How Seattle’s Central Neighborhood is Reclaiming Its Black Heritage

The central district of the city is experiencing a cultural revival with a selection of new restaurants, public spaces and artistic initiatives.

Seattle is famous for its distinct neighborhoods. There’s quirky Fremont, rebellious Capitol Hill and historic Pioneer Square, not to mention the iconic Space Needle and the ever-popular Pike Place Market. Yet arguably one of the most intriguing places to visit in the city in recent times is the recently reinvigorated Central District (CD), a diverse residential area wedged between downtown and Lake Washington that nurtures a rich heritage. Afro-American.

Long ignored by Space Needle enthusiasts and Starbucks addicts, the CD’s light sprinkling of curiosities, led by the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) has recently been increased. There’s a poignant park dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, the new Langston Arts Organization aimed at “cultivating black excellence,” and enough public murals and sculptures to fill a veritable neighborhood with art. Likewise, a handful of new black-run cafes and restaurants have joined several longtime soul food stalwarts in adding an aura of culinary panache.

Brendan Sainsbury

The musical roots of a neighborhood

The CD has a long history of diversity. African Americans began arriving in the area in large numbers in the 1940s, replacing earlier waves of pioneering Jewish and Japanese immigrants. Within a few years, a swing jazz scene had ignited along South Jackson Street on the CD’s southern border, with more than 30 clubs hosting an ever-growing list of local talent. Future international stars Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson all earned their share of jazz on and around South Jackson, sometimes playing on the same bill. It was more than exciting.

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Throughout the 1950s, the neighborhood’s African American population continued to grow, peaking in the 1960s when approximately 90% of residents claimed black heritage. Among them was James “Butch” Hendrix, who grew up so poor he had to learn to play guitar on a single-string ukulele salvaged from his neighbor’s trash. In 1959, Hendrix played his first gig in the basement of CD Hirsch’s Temple Synagogue only to be fired by his band halfway through the set for his over-the-top showmanship. “Butch” then changed his name to “Jimi”, took his stage show to blazing new heights and became the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitarist of all time.

Demographic changes in the Central District

In the years following Hendrix’s death in 1970, suburbanization and gentrification led to a shift in CD’s demographics as its African American population went into a long, slow decline. By the start of the 21st century, Seattle had transformed into a buzzing technology hub fueled by an abundance of affluent dot-com companies. As house prices inevitably rose and hillside homes in the CD became sought after real estate, the long-established black population was pushed out to cheaper outlying southern neighborhoods as young, mobile, ascending whites moved into the area’s heritage homes and expensive new condos. .

By the late 2010s, the CD’s black population had fallen below 10%, and the historic character of the neighborhood was in danger of being irrevocably lost.

It was in the midst of this abrupt demographic change and the fiery gentrification debate that accompanied it that a core group of local community activists, artists and businessmen began to organize.

Brendan Sainsbury

Initiate a cultural renewal

The first signs of a cultural revival began to surface a few years ago and quickly snowballed. Black-owned businesses moved into retail space in new affordable apartment complexes such as Midtown Square, a short section of South Jackson Street was renamed in honor of Ernestine Anderson (who died in 2016 ) and the entire area was illuminated by a true outdoor gallery of bright and creative public art celebrating the region’s former African-American personalities.

“After nearly two decades of decline, the Central District is rapidly renewing itself as a beacon of black culture, commerce and social life in Seattle,” says Inye Wokoma, co-founder of the black-centric arts organization, Wa Na Wari.

“I would say a lot of [the revival] is a natural expression of the tradition of organizing, resistance and community building that is part of black life in America,” adds Wokoma. “After the initial shock of gentrification and mass and rapid displacement, there has been a collective return to these core values ​​in the black community as we rebuild for the future.”

Wa Na Wari was founded in 2019 in response to gentrification and other divisive forces that had eroded CD’s once tight-knit black community. Set on a leafy residential street in Wokoma’s old grandmother’s house, it acts as a tempting lure for visitors eager to see exhibiting artists, see live concerts in the courtyard and perhaps even taste to a free meal prepared by one of the many recurring guest chefs.

New affordable apartments

Nearby, more art, food, and culture can be absorbed into Town center square, a seven-story mixed-use apartment complex with 426 affordable condo units and a plaza adorned with brightly colored murals and panels designed by eight African-American artists with strong CD ties. Commercial space on the ground floor has been occupied by various black-owned businesses. Black Art opened as a gallery and retail store dedicated to showcasing black art and culture in September 2022. Next door, Mrs. Helen’s Soul Bistroa much-loved restaurant destroyed by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, is slated to reopen in early 2023. The resort also pays homage to Seattle-based pioneer painter James Washington, Jr. (1908-2000) with a life-size bronze statue designed by Barry Johnson.

Several blocks south on Jackson and 23rd, the recently completed Jackson Apartments are built on a similar theme, incorporating out-of-place food joints such as simply drunk (proud purveyors of catfish, grits and okra), and an engaging art walk centered around a haunting metal sculpture titled “Winds of Change: We Are Still Here” by artists Marita Dingus and Preston Hampton.

“The piece was inspired by our love of African history, myths and legends,” says Dingus, whose other work is available at Seattle’s Traverse Gallery. “We have chosen Oya, the Yoruba Orisha, as an artistic representation of the socio-economic impacts resulting from the problems associated with the implementation of the housing density policy and the large-scale development and gentrification of the central area.”

While gentrification remains an issue, the tide may soon turn. Another mixed housing project called Africatown came into being in 2022. Designed by the Africatown Community Land Trustan organization with a stated mission to “acquire, develop, and manage land in Greater Seattle to empower and preserve the black diaspora community,” this development and others seek to encourage more African Americans to return to live and work in CD, reversing decades of decline.

Brendan Sainsbury

Plan a visit to the central district

“Visitors excited to see what is possible when community members help each other to rebuild something beautiful should visit Central District,” Wokoma says.

Besides public art, any neighborhood tour should include visits to Wa Na Wari, NAMM (which is set to reopen after a hiatus this fall), and the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Institute, whose headquarters is enclosed in a synagogue-style byzantine built in 1915. E Cherry Street is another community link, known for its Ethiopian restaurants, traditional eateries like Fat’s Chicken and Waffles, and creative newcomers, including the diminutive Central cafe and juice bar and Job craft brewery.

And, let’s not forget, on the corner of E Cherry and 23rd is the sprawling grounds of Garfield High School, a renowned educational institution whose famous alumni include Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix.

If the current artistic revival continues, they might not be the last big names to emerge from what is quickly becoming one of Seattle’s most vibrant and forward-thinking neighborhoods.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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