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Opinion: America's Most Diverse ZIP Code Shows the Way

Mar 25, 2010 – 1:50 PM
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Red Room Author

Red Room Author Opinion Editor

(March 25) -- With the 2010 Census expected to show the most multiethnic America ever recorded, diversity is once again a hot topic in national politics.

Undated photo of writer, G. Willow Wilson.
Amber French
G. Willow Wilson
Accommodating the broad range of ideas, expectations and cultural differences in the modern U.S. is a challenge. Sometimes it seems like hostility between competing groups is inevitable. Yet America's most diverse ZIP code -- 98118, comprising the Rainier Valley neighborhoods of Seattle, Wash. -- seems to be doing fine.

Along a certain stretch of Rainier Avenue, a radical feminist meeting hall is sandwiched between a Somali grocery store and a "gentlemen's club."

A little farther on is a Starbucks where well-dressed elderly men from the local Nation of Islam temple come to play chess.

Walk a few blocks east and you'll find one of the largest synagogues in the city.

North of that is the southern edge of the International District, home to a large number of Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian and Korean restaurants and shops.

The city estimates that more than 60 languages are spoken in this modest segment of south Seattle. Yet despite serious differences in religion, culture and lifestyle, Rainier Valley residents have found ingenious ways to relate to their neighbors and use the diversity of the area to their best advantage.

Rather than seeing diversity as a limitation, local business owners have recognized it as an opportunity to broaden their customer base. Mawadda Cafe, an Iraqi-run halal restaurant catering to the local Muslim population, also offers an array of vegetarian options for the yoga-and-green-living crowd. Full Tilt, an ice cream parlor several blocks away, buys Mawadda's famous chai tea and turns it into a delicious frozen dessert. It's not uncommon to see local gatherings and events advertised in several different alphabets. This hands-on, interdependent attitude is visible up and down the area's main streets.

That interdependence carries on into residential areas. While the Rainier Valley is more or less evenly split between whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos, very few neighborhoods are predominantly one race or another. A single block might contain families from half a dozen different ethnic backgrounds. Gay and lesbian families are also well represented.

Above all, it is this lack of Balkanization that makes Rainier Valley unique -- its disparate residents live with each other, rather than separating along unofficial lines of ethnicity, income or lifestyle.

As the U.S. moves into the 21st century, there are lessons to be learned from its most diverse ZIP code. We don't need to be like each other to like each other. The feeling of shared pride in a common neighborhood can do wonders for the way people view their differences.

Since this year's Census will likely tell us that more kinds of people call the U.S. home than ever before, Rainier Valley is a timely model for what the American "melting pot" can be.

G. Willow Wilson's essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Atlantic Monthly. You can find her graphic novels "Cairo" and "Air," and upcoming prose memoir, "The Butterfly Mosque," on Red Room.

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