Inye Wokoma photographed saxophonist, jazz teacher and Garfield High School graduate Gary Hammon for Shelf Life Community Story Project, a collection of oral histories from longtime residents of the Central Area. Listen to Hammon’s story at Photo by Inye Wokoma


Central Intelligence

As gentrification threatens culture, can art help save the soul of the C.D.?

It’s Saturday afternoon inside of Earl’s Cuts & Style on the corner of 23rd and Union. A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” is playing through the speakers and barber Christopher “C-Black” Bailey, who’s cut hair at the shop for the past 22 years, is bobbing his head and dancing as customers smile and watch. Another individual who’s waiting to get a haircut jokes that his luck recently dried up in the dating department and he’s letting everyone know his phone hasn’t been ringing lately. “I’m out the game, fellas,” he shouts. “I’m straight-up Colin Kaepernick right now!” The barbershop erupts in laughter.

This is the essence of a Black barbershop, one of the few impenetrable bastions of Black culture that remain in Seattle’s Central Area. There’s pride here when you first walk in the door: Signed jerseys of Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Roy, Jason Terry and Jamal Crawford—some of the most accomplished NBA players who were raised in the Seattle area—hang on the walls. Preachers, gangsters, athletes and elected officials all come here not only to get a fresh cut but to socialize, talk shit and enjoy a slice of home away from home. Similar to being inside a Black church on Sunday, sitting inside a Black barbershop on a Saturday morning is a cultural ritual.

Establishments like this are rapidly disappearing from the C.D.—places where your chakras feel automatically aligned as soon as you walk in the door. Words can’t describe those moments of joy nor can they adequately explain the current sorrow that manifests when those venues and businesses are taken away. All the bars and juke joints of old, like Deano’s Cafe & Lounge, Thompson’s Point of View, Oscar’s and Hidmo Eritrean Cuisine, to name just a few, places where Black folks could be themselves after hours, are now closed.

There are certain simple questions that newly transplanted African Americans must ask themselves when moving to Seattle from Black enclaves, questions they’ve never pondered before: Where am I going to get my hair cut or buy Black hair products? Where does this sprawling metropolis hide all of its Black people? Why isn’t there a mainstream FM station that plays Black music made before 1990 or after 2005? When the Promenade shopping plaza at 23rd and Jackson began closing earlier this year after Vulcan Real Estate bought it for $30.9 million dollars, finding Black culture in this city became slightly more difficult. Now that the Promenade’s Red Apple Grocery is closed, many elders in the community are left to wonder where they’re going to get the ingredients that Black cuisine requires for Thanksgiving.

“You could get things there that you couldn’t get in other stores,” says Sharon Williams, executive director of Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, who’s originally from North Carolina. “You could go in there and get everything from the rooter to the tooter, in terms of parts of the pig that we grew up eating. The music they played at the Red Apple was always good too. And so I’m sad because I don’t think I’m ever going to get that feeling again here.”

At times it’s as if Black culture here is thoroughly under attack. Many of the Black bars and clubs that have closed were targeted and shut down by the police or had liquor licenses revoked. Waid’s Restaurant and Lounge, Thompson’s, Angie’s in Columbia City and Rose Petals Restaurant in the South End all faced varying levels of drug dealing and violence, which understandably drew the ire of the police. They also had great food, jukeboxes, cheap drinks and were a cultural safe haven in a way outsiders never fully understood.

At the corner of 23rd and Union, Thompson’s drew a bad rap in the ’90s and 2000s due to people selling drugs out front, and occasional prostitution. Now serial entrepreneur Ian Eisenberg operates Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop and does $45,000 worth of drug sales per day. The Neighbor Lady bar, which replaced Thompson’s after it closed, is designed with the look and feel of a European brothel. What was frowned upon when one culture did it is now a celebrated success story when the business owners are white. These are the tensions that will not go away quietly.

It’s not merely change or displacement that longtime residents fear, it’s the death of culture, particularly Black culture in the Central District, that evokes sensations of loss, grief, anger and deep frustration. Unabated gentrification is a beast that has to be attacked from multiple angles; no one strategy alone will work. If anyone will fight to preserve the soul of the C.D., it will be artists of color, primarily Black artists, leading the charge.

* * * *

On a Saturday night in late September, the entrance to the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI) has a line of patrons spilling out the door. Inside the E Yesler Way venue, guests are queueing for the opening night of Africa Remix, the first major show produced by LANGSTON, an organization dedicated to cultivating and showcasing Black brilliance.

For this affair, LANGSTON has partnered with Seattle company Gansango Music & Dance to kick off a stunning two-day performance of contemporary and traditional African dance featuring artists from across the African diaspora. French, Yoruba and various West African dialects reverberate through the lobby, interspersed with comments from several white patrons who say they’ve lived in the neighborhood for several years without ever visiting the venue until tonight.

“The rapid gentrification of the C.D. is one of the reasons LANGSTON is so important,” says Jazmyn Scott, LANGSTON’s program manager and sole employee. “Every day, Black folks are feeling pushed out of and alienated from the one neighborhood in Seattle that once was ours. While the neighborhood is no longer majority Black, we want LHPAI/LANGSTON to be the place that folks come back to for cultural experiences that they can relate to.”

LANGSTON formed as a nonprofit only a year ago and many folks still don’t know it exists or understand how it’s different from LHPAI. Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture manages the city-owned facility, while LANGSTON drives much of the community programming and public events, along with LHPAI’s other anchor tenant, the CD Forum. Together they aim to help the C.D. once again become a hub for African American arts and culture.

Accomplishing that goal will be a challenge. How do you get former residents who were forced to move to cheaper housing in Kent, SeaTac and Federal Way to consistently come back to the Central Area on a Saturday night to watch a dance performance? Some might say it’s risky to do exclusively Black arts programming in a community that was 74 percent Black in 1970 but is projected to be only 14 percent Black by 2019, according to 2014 data from Nielsen.

“Everyone wants a piece of Black culture,” Scott says. “When I’m seeking out partnerships, I am very clear about us being a Black arts and culture organization, which means the works that we present must have Black folks at the forefront and target Black audiences.”

Down the street, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) just wrapped up two emotionally captivating exhibits: An Elegant Utility from Seattle artist Inye Wokoma, which focused on place and identity in the Central District told through displays of family artifacts, and We Are One by painter Lawrence Pitre, which looks at the history of the C.D. from 1840 to present day, articulated in vibrant brushstrokes.

“The most important thing for programming right now, especially for arts and cultural organizations, is to come together,” says Marie Kidhe, NAAM’s events and facilities manager. “We’re coming from different angles but we’re seeing the same problem. And the more we partner together, the more we identify what we’re seeing, the stronger force we can be.”

In early December the CD Forum, NAAM, LANGSTON and Black theatre company the Hansberry Project are collaborating on a free theatrical presentation at LHPAI called The Every 28 Hours Plays, which are based on the statistic that every 28 hours in the United States an African American is killed by a law enforcement official. Police violence, like Black-on-Black violence, creates an emotional wound that requires dialogue and healing. If Black arts therapy exists, what better place for it to occur in this city than the C.D.?

Dr. Mildred W. Ollee, who retired as president of Seattle Central Community College in 2010 before returning to the workforce a year ago to become NAAM’s interim executive director, adds that even while Black arts organizations are surrounded by a sea of gentrification, they have a crucial role to play. “NAAM can provide that sense of place that may have been lost because the church closed or because you’re not in the neighborhood anymore,” Ollee says. “I’m always thinking, alright…we’ve cried about it, we’ve talked about it. So now, what are we going to do about it?”

“We’ve cried about it, we’ve talked about it. So now, what are we going to do about it?”

The historically Black Central Area was the epicenter of the city’s music and arts scene from the late 1940s to the early 1990s. Seattle’s first great generation of musicians—Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Clark Terry, Ernestine Anderson and Jimi Hendrix—all lived and gigged there, followed by Sir Mix-A-Lot and Ishmael Butler. But it’s the endless array of top-flight, working-class artists and musicians who’ve called the Central Area home that truly reflect the neighborhood’s status as Seattle’s ground zero for Black indigenous art forms such as jazz, soul and hip-hop.

In a neighborhood where housing prices were intentionally driven down by market forces for decades so that developers could buy low and eventually sell high in today’s boom economy, there’s an overwhelming sense that new landlords have shown up and the soul of the C.D. got evicted. Black Lives Matter signs have replaced actual Black lives that no longer matter inside the one neighborhood that was unquestionably home for so long. When a race of people is facing extinction within their habitat, labeling the current level of erasure as mere gentrification doesn’t do it justice. Gentrification is too gentle a word.

Vivian Phillips chairs the Seattle Arts Commission and is a matriarch of the community. It was Phillips who helped encourage former Mayor Ed Murray in 2015 to approve the Office of Arts & Culture’s recommendation to make the Central Area an official arts and cultural district. The Historic Central Area Arts & Cultural District (HCAACD) was created shortly afterward, providing access to resources and technical support.

The group’s logo traces a map of the Central Area in bright red to symbolize the discriminatory redlining housing practices that forced Black residents, along with some Asian American and interracial families, to call the neighborhood home over half a century ago. Once a mostly Jewish neighborhood in the early 20th century, the LHPAI building was previously the Chevra Bikur Cholim synagogue from 1909 to 1969. The neighborhood became largely African American during the 1950s and ’60s when those escaping the Jim Crow south (many from Louisiana and Arkansas) migrated to Seattle for living-wage jobs at Boeing. In terms of nomenclature, the “Central Area” is the neighborhood’s original name and that’s how many Black elders still refer to it; the “Central District” or “C.D.,” as it’s more commonly called now, gained popularity in the late ’80s.

Leaders from most of the neighborhood’s major arts institutions—NAAM, LHPAI, CD Forum, Washington Hall, Coyote Central, Pratt

Kokou Al’nuzan Gbakénou dances a solo called “Aya-Si” (Air-Water) as part of Africa Remix, a showcase of contemporary and traditional African dance produced by Gansango Music & Dance and LANGSTON in September.
Fine Arts Center and others—serve as volunteer advisors for the HCAACD. They’re already meeting with real estate developers near Washington Hall to help drive aesthetic choices for the neighborhood.

“The whole effort around designating the Central Area as an arts and cultural district was not to counter gentrification, but in some ways to create a different view of the community,” Phillips says in between bites at the Ethiopian-owned Wonder Coffee & Sports Bar at 18th and Jackson. “We knew that the train had already left the station. That the neighborhood had accepted a lot of density, and that density was not going to be populated by people who once resided here. But the culture that was so prevalent in this community, it needed a place to come back to and rest in some ways.”

Phillips, who was raised and still lives in the neighborhood, speaks of a time when events like the Mardi Gras Festival parade brought the entire Black community out into the streets every year in the 1960s. Steve Sneed—who works at Seattle Center but ran Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center from 1989–2000 and helped with the formation of HCAACD—talks of a vibrant Black theatre scene in the ’70s and ’80s, when it was common for local residents to spend time on stage at the Paul Robeson Theater or Black Arts/West.

“I’ve always thought that the primary difference between the Capitol Hill Arts District and the Central Area Arts District was human,” Phillips says. “What [Capitol Hill] really focused on was preserving space. What we’re really focused on is preserving people and really preserving this sense of mental wellness among the African American community. It’s like a salve—the wound is there, but at least you have a little something to put onto that wound.”

What arts organizations in the C.D. are trying to do beckons the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa, which translates it is not taboo to go back and fetch what is at risk of being left behind.

* * * *

20th & Yesler–1978
Lawrence Pitre’s “20th & Yesler–1978,” made by incorporating paper and mud and then infused with acrylic paints, was one of 28 works exhibited at the Northwest African-American Museum earlier this fall, all of which focused on the history and cultural diversity of the Central Area.

Wyking Garrett, who runs Africatown, a community-development initiative focused on strengthening Seattle’s Black community in the Central District, isn’t convinced that arts and culture alone will give the African American community enough cache to control its destiny. He sees the four P’s—People, Place, Power and Policy—as the indispensable components to bringing about real change. You’re either seated at the table or you’re on the menu.

Africatown, along with Centerstone and the Black Community Impact Alliance, is working with nonprofit developer Capitol Hill Housing to redevelop the Liberty Bank site at 23rd and East Union. Slated to open in late 2018, that building will have 115 residential units below market rate, with space for retail businesses as well. Garrett sees the building as a place where struggling artists will be able to maintain a roof over their head. He sees HCAACD as a step in a positive direction.

“There’s a young Jimi Hendrix and a young Quincy Jones somewhere in the neighborhood today,” Garrett says during a sit-down at his office. “Are we nurturing them? Are we giving them the opportunity to grow and develop? The historic recognition is positive but making sure [young artists of today] have spaces to perform in the community and have access to resources—that’s the best way for us to honor the music legends of the community.”

Clarence Acox has led the music programs at Garfield High School since being recruited to Seattle from Louisiana in 1971. He’s watched the neighborhood undergo drastic changes, and recalls the signs of gentrification impacting his programs in the early ’80s.

“Garfield music programs changed along the time the neighborhood changed,” Acox says, his subtle Louisiana accent booming through the phone. “It used to bother the hell out of me that I couldn’t get Black kids involved in jazz. The white kids loved it, they can’t get enough of it. But the Black kids, especially when rap became popular, the Black kids weren’t interested in learning instruments anymore.”

Acox’s program is one of the strongest in the country. National standout musicians like trumpeters Owuor Arunga and Carter Yasutake, trombonist Clark Gayton (who tours with Bruce Springsteen), drummer Kassa Overall and a long list of New York-based session players got started in the Garfield Jazz Band. But the school’s prominence with jazz didn’t travel the path Acox originally intended, when Black families left the neighborhood and wealthier, predominantly white families moved in.

“The quality of the jazz band actually went up,” Acox says. “The Caucasian kids get started taking private lessons at a very young age and participating in community groups, which is something a lot of the Black parents simply can’t afford. In the late ’90s and in the 2000s it really took off. We went to New York and won the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz championship four times. No band to this day has done that.”

It’s an accomplishment Acox is incredibly proud of, but it’s also bittersweet. He moved here to teach kids, mostly Black kids, about an indigenous form of music that is undeniably rooted in Black history. Today Acox says the jazz program has roughly 10 percent participation from African American students.

Steve Galatro, executive director of Pratt Fine Arts Center at 20th and Yesler, is likewise focused on the health of the changing neighborhood.

“We’ve definitely experienced rapid growth in all of our programs in the past five years and the increased density has a lot to do with that,” Galatro says.

He’s got the extra complexity of being the white leader of an organization named after the slain Black civil rights leader Edwin T. Pratt, who led Seattle’s Urban League until he was gunned down in 1969 at the age of 38. (His murder remains unsolved.) Galatro, an ardent supporter of the HCAACD, is overseeing Pratt’s development of a 14,000 square-foot mixed-use apartment building that will incorporate arts from the community.

“We’re experiencing many of the same things long-term residents are: We own property in the Central District and property values are soaring. How do we expand but stay in the neighborhood? For us, the increased density is a good thing. But the changing demographics aren’t a good thing.”

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett represents District 2, which includes the Central Area. He isn’t surprised by Pratt’s success as the neighborhood gets whiter. “It’s named after a Black man, but I don’t know any of its programs to ever have a majority of Black participants,” Gossett tells me over the phone.

* * * *

On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in mid-September, Julie Chang Schulman, b/k/a Julie-C, and fellow members of her Artist Coalition for Equitable Development (ACED) are prepping to kick off a pop-up concert and protest outside of Vulcan’s headquarters in the Chinatown-International District. King County Sheriff’s deputies flank the perimeter waiting for trouble, although none occurs. Julie-C and several youth take the stage to announce the launch of their “Degentrify and Inspire” campaign and to read an open letter to Vulcan founder Paul Allen requesting that Vulcan Real Estate develop affordable housing in the Central District. Mayoral candidate Cary Moon is here and offers support for ACED’s platform from the stage.

“As the creatives and cultural producers of this city, it is our role to envision and inspire,” Julie-C says via email a day later. “We are calling [Vulcan] to their potential for transformative innovation.”

As a testament to both Julie-C’s organizing skills and the deep frustrations artists feel with constantly being displaced, ACED is now a decentralized coalition of nearly 70 community members. They’ve garnered support from the Seattle Music Commission and the Office of Arts & Culture; they’re learning to navigate municipal pathways toward using arts as a strategy to resist gentrification.

Other approaches combat the extinction of Black culture by helping to tell the story of the neighborhood’s history. In 2016, a citizens group called RBG The CD began spray-painting sidewalks red, black and green; the colors of the pan-African flag. What started as a guerrilla campaign led by community members quickly gained the attention of the City. Now 14 crosswalks bear the colors. Other efforts, such as the naming of Ernestine Anderson Place, a retirement home on Jackson Street, show new neighbors the significant historical contributions of Black artists to the area.

Filmmaker and radio host Jill Freidberg runs Shelf Life Community Story Project, a program that captures the oral history of everyday residents and hood heroes alike. For the past two years, Freidberg, Inye Wokoma and a cadre of other community journalists have maintained office hours at the Promenade, collecting stories of the neighborhood as it changes. To date, Shelf Life has interviewed 65 community members whose families have lived in the Central Area for more than four generations.

With the Promenade closing, Shelf Life has to move by the end of the year; they plan to become more mobile, setting up shop in several Black churches and launching a podcast. Given that gentrification tells older residents they no longer matter, taking the time to sit with community stalwarts and senior citizens is ultimately a dignity project.

“The more interviews we do, the more stories I hear, the clearer it is to me how important it is that these stories play a role right now in conversations about change,” Freidberg says. “Despite all these ways that the city and the state and the county and the country were trying to make it so people couldn’t thrive in this neighborhood—housing discrimination, racist schools, inadequate infrastructure, police violence—this history of innovation and creativity and community leadership-building made this neighborhood what it is. In this moment when Seattle is heading in a really problematic direction, those stories could inform conversations that could actually influence what this city becomes.”

Over the decades, the Central District birthed many of Seattle’s finest musicians who produced the city’s most beautiful sounds, some iconic internationally, some made just for the neighborhood. Here’s a small sampling of the CD’s ongoing soundtrack. To be continued…