Increased numbers of family cars and the ensuing access to other shopping centers probably drew business away from the local groceries and bakeries. Neighboring business districts have grown significantly and provide stiff competition for customers.”
Beacon Hill’s residential areas appear well-worn, but mainly well kept. Unlike some Seattle neighborhoods, Beacon Hill has not been blighted by wholesale raising of old houses or businesses to make way for cookie-cutter architectural flops. Single-family homes predominate and the overall character they exude is one of working-class elegance. Yes, there are apartment complexes and houses in the area that appear to be on their last legs, but they are few and far between. Walking along the streets, and taking in the view of the houses, as well as the scenic spread of the Cascades mountain range to the east, I could definitely sense the pride that the residents took in maintaining their gardens or decorating the outside of their domiciles with individual expressions of nonconformity.
On one of my walks through the neighborhood, I deviated from my normal routine of starting at Beacon Junction and walking south toward the public golf course. I caught site of the brown roof covering the two-story structure that was once Beacon Hill Elementary School and headed toward its gated yard. This is the building where El Centro De la Raza is located, a non-profit group whose mission is “grounded in the Latino community, […] to build unity across all racial and economic sectors, to organize, empower, and defend our most vulnerable and marginalized populations and to bring justice, dignity, equality, and freedom to all the peoples of the world.”
I admired the serene Santos Rodriguez Memorial Park from just outside the chain link fence. It wasn’t until I checked my research notes later in the evening that I read about the revolutionary origins of the center.
In 1972, the school was closed and scheduled for demolition. But, a group of Chicano activists, led by Roberto Maestas, occupied the building to protest the de-funding of English and adult education programs at South Seattle Community College. Once the group of activists secured City Council support, El Centro De la Raza was created and has been located at the school ever since. According to the Beacon Hill Historical Context Statement published by the City of Seattle Historic Resources Survey Department of Neighborhoods, “In 1999, El Centro purchased the school property for $1.3 million and continues to lease space to other nonprofit organizations.” Before this momentous undertaking, Latinos comprised only a small percentage of the residents on Beacon Hill. Now, they are the fastest growing ethnic population in the area.
If you take the #36 bus up to Beacon Hill, especially around 3 or 4 o’clock, you’ll quickly notice the demographic makeup of the people riding along with you. More than likely, there will be a spattering of teenagers coming home from school and a couple of young professionals keeping to themselves and listening to their music. But, the majority of riders will be elderly Asians going about their daily lives. And, I wonder what they make of the neighborhood now and what has kept them there all these years.