The recent assault on and robbery of Chea Pol and Heng Hay, the founders of Rainier Beach’s beloved King Donuts, shocked and horrified the community.
After closing up the shop around 7 p.m. on Jan. 2, Pol and Hay, Cambodian immigrants who had fled the genocidal violence of the Khmer Rouge, had just walked out the door when an unidentified man stole Chea’s purse containing jewelry and electronics. The culprit repeatedly punched her in the face. When Heng tried to intervene, the man threw him to the ground. The culprit fled.
As of press time, he has not been found.
Chea and Heng are still recovering, physically and emotionally. Most of Chea’s front teeth will have to be pulled out due to the physical assault, and both she and Heng routinely “relive the moment,” according to their daughter and current co-owner of the business, Davie Hay. “Coming here [to the shop] makes them uneasy,” said Davie Hay.
The incident spurred the neighborhood to express both outrage at the crime and support for the founders. The South Seattle Emerald reported that a Jan. 17 prayer march from Emerald City Bible Fellowship to King Donuts was attended by roughly 200 community members; a GoFundMe page created by Davie to help cover the family’s medical expenses has raised more than $20,000.
“[I] never thought that this many people would come out and show us this much support and love, even from strangers,” said Davie. Patrons of the bakery-laundromat-teriyaki shop trifecta continue to donate cash regularly as they purchase doughnuts and coffee.
Maia Segura, community business manager for the Rainier Beach Merchants Association, said recent violent incidents have galvanized the neighborhood. “Rather than [the incident] being something that defeated the community, people were like, ‘You know what? We’re sick of this. We’re taking it back,’” she said.
Rainier Beach is not immune to issues of violent crime, with shootings, robberies, assaults and other incidents routinely occurring every year. KL Shannon, a member of the King County Seattle branch of the NAACP executive committee, called violence in the area an “age-old problem,” citing unemployment, gentrification and long-standing gang rivalries as factors.
Rep. Pramilia Jayapal, D-Rainier Valley, said the issues that create such violence often feel entrenched. “The roots of these problems are deep,” said Jayapal.
But even with the violence, crime and tough economic realities, Rainier Beach community members say residents are invested in the neighborhood and find pleasure living there. The place gets a bad rap, and residents are coming together to make positive changes. Rainier Beach, they say, is turning a corner.
Perception, meet reality
Squished in on three sides by I-5, Lake Washington and Skyway, Rainier Beach is home to a diverse combination of racial and ethnic minority groups, including first and second-generation immigrant communities and families with school-aged children. Residential blocks surround a cluster of schools and privately and publically owned affordable housing complexes. A smattering of local businesses line the main thoroughfare, Rainier Avenue South. The neighborhood’s western boundary is the Sound Transit light rail station on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.
Along with the diverse population, Rainier Beach is a community with visible class distinctions. Million dollar homes sit on the shores of Lake Washington, and a sparkling new community center, opened in September 2013, anchors the intersection of Henderson and Rainier. Blocks away, the low-income Lake Washington Apartments house families and individuals trying to get by.
“We’re in poverty,” said Demario Kenzy, a neighborhood native and current resident. “It looks great, but there’s a lot of people without jobs.”
As he stood in a Mapes Creek Park across the street from Rainier Beach High School while some colleagues played craps, Kenzy shed some light on the undercurrent that fuels some of the neighborhood’s gun-related violence. “This area is really known for guns, shootings and stuff. There’s a lot of people who have had a lot of things going on a long time, and they feel like this is the area to let off steam,” he said.
Some community members are quick to point out that while drive-bys and street-side robberies are problems, they grab unwarranted attention and misrepresent a neighborhood, which, comparatively, experiences much lower crime rates than other parts of the city.
“Rainier Beach and the South End is not the most dangerous place in the city by a long shot,” said Segura of the merchart’s association.
Seattle Police Department (SPD) data bear this out. spd’s 2014 year-end crime stats revealed there was a 9 percent increase in overall crime citywide, though the jump was fueled specifically by property crimes, such as motor vehicle theft and car prowls. Last year, the South Precinct, which encompasses Rainier Beach, experienced the second lowest number of reported assaults — the West Precinct, which includes downtown and Queen Anne, was highest — but the South Precinct reported the second highest number of robberies and burglaries.
However, within the South Precinct, Rainier Beach had the highest number of assaults and robberies. More recent stats from the past six months suggest that the frequency of assaults, robberies and burglaries is steadily decreasing.
“I think the perception [that Rainier Beach is violent] generally tends to get driven by the fact that communities of color live there or immigrant-refugee communities,” said Gregory Davis, an organizer with Rainier Beach Moving Forward, a neighborhood advocacy group.
Hay said that prior to the assault of her parents, King Donuts had never been robbed, and staff and owners had never been assaulted since it opened in 1987. “The people inside the community, we don’t see as much violence as the media portrays,” Hay said.
The view when the ‘lights go out’
Other residents still perceive the same degree of criminal activity occurring, if not more.
“It’s definitely gotten worse,” said Margaret Nakosha, a Rainier Beach resident of 25 years. “It’s really accelerated in the last year,” she said, adding, “They’re stealing cars off the streets, they’re beating people up. … They’re pulling out guns and shooting across the street all the way up and down Rainier.”
Nakosha, who lives a few blocks away from Pritchard Beach Park, just northeast of Rainier Beach High, said she routinely hears gunshots from inside her home.
She said she welcomed spd Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Mayor Ed Murray to spend time in her home, to get a sense of how the neighborhood feels at night. “Unless they do that, they can’t come in here in daylight and understand what happens once the lights go out,” she said, referring to last summer’s “Find it, Fix it” walk, which brought city leaders and community members together to identify signs of low-level crime. O’Toole and Murray took part.
Nakosha said she and others in the area would like to see a more visible police presence, specifically foot or like patrols that could provide more direct contact with the community rather than motor vehicles, which keep officers who aren’t investigating an incident inside squad cars.
Currently, the South Precinct is the only precinct without a dedicated bicycle unit. South Precinct Capt. David Proudfoot said that geography and lack of building density in Rainier Valley led to that decision, though two to three times a week the precinct borrows bike squads from other parts of the city to send out on patrol.
After a late January meeting where the Rainier Beach Merchants Association discussed public safety concerns with South Precinct brass, SPD has reportedly started parking one of its mobile police unit vans in the Safeway parking lot, on Rainier near 51st Avenue South, several days a week. The department is also encouraging officers patrolling the area to get out of their cars.
When asked whether the South Precinct, which includes the Rainier Valley and the Duwamish River, was understaffed, Proudfoot laughed: All precincts in the city would benefit from more officers, he said.
Proudfoot said that precincts are staffed based on the volume of calls for service, an approach that is part of spd’s new “‘evidence-based,” datadriven approach to policing. “Typically, we’re around 120 officers for South [Precinct],” he said. The precinct is patrolled by 10 to 14 officers per shift.
Davie Hay of King Donuts said whenever she or her sister has called police to remove someone from the premises, spd response times can range from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on “how busy they are.” She added that people feel safe robbing and burglarizing people in the neighborhood, because the “cops aren’t going to come [for a long time].”
What most community members and some law enforcement officials don’t want is increased incarceration, especially of youth and young adults.
Proudfoot said that arrests are not the end to crime in the Rainier Beach area, adding that people who end up in the criminal justice system are much more likely to revert to similar behavior later. “We’re just doing what we can,” he said.
Cooling down the ‘hot spots’
Some community organizers are looking at how neighborhood layout and design is conducive to criminal activity.
Barb Biondo, a project coordinator with Seattle Neighborhood Group, helps run the U.S. Justice Department-funded “Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth” initiative, which uses spd data to identify crime “hot spots.” Project members are getting assistance from researchers from the George Mason University for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.
Five major hotspots have been identified: A block of Rainier between Rose and Kenyon streets; a segment of Seward Park Avenue in front of Rainier Beach High and the Lake Washington Apartments; the neighborhood Safeway; the intersection of Rainier and Henderson; and the light rail station.
The youth initiative began analyzing SPD data in the fall of 2013 and has proposed potential solutions to make Rainier Beach more youth friendly: Staggering the times when area schools end the day, to prevent an influx of young people on the streets, shown to lead to increased fights, assaults and robberies; and hiring adult community members to serve as “guardians,” to engage youth.
Biondo said the project prioritizes non-arrest, which relies upon community members keeping an eye on neighborhood happenings. Police are necessary, she said, “but I don’t think [spd] would be offended if I said they aren’t the most important partner.”
She said it’s too soon to say with any certainty whether their approach is having a significant impact, but she and other people are optimistic.
Segura with the merchant association said community building is one of the most effective counters to persistent crime issues. “When people are motivated by fear, community connections break down,” she said, adding that a positive communal attitude and neighborhood self-empowerment are crucial to moving forward.
What the future holds
Just miles from Rainier Beach, rents in central and north Seattle escalate, and construction cranes dominate the skyline. Rainier Beach community members are aware that their low-income neighbors, who lack many living-wage job opportunities, could soone feel the brunt of displacement and gentrification.
Amendments in 2012 to Rainier Beach’s neighborhood plan gave height incentives to developers to build mixed-use buildings — structures with a combination of retail and high-density housing affordable across a “variety of incomes” — on rezoned property near the light rail station.
Segura said that Seattle is running out of land. “The big wave of development is going to come crashing down [on Rainier Beach] quickly and without mercy.” she said. Supporting local business and generating local capital and jobs are good ways to combat eventual pressure from developers, she said.
In King Donut on a recent February afternoon, local capital was in action as a steady stream of customers walked in and out of the business. Some were willing to talk about the changes they see in Rainier Beach.
A lifelong resident, who goes by AJ, said that while riding the light rail is quick, rents near the station started going up as soon as it was installed in 2009. While not condemning the transportation that makes it easy to get downtown to his job as a security guard, he acknowledged that it may not bode well for his future. “I may get priced out,” AJ said.
Accompanying AJ was a young woman named “H&M.” “Like the store,’ she said.
She said it was sad what happened to the founders of King Donut and that Rainier Beach is perceived to be violent. But even with those perceptions and the potential for high rents, H&M said she feels at home in the neighborhood. After having moved from SeaTac 10 years ago, she said she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“I love Rainier Beach,” she said.