Dial the clock back a decade and none of the buildings currently standing on the four corners of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street in the Central District would be there.
The same surely goes for many intersections in Seattle after 10 years of explosive growth, but this particular block’s transformation became a microcosm for broader debates in the city about urbanization, gentrification and displacement. In 2017, the Puget Sound Business Journal deemed 23rd and Union “the most controversial block in Seattle.”
This intersection anchors the Central District, a neighborhood that since the 1850s has welcomed successive waves of immigrants and migrants — Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish, Japanese, African American, East African — to what was once upland forest exclusively inhabited by Coast Salish people. The latest population wave is predominantly white people.
Is 23rd and Union still the most controversial block in Seattle? On a walk around the block, Africatown Community Land Trust president and CEO K. Wyking Garrett hedged.
“As Nipsey Hussle said, ‘It’s a marathon.’ So the struggle continues,” Garrett said. For someone who likes to stress that “equity” has a financial meaning as much as a social justice one, Garrett is certain of one fact: “Who owns determines what really happens.”
In the early 2010s, real estate developers began drawing plans to transform low-slung strip malls and parking lots in the area into taller, denser properties with apartments up top and shops at street level, while brash pot king Ian Eisenberg opened one of the state’s most profitable cannabis dispensaries to a crush of controversy, criticism and even protests, some accusing him of further displacing Black Americans by selling weed, a business that has led to disproportionate arrests of African Americans across the U.S. Although in line with city plans for an intersection of two arterial streets, the transformation sparked a decade of rancorous community meetings and contentious in-the-streets activism over a perceived loss of historical neighborhood culture, especially as the Central District’s Black population dwindled. But controversy also gave way to compromise: complex land deals to secure real estate for current and former Black residents, as well as an ambitious, Afrocentric design process to imbue the new developments with a sense of Black identity.
Flash forward to 2022: concrete poured, windows installed, artwork painted, signage affixed. Almost every parcel contemplated for redevelopment 10 years ago has been built — and the coming years will see affordable housing complex Africatown Plaza, the fruit of those community organizing efforts working both inside and outside the system that creates our ever-changing cityscape.
Now Communion, an acclaimed Black-owned restaurant, sits down the block from a PCC. Beloved Black barbershop Earl’s has a new home in a building dedicated to the first Black-owned bank in Washington, and there’s a new post office for ZIP code 98122. Meanwhile, hundreds of people of varying incomes and backgrounds live in the apartments above, establishing this decade’s rhythm of daily neighborhood life, still punctuated by annual heritage parades down 23rd Avenue for Juneteenth and Umoja Fest.
Garrett recognizes that strides have been made but this block is a work in progress.
“[Twenty-third] and Union will continue to be a significant epicenter of the struggle to ensure that our community can continue to grow and thrive in place,” Garrett said. “We have found some models that if iterated upon, improved upon, and taken to scale, can help Seattle move toward becoming a world-class city, inclusive of the communities of the world that have helped make the city, and not the current trajectory, which is to be a more exclusive, one-class city.”
What can we learn from This City Block?
“The lesson of 23rd and Union is that there’s a way,” Garrett said.