For many Seattle residents, South Park, located west of Boeing Field, is an unknown and hidden neighborhood. Contrary to what outsiders think, it is one of Seattle’s most historic areas and home to a rich population of immigrants and a working class of multi-ethnic families.
“The community has been neglected for so long,” says Ammara Kimso, a Cambodian American who grew up in South Park during the late 1980s.
Though Kimso has moved away with her family, she recalls growing up in a positive and diverse neighborhood.
“I was exposed to diversity at a young age,” says Kimso. “Even though I grew up in a poor working class neighborhood, my living experience was very positive.”
Lately, South Park is receiving more buzz and making headlines. Even Seattle’s City Council is making South Park their priority. But, this sudden attention is not beneficial for South Park residents — in fact, there’s a project that can potentially turn the neighborhood into a complete ghost town.
On June 30, South Park’s lifeline and main artery — its bridge that allows commuters to cross the Duwamish River and which is owned by King County — is scheduled to close. Many factors contribute to this: 1) the bridge is 78 years-old with no feasible repair options, 2) Seattle’s 2001 Nisqually earthquake created major damages, 3) the concrete is cracking, 4) problems with the metal grating will increase with hot weather,
5) the bridge is built under soft soil and, 6) and the bridge’s current sufficiency is rated 4 out of 100.
Despite the unsafe conditions, the existing bridge is used heavily by industrial drivers who need the bridge to access State Route 99 and Interstate-5. The bridge is used daily by 20,000 cars and is frequently at freight capacity.
“The location is very accessible to the city,” says Nhien Nguyen, a former South Park resident. “Now, there’s a major access road that’s being shut down. It’s a statement from the city that they don’t want South Park to grow.”
As long as the bridge remains open, South Park businesses hope to attract customers and the Boeing lunch crowd. Without the bridge, businesses may be forced to close. The economic well-being of the neighborhood would plummet in an already marginalized community.
“Living in South Park last year, I saw that immigrants were already well established with their businesses,” says Nguyen. “Closing the bridge will definitely have an impact.”
The word is out, however. King County’s effort to get $99 million from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) has been rejected. Though King County Executive Dow Constantine vowed to seek other funding options, the bridge will close indefinitely come June.
The closing of the bridge is not the only challenge South Park residents face.
Air pollution tarnished by years of industrial development is nothing new. But in 2008, South Park’s streets were found with highly toxic dioxins that required new soil and gravel. And, South Park made local and national news when authorities charged two men involved in a gang-related attack as well as another incident about a drive-by shooting that injured a Seattle teen.
“During the late 80s and 90s, it was not seen as a safe place,” says Kimso. “It was a place full of violence among youth.”
Combined with the closing of the bridge, environmental issues, and years of high crime, South Park has developed a poor reputation and is apparently a neighborhood unworthy of talk from a city standpoint. However, hidden inside South Park, there’s unique historical characteristics.
South Park is situated on the Duwamish River—a name derived from its first residents: the Native Americans of the Duwamish Tribe where they established their initial niche for farming and industry.
By the twentieth century, South Park attracted Italian and Japanese farmers to the fertile land. It was the farmers who lived in South Park that first produced products for Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Its farming tradition and rural character was forced to change when it was rezoned as ‘industrial’ in 1956, due to rapid changes at the Boeing Field. The once fertile land that attracted Italian and Japanese immigrants became paved roads. Though a City Hall protest saved South Park and eventually developed it into a low-density residential area, its industrialist affairs has stunted the neighborhood’s growth.
It wasn’t until recent years that Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods decided to establish a South Park Action Agenda to save one of Seattle’s most vibrant neighborhoods, home to about 3,000 residents with a large immigrant population. More than a third of the residents are of Hispanic origin.
“It’s a very diverse community,” says, Nguyen. “There’s a home-grown feel that I enjoy—with many immigrants becoming the fabric of the neighborhood.”
In 2006, the City of Seattle unified local businesses and non-profit organizations to revitalize the South Park community. Through volunteer efforts, noticeable improvements have slowly altered the image of South Park’s prolonged industrial environment.
A $4.5 million dollar project to improve and enhance the appearance of South Park’s major infrastructures has begun. South Park’s own full-service library finally opened in 2006. Residents advocated for a library since 1908. Today, the $3 million library caters to the local youth in South Park with a third of the books in Spanish.
“I remember growing up; South Park didn’t have its own library,” says Kimso. “In fifth grade, our teacher volunteered to drive us after school to go to the library in White Center.”
The South Park Community Center now includes youth activities to prevent teens from joining gangs—something prevalent in the 90s.
“Growing up in South Park, the community was so small that the community center was very popular for youth,” says Kimso. “Most of my memories were at the community center.”
Although Nguyen and Kimso both moved out of South Park, fond memories of the neighborhood remain.
Nguyen still lives close by South Park and uses the bridge for her commute.
“I will have to reprogram my brain to find another way,” says Nguyen. “I might not be able to go through the business area where I enjoy the thriving community feel.”
And for Kimso, she attends the Khmer religious temple in South Park twice a year where a large Cambodian population remains.
“The bridge did make the community mobilize more,” says Nguyen. “It’s closing, but it became a good catalyst to get the community together.”