Columbia City: Colorful 'Neighborhood of Nations' retains the feel of a village
Northwest Weekend editor
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.
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.)
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.
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 email@example.com
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