By Carol Valdrighi
How well is Seattle’s progressive ethos working towards equity and social justice at Magnuson Park? In an effort to manage the homelessness crisis, the city has repurposed the 1940s Sand Point Naval Air Station within the park into subsidized permanent housing for almost 500 people who were formerly homeless—families and their 250 youngsters, singles, vets, disabled folks, and those with active addictions—and is preparing for 400 workforce residents when Mercy Magnuson Place opens in 2019.
There is no doubt that providing this permanent housing is positive. But is it enough? Though it is less obvious than the need for housing and health care, access to recreational space is crucial for mental and physical health. However, most of the facilities within the park are pay-to-play and out of reach of park residents with limited means. Instead, low-income residents must depend on the only no-fee recreational facility in the park—and neighborhood—Magnuson Community Center. Originally built for the military and never fully completed, the center lacks appropriate space for recreation, except for its gym. Yet resident access to the gym is also severely limited due to the fact that the city rents it out to private-interest groups, leaving few hours for those who live at the park. Why? Seattle Parks and Recreation reports the need for revenue to cover expenses. And while the city, county, and state recently stepped up to fund renovation at the center, there’s not enough money to do what’s needed, leaving low-income residents dependent on the vagaries of charitable donations in order to access programs with fees.
Without fair economic opportunity, it is impossible to build a just and equitable community. The question is just how to achieve that when, for every $100 in wealth held by a white family, an African American family has $5.04. In the meantime, what should be done to provide low-income residents at Magnuson Park—who are largely people of color—access to safe, healthy no-fee activities? At the moment, Seattle’s experiment with equity at Magnuson Park has run aground on financial shoals after decades of economic neglect.
Carol Valdrighi grew up on Chicago’s south side, attended college in Milwaukee, and spent many years in Omaha. She’s seen various US cities struggle with equity and justice, and she’s hoping Seattle will finally be the one to get it right. Magnuson Community Center is a microscopic version of the macro equity test challenging America.