Seattle’s historic business district of Columbia City had seen better days. It was losing business to big box retail outside of the neighborhood. As more and more businesses moved out, more and more drug dealers and prostitutes moved in. By 1995, most of the stores were boarded up; there was more business being transacted on the street than in most of the buildings.
The Columbia City Revitalization Committee, a newly formed association of residents and businesses, responded by organizing an International Pancake Breakfast and Town Meeting at the Tropicana, a Filipino restaurant and bakery. The free food lured a diverse crowd of about 150 people who filled every chair and all of the aisle space. After breakfast, everyone was asked to think of a project that could improve Columbia City. If it was an idea that they felt passionately about, they were invited to summarize the project in a few words on a large sheet of paper and to take a couple of minutes to describe their idea to the entire assembly. Once everyone had an opportunity to share their ideas, the papers summarizing all of the proposed projects were posted in the front of the room, with similar ideas grouped together. Each cluster of ideas was then assigned to a store, church or other meeting space in the neighborhood.
At that point, all Town Meeting participants voted with their feet by joining a discussion of whatever idea most appealed to them. The project originator was responsible for leading the discussion. Participants were encouraged to feel free to leave one discussion and join another until they found a project and a group that resonated with them. By the end of the morning, several projects had been launched. One group organized regular cleanups of the business district; another painted a beautiful mural on a graffiti-covered wall; and yet another converted a closed church to become a multi-cultural performing arts center.
Subsequent town meetings celebrated these accomplishments and resulted in additional projects. Volunteers established a farmers market in the parking lot of the abandoned supermarket. A vacant store became a cooperative gallery for neighborhood artists. Another became a non-profit business where young people were trained to repair used bicycles donated by community members for use by the youth, foster children, and homeless families. Friday night Beatwalks brought people from throughout the city to enjoy music in newly established restaurants.
When these and other actions still failed to revive one block, neighbors painted murals of businesses on the boarded up doors and windows to make it look like the storefronts were open. Soon, real businesses wanted to get in on the action. Today, there are no empty stores in Columbia City. New mixed-use development is being built in order to respond to demand, and parking is a bigger issue than crime. All of this change resulted from the community’s vision and built on community resources.
(This story adapted from Jim Diers’ Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way)