On the floor of the Central District’s newest restaurant, Communion, are the words “I Am Home.”
An ode to the famous civil rights movement protest signs reading “I Am A Man,” “I Am Home” is how chef and co-owner Kristi Brown wants Black people and people of color to feel when they walk into the space.
“‘I Am Home’ is … to say that when you walk in here — particularly for Black people and people of color — is that you are in a place that you are recognized as the human that you are,” Brown said. “And that’s really, really important.”
In recent years, it’s not been a given that Black people feel at home in the rapidly gentrifying Central District, but Brown’s space flatly rejects that trend. Anchoring a bottom corner of the nearly 2-year-old affordable housing Liberty Bank Building on 24th and Union, Communion celebrates what Brown calls “Seattle Soul,” or the melding of the many cultures, food and people of Seattle.
Brown said even the reception to the business by some white neighbors illustrates the need to create places where Black people and people of color feel at home.
White people will say, “Welcome to my neighborhood,” Brown said. “It’s just such a profound oxymoron. We’ve been in this neighborhood. You welcome to the neighborhood. How long have you been here?” Brown said it was disheartening to hear of Black people moving into the Liberty Bank Building after years of displacement, only to be greeted by white neighbors questioning their right to be there. It’s like being a “foreigner in your own land,” Brown said.
“Why are you shocked that a Black person would be walking through the neighborhood?” Brown said. “Did you not recognize the Black people lived here before you came?”
Due to redlining and restrictive housing covenants, for decades Seattle’s African American community was concentrated into the Central District. Today, the area is only 15% Black, down from 75% in 1970.
If you think opening a restaurant in the height of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic would be daunting if not terrifying, then you don’t know Kristi Brown. I have known Brown for nearly 20 years, and she is a force of nature. The owner of That Brown Girl Cooks! catering and culinary company, Brown is a veteran of Seattle’s food scene and renowned for her black-eyed pea hummus.
Due to the pandemic, Communion’s opening was delayed several months and the restaurant and bar finally opened to the public Dec. 5. There is no inside dining due to COVID-19 restrictions, but customers can order food to go or sit outside.
Brown and her son, co-owner Damon Bomar, worked to bring Communion to life for four years. Even when the going was tough, Brown said a belief in the “divine order” of things propelled them along. This is not the “divine order” of cute platitudes or Hallmark cards, Brown said, but one that is honest and clarifying. “Every door that had been closed, has been opened,” Brown said.
Brown and Bomar were undeterred, even as in Seattle alone, 624 restaurants and bars shut down since the beginning of the pandemic.
But their higher purpose comes from honoring those that came before and those that will come next. Just a few doors down from where Communion is now was the Central District institution Thompson’s Point of View, and across the street was Ms. Helen’s Soul Food, which was a beloved source of food and community. Brown is very conscious of the struggle of her predecessors and the legacy Communion is carrying on.
“If we don’t see somebody that looks like us,” Brown said, “that does something that we remotely want to do, then we’re just going to have a whole bunch of restless uninspired youth that are going to begin another generation of the same.”
She said she wants little girls to look in the window and say, “’Wow, how did she get in here?’ Me being here in a place like this allows for somebody to say, ‘Oh, you know what? I remember back when she was hustling hummus on the corner. If she can do that, then that means that maybe I can, you know?’”
For the real newcomers to the Central District, Brown advises starting with curiosity. Ask questions, don’t make assumptions, learn the history of the place you are moving into. She says as we have begun to incorporate Native American land acknowledgments more and more into our practices, we should also take that same value into all the communities we become a part of.
In the meantime, Brown’s doors will be open for all — but especially for those who have been displaced or are returning to the Central District.