Property-owning Frank family thrives with changes in Central District demographics, writes Jerry Large.
Change in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood has meant dislocation for thousands of black folk, but it’s actually been good for a few who stayed put and prospered as housing grew more expensive.
Owning rental property has been the key for the family of Gerald Frank, who started buying properties in the Central District in the 1950s when it was especially hard for a black man to get a bank loan. Frank died in 1996, but his ex-wife and one of their daughters continue to own and manage properties in the CD.
Daughter Dana Frank says a lot has changed since he sold her mother’s Cadillac so that he could buy a house on Lane Street.
“As I reflect on the changes that have taken place in the Central District, and the disgruntled residents complaining about Uncle Ike’s [marijuana shop] on 23rd and Union and Vulcan buying 23rd and Jackson and displacement of black people and gentrification,” she wrote me in an email, “I am still keeping on. My mother, Theresa Frank, and I have not only maintained our central properties, we have continued to expand.”
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She told me that she and her mother have been business partners since her parents divorced in 1989. The two women live together in a house that is walking distance from property Vulcan Real Estate bought that brackets South Jackson Street on the east side of 23rd Avenue South. The CD has been changing for decades, but the entrance of a giant like Vulcan puts an emphatic period at the end of the sentence. This is not her daddy’s CD, but it is what he hoped for economically, whether or not he imagined the demographic aspect of the transformation.
The Franks talked about redlining, the practice of banks not lending in certain areas where black people or other minorities lived. Dana Frank said sometimes she and her sisters picketed banks as part of their father’s strategy. They don’t have to do that now.
She says their tenants were once 100 percent minority, but now the people asking them about homes or apartments for rent are mostly white professionals, and there are a lot more Hispanics, too.
Many Seattle neighborhoods have gentrified in recent decades, but the change has a dramatic racial component in the CD. In 1970, the CD was 73 percent black, but today they are less than 20 percent of the population, with the population of whites, Asians and Hispanics growing.
Last August, a black family that had rented a three-bedroom property from them for 50 years left, and the Franks made the new rent three times what the family had been paying, but they said it’s not all profit. Code requirements change and taxes keep climbing. And before they can charge market-rate rent, properties have to be upgraded to meet the expectations of newer renters, for granite counters, hardwood floors and more.
They’re doing a major renovation of a 20-unit building on the corner of Yesler Way and 22nd Avenue that they will call Gerald Frank House.
He was a colorful character, a musician and owner of the nightclub the Pink Pussycat who followed his own rule book for success.
“Gerald had no fear,” Theresa Frank said. “He would attack everything head on.” Sometimes she was exasperated with him for doing things that got him in trouble with the law, but now she appreciates his drive and ability to get things done, despite racial or other barriers. They see his work and theirs as a model for other people. Work hard, find a way around obstacles and be persistent.
“I saw how hard Mom and Daddy had to work to make this happen,” Dana Frank said. “He would take a single-family house, and to make the mortgage, he would make it into three apartments. Then the city would come down on him for violating zoning laws.”
They said Frank believed land in the CD would eventually increase in value because the neighborhood is close to downtown and offers easy access to the Eastside. Now, what he imagined is happening.
“I feel from a business perspective, it [gentrification] has definitely helped,” Dana Frank said, “but it saddens me to see some of the longtime businesses like the hair salon that was on 23rd is now pushed down to Rainier …” She mentions restaurants that have closed and East Africans who fear for their small businesses. Those things are unfortunate, she said, but Seattle has never had many black people.
That’s true, and it’s also true that black people clustered in the CD because they weren’t allowed to live elsewhere. Having that small hub mattered because of the small numbers and the desire to have a place to feel at home in, when rejection was out there a few blocks away.
People in dozens of Seattle neighborhoods can identify with the sense of loss that swift, dramatic change brings. The sense of unfairness is deeper in the CD. The Franks acknowledge that and move on.
“When people knock what is happening,” Dana Frank said, “I say don’t knock it, be a part of it.” That attitude runs through both sides of her family. Her maternal uncles include Quincy Jones and U.S. District Judge Richard Jones.
She is involved with a long list of charitable causes, and said she especially likes mentoring young people and showing them that with work and persistence, they can achieve what they put their minds to. (She and one of her sisters write an upbeat blog full of advice for women, menopausebarbees.com.)
Whatever’s ahead for the neighborhood, the Franks intend to be part of it.