Seattle proves to be a sharp contrast to other large cities in terms of racial and ethnic interrelations.
On April 29, 1992, the cap on the fizzy drink exploded. Ongoing tensions between the African American majority and Korean business owners in Los Angeles erupted when a Korean immigrant storeowner shot a 15-year old African American customer. For weeks after, riots, looting and widespread shooting ensued between racial groups.
In the aftermath, some Koreans relocated their businesses to Seattle, a city that is 1100 miles away in distance and racial interrelations. Many have settled in the Rainier Valley which according to the 2010 Census Bureau, is located in the most diverse zip code—98118.
Wayne Lau, executive director of Rainier Valley Community Development Fund (RVCDF), said that one premise in Seattle’s hospitality is the sheer amount of diversity.
“You don’t have a ghetto here, in the sense that one neighborhood isn’t dominated by just one race,” said Lau. The RVCDF works to promote and sustain diversity in the face of gentrification.
As a result, businesses from all ethnic backgrounds can be in close proximity to each other and cater to more than just their own ethnic group.
Al Les owns Olympic Express on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Since 1988, he has been serving pan-Asian food from Vietnamese to Chinese to Malaysian and Cambodian. His customer base is a remarkable mix—Somalis, Oromos, Eritreans, Arabs, Pakistanis and all the Asian ethnicities.
Les speaks four to five different languages and also adheres to the Islamic faith, both of which have helped him cater to so many different groups. Olympic Express is 100 percent halal, attracting many Muslims in the area, especially the large African community in the Rainier Valley.
“Our niche is everybody,” said Les, who is of Cham background. “From Indonesians to Malaysians, to all Arabs and Africans.”
“I don’t see any tension here because different kinds of business owners from all over the world get to interact and know each other,” said Les.
There isn’t just one racial group that dominates the market, noted Les. In Los Angeles, this wasn’t the case. Many African Americans believed that Asian shop owners were taking money out of their community without contributing back or that they were being charged high prices.
“It seems to work well here because of diversity—all immigrants want to stay in business,” said Lau. “They don’t feel ethnic jealousies or resentments.”
Between the Boeing Access Road and South McClellan Street on MLK Jr. Way, there are 19 African-American owned businesses, 74 Vietnamese, and 65 Caucasian. East Africans and Hispanics each represent 13 of the businesses on the corridor, according to statistics compiled by the MLK Business Association (MLKBA).
According to Julie Pham, former chair of the MLKBA, business owners have been “very entrepreneurial” in catering to the diverse local market.
For example, “The Chinese-Vietnamese-owned Graham Jewelers has been making teeth grillz for years,” said Pham. “Tony’s Bakery, which is famous for their Vietnamese sandwiches, has introduced new seafood items to serve the increasing need for halal food from the local African community.”
Even though the Rainier Valley is a welcoming place for ethnic-owned businesses, tensions of other sorts still persist. There are concerns over city agencies overlooking the region, said Lau. People believe that county resources, like Sound Transit, are not being distributed equitably. Gentrification and crime are other issues the community faces, but don’t affect interracial relations.
On the 20th anniversary of the LA riots, it is clear now that it was more than a racially-charged protest sprung from cultural differences. At the root was discontent with the job market, a nationwide recession and growing economic disparity in Los Angeles.
Les said business owners in the Rainier Valley are cooperative because they are mostly immigrants. As a result, Seattle has a more accepting mentality because the immigrant business owners prioritize their business’ prosperity over racial prejudices or misunderstandings, he suggested.
“The Rainier Valley is a microcosm of what the whole world is,” said Lau.