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Sunday, October 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Black in Seattle: Readers weigh in on whether Seattle is a good place for a black person to live

A couple of weeks ago I asked you to help me answer a reader from Las Vegas who wanted to know whether it made sense for a black professional person to move to Seattle.

One reader pointed me to BET's Web site, where the network just posted its list of the top 20 cities for black families. Columbus, Ohio, was No. 1, followed by Houston and Boston, but you likely won't be surprised to learn that Seattle was not mentioned.

So, it's not a black mecca, but is Seattle at least a decent place to live? Some people who responded hate it, and some love it. Some want to live here forever, but a few writers already know where they'll move next.

Most everyone agreed there isn't much of a cohesive black community here, but several of you were willing to live with that.

The writers who were most disenchanted with Seattle were young, single, black women who lamented the lack of a social life.

Most of you saw the same facts, but because you are individuals, the weight you gave them differs and in that difference Seattle is cast as a fine home — or a hellhole.

You wrote thoughtful essays, impassioned missives, enough words from enough people to fill three or four newspaper pages. I picked a few to sample. Here's an edited-down taste of what you had to say.

'I totally felt at home'

Glen Alcorn moved here two years ago from Philadelphia. He doesn't think there is a strong black community, but he likes Seattle anyway.

"From the people I met at my new job, to the people I met through my wife, and even the people I have encountered through casual contact, not one person has made me feel uncomfortable or uneasy. I have found this community to be very open and accepting. I totally felt at home very soon after arriving here."

But a number of people said they either planned to leave or knew people who had left. Black women in particular said putting together a social life can be difficult.

'Bring your own black men'

Wadiyah Nelson-Shimabukuro wrote:

"When I moved here 22 years ago I met 10 black women, and eight finally left over the years to pursue careers, life and a chance to settle down with a black man and raise a family. Only two of these women are still living in Seattle.

"My black lesbian friends also left for the same reasons, except for the men part.

"When I travel around the States, I'm often asked by black women about relocating here to live. I say the following to them:

"1. If you are not open to dating other men of color or white men, then bring your own black men (or women) to date because Seattle is hard on black women's dating aspirations. We used to say, 'You couldn't get a black man to date you even if you threw yourself in front of his car.' No one laughs at that commentary.

"2. If you are a black woman who is smart, outgoing, well-educated and has a high sense of worth, stay where you are because you will be better appreciated and have access to better opportunities."

'No kind of black community'

It's true that things are harder for black women who are looking for a good black man. It's too bad Cornell Kimbrough is moving to Atlanta:

"I am a single 27-year-old black male who has been in Seattle for three years, and luckily I have one month to go. I am from Chicago. There is no kind of black community here ... I'm sorry, but I just have to be in a place where I can walk in to some place and not stand out like a sore thumb."

'I hate this city'

The Rev. Rajkhet Dirzhud-Rashid is even more emphatic:

"No, I've never felt particularly welcome in Seattle, and none of my other black, female friends do either. I moved here from Chicago, and was born in Houston, both cities with larger black populations than Seattle.

"It was a great culture shock to come to a city where I am consistently ignored, stared at like I just landed from another planet (I've had people avoid sitting with me in theaters, and one woman rolled up her windows and locked her car doors when she saw me walking on the sidewalk near her car a few years ago), and treated with disrespect.

"I've been called the 'n' word here more than I was in Houston or in Chicago, and dating is a nightmare for both me and my friends. We have found that black men don't notice us, or if they do it is to disrespect us, and other men either treat us with an attitude of fear or misunderstanding.

"I date white men, but I wouldn't have minded dating black men, if they treated me better, and I've also dated Asian men, who I am more simpatico with here, in Seattle.

"Now, I have a white boyfriend who lives in Issaquah, and even he hates Seattle! The people, I've found, are cold, to the point of being rude and often don't say 'excuse me', or 'sorry' if they bump into you, particularly if you are a black woman and the offender is a white woman.

"I am looking forward to the day I can leave this city, as I've spent many days angry, or nights crying at the way this place has treated me. I hate this city, and so does just about every other black person I know."

Seattle has a rep across racial lines for being socially chilly. Nice, but not warm and fuzzy. And I lived in Oakland, Calif., just before coming here, so I know about culture shock — but hate? Not at all. Of course, I didn't come here alone, and I grew up in New Mexico, so I'm used to being, um, unique.

'I have connected'

Audrey Rodriguez is used to being the only black person in the room and has no problem with living near Seattle.

"I grew up an Army brat and had an opportunity at an early age to live in different locations and cultures around the world. In many of these places, my sister and I were the only blacks in our schools, and my family was the only black family in our neighborhood. I knew, if we ever stayed in one place for more than three years, I was going to call that place home.

"Seattle is that place. My parents live in this area, my in-laws live in this area and, surprisingly enough, I have connected with many African-American families in my tiny town of Sammamish. Our kids get to see other black children and, to this point, have never had an identity crisis. After all, every time we need to see 'our people' we just need to look in the mirror.

"OK, Seattle is not Atlanta and Atlanta is not Seattle. Luckily, we, as a people, have grown beyond thinking there is only one place for black folks to live. Haven't we?"

Yes we have. There are 20 of them, but Seattle, well, you have to be a little different.

'Out of touch' and 'spoiled'

Les Leysath, who mentioned the BET study, likes what Seattle has to offer but says black people here need be mindful of the ongoing struggle for equality.

"Having just moved here a year ago from St. Louis, Mo., and being from Washington, D.C., I can definitely say that this place is great for adults of all backgrounds and cultures who are open to experiencing the great many attractions and adventures ... but I wouldn't want to raise kids here.

"The multiculturalism is good, but it seems that a majority of the African Americans are out of touch with the struggles of the rest of the country. Spoiled and absent are terms that come to mind. Hey, this place is definitely a unique slice of America and maybe the ideals are truer to the content of the Constitution, but most of my native Seattle African-American brothers and sisters are suffering from a lack of struggle here.

"When transplants like myself and others point out discrepancies in treatment or possible undertones of racism, the blacks from here look at us incredulously and say, 'Stop being paranoid.' In other regions, such treatment would not be tolerated. That is why I was quite surprised yet delighted when traffic was stopped on I-5 that day (in a protest over the shooting of a black man by an off-duty police officer). That took a lot of courage to disrupt this town where African Americans are a very, very small piece of the pie."

That lack of political clout bothered lots of writers, none of whom thought having high elected officials who were black made much difference for other black folks.

'Tell them to come on up'

And while interaction with the larger white community was just one of several issues for most writers, there were some writers who thought that would be the only issue.

Jim Laker wrote, "Seattle is vibrant, beautiful, interesting and progressive. It is one of the most liberal cities in America. It is also one of the whitest. What your writer really wanted to know is, are there a lot of crackers among the white folks of Seattle. No, No, No. Tell them to come on up and enjoy the green forests, and the fairly low bigot ratio.

"Also tell them it is far more important who they are than who we are. Black is only a color. Maybe they should consider checking their own attitudes, rather than ours. I live here. I'm white. I like it, and so should they. I hope they buy a house here and lend a little color to the neighborhood. Leaving Las Vegas is more than just a movie, it's a good idea."

'The general ethos' is white

A white reader from Renton, upset that I'd even raised the issue, told me to grow up, and a white man from Edmonds accused me of race mongering and said he was disappointed in The Times for employing me.

Then there was Judy Kessinger, who believes she can understand why Seattle doesn't feel right to some black people.

"I'm a white woman living in the Seattle suburb of Mill Creek. But I am interested in responding because prior to moving here in 1989 I worked in Washington, D.C., for 20 years, lived in the District for 11 of those years, and am very much aware of how different the Seattle area is from D.C., which, like Atlanta, has a black majority.

"I agree with you that on the whole the Seattle area is a good place to live. In general people here are polite, helpful and tolerant. But I also find that many white people here seem rather clueless about those who are different from themselves and find it hard to imagine that others may see the world differently. People here have abundant goodwill but are sometimes lacking in knowledge and understanding of those who are not white and have not spent their entire lives in the Northwest and truly don't understand the point of view of those who don't share their opinions.

"In your column you pose a number of questions a black person might ask when evaluating Seattle. 'Am I going to be taken seriously on the job?' I think the answer, in most cases, is yes. 'Can I live where I want and feel comfortable?' Again, in most cases, yes. 'Are my sensitivities a meaningful part of the political, economic and social scene?' To that question I would have to answer no. In spite of tremendous growth and an influx of people from other places, I think the general ethos of the area remains white, Christian and Scandinavian.

"Probably a black person who has had a lot of experience interacting with whites would fit in quite well here. For example, a black man who grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., and went to Brown and Harvard Law School would do fine. On the other hand, a black woman who grew up in Atlanta and went to one of the historically black Atlanta colleges might find it very hard to feel truly accepted in such a white city."

'I've found my own corner'

Color and thinking aren't the same thing all the time, are they? People can cross boundaries in their thinking and in their daily lives.

Chanin B. Kelly says, "Seattle is a lonely place if you're looking to see people that look like yourself, if you're black."

She moved here last year from Milwaukee, and she has a brother in Atlanta who wonders why she'd want to live in the state that passed I-200, the voter initiative that did away with affirmative action in government jobs.

But she has made this city home. "I've formed relationships here that will last my lifetime. I've found a husband here (nope, he's Caucasian) and I wouldn't trade him. His family is great, and his mom subs for the one I have at home while I'm here. I wouldn't trade them for all of the tea in China. I've found my own corner in the city of Seattle. Would I recommend it to others? It depends on what they're looking for in a place to live.

"Seattle has good things and not-so-good things, but that's Anytown, USA."

The last word

So that's it, the definitive answer: It depends on you — because we don't all have the same needs.

Seattle doesn't have a powerful black community, it isn't rich in black culture, and it is not an ideal place for single black women who are looking for black men.

But there's enough good stuff here for an adventurous, open person to make a home. Anyway, there's no challenge in being comfortable all the time, so take the plunge, come on up.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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