Seattle musician Benjamin Hunter co-founded the Black and Tan Hall in 2016, dreaming with his partners of a community-owned hub where artists, entertainers and educators could thrive amid a changing South End neighborhood.
Hunter and his two co-founders, Tarik Abdullah and Rodney Herold, used their collective experience in community organizing, education, food and entertainment to envision a “for-profit business that places people over profit,” Hunter said.
They craved a home for residents to find good food, paid fellowships, rental space for workshops and lectures, and performances by national and local acts. They found that home in a vacant historic theater sandwiched between a vintage furniture shop and a tattoo parlor at 5608 Rainier Avenue South. The surrounding neighborhood of Hillman City, south of Columbia City in the Rainier Valley, abounds with small businesses including Ethiopian and Eritrean eateries and the upscale Filipino American restaurant Archipelago.
After three years of negotiations with the city and the building owner, their dream came to fruition when they bought the building last week for $1.05 million. Black and Tan Hall is set to open its doors to the public in late 2021.
The venue was named after a club that operated in the Chinatown International District for nearly five decades until the 1960s. Performers such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin would play for a diverse audience at the original Black and Tan Club on 12th and Jackson Street. Around the nation, “Black and Tan” was a colloquialism used for integrated nightclubs that operated during racial segregation.
“It was a representation of challenging unjust, discriminatory systems that prevented people from experiencing the humanity of each other,” Hunter said. A violinist since his childhood, Hunter performed at venues around the world that helped shape his vision for a new cultural hub.
The purchase was made possible through $1.2 million in funding from the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) earlier this month. In 2020, the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development, which coordinates the program, granted $11.1 million in funding toward projects spearheaded by community groups that would help preserve diversity amid escalating rent and housing prices.
The Black and Tan Hall project is unique among the organizations that received grants because it involves a consortium of 33 partners representing for-profit and nonprofit organizations located within a mile of the venue, said Sam Assefa, director of the city’s planning and community development office. He said the project could serve as a model to counteract displacement of marginalized communities throughout the city.
The venue meets the core objective of the equity initiative, “which is to empower and create wealth for community organizations that are at risk of displacement in Rainier Valley and Central District so that they can stay in their neighborhood,” Assefa said.
Established in 2016, the initiative provides funding to organizations in historically marginalized neighborhoods to reduce economic and health disparities. Grant recipients submit proposals that are reviewed by an external advisory board consisting of community members who have been affected by such disparities. The program is administered by six city departments, including the planning and community development office and the Office of Housing.
“When community members advocated for the creation of EDI, it was with the intention of creating collaboration between community-initiated projects and the City to respond to historical injustices and increase community-ownership,” EDI Division Manager Ubax Gardheere said in a statement.
In 2020, funding reached the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, which was awarded $2.1 million for its Food Innovation Center in Rainier Beach, while seven organizations — including the Wing Luke Museum, Rainier Valley Midwives, Multicultural Community Coalition, Ethiopian Community in Seattle, Chief Seattle Club, Byrd Barr Place, and Africatown Midtown Plaza — shared $4.4 million for site purchases, building expansion or repairs.
In November, 36 organizations that support small businesses and communities of color during the pandemic were awarded a total of $1.8 million. An additional $1.25 million went to existing recipients to expand their services during the pandemic. The program also contributed $475,000 to fund COVID-19 relief.
While Hunter and his partners own the Black and Tan Hall, the financial arrangements require them to benefit the public and create opportunities in the area, such as a job training and mentorship programs and a space for arts and culture programming. Money for the building purchase originated from the sale of two city properties at Civic Square and Mercer Street.
Initial funding for the EDI program came from the $6.5 million sale of a vacant property across from Seattle City Hall. In 2018, the City Council created a permanent funding source for the initiative by earmarking $5 million a year from the short-term rentals tax. Due to a decrease in travelers this year, the City Council drew supplemental money from the general fund.
A new system
The new Black and Tan Hall strives to create “a new system that challenges us to do better and be better,” Hunter said.
He has seen a lot of displacement of historical businesses in South Seattle as a resident for over a decade. His first job in the city, he said, was at the nonprofit Arts in Motion that was housed in a Zion preparatory school that was torn down to build condominiums.
An important question, he said, is “How do we intentionally grow so that we don’t leave people behind and so that we don’t forget the history and legacy of the people who exist in the neighborhood?”
His ponderings motivated him to cofound the coworking space Hillman City Collaboratory in 2011 to serve as an incubator for social change. He noticed the vacant theater across the street and decided to spearhead another project based on similar people-over-profit principles.
When the co-founders signed a lease for the Black and Tan Hall building in April 2016, they faced cost-prohibitive repairs needed to meet city building codes. They applied first for the EDI grant to upgrade the building. In 2018, the organization received $300,000 to install the water line and pay the lease, and the city soon became involved in negotiating the purchase with the landlord.
While Black and Tan Hall has yet to officially open its doors, the organization has co-organized events over the past few years with the Museum of History & Industry, Northwest African American Museum, and the Seattle Art Museum. Their Good Jobs Fellowship started last year to train young people in skills such as cooking, making art and facilitating community development. In 2020, three fellows focused on the organization’s communications plan by revamping the website and creating blog posts on topics including nutrition and food justice.
On Dec. 5, the venue streamed its fourth annual Hall-i-Day party on Facebook Live, YouTube and their website, which featured music and interviews with local vendors. In a recorded interview with Hunter, local artist and jewelry designer Eve Sanford, of accessory brand Evolve Revolve Repeat, spoke about the philosophy behind her company: “Learn something, but also don’t be afraid to revolt against that thing that you learned and thought was sacred. Don’t be afraid to step out of that box and learn something new.”
In 2021, the Black and Tan Hall intends to expand its digital presence with an app and a merchandise store.
The business will be based on the tenets of modern art, Hunter said: “listening, adaptation, improvisation, having an open ear and open mind to what comes your way.”