Changes in the Central District Affect the African-American Community

As gentrification pushes African-Americans, should the city step in to protect their interests?
changes in the central district seattle magazine
The changing streetscape at 23rd Avenue and Alder Street, in a part of the Central District that some residents would like to be known as Africatown

When Mount Calvary Christian Center pastor Reggie Witherspoon was growing up in the Central District in the 1960s and ’70s, the neighborhood was tight-knit and largely African-American. But today, it’s another story. “It’s radically different,” he says. Now, he can visit the neighborhood and not see any African-Americans. “I never thought I would see the time when I am driving through and white folks would look at me strangely. I’m like, ‘I grew up in this area, what are you looking at me for?’”

Witherspoon’s experience mirrors that of the neighborhood as a whole. The number of African-Americans in the Central District has steadily declined over the past decades, with the percentage dropping from 64 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 2010. The number of white residents increased in nearly inverse proportion.

His own life tells the story. Born in Seattle in 1958, Witherspoon attended Garfield High School and was raised in a Central District that was predominantly African-American. After decades in the C.D. and then South Seattle, he purchased a home with more space in Renton, a decision he now regrets. “I can’t afford to move back to the Central Area,” he says. The congregation of his church, near 23rd and Union, is seeing the same pattern. Today, he estimates only 40 percent of his predominantly African-American congregation lives in the neighborhood, down from 85 percent before. Parishioners now spread out across the southern suburbs, such as Renton, Federal Way and Auburn.
Witherspoon says that with the exodus went the sense of community. “When I grew up here, everyone knew each other. In the 1970s, you didn’t even have to lock the door when you left the house. It was an extended-family kind of concept; that part is completely gone.” (Photo: Pastor Reggie Witherspoon at Mount Calvary Christian Center, on 23rd near East Union. After growing up in the Central District, Witherspoon bought a home in Renton. A decision he regrets, since he can’t afford to move back to the neighborhood)

The shifting demographics in the Central District are not just numbers on paper. The neighborhood, bordered by Madison Street to the north, 12th Avenue to the west, I-90 to the south and Martin Luther King Way to the east, has long held a special place for black Seattleites. Its main artery is the 23rd Avenue corridor, home to businesses and restaurants spanning the African diaspora and beyond. The district also includes, at 23rd and Jackson, the Starbucks Community Store, a hub of the East African community, and at 23rd and Cherry, the community’s heart and soul, Garfield High School. For many, the demographic shift marks a loss of culture and community—and some are hoping to stem the tide.

A community takes action
One effort to preserve some of what makes this neighborhood unique is coalescing at City Hall, through the 23rd Avenue Action Plan. This “city-community collaboration” to create “a shared vision and action plan to improve the health and equity” of three Central Area hubs—23rd and East Union, 23rd and East Cherry, and 23rd and South Jackson—is led by the Department of Planning and Development’s senior planner Quanlin Hu.

In a shift from the city’s regular neighborhood planning process, the team carefully identified community stakeholders and engaged in concerted outreach to get their involvement in the process. The result was that during 2013 more than 600 people participated in the public meetings and planning processes. They represented a diverse array of ethnic and economic backgrounds—including a significant number of longtime residents of color. In addition to stakeholder meetings, community workshops and community engagement, an advisory core team (ACT) of 15 key participants was selected to represent community interests. More than half of the ACT is African-American.

Hu says the action plan represents a move from neighborhood planning to a community development process. “There are a lot of assets already [in the community] and there are a lot of community organizations doing wonderful things, but they’re not connected,” she says. “We wanted to connect these people together to share resources and energize the community.”

In addition to the ACT, five action teams were developed from the planning process, made up of interested community members. These teams focused on issues from cultural preservation to livable streets.

To assist the process of building participation, the city enlisted the help of Public Outreach and Engagement Liaisons, a team of well-respected and trusted members of historically underrepresented communities. Mary Dell Williams, a longtime community activist, served as a liaison for the African-American community. (Photo: Last summer, Starbucks designated the always-hopping coffee shop at 23rd and Jackson a “community store.” A portion of this location’s proceeds will go toward the YWCA’s GirlsFirst program and neighborhood revitalization efforts)

“Unfortunately, with the African-American community, there is still a lot of historical mistrust. There is still a lot of unhealed stuff,” Williams says. “So when I come to that work, I try to be honest about that.”

Williams knows firsthand the impact of Central District gentrification. “A lot of people I know lost houses,”she says. “There may be apartments for people like me, but there are not houses. Everybody moved south—to Kent, Renton.” Williams now lives with her son in Rainier Beach.

Despite the mistrust, community engagement in the action plan has been high. The final product, the action plan itself, was completed in the fall. The final document, available soon, will lay the foundation for planning decisions that will involve zoning in the commercial hubs.

For example, in planned development at the current post office at 23rd and Union, the strong community preference was for multiple smaller businesses versus a big-box store. When the zoning decisions are made for that parcel, the community input will be factored in. The Central District action plan is the city’s second such initiative. The first effort started in 2011 in Rainier Beach, a process with fewer participants but one that built a community-centered road map for the neighborhood to follow as it made development decisions. This includes zoning and land-use guidelines as well as an urban design framework.

An ethnic hub
One prominent member of the advisory core team is Wyking Garrett, the founding director of the Umojafest P.E.A.C.E. Center and a member of the leadership team behind the Africatown Innovation Center at the Horace Mann school building. Before coming to an agreement to leave the Horace Mann building during its renovation, the Innovation Center operated at the former school on Cherry, offering a space for youth education, technology access, African-American heritage immersion and a middle school for Muslim girls.

On a visit in October, the center was bustling: African-American youth using computers, community members creating banners against racism, young people painting a mural in a garden. Throughout the building were symbols and reminders of a proud black history.
This is one of Garrett’s visions for the Central District: a hub for African-American-centered education and learning, a safe place for youth to grow their skills. Yet in mid-November, the last holdouts occupying the school were removed, and four activists were arrested during the eviction. The Innovation Center is now looking for a new location.

The displacement does not deter Garrett. Another vision he has for the Central District is Africatown itself. “When [African-Americans] migrated from other parts of the country to make a better life here, they were forced to live in this area. As a result, it became the cultural and economic hub of people of African descent in the Pacific Northwest. Africatown represents leveraging the best of the African diaspora and making that a positive value-add to Seattle.” (Photo: Danyale Thomas Ross (at right, with customer Barbara Brown), owner of Good Hair Salon on 19th and Yesler, has been active in setting a course for the neighborhood. She was born in the Central District and graduated from Garfield High School)

Garrett’s vision is to use the model of Seattle’s Chinatown–International District to create a core area for culture, goods and food of the African diaspora in the Central District. Longtime African-American neighborhood mainstays, such as Catfish Corner and Ezell’s, are now joined by more recent East African immigrant restaurants, such as Cafe Selam and Assimba.
“[Asian-Americans] have a Chinatown–International District Preservation Authority—to preserve and develop. It’s about the past and it’s about the future. This is the only African-American community,” Garrett says. “Part of the solution Africatown represents is that this is not lower Capitol Hill, this is not west Leschi, not upper Madison Park. All these different ways they seek to ignore or marginalize, or devalue the people who have made their lives here and contributed to the richness that Seattle offers to the world.”

Much like in Seattle’s Chinatown–International District and ethnic hubs across the country, Garrett envisions Africatown as a destination for all people who value the contributions and history of African-Americans. At a January community meeting, the crowd erupted in applause when after an Africatown presentation by Garrett, the new-mayor Ed Murray said he felt the city should refer to the area as Africatown–Central District.

Gentrification or progress?
Garrett knows that his vision for the Central District is not shared by everyone, that for some, “gentrification” is not a bad word. “You have some people on the committee who want to eliminate the black presence; gentrification cannot happen fast enough for them” he says.

He wonders why in a historically black community, the right for African-Americans to have space and influence is even in question. “A lot of people ask the question, ‘Are these same type of meetings happening in Chinatown?’ Or does the pan-Asian community decide what is happening in Chinatown–International District, and why does the African-American not have the equal respect in their space?” (Photo: Neighborhood activist Wyking Garrett, outside the Horace Mann school, where the Africatown Center for Education and Innovation operated until it was shut down for building renovations late last year)

Quintard Taylor, a professor of American history at the University of Washington and the author of The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era, says transition has been a constant in the history of the Central District.

“We sometimes think that gentrification is new, it’s not new—it’s part of neighborhood secession,” Taylor says. “Community secession and change has always marked these locales; it’s part of a continuum since Seattle was born. The Central Area was always a racially mixed area, it was the model of diversity when there wasn’t a lot of diversity.… But what makes it a ghetto is that blacks couldn’t live elsewhere in the city.”

Redlining and restrictive covenants established in the early 1900s were created based on an area’s ethnic and economic composition. This practice enforced neighborhood segregation and ensured that African-Americans would not be able to move outside the Central District. From the segregation, a community was born.

“Black people took that ghetto, which other people said, ‘this is the place you are forced to live, you’re confined …’ and within the confines of that, they created a rich and dynamic culture,” Taylor says. “That’s the paradox. Now the question is: how do you maintain that rich and dynamic culture when the ghetto no longer exists.”

While Taylor sees neighborhood transition as inevitable, he knows it brings with it pain. “African-Americans are displaced from their traditional neighborhoods, there’s a lot of individual tragedy that operates in those settings; on the other hand, there is a lot of individual opportunity,” he says. “People want to have an anchor, and they see that anchor being pulled away and they begin to drift. This is our home, but we no longer feel at home because the neighborhood is changing.”

Examples of these changes abound: the African American Facts newspaper, long a huge landmark on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Cherry Street, is now a doggy day care (the paper has moved to a tiny office in Madrona); a Central District icon, Thompson’s Point of View restaurant, is now a hipster bordello-themed bar—its patrons, formerly made up of blacks, now almost all whites.

Ryan Curren is the program manager for southeast Seattle’s Community Cornerstones innovative equitable development project, which is an intentional process to ensure low-income people and people of color are involved in development decisions. Yet he says that stopping gentrification is not an option he thinks is likely. “Mitigate? Yes. There is no…case study anywhere in the United States that neighborhoods that were in high demand either didn’t change or that all existing residents and businesses were able to stay.” In this context, his project aims to prevent involuntary displacement and create opportunity.

A changing corner
Adding to the development pressures in the neighborhood are several applications to open recreational marijuana shops around 23rd and Union. This is one of the only locations in the central part of the city that is far enough from schools, child care, parks, etc., to house a retail pot operation, potentially creating what the Central District News called a “Little Amsterdam.”

One of the potential pot entrepreneurs is Ian Eisenberg, a longtime Leschi resident and member of the action plan’s advisory core team. He has applied to open a marijuana shop in the area. For years he had been asking why someone didn’t fix up the 23rd and Union intersection. There was a boarded-up building where Philly’s Best used to be, and a vacant lot on the southwest corner. Finally, in May 2010, he decided to buy them himself.

The restaurant space, home to well-known violent tragedies over the years, became Med Mix, a Mediterranean restaurant. Following exuberant stories about finally ending the “curse” of the Philly’s Best corner, in August, someone set fire to the Med Mix building. Ruled an arson, surveillance cameras caught the arsonist intentionally setting the fire and writing “4 Pratt & Trayv” on the wall next to the restaurant, a nod to slain civil rights activist Edwin Pratt and Florida teen Trayvon Martin. The wall, which once held a mural of Pratt and Malcolm X, was painted over by a previous owner. It had been tagged too many times to repair.

As to the motive behind the arson? Many theories circulate online, but there have been no arrests. In January, Med Mix owner Otmane Bezzaz announced he wouldn’t reopen on the corner because the damage is too extensive, but says he’s looking for another way to keep Med Mix in the C.D., where he lives.

At press time, Eisenberg had just sold the vacant lot on the southwest corner (for $3.8 million) to Lake Union Partners, which plans to develop a six-story apartment building with retail at street level, starting this spring.

From Eisenberg’s perspective, neighborhood transition is par for the course. “The neighborhood went through transition, it isn’t going through transition,” he says. “My grandparents moved here, they lived here, then it was a Jewish neighborhood, then a Japanese neighborhood, [the Japanese] went to [internment] camps and then they were all gone.…Every group was forced to live here. Jews had to live here; blacks had to live here; they couldn’t live anywhere else. As soon as that changed, people moved out to wherever they wanted to live.”

But Pastor Witherspoon is not so sanguine. Asked whether the new Central District residents think preserving the diversity of the community is important, Witherspoon says, “I don’t think they do. They just like the convenience of being close to everything. That’s a selfish and insensitive approach, in my opinion.”

Other recent events have also given Witherspoon pause. “We’ve been here for 22 years and we have never been tagged before, up until last year. Surveillance cameras showed the people who tagged us were not African-American. I think there are people in the community who do not care for African-American people,” he says. “I am sad to say it, but now when I am walking to my car, I look around. I didn’t do that when it was African-American. We had gang members all around here. I worked with these guys; they respected me. They would never break into our church. All of a sudden we’re getting tagged with ugly stuff. All of this is showing there is still racism that is starting to rear its ugly head.”

For Witherspoon, it’s important that newcomers recognize and respect the existing institutions in the area. “I don’t want to be disrespected, particularly as an African-American church,”  he says. “I don’t want people to feel that we don’t have any regard in this community and that we’re not significant—because we are.…People keep doing things to keep pushing us out.… All of this development needs to do something to reach out to people of color and let them know there’s an opportunity for you here.”