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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17 Responses to “To be or not to be ‘Rat City’: Debate draws crowd to White Center Chamber lunch”

  1. Keeping the name “Rat City” is a baaaad idea. Unless of course, you care nothing for small business owners’ livelihoods and housing values. It’s fine as a casual moniker, and certainly the roller derby team has turned it into an advantage, but roller derby is a recreational activity – a game. The average consumer with discretionary income isn’t likely to turn to a friend and say, “Let’s head down to Rat City for dinner.” Not an appetizing image!

    However, if you’re bent on undoing the hard work of local law enforcement and nonprofits to elevate this community’s standards, get control of the crime rate and work to meet the needs of under-served populations, by all means go ahead and keep “Rat City” a “happy endings” type of town – and you KNOW what I mean…

  2. I lived in WC ten years ago and then “moved up” to the Admiral district 6 years ago. Now because of my business expansion I live in Wallingford. What I want to say, Rat City or not, I loved my time in White Center. People were always kind, genuine. North admiral lacks diversity and a true community feeling.
    Wally? Let’s just say people trying too hard to be politically correct is annoying.

  3. I live in Westwood and love to come to White Center for shopping (and Full Tilt!), but it still feels unsafe and unclean to me. The scruffy rat logo doesn’t help… I like the idea of a different Chinese zodiac inspired Rat (rats can be beautiful: http://fc03.deviantart.net/fs70/i/2012/042/2/b/chinese_zodiac__rat_by_jennsch-d4oqlmj.png)

    Maybe a discussion facilitated by an outside expert (in branding and graphics?) can help the community solidify a common vision that is beneficial?

  4. If you read the article Veronica it is the local business owners who do think this is a good idea.

  5. Mrs Barker Says:

    Rat City? Why would a town deliberately give itself a name like Rat City? When I first saw the headline I thought it was about that rather lame (compared to the real deal from the 1960s) rollerskating group. And then I thought of the Health Department and tipped over trash cans. But hey, whatever rocks your boat. I feel sorry for the serious businesses in Rat City. “Let’s go eat dinner in Rat City”. LOL

  6. Just posted this on WSB but I wanted to read the full article here as well. — It’s been a long time since I’ve commented but this is something that I have spent a lot of time thinking about – both as a White Center resident and as a person intimately involved with branding and marketing. My partner and I bought our first home in White Center nearly five years ago, within walking distance to the downtown core. Some friends suggested we be armed at all times and as ridiculous as I thought they were at the time, there have certainly been a few times that I questioned our sanity. But within that time period, we have had the unique opportunity to see the neighborhood change dramatically. We’ve welcomed the new businesses and new energy that has come with them. We’ve recently seen the return of the Sheriff’s storefront, the liquor store close, murals going up and a decrease of drunks sleeping in our parks and on the sidewalks.

    We are not the first community to evolve and we certainly won’t be the last but I think the most important thing is that we are having the discussion of how WE want our neighborhood to grow! I read a really great series of articles recently about the subject that can be found here for anyone interested:
    http://www.neighborhoodnotes.com/news/2012/05/neighborhood_branding_determining_what_to_change_and_how/

    Personally, I am fond of the nickname Rat City (& Dub-C for that matter) but I’m not really fond of Ratty, the uninspired clipart mascot. I think most of us that live in WC, both appreciate our gritty history and strife for a more promising future. Our little corner of the world may be a gem in the rough but it is a great place to live, as well as to visit and eat as so many people always point out! Despite the negative connotations that some people have, I believe that majority of us respect our neighbors and celebrate the diversity that makes up our community.

  7. Its not a “baaad” thing at all. full guffaw. I’ve lived in wc all my adult life, raised a Son here. I think its a great moniker. I love it. It doesn’t undo PD efforts or hurt business, what are you talking about? Besides, whether you like it or not, this IS Rat City and always will be. The CDA, chamber, “website” et al. cannot determine this. We all call it that ourselves. I love the RAT! I wonder if such concerns come from a personal sense of embarrassment or shame for being here? Toss that off. I’m proud to be here. Yes AH, The Rat is cool. Don’t fear it, be it, live it:>)

  8. It’s White Center. It’s Rat City. Just like Seattle is called “Jet City”. People know what you are talking about either way. I think the stylized “Chinese” rat is awesome. It really ties into the neighborhood. Obviously there has been a lot of exchange about this between the old established businesses, and the new businesses coming in. Changing of the guard is a hard pill to swallow.

  9. One of the most beautiful places in the US is Boca Raton Fl. (Mouth of the Rat). I grew up in Cerro Gordo County (Fat Pig) Iowa. Rat City fits right in. Colorful name for a colorful place.

  10. “When I first saw the headline I thought it was about that rather lame (compared to the real deal from the 1960s) rollerskating group.”

    Kind of rude. Rat City Rollergirls are genuine athletes who work very hard at their sport. The roller derby of the 60′s was very theatrical and the hits and falls were greatly exaggerated. The blood, bruises, and broken bones of RCRG are real as well as the hits and falls. They’ve done a lot for the reputation of the neighborhood as well as a lot of community service in the area. They are definitely the “real deal”. (And they’re not a “roller skating group”, they’re a roller derby league).

    Also, I love the moniker “Rat City” and I love Ratty!

  11. I have lived in WS for about 14 years and have always been a White Center fan. I like the energy, the spirit of the people, the international factor, and the grittiness. It is a real place.

    I am 44, married with two kids, and regularly chose to spend my time and money in White Center. I have seen some cool change in recent years and think the area has potential to grow more business, yet keep a quality of life and great vibe that is so hard to find these days.

    I like the Rat City nickname, and don’t see it as a negative unless you are striving to be that next Wallingford, Queen Anne, or other bland “success story”. I think there’s a way to incorporate it and have it appeal to the younger, funky demographic who will be the future consumers in the area. The gentrification goals I hear in some of the comments and the meeting will be a long time coming, and if you have success transforming over to a place that folks from Queen Anne etc will see as a desirable destination, you will likely have ceased to be the community you are now. I agree with some of the folks that you shouldn’t put all of the “brand” eggs in one basket with Rat or something else. I did feel like the “building a global village” thing just felt like a BS kind of ploy/marketing thing that was neither authentic or compelling. The R.A.T. Idea had merit too I thought.

    Regardless of name, I will continue to bring my family and friends to WC because I am a neighbor, I like the services available, I like the real community, and I like the vibe. It’s a cool, interesting place. I love McLendon’s (best hardware in Seattle, awesome staff), my two favorite taco buses are in WC, the El Salvadorean Bakery is great. Cafe Rozella, Zippy’s, my favorite Guaymas, auto parts. Proletariat deserves a standing ovation for their great food, experience and staff and offering an awesome family experience and great music! Full Tilt, the international grocery stores, the wild aquarium shop. I have had a memorable bar crawl that took in a bunch of spicy dives. I have traveled a lot around the world, my favorite place for that locally is White Center. But one of the main reasons is it’s grit, lack of pretension, and people committed to supporting their community. Rat City is a funky, cool historical reference and captures a vibe for folks who are cool and confident enough to know themselves and know a good thing when they see it. I see it as an asset, frankly and if handled tounge-in-cheek can show off a proud cool community and group of businesses that choose to locate there.

    Thanks to the businesses mentioned, and I will continue to enjoy to explore the cool treasures of White Center.

  12. The Meatpacking District in NYC is a good example of a place that embraced a name that wouldn’t be considered “pretty” or PC; the place has been booming business-wise for years

  13. Dick Thurnau and Marcia Wollam Says:

    First, from Dick: The White Center Chamber of Commerce wants to promote the Rat City moniker to attract business. As a long time resident of White Center, I think the community needs to have a voice on discussion of this terrible name.
    What in the world is so inviting or attracting as the name RAT CITY?
    I agree White Center needs an attraction, but let’s make one everybody can enjoy, such as a water fountain with an umbrella spray pattern 10 feet high and 30 feet in diameter, witn colored lighting, in Lakewood Park/Hicklin Lake. If folks came down to see the fountain and walk through the park, maybe they would like to have ice cream or dinner afterward in White Center…?

    From Marcia: Interesting comments, all. They speak to the great diversity in White Center, which is one reason many of us enjoy living here. However…I still feel that the “elephant in the room” that no one talks about is LITTER. It’s so pervasive in White Center that no one seems to notice it, and it’s a large part of the reason that the moniker “Rat City” has stuck like glue through the decades. Anyone driving up Delridge for the first time would just shake their head and say “Yep, the place is well named.” And when I watch people walk right over it or by it, without seeing it, that speaks volumes.
    Until the average citizen takes on the task of picking up litter EVERY DAY, so that it becomes a habit like brushing teeth, litter will always have the last word. The Dept of Corrections group picks up litter in the White Center business area at least once a week, but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of the area at large. I also find it interesting that a bus shelter may have a garbage can partly full, but litter will still be all around it. (?) People may say “that’s not my job”, and of course it isn’t, technically. But as long as folks maintain that belief, the litterers will have the final say in how our neighborhoods look. (Reachers, for picking up litter, can be purchased inexpensively at local hardware stores or Harbor Freight. I think mine is called a “gopher”. Maybe it will beat out the rat…)

  14. Rat City is where I come from…I also love the Dub C. I DO NOT COME FROM BURIEN….THE END!!

  15. I am 44 years old and was BORN N RAISED in White center. I have lived here all my life I have worked for 27 years in Rat City.I Spent my summers at My Grandmas by the S.G.roller rink, from picking black berries with her to forth of July BBQ at her house,and i have NEVER SEEN a rat run across the street here. I love the RAT history and am proud to use the term RAT CITY when ever i can. I have had people in California come up to me when i was wearing a Rat City shirt and tell me they had been there. It has always been Rat City and will always be Rat City!

  16. “From Marcia: Interesting comments, all. They speak to the great diversity in White Center, which is one reason many of us enjoy living here. However…I still feel that the “elephant in the room” that no one talks about is LITTER. It’s so pervasive in White Center that no one seems to notice it, and it’s a large part of the reason that the moniker “Rat City” has stuck like glue through the decades. Anyone driving up Delridge for the first time would just shake their head and say “Yep, the place is well named.” And when I watch people walk right over it or by it, without seeing it, that speaks volumes.”

    I’m talking about litter! In fact I’m starting a company to address the issue! My daughters and I pick up what we can get in the neighborhood, but the issue is HUGE and I’m hoping to be able to do a lot more about it. Watch for the story in West Seattle Blog/White Center Now in the next few days!

  17. I love White Center and have lived in the area for almost nine years. I like that it is a bit gritty, yet w/ gradual and organic improvements that include diverse small/local businesses. I like my block and my neighbors.

    What I don’t like is the rather inane name “White Center.” I know the area was named after early settler-developer George White. But the name White Center just sounds generic, as if no one could think of a better name for the area. I vote for changing the name from White Center to something else entirely.

    I don’t mind Rat City as a monkier for the area or even Ratopia or Ratland or what-have-you. As long as we continue a trajactory toward maintaining and growing an interesting, diverse, safe community I’m happy.