The many faces of Bellevue
The threads of change are in motion and the city of Bellevue is gradually taking on a new pattern, intertwining different cultures, languages, age groups and religions.
The city has become a hub for cultural diversity spurred by ample resources, a top-rated school district and steady work force.
With a city population hovering around 122,000, Bellevue has been ranked the highest in foreign-born residents in Washington state, with 30.9 percent, including those born in Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania, Latin America and Northern America (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006-2008 American Community Survey). In 2008, it was documented that more than 33 percent of residents spoke a language other than English at home, with the top three languages being Chinese, Spanish and Korean.
The same year, the U.S. Census Bureau report made a significant projection, estimating that by the year 2050, the overall population of the United States will be both dramatically older and more diverse.
Minorities are thought to become the new majority.
This is most evident in Bellevue schools, where a recorded 75 different languages are represented at the elementary level alone.
“Bellevue has become a community that can be defined by diversity,” said Kevin Henry, the communications coordinator for Bellevue’s Cultural Diversity Program. “What is critical to remember, is that diversity doesn’t pertain solely to a person’s race or the color of their skin. It’s really inclusive of everyone, including the youth, the elderly, people with disabilities and different sexual orientations. Diversity at its core is really about what everybody brings to the table within a community.”
Henry has watched the face of Bellevue change first hand over the course of the past two decades and works closely with local departments, such as police and fire, to build connections with various sectors of the community through education, panel discussions, workshops and free public events.
“We create situations where we can facilitate bringing people of different backgrounds, cultures and religions together to discuss current topics. Our goal as a city is to open the wave of communication and understanding between every community member who calls Bellevue home,” Henry explained.
He points to the many youth-oriented programs as prime examples, including Youth Link and the Bellevue Youth Theatre program, a recreational performing arts center created to serve youth, families, persons with disabilities and seniors. Annual involvement in the program has grown to include more than 900 individuals and more than 10,000 performance attendees since its opening in 1990.
“A program like the Bellevue Youth Theatre works to dispel myths, inaccuracies and misconceptions of people with disabilities and ages,” Henry said. “There are stereotypes of people from different races and cultures, but there are also stereotypes about people with disabilities and this is a great vehicle to help break down those pre-judgements.”
Like Henry, Bellevue Youth Link Coordinator Patrick Alina also knows the importance of encouraging today’s youth through education and awareness. He works with the city to ensure the continuation of a number of after and out-of school programs which serve as vital resources for many teens in the Bellevue area.
“The city has always and will continue to support youth in our community…”, Alina said. “During these budget cuts, specific youth programs are likely to be impacted. Nevertheless, the city is working to make sure that our young people are still supported through various programs such as the Wrap Around Services, after school programs at middle schools, environmental stewardship volunteer opportunities and more.”
On the educational front, Bellevue College has worked to become an open resource for students and community members from diverse backgrounds and upbringings.
“We are committed to the ideal of pluralism, by which we mean striving to go beyond just having a mix of races, ethnicities, genders and abilities on campus, to actually learn about and respect each other,” said Bob Adams, the director of college relations for Bellevue College. “Our Diversity Caucus, student clubs, LGBTQ organizations, Multicultural Services staff and many others on campus sponsor events throughout the year just for this purpose, and the public is always more than welcome to attend.”
Although economic times are hard, the city and other local organizations continue to provide free and low-cost services and resources to community members through various avenues including the city’s community centers, the parks department, public libraries, churches, City Hall and Mini City Hall located at Crossroads Bellevue, offering translation services for over 200 languages.
“If you go east of the 405 it’s very densely populated with an extremely diverse population,” Henry said, pointing to Crossroads Bellevue as a prime example.
Strolling through the international food court at Crossroads offers a very real-life snapshot of the diversity in Bellevue. On any given afternoon, the shopping center will attract hundreds of people from all walks of life who come together for what can only be described as true community. Beyond the big-name stores, Crossroads offers a cozy public library, a giant chess set, an internationally-inspired food court, generous public seating, locally-owned shops and a main stage where music, arts and entertainment are celebrated on a regular basis through free events year round.
Thyme for Soup and Mediterrian Grill owner and native of the Republic of Turkey, Bulent Aki first opened shop at Crossroads in 1987, around the same time as developer Ron Sher took over the then run-down shopping center. Since then, Aki has stood back and watched as Crossroads has taken on a life of its own and become a community hub in the midst of a bustling suburban city.
“This place was empty when I first opened my small business, and now it’s like a busy little community where people gather and eat good food. The restaurants represented here are all independently owned and operated, but we don’t feel any competition with one another. There’s something for everyone here, from Mexican food to Indian and so forth. The owners share a good friendship and really support one another. We help each other prosper.”
Aki attributes much of Crossroads success to the management team and the vision Sher had of creating a “third place”, a community space where everyone was welcome.
“Ron [Sher] is so down to earth and really tries to help people grow their business. He is very understanding and has a good heart. It was his vision of a community meeting place that made Crossroads happen. He changed this place for the better.”
On the weekend of Nov. 5-7, Crossroads will celebrate the community’s cultural riches during the 20th Annual Cultural Crossroads event. The three-day event will include 35 cultural and ethnic music and dance performances along with an international bazaar. More than 20 booths will be at the free event celebrating the differences that exist between people and the commonalities that shape a prosperous community.
Learn more about the upcoming Cultural Crossroads event, by visiting www.crossroadsbellevue.com/.