Yarrow House

Small Towns of Seattle: Columbia City

When I moved into the Rainier Valley in the mid-1970s, eating out in Columbia City, meant burgers at the Columbia City Cafe or Ethiopian food at Fasika, one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in the Valley. Eating in Fasika’s long, narrow space felt like we had made a quick trip to Africa. Now the restaurant choices on Columbia City’s main street circle the globe, reflecting the Valley’s diverse residents.

Since its beginning in 1889, Columbia City has attracted immigrants. Early on they were Italian, German, Polish, and Irish, as well as Japanese, Chinese and Filipino millworkers. Now the Valley boasts speakers of 47 languages, and the Columbia City farmers market attracts residents originally from Central and South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia.

Columbia City started out as the site of the first station on a new streetcar line from downtown Seattle along what was to become Rainier Avenue. The owner of the line and his partners logged the land around the station and advertised the area’s attractions, including having less rain because it was farther south than Seattle. By1891 a settlement had formed around the sawmill, which had a thriving business selling lumber to rebuild downtown Seattle after the Great Fire. The little settlement was called Columbia. Riffing on the idea of Christopher Columbus, four of its streets were named after famous explorers: Ferdinand after Magellan, Hudson after Henry Hudson, and Americus after Amerigo Vespucci. Fasika was on Edmunds, originally Columbus St.

By 1893, the settlement was big enough to incorporate as Columbia City. The citizens built a town hall, a schoolhouse, and a library. As the streetcar line extended to Renton, with scheduled stops in Columbia City every 30 minutes, the little town became a convenient business hub and shopping center for the flood of settlers into the Valley. Lining its main street were hotels, restaurants, bakeries, hardware and dress shops, and grocery stores—everything a thriving town needed except saloons. The town was dry. No saloons meant no poolrooms so most of the barbershops also had pool tables.

But by 1907 the spring that supplied the town’s water also dried up, and the tax base proved to be too small to fund the water and sewer needs of the rapidly growing town. The citizens approved annexation to Seattle. In the 1930s the shadow of Columbia City’s economic doom arrived in the form of the automobile. The streetcars stopped running, and in 1937 their tracks were paved over.

Immigrants continued to flow into the Valley, often locating in the temporary housing built for World War II defense workers. In response to the increasing African American population and the civil rights unrest in the 60s and 70s, white residents fled the Valley, taking their business with them. One by one stores closed. Only a few holdouts resisted the erosion of what had once been a thriving neighborhood.

In the 1970s I was still able to buy typing paper in Rainier Office Supply, meet for after-work drinks at the Columbia City Cafe and Elbow Room, and occasionally poke my head into Matthiesen’s Flowers, but many of the shop windows were boarded over. In the 1980s Grayson’s Hardware and Cleo's Clothing store finally shut their doors. Columbia City appeared to be unsalvageable. The downward spiral continued into the early 1990s. But then Seattle’s technology boom kicked into gear, and housing prices began to rise. For minority professionals, artists, and gay and lesbian couples looking for homes they could afford, Columbia City, so close to downtown, filled the bill. A few brave new restaurants opened, and local community activists started promoting the neighborhood’s attractions through Beat Walk, a monthly multi-venue music festival. Columbia City’s main street began to revive.

Cleo’s had been far too expensive for my budget so I never went into it. Curious about where exactly it had been, I rummaged around on the Internet and discovered that the Starbucks coffee shop now occupies Cleo’s former location, in what was once the Rainier Valley State Bank Building. While I was looking for Cleo’s former location, I ran across the mention of a stream crossing Edmunds St. and running down through a 40-foot deep ravine “behind the library” and into Lake Austin before it emptied into Wetmore slough. Early city fathers had high hopes of Columbia City becoming a major port on Lake Washington before the Montlake Cut lowered the lake and dried up their dreams.

I knew about Wetmore slough. When Columbia City was first settled, the slough had filled the low-lying areas of  Rainier Valley just north of the little town and curved on out to Lake Washington. After the drop in the lake’s level dashed Columbia City’s hopes of becoming a freshwater port, filling in the swampy slough became the goal, accomplished by turning it in to a garbage dump. When the land was finally leveled, it became the Genesee playfield and park. But this was the first I’d ever heard of a Lake Austin. Where exactly was it? Who would know? The likely informants were now all gone. More digging in the archives was called for.

The village green behind the library has a string of solar lights—a children’s art and history project—embedded in the walkway that curves down through the park to mark the location of the former stream. The bottom of the steep ravine would have been about the present level of the Rainier playfield, across the street from the library. The ravine had been deeded as a park when the little town was platted, but it took years of dumping garbage in it to raise it to the level of the current pleasant, sweeping park. At the south end of the park, Edmunds St. had climbed up a steep hill between Rainier Avenue and the stream but in the mid 1950s the hill had been leveled. Now a PCC grocery and apartment building occupies the location of the former hill, and the farmers market sets up from spring to fall along that leveled section of Edmunds St. When I walked down through the park and looked out over the playfield, not even a hint of the stream or Lake Austin remained.

At the Rainier Valley Historical Society, the director and I pored unsuccessfully over copies of old maps, looking for Lake Austin. Maybe it had been a winter lake, or a pond given a grandiose name by kids, or maybe a map’s little widening of the Wetmore slough, somewhere around the playfield, was the lake. We could only guess, since memory of its exact location appears to have gone with the passing of the last early residents.

In this new century, changes continue to happen in Columbia City. It’s becoming a shopping destination again, with an art gallery, a movie theater, a couple of clothing stores, and even live music venues. The little town is bustling, with a strong focus on restaurants of all flavors. We have decisions to make when we go there for dinner now, and we can even order alcohol. All that’s missing are the barbershop poolrooms.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2016