Rainier Valley People

A celebration of one of the U.S.'s most diverse areas in which Rand Koler interviews his neighbors.

Rainier Health and Fitness

Last week it had been inordinately rainy, so only with several days of accumulated guilt from procrastination, was I grudgingly able to head out jogging, encased in a raincoat.  I slogged down Rainier through puddles, mud and pedestrians and came across a cheerful looking place with exercise machines.  I stopped and found myself nearly face to face with a fellow on an exercise machine, separated only by a pane of glass.  I expected his expression to be one of exhaustion, annoyance, or some variety facial communication in the macho idiom. His smile encouraged me to find out more about the place.

Rainier Health and Fitness is a most unusual gym: it’s a nonprofit enterprise; it’s strongly community-based with a relatively small staff and 45 volunteers; and its focus is the health of people who might not otherwise go to a gym or who need exercise for health-related reasons.  It has a youth outreach program with camps for basketball and soccer and ties with medical clinics in the area, which refer patients in need of exercise.

When I go to a gym  — with a body sculpted by lethargy and indolence — I am accustomed to encountering people with an extremely high level of musculature strutting around and insistent employees offering their services for hire to conduct private workouts.   At Rainier Health and Fitness the atmosphere is quite different.  Its patrons represent a slice of the neighborhood and congeniality abounds along with appreciation for the gym.  It is an entirely pleasant place to go — with the possible exception of the actual exercise, which after two days had me complaining about pains from muscles that I did not know that I had.  I think I let my enthusiasm for the place morph into hasty exuberance in hoisting the weights and levers.  Next time I may engage the staff for advice about my approach.

It turns out that Rainier Health and Fitness originated in 2005 in Rainier Valley’s cradle of culture, Hillman City (where I live).  It started out in a very small space that could fit only a few machines.  Locals though welcomed the opportunity afforded by the gym and soon enrollment was about 100, which was about 95 more people than the gym’s capacity.  It was started, and to some extent sustained, with money provided by Rainier Avenue Church and Urban Impact, a community-oriented nonprofit.


The interim location in the trailer

The next move was to a more commodious trailer on Rainier Avenue provided by Emerald City Bible Fellowship and there the gym’s patronage continued to grow.  Finally in 2011 it moved next door to its present, more traditional, location on the ground floor of a multi-family residential building constructed that year.



The director, Alicia Haskins, told me that her commitment to Rainier Health and fitness+trainerFitness and to the health of the community it serves is born of her faith and I see in her the difference between commitment to service from faith, as opposed to zeal for profit from less laudatory origins.  She is a delightful woman who sincerely cares about her community and hopes that someday a second gym can be opened in a low income neighborhood in the Greater Seattle area.  She regrets the decline in attendance by Somali women who came in numbers on Ladies’ Night not too long ago.  I imagine that that may be a symptom of the gentrification of the area but I hope that’s just a carryover from the holidays at the end of our calendar year and will resume some time soon.

I’m planning to sign up for one of the many classes they offer for people of all ages and levels of fitness.  There’s yoga, which I tried once but couldn’t get into the position from which you begin the different poses; when I tried to lower myself to the mat I lost all hope of having that warm smile that you see on people sitting on their yoga mats and thinking beautiful thoughts.  There’s also a general fitness class for an hour which would be beneficial to me, particularly if the hour includes time for chatting and a short nap.  And there’s exuberant dancing .  I’ve been interested in cross-training and that’s there too.  Even daycare and weekend walks.

A run by the Playfield

Last fall I ran from Hillman City down to Gennese.  In route I saw  a section of the neighborhood pea patch that raises vegetables for the food bank; a hawk on a telephone wire; a raised garden near the Rainier Community Center where people were invited to take what they wanted to eat; a woman in a Whitman t-shirt who graduated 34 years after I would have graduated had I stayed there and had the Vietnam War not occurred; two fields filled with girls’ soccer games and one field occupied with boys’ football, the girls looking every bit as intense and fit as their male counterparts; a boy about eleven walking home with his 6 year old brother, holding hands, the older boy in football gear talking about the game just played, his brother looking up, slack jawed, lost in admiration; a 14 year old girl who whooshed by me and disappeared into the horizon.

A Drive to the Demonstration After the Immigration Ban


As I drove from my house in Hillman City to the demonstration at Westlake in the evening earlier in the month, I passed Borracchini’s Bakery and was reminded that Rainier Valley was called “Garlic Gulch” when the area was an enclave of Italian immigrants. It also served as a first stop for Irish people immigrating here in the first part of the twentieth century. Now I pass Ethiopian, East African, West African and Southeast Asian restaurants, and a Vietnamese grocery. Mutual Fish was started by an immigrant Japanese family after the cessation of internments, as was the Link’s fishing equipment store.

I parked my can near 12th and Jackson in Little Saigon and walked through China Town, as the vendors were dismantling their booths following the New Year’s celebration. As I walked through the valley of high-rises in the commercial district of downtown I saw that many office lights were on that Sunday at 5:00 p.m. Then I noticed that people were coming out of the office buildings and condominium buildings with signs. About that time I heard a roar, like you hear from a distant football game. Westlake Center and the surrounding streets were already packed with people carrying signs and people continued arriving for the next two hours.

The signs were diverse, displaying a range of negative feelings about the administration. But mostly the signs advocated for love and understanding, many displaying bible verses, quotes from Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statute of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence, and statements of brother and sisterhood. What struck me about the gathering was its congenial, committed tone.

The crowd displayed the sentiment for which it advocated. The police were present in force but displayed warmth and respect for the crowd, which was reciprocated. Very few were able to hear the speakers at the hastily organized demonstration but all seemed to enjoy participating in the display of American spirit.

There was a small group of Somali people, a family of four with a few friends. A child in the group stared at the crowd in wide eyed awe as he held up a sign upside down. The adults tittered in excitement at being able to participate in the demonstration. They didn’t seem to know English very well but were able to express their love of Seattle and America. Many people toted signs saying “I’m a refugee” or “I’m an immigrant.” I saw a little old lady who needed help walking but was able to hold a little sign on a very thin stick that said “First they came for the Muslims, then we said hell no motherfuckers.” She hobbled to the edge of the crowd, surveyed the scene, said to her companion “this is good,” then hobbled back to her condominium.

The crowd was composed of people of every age, race and sexual orientation. It was really a beautiful experience.

A run through the neighborhood

On my run Sunday I passed a crow perched on a yard sign sign that said “Black Lives Matter;” I saw a young family walking back from the demonstration with an 8 year old son leaning into his dad saying how cool it was to carry a sign, and I saw Mount Rainier peeking through the clouds.

A little Background

Not too long ago I moved to Rainier Valley in South Seattle from Northeast Seattle. Rainier Valley attracted me because of its rich and abundant diversity. There is diversity in every demographic category that comes to mind: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religious belief, political affiliation (maybe not quite so much in this category), immigrants, refugees. This is the melting pot I heard so much about, the place where people learn to live together.

Northeast Seattle , where I had been living, attracts some people because it lacks the rough behavioral edges that are associated with South Seattle. Similarities between the people in Northeast Seattle breed comfort, a sense of predictability and understanding — a feeling of safety.

I grew up in Northeast Seattle in the ’60’s when the sense of tribal cohesion in that area was so strong that people actually feared incursions from other demographic groups. Jews could not buy homes in Laurelhurst; real estate agencies would not sell to African-Americans. In the late ’60’s this began to break down but that part of town remains appreciably less diverse than its neighbor to the south.  Seattle largely remains a city with de facto segregation.

After moving down here I noticed a number of differences from goings on north of the canal. I now run around Seward Park instead of Green Lake. Runners down here greet each other as they pass in opposite directions. Not so much up north. People on the 7 Rainier bus jump up to give their seats to women and elderly people. Not quite so much in the north end. Neighbors interact and know each other. This was not so true for my family before coming down here.

I found people down here to be so cool that I wanted to share some of their stories and describe life in this pot of acceptance and possibility.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén