It is a Sunday night, and I'm in a gay bar in White Center for the third night in a row. I'm tired from all the partying, which is why it takes me a second to realize that someone is rubbing my feet.
It is a man I do not know. He asks me a question, but I can't hear him. We are at the Swallow, a nautical-themed gay bar recently opened by Marcus Wilson, the cocreator and former manager of the popular Capitol Hill bar Pony. House and techno music is blasting.
"WHAT?" I yell.
"ARE YOU WEARING CONVERSE?" the stranger yells back.
He's referring to my boots.
"NO. THEY'RE PALLADIUMS," I tell him.
He pauses, mulls over the information, squeezes my boots. It doesn't feel creepy. We're smiling. Everyone in the bar is very nice, and I welcome the interaction, though I am surprised that a stranger has come up to me and not only started talking to me but is actually now rubbing my feet. There is no Seattle Freeze in White Center.
"ARE THEY SMELLY?" he yells.
"YES. DO YOU WEAR THEM ALL THE TIME? ARE THEY FILTHY?"
I'm confused, and I respond with the truth: "NO. THEY'RE NICE AND CLEAN."
There's a pause, and then he says—well, yells: "YOU KNOW, PEOPLE WOULD PAY YOU FOR A NICE WHIFF OF YOUR DIRTY SHOES."
He winks, gingerly tickles my boot, and leaves.
Only at this late moment—as he's exiting the bar—do I realize the man has a foot fetish. Or a thing for sniffing or licking dirty boots. I sit there, drinking my cheap beer, thinking: Damn it, I should've said they were sweaty, he would've paid me.
My boyfriend and I are in White Center for the weekend—we live on Capitol Hill and don't have a car, so we got an Airbnb—to celebrate the neighborhood's first-ever White Center Pride festival.
Wow, I keep thinking to myself. That nice man was going to give me money to sniff my shoes. Truly a lovely White Center moment.
Fifty years after Stonewall, White Center got its own Pride festival this year, spanning five days the second weekend of June. While residents will tell you that the unincorporated King County neighborhood, just south of West Seattle and north of Burien, has long been a gay hub, you could say this Pride is a sort of coming out of the closet for the area.
The fest, which started as a conversation over drinks between local residents Matt Maring and Jason Loughridge, quickly evolved into a neighborhood-wide celebration.
"The support of the community has been overwhelming, honestly," Loughridge said. "Probably our only regret is that we couldn't include everyone in the events. Hopefully next year more opportunities will arise. The interest is definitely there."
This year's White Center Pride included a tea dance, an all-ages skating event, an underwear party (not all ages), and a drag performance by about half a dozen queens calling themselves the Rat City Queens on the patio of Drunky Two Shoes BBQ. "The response to Pride Skate Night and the drag show has been incredible," said Loughridge.
Southgate Roller Rink's Pride Skate Night, cohosted by Girl Scout Troop #44284 and the Southside Revolution Coed Jr. Roller Derby team, ended up raising more than $1,000 for Lambert House, a community center for LGBTQ+ youth in the greater Seattle area. The performance from the Rat City Queens—named after the neighborhood's nickname, Rat City—was attended by hundreds of people, many of them families.
Maring and Loughridge say they created the Pride fest as a way of getting the neighborhood together, but also to show off many of the new small and gay-owned businesses that have popped up in White Center. These include the Lumber Yard Bar and the Swallow, the area's first gay bars, but also Dottie's Double Wide, a trailer-themed bar and restaurant, and the Plant Store, a very cute plant shop owned by a nice man named Miles. He'll happily show you how to mount a fern if you ask.
It's important to note that while the neighborhood is named White Center, it is ironically one of the most diverse areas in all of King County. It's majority-minority, with the 2010 US Census showing the area to be 60 percent communities of color. Dozens of languages are spoken, from Thai to Somali. Since it is not actually a center for whites, the saying for the neighborhood has long been: "Not so white, not so centered."
On another rowdy night during White Center Pride weekend, I run into Baby Guuurl, a loud up-and-coming drag queen who got her start in the scene by performing numbers where she ate cat food onstage.
She wears a curvy, houndstooth print dress with western fringe. I'm surprised to see her in White Center, because she's normally based in Seattle. She's about to perform her second number of the night at the Swallow. I am told there will be no cat food tonight.
"Girl, White Center is lit, girl," Baby Guuurl says to me, flipping her hair and checking out the men around her. The scene is very cruisey, but friendly—friendlier than Seattle. Perhaps it's the novelty of being in a new place, but many men lock eyes with me, the sort of eye-locking that says, "Blow me—please?"
I ask Baby Guuurl if this is her first time here. She tells me no: She also performed at the Pride flag-raising event two days earlier. She says she's getting tipped very well at the Swallow.
Directly across the street at the Lumber Yard Bar, a lumberjack-themed gay bar, it's even rowdier. Another drag queen, Atasha Manila, is running around the bar chatting with patrons. She's glamorous but sweaty—the place is packed. The bar is divided into three sections: main floor, basement, and spacious back patio. The basement bathroom sports a lovely painting of a man giving a pixelated penis a blowjob.
Lumber Yard says it is White Center's first gay bar. It opened up in January of 2018 and has been growing ever since. In the basement on the Friday night of Pride, lots of locals were mixing with visitors from Seattle and Burien. There were even tourists, some from Connecticut. A woman in her 60s danced so hard that people cleared space for her. "YES, QUEEN!" drunks shouted at her. She appeared to be having the time of her life.
Giving an accurate snapshot of White Center's history is difficult, as the area has long existed in a media desert. A few local blogs, like White Center Now and White Center Blog, keep up with important news, but the larger King County media organizations typically only zoom into the neighborhood to bring up crime, homelessness, or gentrification. During White Center Pride, the only White Center news reported by the press outside the area was about a recent shooting that left an 18-year-old SeaTac man injured. The disproportional amount of crime reporting adds to the neighborhood's gritty lore.
Being in unincorporated King County means White Center doesn't have its own police department (like, say, Seattle does). White Center residents rely on King County Sheriff deputies for their law enforcement. The community also doesn't have the same laws and restrictions. They sometimes don't get things like sidewalks (except on main roads). "It's the Wild West out there," said a friend familiar with the neighborhood.
Since the 1950s, waves of immigrant and refugee families have settled in the area, many opening small businesses that have now existed for decades.
Young's Restaurant is one of White Center's longtime standouts. The second-generation Chinese American family-run breakfast joint has been serving White Center for nearly 40 years. It's a greasy spoon cooking up classic breakfasts alongside Chinese American dishes. While nothing cures a hangover quite like Belgian waffles and chow mein, the real star of the show is Janice, a server who is practically a White Center celebrity.
Janice hustles from table to table, checking in with customers she knows by name. If she doesn't, she will soon. Customers have noted that Janice and the staff of Young's can remember someone's name even a year after they've visited. Handwritten notes to Janice are posted on the wall of the restaurant. As you check out, staff members ask you what you're up to for the rest of the day—and they're really asking. It's easy to get lost in conversations with strangers in White Center, but it's especially easy at Young's. At the risk of sounding cheesy—you really feel like family here.
The quality of the food in White Center is phenomenal, the options as diverse as the neighborhood's communities. Just walking across White Center's historic business district, which stretches only about three small blocks from Southwest Cambridge Street to 100th Street, a person can eat Korean fried chicken, Korean Mexican fusion, pho, ice cream, elote, tacos, Mexican candies, Salvadoran baked goods, gourmet hot dogs, first-rate pizza, and crayfish so good it rivals the best New Orleans cooking. There are multiple taquerias and pot shops and Asian markets. You can eat your way through a three-day weekend on those three blocks (as my boyfriend and I did) and still not have tried even half of the neighborhood's food options.
For more than a decade, newer trendy restaurants have been popping up all over White Center's landscape. Full Tilt, the popular Seattle ice-cream chain, opened up in 2008. A Lil' Woody's burger joint opened in the neighborhood in 2017. Bok A Bok, known for its fried chicken, has a White Center location, too. So does Drunky Two Shoes BBQ, the popular Frelard barbecue place.
While dining at Drunky Two Shoes during White Center Pride, I had the unique experience of eating bone marrow next to a table full of gay pups. Not pups as in French bulldogs, but pups as in dudes in puppy masks panting next to their daddies. It's a popular kink in the Pacific Northwest.
The pups eyed me as I poured Drunky Two Shoes' famous "Doom Sauce" onto my marrow. It was so hot, it made my scalp tingle. As my face turned red, I set the bone down onto my plate. "Bad to the Bone" played poignantly in the background. The pups watched, wagging. It was at that moment that I felt I'd truly arrived in the gay neighborhood of the future.
On Saturday night of White Center Pride, partyers are spilling out of bars and onto the main strip to smoke cigarettes. Many have migrated over to the Swallow because the line for the Lumber Yard is down the block, almost touching Full Tilt. No one seems to mind waiting in line. People are blissed out, almost in awe.
While Friday night of White Center Pride felt very local, a community affair, Saturday sees a lot of people from Capitol Hill. Still, it's a diverse crowd: white twinks next to older black men next to middle-aged Latina lesbians making out in the corner. It's more rowdy than a typical night in Seattle.
Everyone outside the Swallow is chatting, surprised to see people they know.
"I want to come down here to White Center—y'know, to support my friends and small businesses; also, it's just cool down here," says one of the preppy twinks visiting from Capitol Hill. "But I feel weird, too. I don't wanna..." he pauses, before saying the word people have been saying all night: "gentrify."
It's a concern everyone seems to have here. As Seattle's housing crisis has become a full-blown emergency, Seattleites have spilled out into the surrounding region. Many gay families, pushed out of Capitol Hill and other areas, have been moving south. Dislocating people who used to live here is a problem with no easy solutions. As the line at the Lumber Yard clearly signals, space is limited.
But to view the first annual White Center Pride as the beginning of gentrification in the area would be wrong, many residents tell me. It's too simplistic. There have been waves of gentrification for decades. A massive Uncle Ike's looms just off the main business strip. And now the gay bars. And coming soon: more hipsters. In December, the colorful Capitol Hill bar Unicorn is expected to open a Unicorn Two in White Center. It will be the area's largest bar ever, at around 15,000 square feet.
Another concern raised about the two new gay bars in White Center is their maleness, considering the neighborhood has long had a significant lesbian community, many of them women of color. Lumber Yard is basically a bear bar, and Swallow is covered with portraits of naked dudes with their dicks hanging out.
"Where do the lesbians go?" someone asked my boyfriend while we were standing in Swallow. My boyfriend pointed to his left: "I guess they go here," he said. We looked over and saw two women aggressively making out against the wall. They appeared to be minutes away from dropping their panties.
"Damn, get it!" someone shouted.
By the end of the weekend, it was obvious that the first White Center Pride had been a success. The organizers told me it totally exceeded their expectations.
"This year was a test to see if anyone would go, and it was pretty clear based on every event being busy that the community wants this," said Maring.
They said they'll definitely be doing it again next year. If you'd like to get involved, direct your eyeballs to whitecenterpride.org and check out the volunteer page.
To be honest, I've never really been one for Pride festivals. They seem so corporate, and the debauchery can be hard to keep up with. But White Center Pride changed my perspective. All weekend, residents walked around with White Center Pride stickers. Bars and restaurants and taquerias put up Pride flags. I saw families get emotional over a rainbow displayed at their local butcher shop. It was an important reminder that visibility is still needed.
The process of community building can be messy, and White Center faces many challenges as it continues to grow, but residents, queer and straight, seemed overwhelmingly proud to have hosted their first Pride.
"The amount of local people that came out was incredible," said Loughridge. "And that's exactly what we wanted. This was a Pride for our community. It was great to meet so many people who live close by. One man said it was like a big gay reunion, seeing people he hadn't seen in years."