Editor's note: This story is excerpted from a multimedia project exploring the changes in Seattle, focusing on the Central Area. "There goes the neighborhood, again" is being produced...
I walked by Grandpa’s old house in the Central Area the other day and my, how the neighborhood has changed. White people everywhere.
Reminded me of our visits many years ago to see Grandpa and Grandma, Russian immigrants who lived in a big duplex that he had built in 1924 down the street from Garfield High. I loved those trips. We were going to The Central Area.
It was a place where white and black people lived next to each other, block after block. There was nothing like it in our world, and it made a big impression on a little white kid from nearby Capitol Hill.
Today, you might describe a scene like that as something out of a Martin Luther King dream.
What I didn’t realize was that things were changing dramatically and that I was catching it at just the right time. Because all of a sudden it was gone. And we were, too, not long after my grandparents died.
It was the time of white flight and the Central Area was becoming the black area, mainly because it was difficult for black people to buy or rent most anywhere else. Open-housing laws eventually fixed that and African Americans in the Central Area started moving out, too.
But many remained and as I wandered its streets recently, I ran into Greg Buford, 57, an old family friend who has lived there most of his life. Greg and I shared the same sense of amazement at the massive new six-story apartment/supermarket complex looming over East Madison Street, between 22nd and 23rd avenues. “Summit at Madison Park” offers apartments that rent from about $900 to $1,800 a month. This was considered a pretty rough part of the Central Area and seemed resistant to change. The building rises like a mirage to Buford.
“Look at that. Look at that,” he said while standing across the street and watching all the white shoppers enter the store. “Right here in the CD! You gotta be kidding, man.”
What began as a trickle has turned into a torrent of gentrification in the Central Area, and many African Americans worry that their old community is being washed away.
“I’ve walked these streets all my life, and sometimes I feel like a foreigner here,” said Roy Ayers, 51, an actor and mail carrier, adding that white newcomers sometimes eye him with suspicion.
Gentrification is hitting inner cities from here to Harlem. And all neighborhoods change. But few have the rich multiracial history of Seattle’s Central Area (also known as the Central District, or CD), and the pace of change is breathtaking. New homes, buildings and businesses are popping up everywhere. A rib joint closes, a cupcake/espresso shop opens.
The racial changes are similar to what occurred a half-century ago, with the roles reversed. Signs of that shift are still evident at synagogues that have been converted into black churches or community centers, the signature Star of David permanently carved into a door or building.
And despite the fact that people now are pretty much free to live wherever they’d like, there is still a sense of one group going, while another group forces its way in.
“We are being pushed and prodded and poked out,” said the Rev. LaVerne Hall, of Renton. Hall wanted to move back to the Central Area. That’s where her church is, but the prices were too high.
“I can’t even afford to look,” she said.
Feelings about the changes in the Central Area run the gamut. Some are mad, some are glad, but most agree that something special is slipping into history.
Yes, there were some bad times. But the neighborhood, longtime residents said, got an unfairly bad rap in the media. And when times were good, they were very good.
“Everyone gelled together,” George Griffin Jr., an African American, said about going to Garfield High in the 1950s. “The Jewish people, the Swedes, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Italians. Man, we were close. There was something about that area that was magic.”
Griffin, a musician who lives in Long Beach, Calif., said recently that he was shocked by what he saw when he visited the Central Area after being away for years.
“I asked somebody, ‘Where are the black folks?’ They said, ‘Well, they sold their property and moved out to Kent or somewhere, Renton.’ And it was really sad because it was a super area.”
Two talk about Central’s changes
— Courtesy of Bill Kossen
Roosevelt Hubbard began selling real estate in Seattle’s Central Area in 1969, at a time when African-American real-estate agents were pretty much confined to working only that neighborhood.
“When I was a kid and I was growing up in this area, it was 90 to 95 percent African American,” he said. ” … I’d say probably 90 to 95 percent moving in are white.”
Hubbard, 60, has mixed emotions about the changes, calling them “bittersweet.”
“I grew up in this area. It’s nice seeing the area coming back to what it was when we first moved in. But it’s kind of sad not having some of the same people in the neighborhood. And a lot of the people are kind of being forced out because the taxes have gone up so much. Prices have gone up, taxes have gone up.”
The Rev. Samuel McKinney, pastor emeritus of Mount Zion Baptist Church, is one of Seattle’s most revered clergymen and a longtime civil-rights leader. He was a college classmate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and when King made his only visit to Seattle, in 1961, one of his few stops was at Mount Zion.
McKinney spoke bitterly about gentrification and the lack of respect that some white newcomers have toward the old black neighborhood, mocking one failed effort to rename part of the Central Area “South Capitol Hill.”
But McKinney also has played a role in gentrification himself and without prompting spoke candidly about it.
“I did preach from the pulpit — and folks wash my face with it periodically — ‘Don’t sell your property in the Central Area. Don’t run. Don’t let people force you out.’ Well, on Valentine’s Day, 2001, we moved to Lakeridge [an upscale suburb south of Seattle].
“I maintain a post-office box at 23rd and Union and at least once a week when I am there, somebody confronts me with the words, ‘You told us not to sell, why did you?’ Well in the words of ‘The Godfather’ — I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
The spirit of the old Central Area, however, still lives on for people like Reggie Williams, 24, who recently moved back after living in Des Moines. Williams and his wife were raised in the Central Area and they missed its convenience and neighborhood feel. He hopes other black people will move back, or stay put. The changes don’t bother Williams, who lives in an apartment one block from Grandpa’s house.
“It’s good,” Williams said. “It’s integrated.”
Bill Kossen is a staff editor at The
Seattle Times; email@example.com