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Originally published September 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 22, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Neighborhood of the week

Hillman City | Renewal, nice price are lures

Recent renovations, the proximity to Columbia City and relatively affordable property draw new residents and entrepreneurs to Hillman City.

Special to The Seattle Times

Hillman City

Distance to downtown Seattle: About 7 miles

Schools: Hillman City is served by the Seattle Public Schools.

Recreation: Hillman City P-Patch, 46th Avenue South and South Lucile Street. The community garden was established in 1994 and has 45 plots.

Historic fact: Clarence Dayton Hillman, for which Hillman City was named, was a businessman and real-estate developer in the early-1900s who sold logged-off land into building lots. His marketing campaigns were so successful, fights reportedly broke out among eager buyers. Hillman City was annexed into Seattle in 1907, according to Seattle Municipal Archives.

— Joseph M. de Leon

When Kath Syverson needed the chimney on her Hillman City house fixed 20 years ago, she didn't expect to be swept off her feet.

She had bought the beige, 1,700-square-foot 1916 Craftsman on South Findlay Street six months earlier. In 1987, graffiti covered storefronts, used condoms littered alleyways and gunshots often rattled the Rainier Valley neighborhood.

That didn't stop Syverson. The moment she stepped inside the two-story house, she knew it was home.

"I must have looked at hundreds of houses in dozens of neighborhoods," she said. "But this one just felt right — it had good lighting, lots of space and the price was right."

When Syverson discovered the chimney's flue didn't work, she called for a chimney sweep. That's when she met Rob Lutz.

"I fixed her fireplace, and we fell in love," Lutz said. "But she didn't want the name Lutz because that would've made her Klutz."

They've been married 17 years.

When the couple help tend the neighborhood P-patch, a mix of languages swirl around the cornstalks and zucchinis.

Residents formerly from Ukraine, Vietnam and Somalia plant, water and pick the garden. After harvest, neighbors organize a potluck to share traditional dishes, such as a Laotian soup made of pumpkin leaves.

"We only know to eat the pumpkin, but here is this great dish made from the parts we throw away," Lutz said. "I went back for seconds."

These days, the couple don't hear gunshots, and the cryptic scrawl is less common, largely due to stepped-up police patrols, Lutz said.

Recent renovations, the proximity to Columbia City and relatively affordable property draw new residents and entrepreneurs.

The past few years, renovations in Columbia City, the neighborhood just to the north of Hillman City, gave that area a trendy, upscale atmosphere. Despite some recent changes, Hillman City retains its gritty feel.

New and renovated shops mingle with established businesses along the commercial district along Rainier Avenue South.

Viscosity Studio and Gallery, 5720 Rainier Ave. S., opened about two years ago.

Delicate works of brilliant glass — some translucent teardrops, others opaque basins — sparkle on shelves inside a showroom that doubles as a workshop.

Christy Aloysi and her husband, Scott Graham, chose Hillman City because they believe the growing neighborhood will support and appreciate their work.

Plus, rent was more affordable.

They pay about $2,200 per month for more than 2,000 square feet of studio and exhibition space. It would have cost at least $1,000 more per month for a similar space in Columbia City, they said.

"Being a glass studio, it's great to be near Lake Washington. You can take a dip after a hot day in front of the furnace," Aloysi said. "It's a nice, quiet neighborhood without a lot of distractions."

Across the street, red aerosol graffiti mars the buildings next door to Rainier Beauty Supply. But that doesn't keep customers away.

Samba Ceesay opened shop almost a decade ago.

That's when the native of Gambia, in West Africa, moved to Seattle from New York. Back then, keeping the store open was a struggle; now people flood in. Inside, mannequin heads draped with ebony, chestnut and cherry-red wigs stare at shoppers through narrow aisles.

"The neighborhood is working hard to control crime, and that makes the place very populous now," he said. "Increased safety has increased the business; even if they don't come in to buy, people can enjoy the neighborhood with family."

Denise Gloster, president for the Hillman City Business Association, said reasonably priced real estate and the neighborhood's ethnic diversity make it an attractive place to run a shop.

The association started representing business interests in March 2006.

In the past year, 23 businesses joined the association and about four new ones opened. Business in Hillman City is good, but the area still has difficulties to overcome.

"We have an identity problem," Gloster said, adding that few residents know the neighborhood boundaries.

"People who have lived here for years think they live in Columbia City."

Hillman City extends about five blocks east and west of Rainier Avenue South along the commercial strip, she said.

Its northern boundary is considered South Dawson Street with South Graham Street its southern edge.

A single letter-size sign welcomes drivers to Hillman City, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in January.

The improvements that helped turn the once-troubled neighborhood into a promising community could also threaten its identity, Gloster said.

As developers and new residents buy, then restore neglected buildings, she wonders how Hillman City will change.

Houses with sagging porches, crumbling walkways and peeling paint sit between those with trendy color schemes and freshly landscaped yards.

"It's hard to imagine that we will be able to maintain the diversity as it is now," she said. "Rainier Valley is sort of the last frontier in Seattle."

Over the past year, single-family houses in Hillman City sold for between $250,000 and $400,000, according to Vel Dyke Realty, a neighborhood firm since 1962. Condos range from $180,000 to $400,000.

Cheryl Webber-Vel Dwyk, spokeswoman for Vel Dyke (the Americanized spelling of Vel Dwyk), said a rich history, cultural diversity and deep roots have helped make Hillman City an attractive place to work and live.

"It's a vital, growing area that has prospered since people have taken back their neighborhood by creating a strong-knit community," she said. "The new growth, community leadership and the spirit to revitalize the neighborhood has been a real exciting change."

Dylan Carney, 25, visited his girlfriend in Hillman City for more than a year.

The Flexcar software engineer got to know neighbors, shops and shortcuts to downtown. When he started shopping for a house two years ago, he didn't anticipate buying the one three doors down.

"It's still more affordable than anywhere else in Seattle, and I wanted to be close to my girlfriend," he said. "One of these days we'll consolidate."

Carney helps lead the Hillman City Neighborhood Alliance, which organizes neighborhood patrols, cleanups and softball games.

Car prowls and litter along Rainier Avenue South overwhelmed the neighborhood two years ago.

Now Carney calls litter and crime more of a nuisance than a threat. Rundown buildings, graffiti and garbage still dot Hillman City.

It's easy to point out the neighborhood's faults, Carney said, but he can't picture living anywhere else.

"The greatest thing is, I know my neighbors and hang out with them," Carney said.

"And that makes it feel like a community instead of just a place to live."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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