Africatown seeks a concrete presence in the Central District

Last month volunteers painted a kente-style motif on the parking lot of Midtown Center. Photo by Gregory Scruggs.

When the concrete deliveryman received an order for 23rd and Union last month, he headed for what looked like the most probable drop-off spot: the East Union, a nearly-complete apartment building. It was the wrong destination. Diagonally across from the sleek new six-story brown-and-black edifice, a group of people waved the concrete mixer over to the right location, at a low-slung strip mall called Midtown Center. They were volunteers with Africatown, a grassroots effort to encourage black-led real estate development in the Central District.

“We were just this ragtag team,” recall landscape architect Sara Zewde, who ordered the concrete, which was poured to form benches and a table as part of an outdoor living room.

The concrete furniture was one element of a temporary makeover for Midtown Center, the largest undeveloped site in the rapidly gentrifying CD. Seattle real estate developer Lake Union Partners, which owns East Union and the Central, another apartment building on the same corner, purchased the block-long property last year for $23 million.

Lake Union Partners plans to develop another apartment building on the lot where Midtown Center currently sits. But in a novel twist, land conservation group Forterra bought a 20-percent stake in the property that they deeded to Africatown, who will install affordable housing and small businesses geared toward people from the African diaspora alongside the new development. Africatown officials hope that a brand-new Midtown Center, long a bastion of black-owned businesses, can become the beating heart of a revitalized black community in the CD. But first they have to convince Lake Union Partners, and the neighbors, what that means.

Last year, Zewde helped lead a series of “design ciphers” with neighborhood residents to envision what a new building on that site could look like. The ciphers produced ideas like a plaza on the northeast corner of 23rd and Union—a deep-rooted gathering spot for area residents—and architecture incorporating Afro-diasporic design elements. But ideas on paper can only do so much.

Because Midtown Center is slated for demolition next year, Lake Union Partners gave Africatown permission to install the outdoor furniture and paint the parking lot with a kente-inspired motif. The outdoor living room, which also features a coffee table covered with photo reprints of neighborhood residents epoxied to the surface, replicates the dimensions of the proposed plaza. Every weekend this month, Africatown has hosted a Saturday market in an area corresponding to a proposed interior courtyard. The market will incubate small businesses that might eventually become tenants in the new building.

“This is an act of design, a 1:1 scale mock-up,” Zewde says. “The whole point is to demonstrate the potential for the future development, to say ‘here’s what is possible’ both to the architects and to the community.”

This approach to making a temporary change to the built environment is known as “tactical urbanism.” Cities and community groups around the world have painted temporary bike lanes, demarcated short-term plazas and installed makeshift signage to give a sense of what a street, sidewalk or other public space would look like if the change was made permanent. But usually it doesn’t involve concrete.

“Tactical urbanism stuff is very much about wood and reused materials,” Zewde says. “Concrete is not a material that’s really associated with community.”

As a result, seeing the gray oozing concrete come spilling out of the truck on that July afternoon felt like a victory.

“There was this kind of magic on the site during the week we were building the formwork and pouring the concrete because for community members to be working with concrete is an inversion,” Zewde says.

The concrete has paid off, with the outdoor living room serving as a focal point for the marketplace. Last Saturday, vendors sold Afrocentric clothing, jewelry, and accessories, with a funk-and-jazz soundtrack by Goody Bagg. On larger-than-life outdoor board game sets, teenagers waged fierce battles over Connect Four and old-timers swapped chess moves. This coming Saturday, Sept. 1, the scene repeats itself for the last time this summer, with JusMoni, Falon Sierra and Otieno Terry providing street corner serenades.

Africatown promises more activities this fall, fresh off the announcement of an $82,500 city grant.

“We are the ones who designed and constructed it in this neighborhood where people feel like they don’t have any power and everything is being designed and built around them,” Zewde says.