Beacon Hill: a cultural melting pot made of neighbors

Jocelyn Chui
Northwest Asian Weekly

Denise Louis Education Center (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

When residents on Beacon Hill were asked to name their favorite aspect of the neighborhood, diversity was always on top of the list.

“I’d definitely prefer to live here than anywhere else in Seattle just because of the diversity,” said local resident Waylon Dungan, who works at a coffee shop named The Station.

The view from a sidewalk that runs along Beacon Avenue South (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

Located to the south of the International District, Beacon Hill is a popular settling spot for many new immigrants. Overlooking downtown Seattle, the International District, and the Industrial Building and Elliot Bay, Beacon Hill is subdivided into North Beacon Hill, Mid-Beacon Hill, Holly Park, and South Beacon Hill. According to 2000 Census data, the Asian and Pacific Islander population in Beacon Hill makes up about 40 percent. Latinos make up about 9 percent.

“The amazing thing is that we all get along,” said local resident Reynaldo Schneck. “I can’t remember the last time there was a racial riot on Beacon Hill.”

Having lived on Beacon Hill for 13 years, Luis Rodriguez, owner of The Station, listed four reasons why the neighborhood feels like home to him — diversity, the view, the people, and how everything is closely located.

“Everybody knows everybody,” Rodriguez said. “You walk out on the street at 2 a.m., nothing is gonna happen. We’re a mix of everything. You have only been here [in the coffee shop] for five minutes, but you have already seen Latinos, Blacks, whites, half-Blacks, half-Latinos, and Asians.”

Early settlers and immigrants

Beacon Hill homes (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

When the first houses on Beacon Hill were built in the 1890s, the settlers were mostly white.

During the 1900s, the Beacon Hill community began to experience rapid growth and change due to establishment of the Boeing airplane factory and other industries nearby. The hill was called “Boeing Hill” by local residents in the 1950s and 1960s because of the large number of workers who lived there.

Van Asselt Community Center (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

As the Boeing employees moved to the suburbs in the 1970s, Asian immigrants started settling in the area because of its close proximity to Chinatown. The lack of restrictive real estate covenants and the availability of low-cost housing helped to create an encouraging environment for the bloom of Blacks, whites, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and other ethnic groups.

Chinese Baptist Church (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

Site of a national historic place

Examples of major landmarks on Beacon Hill include the former Amazon headquarters and Jefferson Park, and the Turner-Koepf House, which was built by Edward A. Turn in 1883, is listed as one of the historic places on the National Register. Originally built in Italian style with a pyramidal roof, the two-story house was remodeled by its next owner, Frederick Koepf, in Victorian style in 1907.

In 1916, the house was bought by the Jefferson Park Ladies Improvement Club, which contributed to the community’s education, living conditions, and enrichment projects. The house is now home to the Washington State Garden Club headquarters.

The community

The experience of visiting the Beacon Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library is similar to walking into a tourist information center. Every sign is written in multiple languages and the background sounds are mostly of non-English conversations.

“The major languages are Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese,” said children’s librarian Diane Cowles, who has been around the neighborhood for 20 years. “There are changes over the years. They used to have more Chinese and Vietnamese, but [there are] more Latinos now.”

Thach Nguyen, a real estate developer, is currently building a housing development aimed toward middle class Asian American families. This is one of the houses. (Photo provided by Thach Real Estate Group)

Thach Nguyen, founder of Thach Real Estate Group, immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1978 as a war refugee. He has been living on Beacon Hill with his family ever since.

“There are a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese living on Beacon Hill [currently],” Nguyen said.

“There used to be more Japanese, though.”

Nguyen said the different ethnic groups on Beacon Hill get along well — it’s not something residents have to work hard at. “We don’t try. It just happens,” said Nguyen.

Cowles said that new immigrants, when they first arrive in the States, tend to settle where their families are. Residents pass their houses down from one generation to another.

Local businesses

The central location of Beacon Hill has made it easier for new immigrants to adapt and thrive.

Businesses along Beacon Avenue (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

“It is on a good bus line (no. 36), close to downtown and the freeway,” Executive director of El Centro de La Raza Estela Ortega said. “Historically, Beacon Hill has been a diverse neighborhood, and the vast majority of businesses in the neighborhood are owned by Asians and Latinos.”

One Asian business which caters both to Hispanic and Asian customers is the ABC Supermarket at 2500 Beacon Ave. S. There are huge sections of Mexican treats and Asian veggies.

Deli counter at ABC (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

“The original store had served Mexican customers and was also a remittance counter,” said Martha Che, one of the owners. “We decided to continue that and also add a Mexican deli. Our [Asian] staff also learned to speak Spanish because some customers don’t speak English.”

Some Mexican customers drive from outside of Seattle to shop at ABC, some coming from as far as Yakima, said Che.

Che said serving two different ethnic groups of customers actually turns over product faster.

“Mexicans buy more meat and Asians more veggies,” she said.

Walking down Beacon Avenue South, from Filipino restaurants to Chinese massage services, there are all kinds of businesses owned by local residents.

Thach Nguyen

Nguyen said that despite the fact that the living standard on Beacon Hill is on the rise now, “everything is still pretty affordable. … Things have never been that expensive before, which is good. We want Beacon Hill to grow and there are still lots of potential.”

Having been building houses for 15 year on Beacon Hill, Nguyen is currently developing a new project on Beacon Ave S. and S. Orcas St. “We’re at phrase two now,” Nguyen said. “We have built four last year, sold two, and we are beginning to pour the foundation for the next three.”

Nguyen said that the houses, which are about 23,000 sq. ft. each, are designed for very large families — typically minorities.

Light rail

Inside the Beacon Hill transit station (Photo by Jocelyn Chui/NWAW)

It has been about a year since the Beacon Hill light rail station has been in use.

“I’ll definitely say [that the light rail has brought] positive changes because people are coming in to get to know us and Beacon Hill,” said Yunuen Castorena, an executive assistant at El Centro de la Raza.

Rodriguez said, “It makes this place more cosmopolitan.”

However, the light rail also makes residential parking more difficult. Since the city wants to prevent people from monopolizing the parking spaces around the station when they use the train, zoning tickets, which cost about $40 per year, are required for more than two-hour parking near the light rail station.

Some residents say that the tickets are almost necessary because many houses do not have a garage or parking space. It becomes a hassle for friends and families who are just in the area for a one-day visit.

A community center

Ortega said that when community service center El Centro De La Raza was established in 1972, Beacon Hill was primarily an Asian community.

The facade of El Centro De La Raza (Photo by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW)

As young Asians moved out to the suburbs, more young white professionals moved in. In 1997, some white residents tried to purchase the land that was occupied by El Centro De La Raza on a lease.

“A lot of people from the local community were upset,” said Ortega. The staff of El Centro was lucky enough to get the approval from the local school district and had enough funding to purchase the land.

“Today, we have a good relationship,” Ortega said. “We plan to build a performing arts center, a town center, and create a gathering space with that one acre of land in front of the center.”

While El Centro De La Raza serves as an important resource to the local Latino community, Ortega said they welcome everyone to the center, especially on social justice issues.

The most popular programs among the Asian community are child care, senior programs, and the food bank, said Ortega. ♦

Jocelyn Chui can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

This Beacon Hill issue is sponsored by Seattle Supermarket Inc. and Thach Real Estate Group.

Seattle Supermarket Inc.
4801 Beacon Ave. S.
Seattle, WA 98108
206-767-3344

Thach Real Estate Group
4735 NE 4th St.
Renton, WA 98059
206-334-8773

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