By one count, 56 languages are spoken there. Successive refugee waves have followed the Southeast Asians: Ethiopians, Bosnians, Salvadorans, Colombians, Somalis, Iraqis. Multiculturalism is hip, and for visitors, White Center’s main lure is its food: Salvadoran, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and a dozen Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants and produce stands. Mi Bohio, a new bakery and restaurant, offers Ecuadoran, Honduran, Dominican, and Puerto Rican specialties. The apparent proprietor, wearing traditional Ecuadoran garb, says she can cook them all—with help from her Honduran, Dominican, and Puerto Rican partners.
But the Cambodians who jump-started the internationalization of White Center are finding their own hold slipping. As they’ve moved up, many have moved south, to Kent, Auburn, Federal Way, and Tacoma, where they can afford more house; even Burien homes cost about $50,000 less. Many displaced Park Lake tenants won’t likely try to return; those who do will find fewer subsidized rentals among Greenbridge’s 1,000-plus units than Park Lake’s 569.
Slogn and Sameth have watched their sales shrink accordingly. Their wedding-dress market evaporated as Cambodian brides switched to American styles. Worse yet, new casinos opened, two small ones nearby and a large one on the Muckelshoot Reservation, down past Auburn. “Now people spend money at casino,” says Sameth. “Don’t pay bills.” She had to stop extending credit, and lost more customers.
To recoup, she and Slogn now stock detergent (for customers using the Laundromat next door) and select groceries and dry goods, which they buy at Costco unless a supermarket offers a better sale. The markup is low, but it’s cash flow. Ten years ago they gave up half the store’s space to the Laundromat, trimming their rent from $1,500 to $1,050 a month. “Sometimes I have to cover the rent from [cleaning] work,” says Slogn. “It’s not easy, but what can you do? When you have something already, you have to keep it going.”
He suffers from the usual Seattle renter’s regret at not buying a house when it was easy—and it was very easy in White Center. “In 1983–84, a house around here cost 8, 10, 20 thousand dollars. Now it costs 330 thousand.” And the fat lady ain’t sung yet; some residents supporting a Seattle annexation expect it to further boost their property values. “If I had an idea then like I have now…” sighs Slogn. “But I wasn’t interested.” Rat City was just a place to pass through. Then the grin returns. “What can you do? Life’s not easy. But it’s beautiful.”