Southeast Seattle is known for its diversity. The 98118 zip code, which extends from Columbia City to Rainier Beach, is one of the most diverse in the United States. The area is often held up as a symbol of Seattle’s urbanity: diverse, multicultural, immigrant-friendly.
But if you think that it’s a symbol of the new Seattle, think again. That diversity has old roots. For evidence, I cite a short article I recently ran across in The Seattle Times, headlined: “Southeast Seattle Metropolitan.” The year? 1908.
At that time, southeast Seattle was undergoing a real estate boom. Promoters were trying to extend the city south of Leschi and Mt. Baker ridge—then called Rainier Heights. Developers and salesmen/con-men like C.D. Hillman, the namesake of Hillman City just south of Columbia City, were touting southeast Seattle’s cheap land and streetcar access to downtown. It was touted as the South End suburb for the tradesman, the newcomer, those climbing the booming city’s economic ladder. Historylink describes Hillman’s typical customer as “a recent arrival in the Northwest with limited resources, but unlimited ambitions.” Advertisements touted affordable southeast lots for as little as $65 to $150, on terms of $1 per week.
But while Seattle has long been a white dominated city, the southeast Seattle of 1908 generated some interest for its broad-minded mix of people. The Times subhead on the story reads, “Population Boasts of Having a Dozen Hindus Working Under a Negro Foreman, and a Chinaman and Eskimo.”
Newspapers of the era were not known for their enlightened coverage of race, and this is the same period during which “dog-eating” Filipino tribes people and Eskimos were exhibited in zoo-like conditions at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Often racial coverage was quick to focus on vice, racial and ethnic caricatures, or cast race mixing as morally questionable, and certainly there might have been Seattle Times readers who took this news item with a sense of alarm. Yet in this item the tone is more modern in seeing southeast Seattle as a sign of cosmopolitanism and social tolerance.
The article reads, “Although Southeast Seattle is only a suburb of this city, as far as diversity of population goes it has claims to metropolitanism possessed by few cities in the country. Just now there are 12 Hindus engaged in cutting wood for a man named Groff…the foreman of the gang is a negro. Then there is a Chinese merchant with a white wife, a little Eskimo girl, and Indian woman and several negro and Japanese families, not to mention Greeks, Italians, Frenchmen and other European residents of town.”
Next time someone touts southeast Seattle’s unique diversity, you can tell them it’s old news.