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January 26, 2018
January 26, 2018

Interview with Violet Lavatai: How Columbia City (and Seattle) became richer and whiter

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The Tenants Union’s Violet Lavatai talks about displacement, gentrification and growing up in the Rainier Valley

By Cliff Cawthon, Contributing Writer

While walking along in Columbia City’s business district, I noticed and shuddered at the installation of paid-parking zones. My mind started to contemplate the re-structuring of Seattle’s newest “hip” neighborhood. The orange flags identified new pay meters, but they also meant something more: Columbia City, like the commons of old, was being enclosed and reserved. There definitely wasn’t any going back.

The gentrification of Columbia City isn’t a new topic. This recent small, but noticeable parking change, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, was designed to address the “absence of available parking” in the neighborhood.

For the better part of two decades now, longtime residents and newer residents who’ve reflected the neighborhood’s traditional non-white and working-class character have been pushed out. Many have been lamenting this phenomenon, confronting it, trying to adapt to it, and/ or fighting like hell against it.

Violet Lavatai, the Interim Executive Director of the Tenants Union of Washington, is not just someone who is currently fighting displacement but she has also been forced out of Columbia City. (Full disclosure: I am co-chair of the Tenants Union board of directors.)

In 1975, Lavatai’s family moved from California to Columbia City to stay with her uncle. Today neither she nor her uncle, siblings or cousins can afford to live in the neighborhood and have moved elsewhere. I sat down and discussed how the neighborhood went from a largely working-class, people-of-color neighborhood to a largely middle-class neighborhood filled with fancy niche stores and gourmet restaurants.