Seattle Culture

Back to the Future

Seattle's Central District is reclaiming its rich history

By Rachel Gallaher April 11, 2024


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Historically one of Seattle’s most diverse areas, the Central District has long been the cultural hub for the city’s Black population. Once home to Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Bruce Lee, and Sir Mix-a-Lot, the roughly four-square-mile area between Capitol and Beacon Hills boasts a rich history of music, food, and deep community ties.

One of the Central District’s original settlers was Black pioneer and businessman William Grose — the owner of the Our House hotel and restaurant on Yesler Way and the first Black person to buy property in what was known as East Madison in 1882.

Grose’s spirit of entrepreneurship continued through the decades as the Central District developed into an enclave full of bustling cafés, barber shops, and independent grocers, with extended families and friends building a tight-knit community that offered a sense of place and identity. As much as the resulting creative spirit is celebrated, there is a darker side to the neighborhood’s concentration of Black Seattleites.

By the 1970s, because of the discriminatory practice of redlining, more than 73 percent of the Central District’s residents were Black. Today, due to gentrification driven by Seattle’s recent population influx, that number has plummeted to less than 15%.

“The neighborhood I grew up in felt safe, friendly, and familiar — it felt like all the families were connected in some way, and that made it feel safe in different ways,” says Vivian Phillips, the founder and board president of Arte Noir, a nonprofit Black arts and culture retail shop and gallery in the Central District’s Midtown Square — a mixed-use development project that Phillips consulted on. “Perhaps that’s the way things are when you are relegated to a certain area due to redlining. It felt more tightly knit. It was also more multi-generational, and that seems to have disappeared.”

Even with the historic community’s displacement, a strong contingency of Black business owners, artists, and creatives is doubling down on reclaiming space in the neighborhood, working to preserve, celebrate, and share a cultural heritage that was, for some time, in danger of being overrun.

Part of this process included work from artists of color — murals, light installations, and sculptures — that focused on the legacy and stories of the neighborhood. The Jackson Street Apartments, for example, features seven murals and two sculptures by African American artists.

The Central District also offers a rich collection of galleries, theaters, and art spaces. The Northwest African American Museum, which Quirindongo helped design, provides an educational way to engage with the history and legacy of Black communities in the Northwest. Wa Na Wari, founded by a group of local artists, is a cultural space that incubates and amplifies Black art in a fifth-generation, Black-owned home.

When it comes to food, there are dozens of must-tries from Jerk Shack, a Caribbean-style chicken joint, to Communion, the much-lauded brainchild of chef Kristi Brown, who serves up innovative, contemporary soul food that has earned her nods from the James Beard Foundation and The New York Times. Reckless Noodle, with its mouth-watering menu of Vietnamese-inspired fare (with a mishmash of Cambodian, Thai, and Chinese flavors making an appearance) underwent a renovation in 2022, adding a next-door bar that has all the charm of a cozy, neighborhood watering hole.

“The creative community in the CD has flourished in recent years,” Phillips says, noting that the neighborhood’s 2015 designation as an Arts and Cultural District by the city helped with that creative boost. “The creative juices seem to be flowing like rivers throughout the CD, which is not new. It just needed to be re-energized.”

Known for: The historical home of Seattle’s Black community.
Best place to escape the work from home blues: Reckless Noodle
Walkability: 88
Median home price: $900,000
Surprising fact: The Black Panther Party had a strong chapter in the neighborhood in the late 1960s.

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