One of Seattle's More Diverse Neighborhoods Is Bracing for Change

The ninth installment in the Neighborhood Walk series
  • El Centro de la Raza in Seattle's North Beacon Hill neighborhood
COMMUNITY FIGURE: A statue of late community leader Roberto Maestas stands in the plaza of El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill

This article appears in print in the October 2019 issue and is part of our Neighborhood Walk series. Click here to subscribe.

Wing Wong’s uncle, Frank Lioe, started Lioe’s Automotive Service at the junction of 14th Avenue S and Beacon Avenue S in 1990. Today, with property taxes rising and new buildings leading to less parking, it’s getting a lot tougher to keep the business going, says Wong. One result of reduced parking: They have to do a lot of car shuffling. A whiteboard hanging on the wall helps them keep track of where they park the cars they’re servicing. “A lot of changes,” he says, “but it is still our neighborhood.”

Even more new structures are coming to Beacon Hill—many are modern six- and eight-story apartment buildings planned for North Beacon Hill around the light rail station. While exploring the neighborhood, I talked to many residents who hope there will still be a place for them in the years ahead.

Angela Castañeda directs the Beacon Business Alliance out of the Seattle Public Library’s Beacon Hill branch, in offices that once housed one of the city’s neighborhood service centers (before budget cuts in 2011 moved it elsewhere). One goal of the alliance is to maintain the neighborhood’s long-standing economic and ethnic diversity.

WALLFLOWER: Beacon Business Alliance director Angela Castañeda stands in front of the Sunflower and Whales mural she’s working to save

A truly diverse city needs neighborhoods where small-scale entrepreneurs and local artists can find affordable spaces to work and grow. Castañeda is proud of helping to secure funding for the 2015 Sunflower and Whales mural project by artists Crick Lont, akaDozer, and Charms Won. But the mural, on a building at Beacon Avenue S and 15th Avenue, is threatened by demolition for new construction. Time for preserving and protecting the spaces is running out, Castañeda says. Groups must work together to help guide developers and city planners, she argues. “Everything has a value in community development. Culture, language, diversity are all connected.” To that point, the alliance offers meeting space for other groups, including Beacon Arts, the innovative Beacon Food Forest and Environmental Justice Beacon Hill Seattle, which is tackling the neighborhood’s notorious levels of air and noise pollution.

The women behind the counter at Despi Delite Bakery, a Beacon Hill institution, chat with regular customers in Tagalog and English as they fill orders. You’ll have to stand in line in the morning for bread rolls infused with the purple yam known as ube, which is mashed into a paste. But for many regulars, it is a taste worth the wait.

GATHERING SPOT: Despi Delite Bakery is a Beacon Hill institution, known best for its baked goods

I order the turon, a plantain surrounded by a spring roll wrapper and deep-fried; and the suman, coconut- and gingerinfused rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Alan Malla orders the maple bar. He says coming here is a treat; he stopped in more frequently before moving off Beacon Hill a few years ago.

Malla grew up near S Columbian Way off Beacon Avenue and remembers roaming the streets in the ’80s with his friends, riding BMX bikes and getting into places where they probably weren’t supposed to be. “It was pretty diverse. Lots of Asians, Japanese, Filipinos, blacks.”

He lived with his parents and grandparents. Two godmothers lived nearby. “When people came from the Philippines, they would stop at my grandparents’ house first, because they were all from the same province. That’s how we got to know our extended family.”

After his grandparents and parents died, he sold their house to a young white couple. New places and new people have replaced the old. But Malla is sanguine about the changes. “It is great to see people taking care of the neighborhood. ’Cause they respect it.” When he and his wife check out the new restaurants, he sees both familiar and unfamiliar faces from the neighborhood. “The demographics are different. It’s not like we aren’t accepted. But it is different,” he says.

Jefferson Park has been transformed from the park he knew when he was a kid. The city replaced the open reservoir with underground structures in 2009. That provided the park with 26 new acres for sports fields, walking paths and playgrounds, as well as ornamental and food gardens, and more stunning views of the Cascades and the Olympics. “Even just to see the families when we go to Jefferson Park, I think, ‘Oh, this is how Beacon Hill is now.’ But it is a beautiful park, beautiful view.”

The park was buzzing on a summer day a couple of months ago. Kids from across the neighborhood were getting drenched at the watery spray park. Members of the Samoan cricket team were wrapping up practice on their pitch. Golfers of all ages and ethnicities were thwacking balls at the driving range. The lawn bowling green was trimmed and ready for action. Fruits were ripening in the food forest.

GENERATIONS OF COMMITMENT: Roberto Maestas’ nephew Miguel is El Centro’s housing and economic development director

A neighborhood needs places for its residents to come together, and often that only happens with the help of some committed citizens. For Beacon Hill, the late Roberto Maestas was one of those citizens, and in recognition of his contributions, the community erected a statue of his likeness in the plaza of such a community gathering place, El Centro de la Raza. In 1972, Maestas led Latino faculty and staff from South Seattle Community College, where the college’s English as a second language and adult education program had just been defunded, and into the abandoned Beacon Hill School. They were seeking a place to continue and expand their services. They staged protests at city hall. Their leaders were arrested. But eventually, the city agreed to let the group lease the old school. Over the years, El Centro has grown to become an essential social service agency, cultural center and affordable-housing provider.

Miguel Maestas is the housing and economic development director at El Centro, and Maestas’ nephew. “Part of Roberto’s legacy is that he was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things,” he writes in an email. “He inspired people to be courageous, selfless and compassionate when doing the incredibly difficult work of building community, multiracial unity and struggling for justice for the most vulnerable and marginalized.” Through the work that happens at El Centro, Roberto’s legacy, he says, has been passed on to many future generations. Those new generations are striving to control the destiny of their changing neighborhood.

A few of the dishes at new restaurant Homer

The Beacon Hill Food Trail

You can track the changes to a neighborhood through its food. Many of the older restaurants in North Beacon Hill reflect the neighborhood’s diversity. There is the Golden Daisy, billing itself as a “low-frills” restaurant serving Hong Kong–style fare. Farther south stands the Dim Sum House at Beacon Avenue S and S Columbian Way. Head across the street to dip into the hot lunch counter at Foulee Market. You’ll find chicken adobo, stir-fried vegetables and deep-fried whole fish.

A few new places have opened near the light rail station, bringing new food trends with them. At Beacon Hill’s Perihelion Brewery, a Quasar Belgian tripel and a Betelgeuse red ale are on tap. Just down the street at Beacon and Stevens avenues, Homer serves lamb ribs with pistachio, pear and cumin. Almost next door, Oak is offering tossed seasonal greens in a house-made tangerine vinaigrette. Just 400 feet farther along is Bar del Corso, which cracked the mold when it brought a little bit of Capitol Hill to Beacon Avenue in 2011, as well as cracking the back sidewalk while hauling in the wood-fired pizza oven, according to owners Jerry Corso and Angelina Tolentino.

Chef Melissa Miranda, a Beacon Hill native, is scheduled to open Musang in October, near the light rail station. The restaurant will feature the Filipino dishes for which Miranda has become well known through her highly successful pop-up restaurants. Part of the seed money for the restaurant came from a successful Kickstarter campaign, which had more than 669 contributors.

Building community, one plate at a time.

Neighborhood Snapshot

Beacon Hill is still primarily a neighborhood of bungalows and small apartment buildings built in the 1900s. They were constructed for the families that farmed the ridge and the Rainier Valley, for workers who traveled by street car to jobs downtown, and for Boeing employees who poured into the neighborhood in such numbers that, for a while, around the time of World War II, it was called Boeing Hill. The Duwamish people used to call the area “greenish-yellow spine,” according to historian Coll Thrush, perhaps for the leaves of the maples and alders that grew there.

That spine runs north to south, from Pacific Medical Center and the looming brick Art Deco building along Beacon Avenue, past El Centro de la Raza, the Beacon Hill light rail station, Jefferson Park and Golf Course, and the VA hospital to Cleveland High School.

Through the years, Beacon Hill has been one of the city’s more diverse neighborhoods. It’s about 28% white, 12% black or African-American, 45% Asian and 10% Hispanic or Latino, according to the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Native Americans, Hawaiians, Asian Pacific Islanders and people who list their heritage as two or more races round out the population. A language other than English is spoken in 61% of Beacon Hill households.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since print publication.

Related Content

The Woodworth Apartment Building now features an art display


Here's why the Eastside market is booming

Editor's Note

Housing patterns reflect the no-commute lockdown.

The most popular ‘burbs to buy a home.