A middle-class migration is changing the face of the still-affordable Central District

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Otha Benton sits in her house on 20th Avenue, this place she’s lived for 48 years, surrounded by memories. The ghosts floating through her beloved Central District neighborhood are as much a part of her now as the clamor of teenage grandchildren trekking in and out her front door.

So many stories here, of her late husband, of neighbors and friends who have long since passed. People ask her how she can live among all these reminders. But if there’s one thing Benton has learned in her 71 years, it’s this: You don’t run. Not when life gets hard. Not when change shakes up your corner of the world.

Change. The word seems to pulse through this neighborhood lately. Back when Benton and her husband, Bert, moved to 20th Avenue and East Union Street in 1960, the Central District was a place for blue collars and the poor, where men worked in shipyards and steel mills, and children were raised not by their parents alone but by everyone on the block.

It was also a place where racial minorities predominated — and that was no accident. Race-restrictive covenants drawn up during the first half of the 20th century relegated much of Seattle’s black, Asian, Latino and sometimes Jewish populations to an L-shaped area that came to be known as the Central District, the CD in everyday shorthand. Areas north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal were off-limits. As money poured into neighborhoods like nearby Capitol Hill, the CD deteriorated in the shadows.

Benton remembers well that people in other parts of the city kept to their own, rarely crossing paths. And while state legislators voided the covenants in 1969, the CD remained largely segregated for years thereafter.

Until now.

Over the past 10 years, the Central District has ridden a wave of transformation thrust into motion by inflated housing costs, escalating gas prices and a generation of twenty- and thirtysomethings rejecting the suburban world they grew up in.

While young, middle-class families once set up stakes in the suburbs to take advantage of cheaper housing and schools they liked more, such families have recently discovered, in the Central District, homes they could still afford and the urban energy they craved. It didn’t hurt that the neighborhood was just blocks from downtown — a short commute to work, restaurants, theaters and all the other amenities of city life.

The census numbers say it all. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of children under age 5 in the neighborhood rose by more than 15 percent — about double the increase citywide. In roughly the same period, the number of all family households in the CD grew by 13.6 percent — more than three times the rate in Seattle at large. Along the way, something else changed significantly. Whites became the largest racial group — more than 40 percent — in a community where blacks had outnumbered them by more than 2-to-1 in 1990.

Faced with rising property taxes based on housing values that were climbing steeply, even in this less affluent neighborhood, many black families were pushed farther out, into the Rainier Avenue corridor and south to outlying towns like Renton and Kent.

With a change so dramatic and swift, “there’s been no time for the community to get a breath or get a hold on what’s happening,” says Tenaya Wright, a biracial single mother who lives in the CD and is president of the Squire Park Community Council. “It was an area for African-American families to thrive. Now the people who made this neighborhood are being forced out.”

From her perch on 20th Avenue, Benton remains philosophical. Many of those who’ve gone were longtime friends whose roots spanned generations. “If a black family moves out now, a white one moves in or some other nationality moves in,” she says.

She pauses, her expression matter-of-fact.

“It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just the way it goes.”

What’s happening in the Central District is actually going on all over the country: more and more middle-class people are moving back into cities.

With gas at a premium and one-car commuters sick of the daily slog, living near work centers is as attractive now as the suburbs were 30 to 40 years ago.

“It’s a return to norm, really,” says John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes mixed-use neighborhoods as an alternative to sprawl. “Throughout human history, the city has tended to be where people wanted to be.”

Retirees and a growing number of childless households are part of this trend. Also driving the shift are young professionals who grew up in suburbia and face a choice as they have families of their own: Raise their children in look-alike housing tracts or go for the urban experience.

In the Central District, evidence of the change is everywhere. You can see it from East Madison Street on the north to Dearborn Street at the neighborhood’s southern edge, from Martin Luther King Jr. Way on the east to 12th Avenue on the west.

Drive along the spine of the neighborhood at 23rd Avenue, and the contrasts spring to life. On one block, modern town houses and a new retail/apartment complex sprout next to century-old homes and African-American churches. On the next block, a woman stands opposite a dilapidated hair salon holding two pit bull puppies for sale.

Farther south you’ll pass Garfield High School, the alma mater of Jimi Hendrix, which reopened in September after a $107 million renovation. Half a mile down, past a park and revamped library, a shopping center on the corner of 23rd Avenue and South Jackson Street hums with activity as a mix of Asians, Latinos, black people and white stand in line at Starbucks and shop at the Walgreens and Red Apple.

Walkability to restaurants, public facilities and jobs: Americans want it now, Norquist says.

But those moving here say there’s something else, something intangible the city offers that a suburb just can’t.

It’s after 7 p.m. on a school night, and Lynda and Jason Hall are trying to corral their kids into the bathtub. Their exuberant chocolate lab-mix, Grover, plants himself in the middle of the action inside their 1912 Craftsman.

The family of four lives on Temple Place, a street of just 10 houses near Martin Luther King Jr. Way about a mile from Otha Benton’s home.

To their left is a smattering of Ethiopian restaurants; at the end of the block is a carwash/auto-repair. A narrow city park serves as a cushion between Temple and the busy arterial of Martin Luther King.

On the Halls’ street, most of the houses are 20th-century Craftsmans with plenty of character. Nearly half the families are white-collar professionals with children who moved here in the past 10 years. The neighbors are a tight-knit bunch who invite each other over for birthday parties, e-mail often and collect the mail when someone goes out of town.

It was the Craftsman that pulled the Halls into the CD seven years ago. Priced out of tonier neighborhoods like Queen Anne and Ballard, they found the “perfect home” here. It was big — a four-bedroom with more than 2,000 square feet — and affordable. And the location proved an easy commute to their jobs — Jason working downtown as a software engineer and Lynda in Tukwila as director of a community-schools nonprofit.

The couple, both 39, admit they knew little about the Central District when they moved in. But soon they became aware of an “enormous amount” of prostitution and drug dealing near Cherry Street and 23rd, just four blocks away. Occasionally, they heard gunfire.

“It was bad,” Jason Hall recalls. “You never knew what was going to happen on any given night.”

Crime has hit home, literally. Their car tires have been slashed and a house window was broken.

In a neighborhood with a historically high concentration of poor people, a high crime rate comes with the territory. A 2007 report from the Seattle Police Department shows that parts of the CD remain well above the city median for violent crimes. Residents on a popular community blog also regularly post warnings about break-ins, and gang-unit officers can be seen almost any night of the week cruising around. Yet major crimes have dropped here nearly 40 percent in the past decade, more than the citywide decline of 33 percent.

The influx of more middle-class families gets a large part of the credit. And locals, such as the Halls, are hopeful that new developments reshaping key intersections will improve the situation even more.

Take, for instance, 17th & Jackson, a $22.9 million housing project scheduled for completion this winter. The site was a lot that sat empty for 30 years.

Welch Plaza at 23rd Avenue and Jackson was finished in 2004, with 162 housing units and 18,000 square feet of commercial space, including a bank.

And developer Jim Mueller is betting on 23rd Avenue and East Union Street — one of the CD’s most notorious corners. This was where 32-year-old Degene Barecha, an Ethiopian immigrant, was gunned down in January at his Philadelphia Cheese Steak restaurant. The sandwich shop, once a neighborhood favorite, sat empty for months, its windows spray-painted with graffiti. Loiterers hang around a gas station across the street for hours on end.

Mueller bought the land kitty-corner from the restaurant and plans to build about 90 apartments above 5,000 square feet of retail starting next summer.

All this activity signals a desire to invest in the community, to see it as the Halls do — a place worth their commitment, despite some challenges and sacrifices.

“We know that living in the city comes with a cost,” Lynda Hall says. But she’s willing to pay it. The family lives within walking distance of four parks, a swimming pool, a new Creole gumbo-and-barbecue takeout and a neighborhood coffee shop.

But schools are an issue. As enrollment continues to decline in Seattle Public Schools while rising in private schools around the city, the Halls have chosen to follow the trend. After getting wait-listed at the public school they wanted for their young son, Oskar, they enrolled him in St. Therese less than a mile from home. Their 4-year-old, Olivia, attends a Montessori preschool.

For both kids, tuition costs more than $11,000 a year. But again, it’s part of the price the Halls and others are willing to pay in order to stay in the city.

Living here also means the Halls are more cautious about what they let their children do. There’s no riding bikes alone in the neighborhood. Or running over to a neighbor’s house without supervision. “It’s true: my kids’ ability to discover stuff on their own is somewhat stifled,” Jason Hall says.

“We don’t let them out in the street alone like we may have in the suburbs. If I go outside and don’t see my kids immediately, I’m concerned.”

It’s a far cry from his days growing up in an Ohio suburb, where he remembers disappearing on his bike for hours, exploring new places with friends and returning just in time for dinner.

And it’s nothing like the cookie-cutter Virginia suburb where Lynda Hall grew up — which is exactly why she’s determined to stay. You can’t manufacture the energy of a city.

“I always, always, always wanted to live in the city,” she says. “I told Jason when we got married, ‘You can never move me to tract housing.’ That was the deal.”

The smells of pork sandwiches, hot dogs and smoke rise from the charcoal grill. Music blares out of a stereo and dogs race in circles around children, who run shrieking around their parents. Otha Benton pulls her sweater tighter around her shoulders as a chill settles over this late August evening.

The 20th Avenue Annual Block Party is in full swing. The street is blocked off from East Union to Marion, and dozens of people have come out to celebrate.

As Benton watches the blur of activity, she thinks about her late husband. How he loved to barbecue. He was one of the main founders of the block party when it started 16 years ago. She remembers those days like yesterday, watching all 6 feet 6 inches of him leaning over the grill at dawn, carefully turning 50 to 60 pounds of ribs.

Her husband would be proud to see the party now, Benton says. All these different races getting together and having a good time. The young people bring a new energy — and hope for this once-forgotten neighborhood.

So much change.

Yet, so much stays the same. She has her daughter and granddaughter living upstairs; her son and his family in the house next door. Her neighbors across the street watch out for her, make sure her porch light goes on and off every night.

She smiles as children run past. Someone offers her more food, and the music gets louder. A Natalie Merchant song filters through the speakers.

Well by the force of will, my lungs are filled and so I breathe.

Lately it seems this big bed is where I never leave.

Benton shivers. Cool weather for this time of year. Soon, she’ll go back to her house and put away the fine yellow dress and gold hoops she’s wearing tonight. The block party will go on long after she leaves.

From her window, she’ll hear the voices and laughter carrying through the night.

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Sonia Krishnan is a Seattle Times staff reporter. She can be reached at skrishnan@seattletimes.com. Tom Reese is a former Seattle Times photographer now working as a freelancer.