This is a place that embraced the moniker “Rat City.”
Maybe it’s tongue in cheek, or proud to be a little rough around the edges. But these days, Rat City — or White Center, as its better known — faces some daunting challenges.
A half block of its business district along 16th Avenue Southwest remains boarded up after a series of fires last spring and summer. Walk along the main drag and you can still smell the smoke.
There are perennial complaints about graffiti and vandalism and all the things that make people around here want more police, and faster response times.
But White Center has a lot of attributes that make it one of the most enviable communities in the region. Pure and simple, White Center has spirit.
There are times when distressed communities look to government for help. White Center is looking within. It stands as a model of resiliency and positive collective action for other neighborhoods confronting similar hurdles, though likely not nearly as high.
Immediately after the blazes, community-organized block parties and fundraisers helped ease the financial pain. Shop owners assessed the damage, and many opened up new locations — in White Center. The place is too special to leave, they say.
“We’re unincorporated King County. We don’t get heard much unless we’re in the news,” said Donna Chan, owner of Macadons sweets shop. She was in the news last May after someone repeatedly smashed her windows and those of other neighborhood businesses. “We’re trying to come together as a community and find out what we can do.”
A GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Chan and other business owners beat its goal of $5,000.
White Center lies just south of the Seattle city limit, roughly two and a quarter square miles. Bordered by Southwest Roxbury Street to the north and the Burien city limit at 116th Street Southwest to the south, its 16,000 residents are under the jurisdiction of King County. About 17% of families earn $26,500 annually or less, a poverty rate six points higher than Seattle.
At the direction of the legislature, King County is supposed to help urban areas like White Center merge with adjoining cities. That means either Seattle or Burien, but it hasn’t happened yet. White Center remains distinct and different.
Much of the community’s strengths lies in its small businesses. Places like Rat City Bikes, Rat City Tat2, Proletariat Pizza, Moonshot Coffee, Southgate Roller Rink and Crawfish House.
At a community meeting earlier this week, someone noted that White Center’s crime rate was in the top 7% of all U.S. cities. It’s about average when it comes to homicides, but arson, vandalism and theft are problems.
That was the reason for the anxious gathering at Mac’s Triangle Pub, which neighbors and business owners organized themselves to hear from a King County Sheriff’s Office deputy assigned to White Center, along with an arson investigator. Of primary concern was a recent outbreak of fires.
On Sept. 13, the Locker Room Tavern burned, as well as Huong Xua Deli, which was recently recognized by The Seattle Times as the best bahn mi spot in the region. This was the second fire for the Locker Room, which was hit in April.
In July, fire destroyed the neighborhood’s first LGBTQ+ bar, The Lumber Yard, as well as Rat City Tat2.
The other businesses damaged — either by the flames, smoke or through water from the response — included a salon, a boxing gym, a bar called Dottie’s Double Wide and a Mexican grocery store called La Típica Oaxaqueña.
Just after the July fire, the Southgate Roller Rink, just down the street, announced on its Instagram page it would be donating 100% of revenues from its Pride skating night to the bar. A relief fund for The Lumber Yard raised more than $100,000. The White Center community organized a block party in August and raised more than $20,600 to benefit damaged or destroyed businesses.
The Lumber Yard fire is being investigated as an arson and possible hate crime. Most of the other blazes in the neighborhood came from errant cigarettes or people experiencing homelessness trying to stay warm, according to Steve Crown, fire investigator with the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Many plywood-shuttered businesses taped up signs — several in Spanish — telling customers of new locations, some just down the block.
Lee Torres owns the Boxing Gym Westside, which was gutted in the July fire. He found a new White Center location and hopes to reopen in a few weeks. He helped organize the summer block party, and the same group is trying to get a community fundraising event together for Halloween.
There is no place he would rather be.
“It sucks that my business was burned out and everything was a complete loss. But I’m so grateful to see the community come together, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can create,” he said.
Across the street from the burned out storefronts, Aaron Goss owns Rat City Bikes. With insurance companies figuring out costs and permit applications taking time, he doesn’t expect much construction to happen on the block for at least a year, maybe more. He said the neighborhood has seen its share of troubles, but it’s still a cool place to be. There’s good food, interesting people, plenty of bars. And there’s loyalty.
“It’s depressing seeing all the businesses empty. It’s just a few bad apples messing it up for everybody,” he said. “But White Center will come back. It’s a great place. Everyone likes it, you know?”
If Rat City had an icon, it would be the Rat City Roller Derby logo — a young woman with a black eye and an attitude. Other urban areas should take note: It’s OK to have a black eye if you have the confidence and grit to keep fighting.