The very long Rainier Valley Creative District was approved alongside South Columbia and Bainbridge Island CDs, bringing the grand total of creative districts in Washington to 11.
The very long Rainier Valley Creative District was approved alongside the South Columbia and Bainbridge Island Creative Districts, bringing the grand total of creative districts in Washington to 11. COURTESY OF RAINIER VALLEY CREATIVE DISTRICT
Near the beginning of October, the ArtsWA board of commissioners unanimously voted to approve the formation of the Rainier Valley Creative District (RVCD). The uniquely shaped district spans almost four miles along Rainier Avenue South, from South Alaska Street near the Rainier Arts Center to Chinook Beach Park, encompassing the main stretch of one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods.

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The Rainier Valley CD is the first state-designated creative district within Seattle city limits, overlapping with the city-designated Columbia Hillman Arts & Cultural District established in 2018. Arts advocates hope the creation of the Rainier Valley CD is another step in making sure art organizations and artists in the area have the infrastructure to support themselves and prevent displacement.

"We are ready to get going," said Afua Kouyate, executive director of ADEFUA Cultural Education Workshop, who led the push to get the Rainier Valley CD established. "There are lots of things happening in Rainier Valley, and with the Rainier Valley Creative District, our work is really going to be about amplifying what's preexisting and collaborating."

Becoming a state-designated creative district has its perks. ArtsWA claims the title can help neighborhoods in various ways, from increasing tourism to opening up affordable housing opportunities—or even by creating highway signage that directs commuters to the district. (The folks at RVCD say they are pretty excited about the highway signage.) Earlier this year, a representative from ArtsWA told The Stranger that they give "modest start-up grants" and offer "technical assistance and training programs" to new districts to get them going.

When I spoke to Kouyate and Kathy Fowells, the director of SEED (Southeast Effective Development) Arts, in February, Fowells emphasized that they are "really trying to work with the creatives that are already in the neighborhood." They say that part of their strategy to keep Rainier Valley vibrantly diverse might include land trusts for creative use to create more art spaces and stabilize rents. Though they are still developing what that infrastructure looks like, Kouyate and Fowells understand the clock is ticking.

"With rapid development coming to Southeast Seattle, we have a limited window of opportunity to invest in the development of arts and cultural spaces that will serve our diverse artists, musicians, and creative entrepreneurs," wrote Fowells over email this week. "We’ve witnessed displacement of artists and their spaces in other neighborhoods, and are working to prevent that from happening in the south end."

"Unifying communities of Rainier Valley through arts and culture” is their tagline. RVCD

To bring the Rainier Valley CD to fruition, Kouyate and her organization worked with a coalition of groups in Southeast Seattle, like KVRU Radio, SEED Arts, Rainier Beach Action Coalition, and the Rainier Arts Center. Dan Schmitt of the Seattle World Percussion Society, who also worked on this project, said his involvement grew out of a desire to elevate Rainier Valley as a destination for the arts while maintaining its uniqueness.

"I think almost every member of the [Seattle World Percussion Society] board has been adversely affected by gentrification in one way or another, so advocating for affordable housing in the Rainier Valley is one of our biggest concerns," Schmitt wrote over email. "Being part of the RVCD means we can work for this and for the general well-being of the neighborhood and its artists and other creatives."

The work behind the creation of the Rainier Valley CD overlaps with the mission of the recently created Cultural Space Agency, the City of Seattle's newest "developer with a conscious," whose goal is to slow the displacement of artists and art organizations in Seattle. Matthew Richter, the City's Cultural Space Liaison, wrote over email that Rainier Valley's designation is "an important step." He said that both the Rainier Valley CD and Columbia Hillman Arts & Cultural District align Southeast Seattle's arts communities "into a cohesive force to be reckoned with."

In its 2022 budget priorities letter to the Seattle City Council, the Seattle Arts Commission announced that the Cultural Space Agency has received "viable" proposals to acquire and develop cultural spaces from 20 BIPOC-led community organizations. Three of those organizations submitting proposals—Rainier Avenue Radio, NW Tap Connection, and the Union Cultural Center—are Rainier Valley CD community partners.

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To celebrate the formation of the Rainier Valley CD, the group will have its official launch on Saturday, November 20, as part of the Annual Odunde Festival at Rainier Arts Center. Reps from ArtsWA, the City of Seattle, and artists from the community will be present at the kickoff at 3 pm before the opening weekend-long African marketplace at the center.

Odunde is one of the nine signature events that the RVCD will put on; the others include Beatwalk, Rainier BAAMFest, SEEDArts Summer Series, Rainier Valley Heritage Parade, Honk! Fest West, The Arts Resource Fair, and World Rhythm Festival. They say they plan to add more to this roster as they build programming. Kouyate encourages anyone interested in the Rainier Valley CD to join their virtual monthly meetings every second Tuesday.

"We want this to be a real huge collaboration of community," she said.