NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2021 FINALIST
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For most people, a free Christmas cheesecake would be a welcome surprise. But for Diane Dobson of Renton, Washington, it was a call to action—one that she knew her neighbors would answer.
“It’s a really beautiful community,” Dobson says. “When we put out a call that someone needs help, people respond.”
It was December 23, 2020, in the heart of the COVID pandemic. A local cheese shop had been baking cheesecakes to get by. But when Dobson stopped by for hers, the dejected owner wouldn’t even take her money.
“She says, ‘This is our last market. Just take the cake. I have sixteen more and I’ll never sell them,’” Dobson recalled.
For Dobson, a fifth-generation Rentonian who runs the local Chamber of Commerce, that’s when the old pioneer spirit kicked in. She started making calls and sharing Facebook posts. Within hours, all sixteen cheesecakes were sold, and buyers were lining up for more: fifty, a hundred, two hundred.
“I went back and said, ‘If I’m able to sell more, can you make more?’” Dobson recalled.
Said owner Kristi Slotemaker later: “That was our Christmas miracle.”
Slotemaker fired up her ovens and got started. Dobson spent Christmas day delivering cheesecakes, and River Valley Cheese was saved, thriving to this day. “She called the landlord and says, ‘I take it back. We’re staying,’” says Dobson.
Such acts of kindness are part of a tradition among Renton residents, says Renton resident Merilyn Millikan, who nominated the Seattle suburb for Nicest Places in America.
“They’ve been ‘being nice’ for several decades and have had lots of practice,” Millikan says.
As Dobson puts it: “You uplift one another. We’re the biggest small town I’ve encountered.”
Renton is a diverse and hard-working place of about 100,000 people. Part of one of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, it is home to residents of all races and walks of life. Some live in modest older homes in the historic downtown; others on quiet middle-class cul-de-sacs, still others in million-dollar homes in the wooded hills.
And while the prosperous region has its share of tensions over growth and diversity, Renton residents have worked hard to keep their community welcoming as it grows. What was once an Italian working-class suburb has become a bustling mini-city whose thriving economy draws people from around the nation and the world. Its population has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Eighty languages are now spoken in its public schools.
Renton’s community leaders and elected officials have responded with a series of efforts designed to ensure that everyone is welcomed and included.
A free meal effort at the Honey Dew Elementary School became a program that lasted 30 years. Church groups helping the homeless evolved into a regional group called the Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches (REACH).
And whenever someone in Renton needs a smile, they can always try booking a visit from Renton’s first family of inflatable dancing dinosaurs, better known as Seattle Dinosaur Family Adventures. What started as a way for Justine Waldron to get her three kids out of the house during COVID became a minor Renton institution. If they’re available, Seattle Dinosaur Family Adventures will come brighten any event: barbecues, birthday parties, even voter-registration drives.
“Just running around to make people smile and laugh,” says Waldron. “It does get hot in the summertime. So we try to stick to the shade.”
“Stop! You can’t come in here!”
Well! That wasn’t the way I was usually greeted when I arrived at the Renton Senior Activity Center on Thursday morning for my usual weekly blood pressure check by the retired volunteer RNs. It didn’t take long to realize that this was the city’s immediate response to the outbreak of a serious highly contagious disease that had claimed the lives of some seniors in a senior living facility in Kirkland, Washington, only about 30 miles to the north.
This was early in February 2020, the beginning of the long quarantine which changed the “normal” routine for most of the citizens of Renton. By the next week, a new way of providing a free nutritious drive-by/walk-in lunch program was in place, providing 150 free sack lunches five days a week, and two frozen dinners for the weekend. According to Senior Center director Sean Claggett, the lunches are provided by Sound Generations, a regional NGO, and the City of Renton provides the workers and the facility.
The seniors may not be inside the building, but the same camaraderie is there and new, as well as old friends, all wearing masks, are still meeting together outside, chattering away and, like a bunch of second-graders, trading apples for bananas from their sack lunches.
When the pandemic lasted much longer than most of us expected, businesses began to suffer and as the end of December 2020 rolled around, one fairly new cheesecake shop was ready to close up. Just before Christmas day, Diane Dobson, the director of the Renton Chamber of Commerce stopped in to say “hello.” The owner told her that she was going to be closing in a week and just gave Diane a whole cheesecake. Diane went home, contacted some of her social media friends, and within two hours the struggling shop owner had orders for 200 cheesecakes, and Diane spent much of Christmas day delivering them.
Jason Parker, owner of King and Bunny’s Appliance Store, ordered 20 of them and delivered one to each of the city’s fire stations. Lots of people had cheesecake for Christmas dinner and the shop stayed open, all because a lot of nice people just wanted to help.
The first time I became aware of the nice people who live here was in 1981, when McLendon’s, a well-known local family-owned hardware store had a huge fire that wiped out all of their financial records. Immediately, several people who owed the store money began showing up telling Pop McLendon, the owner, that even though all the financial records, extensions of credit, etc. were lost, they were planning to pay them in full anyway. No one had asked them to do that, and there was no way they could have been legally forced to pay what they owed. There were no more records anywhere. It was the right thing to do and so they did. I remember reading about this in the local paper and thinking, “Where else in the world would you find people offering to pay their bills?” Usually, it is just the opposite, trying to find a loophole to get out of paying your debts. Forget about the right thing to do! But not in this little town called Renton.
Another article in the local paper caught my attention several years ago. Shortly after Hang and Lang Woon had opened “Common Ground,” a little coffee and cupcake shop, they had just closed for the day and were starting to work on the food for a wedding reception the next day, when a car lost control and slammed through a big plate-glass window in the shop. No one was hurt, but with all the damage there was, there was no way they could use their shop to bake all the food needed for the reception. Immediately the owners of a dessert shop across the street offered the use of their kitchen so the Woons’ could get busy on their order for the next day’s festivities. No hesitation. Not worried about competition. Just being nice. Oddly, another car slammed into the same window a few years later, and, again, several strangers stopped by with offers of plywood to board up the windows, and even stayed around to help install it; another shop owner showed up with a broom and dustpan to help with the cleanup.
Different people, different time, but the same spirit of kindness and “just being nice.”
And it’s not just business people looking out for each other. Renton’s “niceness” spills over into other areas of life as well. When Renton Bible Church began a big building project the friends and members of the longtime congregation began an almost three-year commitment, under the volunteer leadership of Dan Charles, a recently retired contractor, who had grown up in the church. One morning when several retiree volunteers arrived at the worksite they discovered that all of their tools had been stolen, including all of the volunteers’ personal ones. Within a week several other Renton churches had donated money. Local homeowners, strangers, brought checks into the church office or offered the loan of equipment to help replace the loss. One neighbor, who said that even though he wasn’t a church attender himself, wanted to help in some way. It turned out that through the generosity of individuals and other Renton churches, all of the tools were replaced by brand new ones. The volunteers ended up better off than they were before the theft. And the new building was finished on schedule and is currently in use. Again, just nice ordinary people who saw a need and stepped in to help.
Over 30 years ago, Rentonites John and Susan Camerer formed an NGO called Vision House. Their hearts had been touched by the plight of a homeless mom and her daughter and were at risk of ending up on the streets. Now, as a Christian social service agency still based in Renton, Vision House has grown to help over 300 families annually. Race doesn’t matter. Neither does religion, national origin, gender, or sexual preference… every person deserves a healthy home. It’s not a privilege, but a basic human right. Many churches in the area have come alongside the Camerers and their staff to provide kitchen supplies, paint a room, tutor kids who struggle with online learning, provide furnishings when a family is ready to move into their own apartment or any other need they may have. The Camerers’ goal is to inspire our community to work together so that all people may have access to a healthy home, with the resources to promote a positive transformation for their families and to break the cycle of homelessness.
Besides having nice residents, the City of Renton is a nice place to live. It is located on the southeastern shore of Lake Washington, with many lovely parks and the whole area surrounded by snow-covered mountains with the majestic Olympic Mountains to the west, the Cascades to the east, and Mt. Rainier to the south. The sparkling Cedar River flows through the middle of the town and bordering the river is a paved walkway/bike trail close enough to the water to feel the cool breeze on a hot summer day.
Sharing part of its northern border with Seattle, those of us who live in Renton watched with horror the damage, hatred, and violence that had gotten completely out of control in Seattle during the summer of 2020. We wondered, “Would this violence spill over into Renton too?” It turned out that there was a one-day protest and a few people did do some damage at one location. However, being warned ahead of time, many of the local shops were able to board up their windows, avoiding most of the same type of damage that occurred in Seattle.
As far back as the ’70s, some volunteers calling themselves the Friendly Kitchen gathered every Thursday evening at Honeydew Elementary School to cook and serve a meal for anyone who came. The weekly meals continued for over 30 years until 2012 when Honeydew School was redeveloped, and the space was no longer available for a community meal. Also in the ’70s, a group of African American pastors led by Dr. Linda Mae Smith began meeting with the police chief and a representative of the city government for the purpose of being a forum for both clergy and laypersons. This group evolved into REACH, (Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches), a group that is currently involved in providing meals and overnight accommodations for the homeless. At one point, the police department donated the former city jail to REACH which was modified and used for a day shelter. Several churches take turns allowing their buildings to be used by REACH as overnight sleeping spaces. From 2000 to 2010, Renton’s population increased by 87 percent and the minority population showed an increase of 165 percent. Students in the public schools spoke over 80 different languages at home. The city council, under the leadership of Mayor Denis Law, revised the city’s long-term plan, stating that all races, cultures, and lifestyles are valued and welcomed in the city. In 2008, Renton had become one of the 20 most diverse cities in the country. The Mayor’s Inclusion Task Force of over 30 people was created in 2008. The Renton School District, Renton Technical College, the libraries, and many other organizations actively seek ways to serve and communicate with people of varied language backgrounds. Part of the inclusive effort is for the city to sponsor a two-day multicultural festival every September, including music, dance, crafts, and food.
That’s one of the nice aspects of living in Renton. These events come to you and you don’t even have to go any farther than downtown to experience them. Part of the reason Renton escaped so much destruction was due to these groups joining together to solve a problem. The mutual respect and close relationship between these three groups (police, government, and pastors) create an atmosphere for the average, everyday person to go about their normal business, doing nice things for each other, which they are used to doing. After all, they’ve been practicing “being nice” for several decades and have had lots of practice.