Columbia City has been transformed over the past decade, with new boutique shops, brewpubs and cafes lining either side of Rainier Avenue.
Its neighbor to the south, Hillman City, still boasts its old nail salons and bars and has yet to see the same economic transformation.
A local church and an arts group want to boost the neighborhood, serving existing residents and preserving history. The Hillman City Collaboratory, a storefront on Rainier Avenue South about a half mile south of Columbia City, is home to the two organizations, as well as a mashup of shared office space, a church, a meeting hall, a concert venue and a community garden.
“We want this to become a hub for change makers and a place where people doing good work in isolation find community and shared ideas and cross-pollination,” said John Helmiere, pastor of Valley & Mountain, a United Methodist congregation that started in Columbia City three years ago.
Helmiere and Ben Hunter, executive director of Community Arts Create, started their respective organizations about three years ago. They became friends and began planning an open community space where they could do their work with enough space to host other organizations as well.
“I think we realized we had similar missions,” Helmiere said. “We were coming at it through the spiritual language; they were coming at it through the artistic language.”
As a result, the 5,000 square-foot building, which has at times been the home of a church and a furniture store, opened in January as a space for a little bit of everything.
Just inside the door, visitors see wooden shelves holding paper egg cartons with beans and herbs growing in each pod. The seedlings will be planted in the garden out back. There’s a piano, a small stage and, right under the big picture windows facing Rainier Avenue, two circles of sofas and a half dozen people sipping coffee and chatting.
The main room hosts Valley & Mountain’s Sunday afternoon services, a concert hall, meeting space and drop-in center for Seattle Catholic Worker.
Next door, Hunter and Helmiere established shared office spaced renting for $30 to $275 a month.
Dozens of organizations rent the space for $20 to $75 an hour for community gatherings and board meetings, including the Rainier Valley Food Bank, Rainbow City Band and Bike Works.
Hunter said finding the right location was important.
“Our goal is to serve South Seattle, because it hasn’t been served by Seattle,” Hunter said.
Hillman City hasn’t experienced the same redevelopment boom that Columbia City, just half a mile north, has experienced over the past decade, he said.
Hillman is “kind of representative of what Columbia City was 15 or 20 years ago,” Hunter said. “We’re hoping we can help develop this community in a way that doesn’t gentrify the community the way Columbia City was.”
Gentrification happens when a neighborhood develops without input from the residents, Hunter said. The Collaboratory can play a role in bringing people together so they have a say in the future of their neighborhood.
Hunter and Helmiere see the Collaboratory as a place for neighborhood residents to come together through planned culinary arts programs where people will cook and discuss foods from various countries, with blues and folk music projects organized by Community Arts Create.
Already, there are regulars. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, members of the newest incarnation of the Seattle Catholic Worker serve meals and provide clothing and nonperishable food to homeless people. On a recent Tuesday, they had a pot of rice and beans, sliced pumpkin bread and cookies laid out on a table.
They won’t let you leave without getting something to eat.
“Did you get some of the cookies?” Seattle Catholic Worker co-founder Eli Burnham shouted to a visitor on their way out the door. “I can’t have you missing out on the cookies.”
Hunter and Helmiere aren’t yet satisfied with their project. One recent Tuesday, Hunter bounced around the space, working with volunteers building a garden in the back, receiving a delivery of bricks for an outdoor wood oven he’s building and arranging a delivery of compost from Cedar Grove.
While talking about his goals for the space, Hunter regularly stepped out to answer questions or take a call.
“It’s always like this,” Helmiere said, as Hunter headed out to talk with another volunteer. “Almost everything you see is donated. The things we bought, we bought with money that was donated. We wouldn’t be able to do this without that.”
Donations got the space moving and open, and they hope more volunteers and donations will continue to expand the space. They rent the space for a little less than $5,000 a month and hopes to purchase the building eventually.
Hunter has plans to hold indoor and outdoor concerts, serve community meals and paint murals along the alleyway.
“I want music in the streets, I want barbecues, I want lanterns and color,” Hunter said. “I want this to be a neighborhood that’s vibrant and loud and integrated. It might seem lofty, but I think we can do it.”
This article won First Place in the Social Issues/Religion & Minority Affairs Reporting category at the Washington Press Association Awards