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Riding the gentrification wave in South Seattle

Gentrification: It’s what happens when the people living in a low-income neighborhood get pushed out by new people with more money.

But some long-time residents manage to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods and thrive, like Anna Ponder, who teaches a dance style called stepping in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood.

On the day I visit, she's dancing with one of her students, Askia Heru, in a studio she had built in her garage. It's a great setup, with low overhead costs and a super convenient feature: when people get hot and sweaty, she just opens the garage door.

Ponder puts in a music disc and shows off some moves with Heru. To me, it looks kind of like slow swing dancing. "But it's real smooth and sensual," Ponder said.

Heru said that if African Americans had a classic dance, it would be Chicago-style stepping.

Ponder's style of dance instruction reveals something about how she survived the wave of gentrification that hit Columbia City. She's not interested in students who give up easily. She's strict, with an attention to detail.

"People get frustrated," she said. "But if you're serious, you're going to stick and stay."

When Ponder landed in Columbia City in 1994, she said her neighborhood was mostly black and saddled with poverty.

“At that time this was drug infested; crime and a whole lot of stuff was going on," she said. "But look at it now -- look who the majority of the people are now.”

That is, a lot more white people, with money and influence.

“And they can just come in and take it," she said, "because they're the ones that can raise taxes and do all of these things to push people out.”

Ponder almost got pushed out, too. After a divorce in 2000, she took a hard look at her finances. “My mortgage was way more than what my one income could handle.”

Her job as an administrator with the county wasn’t enough. Ponder started doing work on the side. And she began teaching dance classes, putting up fliers in Columbia City and Rainier Valley.

She doesn't know how many of her students are new to the neighborhood, but they have helped her keep her home. “I did it for the love of the dance," Ponder said, "and the money part just start piling in on me."

Ponder has grown confident about her ability to stay. "Every week I get one to two letters asking to buy my property," she said, "and I rip them up every time.”

Others haven’t been so lucky. Ponder said she’s now the only black homeowner left on her block.

It’s a pattern that happens in places with economic growth, across the nation.

Majora Carter has spent much of her life trying to interrupt that pattern, first in the New York's South Bronx, and more recently in other cities too. She's gained national recognition for her work, including a MacArthur grant.

"How do we stop the bleeding from our own communities?" she asks.

The answer, she said, lies in teaching people that they have more options than leaving. But sometimes, she feels alone in sending that message.

“There really aren't a lot of folks, whether it's on the public or the private side, saying to those communities: ‘How do we make it so that the people who are part of this community can be a part of its development?’”

Deep in Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, Pedro Gomez is working on that question. He said part of the solution is for more people in low-income communities to become entrepreneurs.

“That’s where I think as a city we can encourage more people to take a hold of their own finances through entrepreneurship. I think that’s one key to this big problem,” Gomez said.

Gomez knows the value of doing that first hand: His family were undocumented immigrants, farm laborers. They used to drive to gentrifying neighborhoods in Walla Walla and the Tri Cities to sell tamales out of the back of their car.

“The gentrifiers loved Mexican food," Gomez said. "So we definitely took advantage of that. In a lot of cases, it’s easier to sell them Mexican food than it was to sell to Mexicans. So heck yeah, we took advantage of that.”

Eventually, his family was able to buy their own home in Walla Walla.

Gomez is helping a lot of people. His team helps entrepreneurs adapt to their changing neighborhoods.

But he said his office only has three people doing that kind of outreach work.

Meanwhile, the wave of gentrification is headed to south Seattle.

That’s why Monika Matthews is working with high school girls in Rainier Beach, where she said that wave hasn't hit that hard.

"But obviously we see it coming from the Central District to Columbia City and coming further south; it’s time to get rooted in something that’s going to raise incomes.”

Matthews runs a program called Young Queens, Youth In Business. The girls in her class make and sell luxury soaps and bath salts.

At the Rainier Beach music and arts festival, student Jamazia Brown turns on the sales charm for a customer. “This is, like, our most popular. It’s like body scrub. And you put on your skin, it makes your skin like really soft," she said.

Brown is going into the 11th grade. As part of her coursework with Matthews, Brown studied African American business leaders, accounting and product development.

She and her teammates mixed up batches of aromatic organic ingredients. “I never knew that natural stuff costs a lot of money," Brown said. "So us selling it – it’s just like, I didn’t think people would actually buy it. But seeing as how we’re selling all of our product, I felt good. I’m like – Oh, I’m about to get some money!”

Matthews said some of her students come from stable families who will be able to stay in Rainier Beach, if they choose to. Others will be at risk for displacement.

But she's doing everything she can so that they can make the decision themselves, rather than having it made for them.

“With change and with the new demographics that’s coming in, it is bringing income!"

She said if you can come up with a product or a service that can serve this new demographic, then you might be able to stick and stay in your neighborhood, just like dance instructor Anna Ponder did.

Ponder said her resolve to stay in Columbia City has grown stronger over time. She said that's what happens when you fight to stay in a neighborhood. You want to stay even more.

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