Randy Cross can move. The tan-suited 73-year-old has spent much of the night carving up the Royal Esquire Club’s shoulder-to-shoulder dance floor, gracefully twirling his partner into the slimmest of openings in the crowd while Jill Scott’s neo-soul jam “Golden” joyously thumps.
It’s a dance floor the fleet-footed retiree knows well, having frequented the historic black men’s social club — which is open to all races and functions largely as a nightclub and community events space — for decades.
Tonight’s First Friday Networking Social is in typical full swing, a dressed-to-impress crowd filling the Columbia City hall for what’s been its busiest monthly event for a generation.
“I find this place is my fountain of youth,” Cross, a Royal Esquire Club member for nearly 15 years, said a few weeks earlier.
Yvette Dinish Kenney glides through the crowd that is (generationally) more Marvin Gaye than Ella Mai, though the new-school R&B star’s “Boo’d Up” promptly brings a group of women in their 30s or 40s to their feet.
Like Cross, who’s been attending even before he became a member, the 70-year-old Dinish has been a First Friday regular for decades. Back in her single days, it was a safe place to come dance, the club’s members intervening if anyone behaved poorly and escorting women to their cars at the end of the night, she says. The vibe is comfortable, classic and, for Dinish, almost familial. The Rainier Beach resident can’t visit the Esquire without seeing familiar faces from growing up in the Central District.
“There were a bunch of black clubs in the ’70s and then they kind of died off,” she said, taking a dance-floor breather in the Esquire’s sports-bar-meets-clubhouse room. “This is the one remaining, and that says something.”
Members and regulars tout the Royal Esquire Club as the longest running black-owned club in the state, though Tacoma’s Cabelleros Club isn’t far behind. Last year the Esquire celebrated its 70th anniversary, but maintaining that longevity hasn’t always been easy.
While the masses turn out for First Fridays, which like most events are open to nonmembers as guests, the Rainier Avenue haunt is often quiet when there isn’t a special event. In recent years the storied club — founded during segregation and once subjected to police raids — has faced another set of challenges, among them gentrification and an aging membership. But a motivated and growing cadre of members is committed to a revitalization effort, several years in the making, aimed at preserving the longtime hub for the city’s African American community and as a living piece of Seattle history for years to come.
“It’s a black institution,” said Clyde Merriwether, the club’s executive secretary and a retired architect. “It’s holding its own in an environment that’s not very kind to black institutions, period.”
“Rite of passage”
The Royal Esquire Club was officially minted in 1948, more than 15 years before the Civil Rights Act. Despite numerous attempts, the club was denied a liquor license and targeted by police until members rallied in Olympia in the early ’60s, demanding a meeting with the governor. By the time they returned to the club — then in a converted Central District house — a notice was posted on the door stating that the Liquor Control Board was considering their application.
In 1985, the club relocated to an old Columbia City pool and bingo hall where Ed Hill, a longtime neighborhood resident, recalls lines outside three nights a week in the early years. The Esquire once enjoyed an intergenerational pull, with a separate room (now leased to the Royal Room jazz club) geared toward a younger crowd while their parents, aunts and uncles danced in the main room.
“It was almost like a rite of passage when you were younger to be able to get into the Esquire, because it was one of the only places in the city where you had to actually dress up,” said Marlon Turner, 42, recalling the strict dress code when he had his 21st birthday party there.
But members say the crowds thinned during the 2000s. New venues with more modern amenities created increased competition and the Esquire lost its cachet with the younger generation that nicknamed it “the old folks home.” Meanwhile, an aging membership struggled to grow its dues-paying base. Hill says the club was in “survival mode for a long time,” closing on certain nights to reduce overhead and passing the proverbial collection plate when the light bill was due. Whatever money they could muster was poured back into the club and its community work, including annual college scholarships.
“There were dedicated members — I mean very dedicated members,” said Hill, who joined in 2007. “Whatever it took to keep the club open, that’s what we did.”
By the time Merriwether joined in 2015, the Esquire was “on the rope-a-dope,” he said. As core members grew older, fewer people were handling the club’s operations and the books slipped. At one point, the club owed more than $100,000 in back taxes.
“A lot of contractors and developers [were] just salivating over taking over the building,” said Merriwether, a former Kenmore planning commissioner. “That’s the area to build now.”
But that wasn’t always the case.
Change brings mixed emotions
Much has changed in Columbia City since the Royal Esquire Club arrived. In 1998, the Esquire’s property was appraised at nearly $337,000, according to the King County Department of Assessments. Last year it was up to $2.4 million.
Turner, a tech worker living in the Renton-Skyway area, grew up six blocks from the club and has seen the changes firsthand. “Everything about that area from Orcas Street to Genesee has changed,” he said. “I walk through Columbia City now and I rarely see anybody that looks like me.”
Former real-estate broker Darryl Smith moved to Columbia City in 1994 for its diversity. There were beloved small businesses, but Smith recalls multiple boarded-up storefronts and limited activity along Rainier Avenue. “For years, I stood in the parking lot where PCC is and developer after developer said ‘I’ll never come to the South End. There’s no market here,’ ” said Smith, who later served as Mike McGinn’s deputy mayor.
Trying to bring more energy to Columbia City’s main drag, Smith and a small group of residents, frustrated by local media’s emphasis on crime in the Rainier Valley, rather than its vibrancy, began meeting in the basement of the Columbia Branch library. These brainstorming sessions and town halls helped spark the long-running music crawl Columbia City Beatwalk, the farmers market and the Columbia City Gallery, among other community-oriented projects. “All of that grassroots regeneration is really the foundation of what you see here today,” Smith says.
Eventually the developers changed their tune. In 2013, construction began on the 193-unit Angeline Apartments complex in the lot — previously home to a strip of multicultural businesses — where developers once refuted Smith. Units there rent for $1,940 to $3,100 a month, according to its website.
For Smith, who still lives in Columbia City, the neighborhood’s changes carry mixed emotions. While it’s gratifying to see others who, like him, were drawn to its remaining diversity, there’s sadness in watching longtime residents being pushed out.
The Royal Esquire Club, which has long drawn patrons from the South End and the historically black Central District, has felt the impact of gentrification in those areas. Black residents now comprise less than one-fifth of the Central District’s population, down from more than 70 percent in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Esquire’s executive committee, and other club leaders say attendance has dipped as members of Seattle’s African American community have moved to cities like Renton, Kent or Federal Way.
A rejuvenated push
Earlier this spring, roughly two dozen Esquire members — doctors, carpenters, government employees — were packed in to the side of the stage for its weekly meeting. Between approving use of the club for a memorial service and grilling two prospects, one member took to the floor to implore everyone to distribute fliers for upcoming events, stressing the need to make the Esquire “the place to be” again.
“We’re crawling our way out of a hole,” Hill said later. “We’re not all the way out, but we’re crawling our way out.”
Hill, 59, and other members credit Harrell with providing a spark when he joined three years ago, bringing new ideas and a fresh recruiting push, swelling the ranks back up to more than 100. The new recruits include younger guys like Turner, who estimates he’s one of 10 members under 50, all recent additions.
“Bruce is pretty demanding,” said member Butch Williams. “It’s not where you’re going to come to the meeting and make a suggestion and think that Bruce is going to take care of it. You make the suggestion, it’s yours. It makes everybody step up.”
Despite the wave of new recruits, full membership is not open to women, though women’s auxiliary charter the Royal Rose Club holds fundraisers and works in conjunction with the Esquire. Member Carl Copeland chalked that up to the Esquire’s original bylaws, used to form the 501(c)(7) with the IRS, that specify the Esquire as a men’s club.
There’s been a renewed focus on holding community functions — such as those feting local coaches, women in the community and other black leaders — to “establish relevance in the African American community” and distinguish themselves from other venues, Harrell said. Among the Esquire’s annual signatures are the tuxedo-clad Black and White Ball, Icons Night and the upcoming Soul Food Soul Night — a July 20 soul food blowout ($25) featuring eight local restaurants and members’ home-cooked favorites, plus live music inside and out.
The club has bolstered its calendar with blues, jazz and gospel concerts and comedy in addition to Tuesday’s open mic night, reinvesting the earnings into the club. The Esquire’s college scholarships — a source of pride reduced to a single $500 recipient during those belt-tightening years — are up to three $2,500 awards. In a few months, they should be caught up on those back taxes, Merriwether said. Windows have been added and a new air conditioning system is being installed just in time for summer. The separately owned Comfort Zone restaurant, which operates out of the Esquire’s kitchen, has also earned fanfare slinging soul-food staples.
Even those pillar First Fridays have seen some of their largest crowds in a while. “People know we’re back,” Hill said.
While the club is still wooing back a younger clientele and patrons who now live farther away, there’s also been a gradual shift to embrace a wider demographic of guests. Turner posits that most Columbia City newcomers know little about the Esquire, a “disconnect” he’s hoping to bridge through new marketing strategies. But the experienced promoter says it’s also incumbent upon recent arrivals to get to know their new neighbors.
“In order for the Esquire to maintain some longevity and to be around for years to come, there’s going to have to be that cross-section of community — the African American community and the new gentrified Columbia City,” he says.
Tech-boomed Seattle is a much different city from when the Esquire opened after World War II. But the club’s core mission hasn’t changed. Its members recently revisited the original 1948 bylaws, concluding that those founding principles — being civically involved and socially and politically relevant in the community, among others — should still guide them.
“The one area we did emphasize was, as the city becomes less affordable and people move out, we talked about preserving as much of our cultural personality as possible in the city,” Harrell says.
“You’re with your people,” Dinish says of the Esquire’s significance. “Every culture has their own way of gathering and having fun, and it’s important. … It’s a good, comfortable place to be with people who get you.”
For Turner, one of the club’s youngest members, preserving the Esquire’s legacy is personal. Part of his motivation for joining was to help ensure that the club will be around when his sons turn 21, so they too can celebrate at the Seattle institution.
“I want my sons to be able to see that I was a part of that revitalization effort and continuing the history to create more history,” Turner says. “Hopefully they’ll grab the torch and realize how important it is for us to maintain a space that we feel at home at in Seattle — not just Columbia City, but Seattle as a whole.”