To be or not to be ‘Rat City': Debate draws crowd to White Center Chamber lunch
By Tracy Record
White Center Now editor
“The monthly Chamber luncheon’s been happening for over 60 years … but I don’t think we’ve had this many people in a long time,” White Center Chamber of Commerce president Mark Ufkes said as today’s lunch began at Salvadorean Bakery, with more than 40 people on hand.
The big draw – several longtime local businesses voicing concern over the Chamber’s new website potentially including use of the neighborhood’s longtime nickname “Rat City.” First, here’s our recording of the entire discussion (note that it works better as audio than video, due to a discrepancy between the backlighting of the speakers at the front of the room and those commenting from the other half of the room):
Now, the story:
Before opinions were sought, there was a long preface.
It’s been about a year now, Ufkes recalled, that the Chamber decided to figure out ways to “better market the businesses that are here and better promote the area.” The goals included “every business owner in White Center has the opportunity to tell their story and share their story.” Redeveloping the website emerged as a priority, “to try to figure out how to present the diversity and complexity of this community to the rest of the world.” And it brought in a grant. That led to the creation of an advisory committee to help create the website. Brittany Trujillo from the website committee (which also includes Kathi “George” Wheeler, Leticia Martinez, and Aileen Sison) then spoke to the group: She read from a statement, saying “This is still in the early stages of coming together” and noting that they have done extensive research. “At this time we are not necessarily directing our energy at Rat City … but Rat City has been revitalized in our community at this time,” and with that she listed off a variety of ways the name “is here right now – people are using the name, they love it.”
Trujillo said “visitratcity.com” was an “alternate domain name” they had set aside, but the main domain name “will be visitwhitecenter.com.” She talked about the vitality of the new businesses coming into the area, and people using “hey, c’mon up to Rat City … it’s not always come up to White Center.” She said the “kick it in Rat City” that’s currently on the main page is something that will frequently change up.
Designer Wheeler then spoke about their efforts to “look at all the aspects of White Center,” including history and “reclaiming the rat a little bit – it’s not about rats eating out of garbage cans, but about the regional military training” in the area. She too talked about the “hip” new businesses. “We’re not trying to push anybody or anything out.” The rat on the website front page, she said, was inspired by the “Asian Year of the Rat,” and they’re hoping that perhaps when the “Year of the Rat” really arrives (the next one is in 2020), there might be a big party. Seventy businesses have been photographed for the website already, she said, and only a few have opted out.
She also talked about collecting information on countries of origin – wherever in the world businesspeople are from. The result will be a business directory, she explained in response to a question, broken down into five categories – including “eat,” “play” (nightclubs, bars, parks, roller rink), “shop,” “medical” (including medical-marijuana dispensaries, she noted), and “organizations” (including local nonprofits). Trujillo reiterated that there is an option to opt out, or to be included but not photographed. Wheeler said they’re trying for an “editorial look” to their photography – “warm and inviting,” not “here’s a photo of our staff … we’re going case by case to each business, assessing what’s the story to be told” by that business.”
According to Wheeler, the goal is for the website to be at least partly launched by Jubilee Days – not the business directory but the rest of it – with the rest to go live by the end of summer.
Chamber vice president “Mac” McElroy then noted that the goal of this is to bring people together.
Mikel Davila, neighborhood revitalization program manager for White Center Community Development Association, said that marketing has been an emphasis for WCCDA going back several years – the “growing a global village” brand, for example. They partnered in the web-grant seeking, to build on that branding. “In terms of other branding,” he said, they hope to “get the community voice … and see where the majority of the community wants to go … We’re just, like Mac said, trying to bring people together.”
One prominent voice of Rat City support chimed in then.
“This IS Rat City; we’re not going to change it into Wallingford,” said Justin Cline, Full Tilt Ice Cream entrepreneur and Rat City Business Association co-founder, followed by Jesse Lovell of Company, another co-founder, who said “this came together pretty organically because we (business people in downtown WC) see a lot of each other, check in with each other and it came to be based on those organizations.” They have a website which includes “Ratty,” its mascot.
Then, the voice of opposition that emerged last week:
Alan Homestead, who expressed his concern at the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council meeting last Thursday (WCN coverage here), was first to speak, acknowledging he hadn’t been active in the Chamber for a while, and saying he has continued to gather information from the community. He says he is glad that WC is being promoted. But he’s wondering, “Have rats become cool? … Rats have had a negative connotation for thousands of years; can a rat change that?”
As he did during the NHUAC meeting, Homestead worried aloud that it would reinforce perceptions of uncleanliness. He said he didn’t want to stifle enthusiasm, but “I hope this marketing energy will maintain its speed and energy … but with a different mascot.” He said he spoke with 57 people in the community over the past few days, “a combination of business owners, managers, and employees,” and found 2 who supported Rat City, 11 neutral, and 44 opposed. He is requesting that the Chamber “make a determination of whether or not it supports Rat City and the rat icon … so that the Chamber’s viewpoint is clear to its members, the White Center community, and the White Center residents.”
Cline suggested “it’s a generational thing … I talked to a lot of the business owners around me, including Asian business owners, where it’s a good luck thing … I don’t think it has to be either/or. … There’s no reason we have to change the sign when you drive in.”
Website designer Wheeler pointed out that the RAT acronym has a military origin. Ufkes noted that the rat’s been on a banner “flapping in the wind,” for more than a year.
Former Chamber president and NHUAC president Russ Pritchard said he was speaking on behalf of past Chambers: “We spent tons and tons and tons of time over the years trying to change the Rat City image,” he recalled. “… Now I’m not so involved in this area any more, but when I tell people I’m from this area, they say, ‘Oh, you’re from Rat City’.” He said his main advice was to do a better job – which he said he and his colleagues had NOT done long ago – about what RAT really stands for.
Trujillo noted that the website will include White Center history – they’ll also be archiving and featuring some of the historic documents and materials in existence – and promised they’ll do a better job of educating people about the name’s history and meaning. Homestead, though, said the rat symbol would do “the opposite.”
Other opinions: “It’s not going to be a ‘scraggly rat’,” pointed out one attendee, who said “To take this ball and run with it is a great idea. It puts us on the map.” Company’s Jesse pointed out that while WC is changing, the rat is just not going away. “It’s all about branding,” said another attendee. “Clean, safe and appropriate – what does that say about White Center? … Just not that compelling. … Sometimes the more controversial a brand the more attention you get.”
Frank Cantwell of Holy Family School said his informal polling was reinforcing the generation gap. “If it’s done right, go with it,” he said a friend had told him, and he agreed. Another opinion: The rat image is “cool … I’d like it on a T-shirt .. .but everytime I run into someone, I have to explain ‘Rat City,’ and if you have to explain it, that’s not such great branding.” She noted that even the Rat City Rollergirls’ name had to be explained, when she was a Seattle-area newcomer some time back. “I also love the ‘not so centered, not so white’ (White Center slogan),” she noted, leading to a ripple of laughter through the room.
“Whether you call yourself Rat City or White Center, they both have negative connotations,” said another attendee. “Fremont has its statue of Lenin, which attracts tourists … but has negative connotations.” That brought a reaction from one attendee who said she lives in Magnolia, and points out that Fremont has “marketed its (quirkiness) quite successfully. … This ain’t your mama’s White Center any more – it’s a different community today. And the more you spend time in this community, the more you recognize, this is the next Columbia City, this could be the next Fremont.”
Ana Castro, owner of the site of the meeting, Salvadorean Bakery, said she originally opened here because it was affordable, but her business now draws people from all over the area “because it offers good products – and if you offer a good product, people are going to (come for it, wherever you are).”
Yet another attendee said “Rat City” seems younger and hipper to her, and that “White Center” seems to have a worse connotation to some from outside, “What a racist name!” she’s heard some say. She says she doesn’t see how “rat” has a more negative connotation than “white.”
“I’m old, and I’m for Rat City,” said North Highline resident Gill Loring, as the last word before Chamber president Ufkes summarized. “I’m going to call the board together and have a conversation – this conversation is not over by any means .. the key is we’re trying to tell the story of a whole bunch of businesses here and the great stuff that they have.”
P.S. If you are a Chamber member, you are invited to get involved in the website committee.
Other updates from the meeting:
UPDATE ON MURALS PROJECT – AND A COMPETITION: President Ufkes talked about some of what’s in progress right now, including the mural that students have been working on every afternoon for the past 2 weeks – “dozens and dozens of high-school kids from Evergreen are involved” – at Super Saver Foods (WCN coverage here). And that’s just one of several buildings where murals have been created or are planned. Not only are the murals art in their own right, they’re also a deterrent to tagging/graffiti vandalism, as Ufkes pointed out. Others he mentioned: One at 9811 17th SW next to Malo’s Auto Body. And he announced a competition – artists are welcome to take on the blank panels 1 through 7 at the SW 107th site, with $100 prize available to the artist whose vision for one of those seven panels is declared the winner. Artists and Chamber members will judge the creations. (Later in the meeting, Ufkes also invited any business owners who want murals on their buildings to call him.)
KING COUNTY P-A-L IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Head coach Tony Rago from King County Police Activities League‘s White Center boxing club (a member of USA Boxing), based in White Center for eight years, talked about his program, saying about 40 kids (generally between 10-18 years old) are involved right now – not just to box, but to get “physically fit and mentally fit” and to “provide a safe place (to be) after school.” Some kids first show up “so quiet and shy … you didn’t even know they were there,” and blossom as part of the program, which is for girls as well as boys, he pointed out. And he ticked off a variety of honors – including trophies for the boxers, and “Best Boxing Gym” honors from Seattle Weekly last year. He says they live by three mottos: “Leave No Doubt”; “Box to the Bell”; “Take It Like a Man” – whether you’ve won or lost, be gracious, be determined, “keep coming back.” He says they have a show coming up on August 25th at the Evergreen Campus, one of several they present each year. They’re accepting sponsors for the bouts, too (tax-exempt donations).
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