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Photographer Documents Gentrification In Seattle’s Rainier Beach Neighborhood

Zac Davis Photography

Zac Davis has lived all around the Puget Sound region — Issaquah, Bellevue, Bremerton, Bainbridge Island. But about six years ago, he moved to Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood.

He was drawn to the vibrancy of the area, pulsing with different languages and cultures. He describes this as we walk down the street, past African women with their heads covered and moving smoothly in their long robes.

“In my cul-de-sac alone, there’s probably four languages spoken, and yet we manage to have a block party every summer,” he said. “It makes us stronger.”

Credit Zac Davis Photography

But he soon started to see a wave of change. He first began to understand the impact of gentrification when he got to know the owner of a Laundromat, who said he wasn’t sure he could hang onto his business because of neighborhood opposition.

“He started sharing his story about some of the challenges he’s been facing about trying to stay open in that particular area and the pressure he was getting to move out,” Davis said.

Davis says people in the neighborhood were upset about people hanging out at the Laundromat, claiming they were drug dealers. But he says that wasn’t true. Eventually, he says, the business did close.

Documenting Change

Davis decided to document the changes through photography and interviews. He didn’t have much experience doing that; he only started taking photographs seven years ago, but he didn’t let that stop him.

Over 48 hours, he interviewed seven community leaders in Rainier Beach. He took pictures of them and the neighborhood, documenting a transition that’s sometimes been painful. His photos include images of a gleaming new light rail station that a lot of people didn’t want; they needed more local bus service instead.

Davis says he learned from talking to people that change isn’t the problem; it’s how it’s done.

“I’m not against community development, I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “We absolutely need it. It’s how we go about it, and who is making those decisions.”

Davis spotted meaning in parts of the neighborhood that most people might overlook.

Credit Zac Davis Photography

'Watch Your Step'

At King Donut, a quintessential Rainier Beach institution that’s a combination donut shop, teriyaki place and Laundromat all in one, he spied the words “watch your step” hand-painted at the bottom of a stair. He snapped a picture because he saw a metaphor in those words.

“It’s sort of a caution to people when they come into a neighborhood with these plans, these ideas of what they’re going to do with our neighborhood,” he said. “It’s sort of a way of saying, `Watch your step. You’re welcomed, but we want you to be respectful.’”

Davis started showing his photos in exhibits in Rainier Beach last year and caught the attention of now-mayor Ed Murray. Murray then invited him to display his work in City Hall.

Credit Zac Davis Photography

It felt good to have his work shown in a place where decision-makers could see it, Davis said, “because the purpose behind the project was to inspire people to go about community development differently than what they have done in the past and who better to inspire and who better to educate than the people in City Hall?”

The last day of Davis’ “Rainier Beach Project: Overcoming Displacement” exhibit at city hall is Sept. 8. He’s hopeful that he’ll be able to move the exhibit to a Seattle-area museum.

As this region struggles with growth, Davis says he hopes the story of his own neighborhood holds wider lessons. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.