Named for the song, Columbia, Gem of the Ocean, Columbia City was already a
thriving mill town before its annexation into Seattle in 1907. The Seattle, Renton and
Southern Railway (established in 1890) brought people and merchandise from Seattle to
Columbia City, while lumber from Columbia City was shipped to Seattle, as the city was
rebuilding from the 1889 fire.
Columbia City boomed when C. D. Hillman used the
railway to hasten real estate sales. Numerous two and three story brick buildings built
then along Rainier Avenue still stand, giving the neighborhood a charming and distinctive
turn-of-the-century architecture that has been likened to a movie set. (In 1978, the
business district was designated a Seattle
Landmark District and is on the National
Register of Historic Places to Visit.
As forests around Columbia City fell to loggers' axes, Columbia City made plans to
drain Wetmore Slough and make the town into a seaport--part of the 1917 Lake Washington
Ship Canal development further north. The dream port never developed and, by 1920, the
Slough was filled in. Today, it's the site of ball fields, playgrounds, a sparkling new
community center, flower gardens and a natural wetland meadow.
With money donated by Andrew Carnegie, a branch public library was built in
1914 above a ravine deeded to the City in 1892 for a park. Although the ravine's creek now
flows through underground pipes, the park remains, providing Columbia City with its
The community became home to waves of immigrants from near and far. The Italian residents and the many businesses they founded led the valley to be called "Garlic Gulch." New Japanese residents were followed by expansion of the African American community adding to rich culture of the valley, along with new Filipino, Latino, Vietnamese, East African and many more, making Columbia City and the surrounding area a real "Neighborhood of Nations."
In the 1980's a number of small businesses were struggling in Columbia City and along Rainier Avenue. In the 1990's, the neighborhood association evolved and grew into CCRC, the Columbia City Revitalization Committee. Town Hall breakfasts fed by inspired leaders, catalyzed teams of residents and busineeses to do clean-ups and start new projects designed to help the business district and residents. These included the farmers' market, Beatwalk monthly music, school playground enhancements, street kiosks, Hitt's Hill park, and other planting strips. A movie theater finally returned to Rainier Valley, occupying the former Masonic Hall. These efforts were helped by staff and investment from the City Department of Neighborhoods, SEED, Homesight and others. A number of service agencies in the area provide valuable help and creative programs for families. The former Christian Science Church reopened as our new Rainier Valley Cultural Center.
In the 2000's, Columbia City became hot property. New businesses and residents came in and there was a tremendous amount of housing infill, new condos and increased prices. Unfortunately a number of smaller and some immigrant owned businesses were not able to survive or afford higher rents. The cost of housing and business space challenges the affordability and diversity of the neighborhood. New live-above business/apartment units have been developed. The Columbia City Business Association (CCBA) has thrived and continues to support the district. The neighborhood is still proud of being one of Seattle's most diverse with great shops