Reclaiming Seattle’s Central District

Ambitious moves aim to bring the Black population back to an historic neighborhood

By Heidi Mills May 15, 2023

Central Square mural by Takiyah Ward

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

When Ms. Helen’s Soul Bistro owner Jessi Henton brings her family’s Southern cooking back to Seattle’s Central District this fall, she’ll be dishing up liver and onions, gumbo, catfish, black-eyed peas, and all the other dishes that her mama Helen was known for. To Henton, the restaurant will stand for good home cooking, community, and a return to her family’s Central District roots.

“I’m going to bring back the smells and the comfort,” Henton says.

Henton is among a growing number of Black businesses, artists, and residents finding new homes in Central Area developments. Projects such as Midtown Square at 23rd and Union, the Liberty Bank Building at 24th and Union, and the Jackson Apartments at 24th and Jackson aim to help the Black community reclaim a neighborhood it once considered its own. A combination of gentrification and redlining over decades transformed the Central District from an area with more than 80% Black residents to fewer than 10%, uprooting families and businesses.

Vivian Phillip stands in the construction site of Arté Noir in the Central District on April 5, 2022. She is opening a cultural space that includes an art gallery, recording studio and other Black-owned businesses.

Photo by Daniel Kim/The Seattle Times

“The Central District has seen a drastic change over the course of 50 years,” says Vivian Phillips, who grew up in the neighborhood and now owns gallery Arte Noir there. “The way it was is gone, and it’s never coming back.”

Artist Takiyah Ward, owner of sneaker customization and restoration business The Re-Sole, grew up in the Central District and recalled a thriving business district where everyone knew each other and worked together. Her mother once gave directions using local Black businesses and landmarks instead of street names. “It was our own Black Wall Street,” Ward says. “It’s sad to see how much change has taken place.”

Takiyah Ward poses in front of the mural she created at Midtown Square Apartments.

Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

Henton has similar memories of the blocks surrounding the original Helen’s Diner, which opened in 1970 at 23rd and Union. Black-owned businesses lined Union Street, and Black doctors, dentists, cleaners, bankers, and real estate agents stopped in to buy a plate of soul food at Helen’s. Black contractors passed on business to Black plumbers and dry wallers. The historic, beautiful houses in the old Seattle neighborhood were owned by Black families.

Cognizant of what’s been lost, a number of local developers, residents, business owners, and city leaders are finding ways to support Black people coming home. Longtime Central District supporters see hope in recent recognition and action toward revitalizing the Black community.

One such project, the Jackson Apartments, was developed by Vulcan Real Estate and features seven murals and two sculptures by African American artists. Leilani Lewis, who led the art installation project, hopes it will serve as a visual reminder of the Central District’s soul.

“To me, it means our voices are still there,” Lewis says. “Our presence is still there. It’s not just part of a museum.”

Vulcan has recruited Black businesses to the building’s retail spaces, including 23rd Avenue Brewery and restaurant Simply Soulful. Lillian Rambo just relocated Simply Soulful from Madison Valley to the Central District and held a grand reopening celebration in February. She’s glad to be serving up chicken and waffles, red beans and rice, as well as shrimp and grits in a historically Black neighborhood. 

“I still see the Central District as the Black hub,” Rambo says, “and that’s why it’s so important to keep some of the Black legacy there.”

One of the newest developments to focus on Black businesses and residents is Midtown Square, which occupies a corner that Ward dubs “the heartbeat of the neighborhood.” After purchasing the property at 23rd and Union, Lake Union Partners held a series of community meetings to hear what local residents and business owners wanted to see happen with the project.

Lake Union Partners Managing Partner and co-owner Patrick Foley recalls that the company was the third developer to propose a project, and the first two (both of which suggested big-box retail with housing on top) were outright rejected by neighbors for not reflecting the needs of the community.

Lake Union Partners drafted a memorandum of understanding with the neighborhood agreeing to certain principles. When talking to locals, Foley heard over and over again the sense of loss and pain people felt by the exodus of Black people from the Central District.

“One of the things that was really important to people was for as many Black-owned businesses as possible to be at that intersection,” Foley says. “I see it as the beginning of the Black community reclaiming the neighborhood.”

Based on community feedback, Lake Union Partners devoted the development to affordable apartments with small businesses at retail level, most of which are Black owned. Midtown Square features African American art on the exterior and interior of the building, including murals, fabricated metal panels, and a light installation.

In an unusual move, Lake Union Partners has sold portions of Midtown Square to Black community members. Phillips purchased a 3,238-square-foot retail space for $2 million and opened a storefront in September that showcases Black artists through exhibits and retail goods. She features jewelry from Kenya, clothing from Ghana, locally made candles, skin care products, home goods, magnets, and books.

Phillips also plans to build out a recording studio, operate a makerspace, and host classes. Phillips said that if Lake Union Partners hadn’t sold her the space, she wouldn’t have opened a physical storefront and would have kept Arte Noir as an e-commerce business.

Once Lake Union Partners obtains a permanent mortgage, it hopes to offer the purchase option to other retailers.

In another significant partnership, Lake Union Partners sold 20% of the development at what Foley called “a steep discount” to Africatown Community Land Trust. ACLT acquires Central Area land to create housing and business space for Black people. Africatown Plaza, which is slated to be finished this fall, will have affordable apartments and a public art project that honors the legacy of Black families in the Central District.

Africatown CEO Wyking Garrett has been a catalyst in the Central District.

Photo by Mujale Chisebuka

For the businesses leasing space in Midtown Square, Lake Union Partners sought Black entrepreneurs. Ward, who has been customizing and restoring sneakers during the past two decades, will open The Re-Sole — her first physical storefront — this April. She wants the shop to serve as kind of a social club where community members can hang out, trade footwear, converse, and do their own art.

Another business occupying a storefront at Midtown Square represents a return to the Central Area’s roots. Ms. Helen’s Soul Bistro is the next chapter for the original Helen’s Diner, which later became Ms. Helen’s Soul Food and served up Southern cooking until the 2001 Nisqually earthquake damaged the building the restaurant had been renting. When Helen Coleman began musing about bringing her restaurant back, she reached out to her daughter, Jessi Henton, who was then living in Los Angeles. In the years that followed, Coleman began to show signs of dementia, and Henton had to decide if she was up for taking the project on by herself.

In the end, Patrick Foley and Midtown Square sealed the deal for Henton. He showed her the 3,000-square-foot space and said, “If you can dream big, what would you do with this?’” Henton recalls. “I started to cry.”

For Africatown Community Land Trust, the Midtown Square project is one part of its broader effort to ensure Black people remain a vital part of the Central Area. The trust purchased Fire Station 6 at 23rd and Yesler and turned it into the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation, which supports entrepreneurs and offers coworking spaces and workforce development.

Liberty Bank Building

Photo by Kevin Scott

Another Africatown project is the Liberty Bank Building at 24th and Union, which was also developed by partners Community Roots Housing and Gardner Global. The building includes James Beard Award semifinalist restaurant Communion as one of its tenants. Communion owner and chef Kristi Brown says she heard about the space because she’d catered events for Community Roots Housing. Brown hopes to serve as an example to others.

“Anytime you see someone who looks like you having success, it’s such a big deal,” Brown says. “I want little Black girls to look at me like, ‘You did that?’ Yes, I did.”

Gardner Global is run by Black developer Jaebadiah Gardner. He aims to preserve community in the Central Area and has purchased two properties at 23rd and Union to develop into affordable apartments. One was occupied by Mount Calvary Church and a parking lot, and the other by a teen center. Both projects are in early design phase, and Gardner wants to incorporate design and art elements that speak to the culture and history of Central Area African American churches, such as stained glass. Some of the units will be lofts where artists can work and live.

“We have to be patient,” Gardner says. “Things won’t change overnight. But I’m excited and bullish on where the Central District is heading.”

In a February event marking Africatown Community Land Trust’s 10th anniversary, elected officials came to hear about recent progress and future projects in the Central Area. When ACLT formed, Africatown CEO Wyking Garrett recalled, he didn’t see Black businesses returning to the neighborhood or African American public art displays going up.

“There’s been a change in the narrative and the possibility for the Black community that has called the Central District home for 140 years,” Garrett says. “We didn’t accept the narrative that there was no future for our community. Seattle is a world-class and thriving city, and it should definitely have a world-class and thriving Black community as part of it.”

Follow Us

The Wild Sauna of Seattle

The Wild Sauna of Seattle

A taste of Norwegian culture comes to the Pacific Northwest

In the heart of Kirkland, tied up to a public dock, one of the United States’ first floating saunas bobs on Lake Washington, providing a unique experience inspired by sauna culture in Norway. On a recent crisp chilly day, I had the opportunity to visit Von Sauna...

Party on, Seattle!

Party on, Seattle!

The city doesn’t have to fight for its right to party

Who likes to party? I do, and apparently, so do you, because Seattle is ranked among the top party cities in America.

The Therapy Revolution

The Therapy Revolution

 Changing your ability to love, one session at a time

To my mind, some form of counseling or therapy is helpful in preparation for meeting someone, in maintenance of a relationship, in repair when relationships stall or shatter, and in support when you have to start the whole dance over again. Photo by Glasshouse Images/Getty

Captain America, Lando Calrissian, and Emerald City Comic Con 2024

Captain America, Lando Calrissian, and Emerald City Comic Con 2024

Four-day event kicks off Feb. 29 at Seattle Convention Center

Come meet Lando Calrissian this weekend. Stop by and see Captain Marvel, or Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings.