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Taro Kusunose is an attorney in Seattle. He grew up in Newport Hills during the 1980s, from the second grade through Newport High School (Class of ’91). He moved back to the region in 1999, and in 2014 he and his family moved into the same Newport Hills house that he grew up in. (Interviewed by Kazuki Sawanoi)

KS : What brought you Newport Hills?

TK: I was born in the suburbs of Tokyo. At the time, my father was an aerospace engineer for what is now the Japanese Ministry of Defense. He wanted to further his study of airplane design, and he started writing letters to a professor whose work he admired. That professor invited him to join him at UCLA, where my father obtained his Ph.D. in computational fluid dynamics (CFD).  So at age 3, I moved from Japan to L.A. After graduation, my father eventually landed at Boeing. That’s how I ended up in Newport Hills. It was probably 1980, when I was 7, when we moved up from L.A. I attended Newport Hills Elementary School, which is now Jing Mei Elementary School. After that, my class went to Ringdall Middle School. I think we were the last class to graduate from Ringdall. Right after us, they closed the school down and started sending everyone to Tyee instead. Interestingly, I graduated from Newport Hills Elementary School, but my younger brother graduated from Newport Heights Elementary School. By my brother’s time, BSD had merged Newport Hills Elementary and Lake Heights Elementary into Newport Heights. I recall being bummed that the mascot of the merged school would be Lake Heights Dolphins, rather than my old school’s Huskies. The old Newport Hills Elementary School building was used by the YMCA for many years before becoming Jing Mei several years ago.

For some reason, Newport Hills was totally overbuilt. It was exciting though. This tiny neighborhood had two elementary schools and its own middle school. The shopping center had an Albertson’s (current SMart location), its own hardware store (current Stods location), a drugstore/Hallmark (current Grey Coast Cross-Fit and dry-cleaner locations), a SeaFirst/Bank of America branch, two gas stations, a Dairy Queen, and a bunch of other small stores and restaurants. Unfortunately, when they built the Safeway shopping center on Coal Creek, and Costco gained popularity, those really started hurting the Newport Hills shopping center.

After high school, I went to California for college. I returned to Washington in 1999, but lived in Newcastle. My folks had held onto the house I grew up in, and in 2014 we had an opportunity to move into it. As result, my kids attended Tyee Middle School, and they are both now at Newport.    

KS: Do you have any childhood memory in this neighborhood? I remember you mentioned a helicopter ride at the shopping center.

TK: Yeah, so I think at least twice the shopping center hosted a summer fair. I think there were firetrucks and other booths and displays. But the one thing I remember was the helicopter ride!  You had to pay to get on, but I got to go at least once with my folks. I have no idea how big that helicopter was. It was probably small. And I don’t recall how long the rides were; probably short. But I do remember that the helicopter had no doors! It was awesome (and mildly terrifying). We would take off from the Newport Hills Shopping Center, and then fly around the neighborhood. I think that would be pretty hard to do today due to the insurance costs. I will never forget that.

In my mind, the center of the community at the time was the drugstore.  It was much more than a drugstore. I think my folks used to get their photos developed there. They had cards, even before Hallmark was big. They had candy. They even had records. I used to go over there to see what new records had come in.

KS : You mean LPs?

TK: Yup. Vinyl. It was nice. It was a comfortable little store, where the community could see each other. So it was sad when it was gone. When you have Bartells, Walgreens and Safeway Pharmacy pop up nearby, it’s very hard to run an independent drugstore. I could see why it eventually closed, but it was also sad. There are other great community hangouts like the Swim & Tennis Club, but I thought the drugstore was pretty cool. I remember buying a lot of bubble gum there.

When we were riding our bicycles homes from Ringdall Middle School, there were a few places where we shouldn’t have stopped, but occasionally did. One was the pizza joint where Teriyaki Town is currently located. Sometimes kids would stop in for cheesy bread. It was a slice of garlic bread with cheese on top. But this place also had a few arcade games. So, kids would just hang out. Or, they would stop by the Dairy Queen (current Cloud 9). You could spend your money there on Dilly Bars and Mister Mistys. The Albertson’s sold donuts…. Or you could go to the drugstore because they had all the candy and records. The shopping center was a great place to hang out with your friends.

KS: I remember the shopping center had really declined since the drugstore was closed. Red Apple was gone as well. But in the past five years or so, new businesses such as Resonate, Terry’s Kitchen, Cloud 9, etc. came and it was kind of revitalized.

TK: We might never see anything like the 1980s again, but I think the shopping center is experiencing a bit of a renaissance! It is definitely becoming a community hang-out again. I know that in order to keep this going, I should try to spend more time at SMart, Cloud 9, Teriyaki Town, and others. All of these stores add to the current buzz. It’s pretty exciting that the Mustard Seed is finding its way forward in these weird times (even though they have an odd allegiance to the Green Bay Packers 😊(Go Hawks!)). Of course Resonate and Terry’s Kitchen have both added a ton of excitement to the area. I noticed that Terry’s Kitchen recently installed a new outdoor dining area. I’ll be checking that out soon. Some pundits are warning that perhaps up to half of all restaurants will not survive COVID-19. It would be a shame if any one of Newport Hills businesses had to close.

KS: What do you like about Newport Hills?

TK: I will be very straight with you. It’s probably one of the most convenient places around. Sea-Tac is close, downtown Bellevue is close, downtown Seattle is close. I think this is why the Seahawks are now just down the road from us. Newport Hills has fantastic freeway access, yet it is tucked away and crime is low. You cannot ask for better. It’s a very nice community. When I was a kid, I remember Newport Hills had an image of being the “Boeing engineers” neighborhood, i.e., a community of solid, hard-working, good people. By that measure, nothing has changed at all.

Taro with his soccer team

Newport Hills Swim and Tennis Club Swim Team

Snowball fight with neighborhood kids
Taro with his sister in front of the house where he lives today