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Thursday, March 4, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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City Walks

Columbia City: Colorful 'Neighborhood of Nations' retains the feel of a village

Northwest Weekend editor

The walk: Stroll through a district of historic buildings edging a New England-like "village green." You'll pass a unique public school, along with shops, churches and restaurants run by a spicy mix of entrepreneurs in this self-described "Neighborhood of Nations."

Founded in 1893 and annexed to Seattle in 1907, Columbia City retains the feel of the self-contained mill town it once was.

Start at Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 3515 S. Alaska St., a neo-Palladian building erected in 1921 as the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist. Its columned portico overlooks the lush lawn of Columbia Park. Together with the nearby Carnegie-funded public library (circa 1915, and currently fenced off for expansion), the effect is more Boston than Seattle.

Peek in at the Cultural Center's performing-arts auditorium, or visit its Rainier Valley Historical Society Museum if you happen by when it's open (Tuesday or Wednesday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., or by appointment). Don't miss the center's mosaic sign out front — artistic eye-candy in orange, red, blues and greens.

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Nabou Diakhate wears an African boubou. Diakhate, from Senegal in West Africa, offers masks, fabrics, clothing, baskets and drums at BAOL International, one of the neighborhood businesses that bespeaks a strong African-American community.
Follow the sidewalk to the busy corner of South Alaska Street and Rainier Avenue South, and then cross the park on a meandering path beneath sentinel maples. A sculpture, "Spirit of Washington" by Marvin Oliver (1992), is like a bronze fin of a swimming orca in the sea of grass.

At the top of the park, cross South Edmunds Street and turn right to skirt the grounds of "Orca at Columbia School," an alternative public elementary with an emphasis on the environment. The exterior of the stucco Spanish Revival building flaunts its function with lively student-painted murals of marine life.

As you walk westward, admire the schoolyard's spiral lampposts, engraved with student poetry: "My heart speaks in many languages, I wonder if anyone sees what I see, I wonder if this world is good for people, My heart says it is just like a wish."

Cross South 35th Street and continue through a mix of apartments and old homes, many in cheerful colors, such as a Dutch Colonial in barn-red with yellow trim.

At 32nd Avenue South, cross to a traffic island bordering busy Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Turn left, then left again on Ferdinand Street to head back past the school. (Across King, note a portent of change: homes boarded up to make way for a light-rail station.)

This dragon, part of the Whirligig Art Project, sits atop a pole near a bus shelter on South Alaska Street and Rainier Avenue South.
From the intersection of Ferdinand and Rainier, lit by old-fashioned three-globe streetlamps, walk south (right) on Rainier one block. A sign outside Angie's Tavern nods to the area's checkered past: "No loitering! No drugs allowed! 911 will be called!"

But Columbia City is undergoing a revival, dating to determined efforts by community activists starting in the mid-1990s. "It really has turned around, and we're very happy," says Buzz Anderson, president of the historical society. "We had a big crime problem years ago. Because of that, home prices were much lower, so it brought a lot of younger people and couples."

The influx supported new activities such as the Columbia City BeatWalk, a multi-venue music event the first Friday of each month (including tomorrow), and a farmers market from May to October. The Ark Masonic Temple Lodge, circa 1921, is now home to the fledgling Columbia City Cinema.

Once boarded-up shopfronts house new eateries. Bespeaking the strong African-American community, you can lunch on a blackened catfish sandwich ($8.95) at Columbia City Ale House, 4914 Rainier Ave. S., or tackle an order of buttermilk fried chicken ($8.75) at The Wellington, a block to the north. (Save room for peach cobbler.)

Cross Rainier at South Hudson Street by the historical police station, circa 1926, now Southeast Youth and Family Services. Turn back north. Stop for coffee at Lottie Mott's, where neighbors might be found reading the newspaper aloud to each other, or poke into eclectic shops, one with African drums and masks, another with a focus on reggae music and merchandise.

Follow Rainier Avenue north past the library — slated to reopen in late summer — back to your starting point, for a walk of about 1.2 miles.

Secret tip: By bus shelters near Alaska Street and Rainier Avenue, look up: Walkers intent on getting under way might easily miss the Whirligig Arts Project, a long-ago public art installation of colorful, pole-mounted figures in hand-painted metal made by local high-school students. Read descriptions on the poles beneath fanciful, wind-driven artworks such as "The Man With Enormous Wings" by My Nguyen of Franklin High School.

Lunch stop: I sampled a pork-brisket barbecue sandwich, $4.95 at Roy's BBQ, 4903 Rainier Ave. S. At this tiny cafe not much wider than its front door, service with a smile comes from the Asian-American owner, Roy Kim. His motto: "Almost Famous!!!"

Access: No problem. Paved sidewalks, mostly with curb cuts.

Parking/bus routes: Free on-street parking with no time limit on South Alaska Street just west of Rainier Avenue. Metro bus routes 7 and 9 stop at Columbia Park.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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