Welcome to the New Rat City: A Look at the Gentrification of White Center

By Devin Otto
Intern, Big Picture High School

As I sit on the bus, riding my way through White Center, it’s slowly become easier and easier to see changes happening around me. New buildings, new restaurants and new stores seem to be popping up faster than I have time to count them. The actual level of change happening hadn’t fully dawned on me until I heard an old woman casually remark “Welcome to the new Rat City, a hipster’s dream.”

She’s not wrong – the appeal of White Center is one that seems to follow every low income area at a certain point. Hip young people love places that are unique, undiscovered, places that have a bit of “attitude.” White Center fits into all those needs like Cinderella.

For as long as I’ve lived, White Center has been regarded as a taboo, a place you don’t want to be. The reasoning is clear – it’s poor. It’s diverse. And it has a notoriety for frequent police visits. Looking around, you could see signs of negligence, from crosswalks that don’t actually work, to broken down fences and parks.

It may just be because it’s technically not part of any city. The area is part of unincorporated King County, meaning simply, we have no mayor, no real city council, and no one to advocate for us. Things get left undone because we have no one to say it needs to get done.

But things have been changing. Gradually, new businesses are opening. Young people are moving in. The quality of life has been increasing. And for a short amount of time, it seemed like we were in our sweet spot, a place where people could enjoy themselves out and about.

Then came gentrification. It starts the moment you hear from a friend that your favorite pho place is shut down, that it’s out of business. In its place – some kind of fast food restaurant, one that costs almost two times as much as everywhere else. Oh well, you say, there’s somewhere else.

Then the apartment building next door, the one with the pool, starts evicting people. Their apartments get remodeled, and in move a nice young white couple. This happens more and more. Schools start getting more students, and soon, the free and reduced lunch program begins to fail, leaving lower income students either with insufficient lunches, or none at all.

The local businesses you support begin to get flooded out, waved over by newer, nicer stores and restaurants. Soon, you’re in the middle of something new, somewhere you’re told is nicer because people will spend more money on it. And the inevitable happens – White Center gets annexed.

While this looks ahead into the future, this is not a one time case. Situations like this happen to small poor suburbs all the time. From the outside looking in, it’s a positive thing. We’re fixing things for poor people. But from the inside, we need to ask: are we? How do we fix things for the poor in an area where all the poor people get kicked out of? This breaks down into a greater issue – why weren’t these things provided in the first place? Gentrification is just a fancy word for colonization, and we need to ask ourselves why the lives of the poor matter less to us than the amount of local income.


24 Responses to “Welcome to the New Rat City: A Look at the Gentrification of White Center”
  1. Eric says:

    That was a thoughtful and we’ll written article. However, I think the picture that’s being painted here is of a romanticized version of white center that is far from the whole story.
    I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in and around rat city and I admit, the way it is sort of grows on you, but if you pay any kind of attention it wasn’t a place of happiness or positivity. White center is a forgotten and neglected community that is severely under policed in a way that seems almost intentional. I’ve spent many a day and night walking down 16th and 98th. What I’ve seen wasn’t this nostalgic version described here. There are homeless everywhere. Not the homeless down on there luck looking for a way out, but the career homeless. I’ve seen people defacating, smoking crack/meth, shooting up, and having sex on the ground. Ive found drunk people passed out in the pouring rain unresponsive. There are constant beatings, stabbings, and shootings. As soon as a wall is repainted somebody tags it the next week. I know building owners who’s windows have been broken and stores burglarized. Friends cars broken into regularly, tires slashed, stuff taken out of the beds of trucks. I could go on but I think I’ve made the point. Yes of course the cultural quirkiness of the area is appealing. The underground non-mainstream vibe. But do you choose all the bad just to have that little bit of good? Neighborhoods change. Stores go out of business. Nothing in this world ever stays the same. Look at pictures and articles of white center long ago. It wasn’t the place I just described. It was family friendly and a focal point for neighbors to gather.
    Gentrification is wielded like a sword in writing. It’s used in a negative way with racist connotations. I see that aspect of it. The poor will be slowly pushed out. Some of those poor will be people of color. The homeless will find another place to haunt and the drug dealers and pimps will find it no longer hospitable to conduct their business and just move elsewhere. Unfortunately that just kicks the problem somewhere else instead of removing it all together but such is life. The neighborhoods surrounding white center will soon find a place they enjoy going to again. A place they can Bring their children. I’m not sure how that could possibly be a bad thing. Yes you lost your favorite affordable pho place and more will likely follow. That is reality. That is a free market. More money invested means more money spent which translates into the place becoming safer, cleaner, and more positive. Romanticizing white center doesn’t do anyone any good. Realty is far more brutal. And in realty nothing ever stays the same.
    In the end, people will vote with their money. Perhaps you’ll see annexation and it will turn into the west seattle junction. Or perhaps the expensive new businesses will fail and the place will revert to what you seem to know and love. I think even if it’s the former, white center will never fully lose its character of multi-culturalism and fringeness. Those roots run deep and will permeate any new iteration that grows into the future.
    So please, no more romanticism. Derelict buildings, extreme crime, and garbage in the streets isn’t good for any neighborhood and I for one am happy at the positive direction white center is going.

    • BigMan says:

      You obviously did not understand what Devin was commenting on. When I read the article, I understood it as he was writing for both sides, pointing out things that have historically happened in other similar situations. I did not read into as much as you have as to how he was “romantisizing” white center. He pointed out his views of White Center, good and bad. To be honest though, I stopped reading your post after I realized you were saying the same things Devin was saying. It seems that unless it comes out of your mouth, it’s incorrect? That’s a question because I’m confused as why you agree with him but contradict him.

      I believe (just my thoughts), that there are good and bad things that come from gentrification. Yes, there may be people who represent White Center and maybe they can gain more ground if the city sees that they have the opportunity to collect more taxes off of businesses that would potentially move to White Center and therefore spend a little more resources to clean it up in many ways. It also will increase other things like property value, which raises taxes, which raises mortgages and rents. There us a tipping point but hopefully White Center can balance perfectly.

      Anyways, great article Devin. I hope good comes from all of this. If people are talking, they care about it.

  2. Shan says:

    Spot on! Really great writing that reflects the reality of our situation.

  3. CC_REZ says:

    “And the inevitable happens – White Center gets annexed.” What? Did you catch the last meeting when those reps from the City of Seattle came to DubSea? Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, Devin. The people who live in the region will have to vote on whether White Center gets annexed to Seattle or not. I, for one do not recommend annexing to the City of Seattle because of all of the money grabbing politics and wasteful spending that they have committed its citizen to own. You absolutely do not want this Rat City! You’ve been warned.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Not really true that we have “no one to advocate for us.” We do have the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council and our County Councilman, Joe McDermott.

  5. Grammar police says:

    I can’t take you seriously when you end sentences with prepositions.

  6. Aaron Goss says:

    Define Gentrification.

    • Chris says:

      Yes, exactly.

    • Charles Krallt says:

      gentrification: noun gen·tri·fi·ca·tion \ ˌjen-trə-fə-ˈkā-shən \- the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents, often inflicting windbag bike shop owners on the unsuspecting populace.

  7. Question Mark says:

    Great perspective in this article. But the local government shouldn’t get off the hook quite that easily. The elected representatives and staff down at King County shoulder a lot of the blame for years and decades of neglect in White Center. And recent examples continue to be front and center.

    For example, look at all the pot stores in White Center/Top Hat. Five are now open and King County has issued a marijuana business license to a sixth. This is for a resident adult population estimated to be 14,000 right now. Seattle right now has a resident adult population over 560,000 but only 48 pot stores.

    It turns out that King County policy has deemed large residential areas of the unincorporated count off limits to pot stores without also limiting the number of stores it chose to allow to be licensed. For communities that didn’t want these stores in the first place, this is very convenient. For the youth and future of White Center not so much …

    • Captain obvious says:

      Ahh yes here you go again complaining about businesses that are bringing in money to the area. Money that can go to fixing up road’s and other utilities.

      Wow only six now for the past few years you complained there going be endless amounts of pot shops in white center.

      You try to make it sound like a bad thing. But guess what most people in white center like having a selection of pot stores to go to.

      The fact you live in skyway but you complain on a white center blog. About something that doesn’t effect you personally. I think you better off complaining about other issue’s in the area like black on black crime or gang issue’s. Because pot shops are not going anywhere. Pot shops are providing resources to the community as in jobs,tax benefits,clean businesses with updated security systems.

      • Captain obvious says:

        Also all these pot shops check I’d multiple times so no youths are getting in. Now if one goes and finds someone to buy for them (rare occasion). I personally feel that at least in that situation the youth is at least going to get pot that is clean and healthy. Not risk getting something laced or the option of buying other drugs. Or risk getting involved in criminal activities. From a local street dealer

        It also on the adults to say no wait till your 21 same as when some kid sits in front of store looking for someone to buy them smokes or a beer.

      • Question Mark says:

        Re “only six now,” the state regulator is limiting both Burien and Tukwila to two stores each. Both are larger than White Center. Skyway, the other unincorporated community of color, has seen a similar glut of pot stores. And there hasn’t been one single such store open anywhere else in the unincorporated area, which numbers a population larger than Bellevue.
        Speaking of big cities in the county, King County has agreed for the state to license 13 so far in White Center and Skyway.; Seattle has only 48 licensed stores right now, not even 4 times the lowly neighbors to the south. Seattle has also done a fairly good job by crafting regulations that have spread its share of stores fairly well around the city.
        The simple fact is that King County is treating its different neighborhoods with two vastly different standards of fairness. It’s no surprise that White Center struggles while its local government withholds even basic fairness.
        Speaking of which, how does King County plan to spend its share of taxes derived from all the pot stores in White Center and Skyway? Just like it has typically done: by funding services all around the county. White Center is receiving little benefit.
        White Center may be the recipient of the highest concentration of pot stores anywhere in the entire state, but

        • Captain obvious says:

          The city’s worked with the state on numbers of stores for the city’s. White center and skyway are unincorporated no city no limit. Also white center is close to the airport. So when people travel that want to buy pot they can as long as there 21.

          Well unfortunately white center and sky way have had really nothing else to brag about. Other than a few little things here and there. If anything I don’t really think the youth care about the pot stores. The only mention of them was by you. You seem to have all out beef with king county not really the pot stores. Since there a lot of places that sell smokes beer whip it’s (N2Ogas or laughing gas) and other products in white center sky way burien sea-tac Seattle all over the county. You don’t say a dam thing against them.

          Also I don’t really see to many people in agreement with you on this blog. The only people that are going to be in agreement with you are people who sell pot illegally or people that are already against pot. Some religious groups but then again if you drink a cup coffee its just as bad as hitting a crack pipe to some religious groups.

          I have seen in the past where the owner of full tilt ice cream has explained his feelings on your argument. Basically he thinks your full of it and you need to move on in life.

          Then you mention your thoughts on king county are your own person thoughts not ever ones thought .

          Now there are certain ways the money collect by taxes being put back into areas but it has rules and regulation to follow. By the way the law was written and has to be followed.

          • Question Mark says:

            The real Captain Obvious would have seen reality long ago. Unincorporated King County also has limits by the state; the industry is regulated everywhere, *obviously*. The problem is that King County regulations have denied the owners of these businesses the right to locate throughout the unincorporated area …

          • Captain obvious says:

            So first you say there are to many stores in unincorporated parts of king county. Now your saying king county should allow more stores all over unincorporated parts of king county.

            Are you smoking crack sir?

          • Question Mark says:

            Ha ha, from what I read, it’s you that is incoherent. You don’t seem to have understood that the state has limits on marijuana retailers everywhere in the state. I’m fine with that.

            But I’m not fine with the lack of fairness about marijuana regulations down at county. I guess you don’t care about that.

            But for someone who keeps on crowing about how these stores ought to be allowed and that no one ought to be able to speak their mind about the subject with even a whiff of opposition, the fact that you don’t seem to care about the county’s prohibition of these stores outside White Center and Skyway seems awfully out of character …

          • Captain obvious says:

            Also have you consider that the fact the other unincorporated areas might not be as popular or have the same availability as in White center and Skyway. Do they have enough spots that meet the qualification’s for some pot shops. Do they have enough of a population to keep a few pot shops open.

            Are there enough people that want to start a pot shop in those areas. Are there enough people that pass all the qualifications to run a pot shop.

          • Captain obvious says:

            As far I can tell you are a idiot all you want to do go around in circles. Since white center and skyway are some of the most urbanized unincorporated ares of king county it makes sense there more shops there.


          • Question Mark says:

            As usual, you’re just making up facts to suit your biased viewpoint. Unincorporated King County has a bigger population than Bellevue, and the vast, vast majority of that population is not in White Center and Skyway, no matter how urbanized those two small communities are. There’s a whole unincorporated county of more than 200,000 residents where King County won’t allow pot stores right now. But I guess that’s not so obvious to you, eh … ?? …

          • Captain obvious says:

            Bellevue is a city not a unincorporated area of king county



            White Center is one of only two heavily-urbanized areas in King County that is not incorporated as part of a city (the other being Skyway). Seattle has been working towards incorporating the area since the mid-2000s. An area south of White Center, known as North Highline, was annexed by neighboring Burien on 1 April 2010.[9] The Seattle city council rejected annexation of White Center in 2009, and a measure to annex White Center to Burien was rejected by voters in 2012.[10]

            Plans to annex White Center got a boost in March 2016 when the state legislature directed that $7 million go to the City of Seattle if it annexes the area. Annexation currently has support in the area, due to the low quality of services provided by King County, which has largely focused on governing rural areas instead. Completing annexation would require approval by the voters in the area as well as Seattle City Council, and would not be completed before 2017.[10]

      • Question Mark says:

        … but I’d much rather see a healthy community whose families and youth are thriving to brag about …

        • Captain obvious says:

          This article is about how gentrification I don’t really see the pot shops really being part of that. There been medical shops in the area for years and now there are a few recreational shops too.

  8. I hope it is annexed. It will be a great addition to the city! Welcome Whiteites, or perhaps whiteians, or whiters?

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