This Saturday, June 17, hundreds of people will be in the new plaza across the street from Beacon Hill Station. They will be the crowd overflowing from the seventh annual Block Party at the Station, which happens on a small street, 16th Avenue South, on the west side of the historic building that houses El Centro de la Raza. The seventh party promises to be bigger and more def than the sixth, which was bigger and more def than the fifth. But the crowds who come for the party should come back when the event is over. Every day at Plaza Roberto Maestas is a block party, the kind that can happen only in an urban center.
The Rapper on the Light Rail
I'm heading south on a Link train. Night is falling on the city as the train rises from the ground and turns to the left on the elevated section of the line that runs into Beacon Hill Tunnel. The lights of the business district fall on the stadiums and manufacturing complexes of Sodo. The man sitting across me in the middle section of the car claims he is one of the top rappers in the 206. I have never heard of him. Where did he come from? He reads my thoughts from the expression on my face. He says: "You don't believe me, huh? Let's get off at the next stop, and I will show you." The train arrives at Beacon Hill Station. An elevator lifts us to ground level. He looks at me and then looks to his right and says: "Let's go there. I will download a beat and rap for you."
We walk to the cafe, the Station, which is closed at this time, 9 p.m., but its wi-fi is still on and available from the sidewalk. "What beat do you want me to rap to?" asks the rapper. I say, "Mobb Deep's 'Shook Ones Part 2.'" It's one of the greatest beats ever produced. It's a 1990s beat, and the young rappers are not accustomed to the hard slam of that old "boom bap." They have evolved during and adapted to the Atlanta "boom-boom" sonic environments. "Shook Ones" will trip the brother up.
But the rapper launches into heady, swirling lines that rhyme, partially rhyme, and don't rhyme at all. And because it all comes out of him so easily, he is able to play his lines like a horn instrument: speeding up, slowing down, going loud, going soft. Yes, this man can rap. But when he sees the 60 bus, he stops his performance and explains he has to bounce and will catch me another time. As I watch him dash across the street, I think to myself: That was the most perfect Station moment.
El Centro de la Raza
It was a beautiful birth. On October 11, 1972, activists connected with Seattle's Latino community entered the abandoned Beacon Hill School, claimed it, and began making demands. Their occupation of the building was challenged not only by the system but by the winter, which was unusually cold. For the next three months, protests happened at the building and at City Hall. The mayor at the time was Wes Uhlman. He is famous for entering power at the moment Boeing crashed and its work force was cut in half.
These deep cuts hit the city's entire economy hard. In fact, many of the activists who took over the empty school building came out of a program at South Seattle Community College that was cut due to the budget squeeze. After some resistance, the mayor and the city council decided to lease the property to the activists for a dollar a year. The founding members of the community center were not just Latino, however. It was a rainbow movement formed by the Four Amigos: the black American Larry Gossett, the Asian Bob Santos, the Native American Bernie Whitebear, and, the leader of this episode, Latino Roberto Maestas.
Plaza Roberto Maestas
Miguel Maestas, the current housing and economic development director of El Centro de la Raza, explains that his organization decided to build Plaza Roberto Maestas when, in 2003, it learned that Sound Transit had plans to construct a light rail station on a vacant plot of land across the street from its historic building. The plot on which the subway station would rise is where the South China Restaurant on Beacon Avenue used to be. It had the most diverse bar in the city. The spirit of the Four Amigos has always been strong in this part of town. The transit-oriented project cost $45 million, was designed by the local architecture firm SMR Architects, has 112 rental units for people making from 30 to 80 percent of the area median income (which means if you earn 30 percent of the median income, you pay about $465 for a one-bedroom apartment—a market-rate studio apartment on Beacon Hill costs around $900 to $1,000). On the first day the apartments were made available to the public, more than 1,000 people applied. The 112 units were filled almost immediately. The waiting list is as good as eternal. Maestas calls the situation heartbreaking. There is nearly not enough affordable housing in this city.
In January 2017, the cafe the Station moved into a space on the southeast corner of the plaza. The cafe, which now serves wine and food, faces the light rail station and its four elevators, which transport transit people to one of the deepest subways in the United States.
Luis Rodriguez, Owner of the Station
I buy a cup of iced tea and meet the owner of the Station, Luis Rodriguez. He has to be one of the most fascinating figures in this city. He is a Mexican American businessman, a Black Lives Matter activist, a supporter of radical leftist politics, and the founder of Seattle's biggest local hiphop festival, the Block Party at the Station, which happens this weekend. He recently moved his business from across the street into Plaza Roberto Maestas. We leave the Station, make a left, pass a bank (Seattle Credit Union), an empty space (which I hear will become a Mexican restaurant), and enter the plaza.
It is 13,000 square feet and open to the public. It can hold 650 people. It has a number of vendors under white tents selling food or fruit or sweet things like cupcakes. At the end of the plaza is the facade of the building that was occupied in the bad winter of 1972, and above it are rows of glass globes hanging from lengths of black wire. They sparkle in the summer light and sway in the breeze. The furniture is concrete slabs. There is also a stage. Luis explains to me that he wanted to have a part of this year's block party, which promises to be the best in its seven-year history, to happen here, but a number of difficulties relating to insurance are preventing this from happening.
Luis also shows me the award-winning artwork—the tile mosaics of Native Americans, the Space Needle, ferries, the volcano, giant leaves, farm workers, flowers, brown bare feet, Latino mothers and children, totem poles, and, of course, the founding fathers of the center, the Four Amigos. For Luis, this art and the diversity of the renters (many are not white) are what distinguishes this development from others and makes it an organic expression of the radical action that happened here in 1972.
Commemorating the First Revelation
It is Saturday. I'm standing in front of a sign that reads Shark Bite Food. On the other side of this sign is an amiable Latino man preparing a plate of ceviche, Peru's gift to the human senses. Shark Bite Food is open only on Fridays and Saturdays in the plaza, which tonight is warm and breezy. The clouds in the sky are fluffy. The sun is setting on the city. A blast of people has just exited the train station's elevators. My order is handed to me. It costs $10 and hits the spot. I eat it sitting on one of the concrete slabs. I look on my phone and learn that the London Bridge is under attack. The usual suspects on Twitter are blaming Islam, saying it is the religion of death. As I leave the plaza, I see women in hijabs carrying food and paper plates to the plaza's community room (which can hold 500 people). They are tranquil in the dusky breeze. I ask one what event they are preparing for, and she tells me: "At the end of the day, we are going to share a meal. It's Ramadan. Do you want to join us?" I explain that I have just eaten, thank her for the invitation, and walk to the station with the same breeziness as the twilight-colored clouds.