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Columbia City is a neighborhood in the Rainier Valley area of southeast Seattle, Washington, known either for being one of the "hottest" neighborhoods in Seattle, or for its rapid gentrification, depending on one's perspective. It is best known for being a historic district, being one of the few parts of Seattle with genuine ethnic and income diversity (some claim that its zip code, 98118, is one of the most diverse in America  and for being an extremely walkable (having a 92% "WalkScore") and transit-oriented "urban village."
Its main thoroughfares are Rainier Avenue S. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. (until 1984 known as Empire Way S.) (north- and southbound) and S. Alaska Street (east- and westbound). Efforts are underway to extend bike lanes into the neighborhood and slow traffic to safer speeds on Rainier Avenue. Work has already begun on a series of sidewalk improvements. The community is served by the Columbia City Link Light Rail station (approximately 18 minutes from downtown Seattle), and several Metro bus lines, including the 7,8,9, 39, and 42.
The area was once dense conifer forest, inhabited by the local Salish peoples, until the arrival of the Rainier Valley Electric Railway from Downtown in 1891. A lumber mill was built soon after, and in 1891 settlement began in earnest in "Columbia," named for the Columbia River, which was considered a symbol the Northwest power and bounty, or for Christopher Columbus, or for Columbia the personification of West-looking America, as in the song "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean" (listen) which was popular at the time of the city's founding. Three streets in the neighborhood bear names of other famous explorers, a Columbia Street already existing Downtown: Ferdinand Street after Magellan, Hudson Street after Henry Hudson, and Americus Street after Amerigo Vespucci.
Columbia incorporated as "Columbia City" in January 1893. Annexation to the City of Seattle came May 3, 1907 following a petition by citizens to the City Council to hold a special election on the matter. Although opposition to annexation had initially been strong due to citizens' desire for local control, the March 5 vote was overwhelming: 109-3 in favor of annexation to Seattle.
In 1905, the newly-renamed Seattle, Renton and Southern Railway extended south to Renton. In 1912 the streetcar line went bankrupt and was reorganized as the Seattle and Rainier Valley Railway. Its last run was just after midnight on January 1, 1937. Meanwhile, Columbia City's ambitions to become a seaport were thwarted with the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917, which lowered Lake Washington by nine feet and caused Wetmore Slough to dry up. The former slough was used as a dump from 1941 to 1963, and is now Genesee Park.
As African Americans moved to Seattle to be part of the wartime industrial boom, many settled in the area, and in the 1960s the area began to suffer the effects of redlining and racism. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen victim to poverty, housing stock had deteriorated, and many storefronts along Rainier Avenue S. were vacant.
The Columbia City business district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 as the Columbia City Historic District, bounded on the north by S. Alaska Street, on the south by S. Hudson Street, on the east by Rainier Avenue S., and on the west by 35th Avenue S.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Columbia City saw a large influx of minority professionals, artists, straight couples, Christians, gay and lesbian couples and "urban pioneers" seeking classic housing stock at low prices. By the late 1990s, Columbia City was already referred to as one of Seattle's most creative neighborhoods. In the last decade, it has seen some of the sharpest rises in property values in the entire Seattle metropolitan area. The result has been widespread gentrification, including the restoration of many of the older homes and, in the last several years, the building of numerous condos and the planned construction of several hundred more. As of 2008, Columbia City is one of Seattle's most diverse neighborhoods in terms of income and ethnicity, encompassing everything from public housing to multi-million dollar view homes.
Today, the thriving pedestrian business district along Rainier Avenue S. has become something of a citywide destination, and is home to six bars, a number of restaurants, assorted retail shops, a successful farmer's market on Wednesday evenings in the summer/fall, two art galleries, a book store, a new bakery, a Starbucks, a yoga studio, a locally-owned gym, a fraternal clubhouse, Ark Lodge Cinema and Columbia City Theater (a live music venue), Bike Works (a community charity that lets kids earn bikes by learning to repair them), a biodiesel coop, and several community service centers. The neighborhood hosts a bustling monthly "Beat Walk," every first Friday May–October, and many of the local businesses participate with Jazz bands, open houses and art shows.
The surrounding blocks are mostly single-family homes, in many cases older craftsman bungalows, with a handful of low-income apartment buildings and more expensive new townhouses and condos. On the ridge above the business district, where views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains are common, many new expensive homes have been built, and many smaller homes expanded and updated. This area is part of what is known as the "Gold Coast", a swath of often extremely expensive homes with lake views.
Crime is very rare, by big city standards, although there is still drug-dealing in the neighborhood, and a fair number of car break-ins. Though the area has gentrified rapidly, it still contains a few pockets of real poverty, and the clashes between the needs of the area's poor and the desires of the area's better-off residents are somewhat defining of the neighborhood's politics. Despite both gentrification and class conflict, though, the neighborhood remains perhaps the most diverse in the Northwest, according to the US Census .
The New York Times recently wrote, "Columbia City still feels like a microcosm of the city itself, a gumbo of art galleries, bike shops, yoga studios and butchers where it’s easier to find homemade tamales or good pulled pork sandwich than a macchiato." Local fashion and art store Andaluz is a beloved local institution and highly rated in travel guides.
Train service at the neighborhood's Link Light Rail station began in July 2009, connecting the neighborhood to both SeaTac airport and Downtown Seattle. Rainier Vista, once a post-war suburban public housing project, has been redeveloped into a mixed-use, mixed income community built around the light rail station, and will include more than 900 new homes (some subsidized, some rental, some owner-occupied) when completed. In addition, the Downtown Emergency Services Center is building an apartment building nearby, permanent supported housing for formerly homeless men and women—the project prompted considerable community debate.
Other new development projects in the neighborhood include small-scale condo conversions and townhouse developments, to four 100+ unit new condo buildings on Rainier Avenue alone. Community estimates have put the number of new homes in the planning pipeline as numbering at least 1,500. Little of this development will directly impact the single-family housing stock.
Besides the new businesses that might come along with these projects, there are quite a few new community and non-profit initiatives breaking ground, especially for children. The Boys and Girls Club has opened a new regional facility in the neighborhood, the Seward Park Audubon Society is opening an environmental learning center in nearby Seward Park and in 2008 the Brighton Playfield Science Park opened - one of the few free public science parks in the nation. Other plans are in the works for a 2.1 million dollar renovation of the neighborhood's large Genesee park. A local arts group, the Pomegranate Center, has facilitated an effort to use public art, infrastructure changes and street furniture to slow traffic on Rainier Avenue and better connect Columbia City with the Hillman City neighborhood to the south, which has not yet seen the same level of reinvestment and renewal. Most observers seem to assume that the Hillman City business district will eventually catch on, and the two neighborhoods will be better integrated. Connections are also being strengthened to the [Seward Park] neighborhood immediately to the East, which itself has seen a retail revival, with a PCC natural foods market, a new cafe, a new gourmet pizza restaurant and other businesses.
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