How Beacon Hill's Center Is Shifting

El Centro de la Raza and its surrounds remain a cultural mosaic. But the civil rights organization’s expansion to Federal Way signals a familiar change.

By Benjamin Cassidy September 16, 2020 Published in the Fall 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Roberto Maestas with children at El Centro de la Raza in 1987.

In a square at the crest of North Beacon Hill, children’s footsteps traced figure eights around vendors dishing out pepperoni slices and tamales on a warm July night. Parents exchanged post-work pleasantries nearby, “como estas?” interspersed with “how are you?” Some retreated to a pair of sleek affordable housing developments that framed the plaza. Others embraced the revelry, lingering in the shadow of a stately, historical structure.

For nearly half a century, El Centro de la Raza has housed programs in early education, nutrition, and workforce development that foster justice on the site of a once-abandoned schoolhouse. As of 2016, however, the Center for People of All Races also functions as a landlord. The organization oversees Plaza Roberto Maestas–Beloved Community, an award-winning, rent-restricted development named after the late Gang of Four activist behind the center’s formation. With string lighting and eclectic fare, the public space next to South Roberto Maestas Festival Street invites celebration. “It really is called Festival Street for a reason,” says tenant Kristi Brown.

Peek across that road and you’ll find reason to be less jovial. This summer, scaffolding hardly cloaked a new luxury apartment development rising above the light rail station that arrived here in 2009. Home prices have skyrocketed since then, threatening to obscure a cultural mosaic in Beacon Hill that Seattle has long held up as the picture of diversity. Enough households have uprooted to southern King County that El Centro opened a branch in Federal Way this year to continue serving people of all races. “Clearly the neighborhood has changed,” says Estela Ortega, the center’s executive director and Maestas's widow.

The community’s still diverse, mind you—how many Seattle neighborhoods can tout a legit Latin American market like La Esperanza Mercado y Carniceria? And only a killjoy could quibble with some of the additions to this swath of Beacon Hill since it got Link-ed, like the IPAs at Perihelion Brewery and Filipino food at Musang.

Ortega doesn’t shun neighborhood newcomers. Quite the opposite. “We learned very, very early the importance of multiracial unity and also the importance of having the organization be something for everyone,” she says.

A sit-in at vacant Beacon Hill School brought her to the neighborhood in 1972. Maestas and dozens of others sought a new space for a defunded ESL and adult education program. For three months, they occupied the heatless building.

The protesters—all races, all ages, Ortega recalls—didn’t stick out. By that time the surrounding area had grown more diverse and working-class than the neighborhood's moniker, a nod to one of Boston's toniest enclaves, would have suggested. Post-World War II, people of Filipinx, Chinese, Japanese, and Latinx descent flocked to a nabe with relative low-cost housing. More Latinx families would move in after the city temporarily leased the building to El Centro for $1 a year.

Even as the organization expands, its original site remains the hub. Maestas helmed it until just before his death 10 years ago this September. When Ortega assumed his position, she spearheaded the plaza project in his name. The affordable housing blueprint didn’t face any NIMBY resistance. “The gentrified community, if you will, could see themselves there,” she says.

Marcos Arellano has noticed them sampling shrimp and octopus plates at his Shark Bite Ceviches stand in the square. Different palates, he’s observed, but no bother. He welcomes the challenge of pleasing them all.

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