A demonstration broke out in Seattle’s changing Central Area during an eviction on a block being targeted for redevelopment.

Share story

Tensions over the future of a block in the heart of Seattle’s historically black Central Area boiled over Wednesday as sheriff’s deputies carried out an eviction of a house occupied by the Umoja PEACE Center.

More than two dozen center supporters chanted to protest the eviction as workers for the property’s owners carried belongings out of the house, King County sheriff’s deputies sought to secure the property and Seattle police officers tried to control the crowd.

There were confrontations involving demonstrators, officers and workers.

The eviction of the arts and education center and center organizer Omari Tahir-Garrett is one of several story lines drawing attention from community members and activists as the owners of the property seek to sell the property for redevelopment.

“He has done nothing wrong,” said Cliff Cawthon, an organizer with the group Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction. “The only thing he’s done is be a black elder in a rapidly gentrifying, developing city.”

City Councilmember Kshama Sawant weighed in against the eviction.

The block includes a corner of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, one of Seattle’s best-recognized intersections. Known previously for its popular soul-food restaurants with live music and as a hub for civil-rights and community activism but also for drug dealing and deadly violence, the area has become ground zero for concerns about changing neighborhood demographics and gentrification.

The Midtown Center strip mall faces the intersection, while the house evicted Wednesday is near 24th Avenue and East Spring Street.

Tahir-Garrett, a longtime community advocate whose occupation with others of the former Colman School in the 1980s is part of the history leading up to the creation of the Northwest African American Museum and who served prison time after attacking then-Mayor Paul Schell at a Central Area festival in 2001, had been fighting the eviction in court for months.

Meanwhile, a separate eviction battle has begun in the Midtown Center building, as the block’s owners seek to clear out a space used for more than a year by Black Dot, an arts and entrepreneurship organization run by Wyking Garrett, Tahir-Garrett’s son.

The particulars of each case are in dispute. But both evictions are precursors to redevelopment and both are inflaming anxieties about what may happen to the property and the neighborhood.

By booting out the Umoja Peace Center and Black Dot, the block’s owners — the Bangasser family — are showing they don’t want to work with the Central Area’s black community on a plan for the property, Wyking Garrett and supporters say.

Furthermore, Garrett and supporters say the evictions are emblematic of broader development and gentrification pushing black people out of the neighborhood.

“This is why it’s imperative we move forward with community-led development,” Garrett said, calling for Seattle elected officials and tech-business leaders to help create opportunities for people being displaced.

Complicating the picture is a rift between Bangasser siblings.

Tom Bangasser, who managed the property for many years, has been outspoken about wanting members of the black community involved in any redevelopment. It was he who originally settled the Umoja Peace Center into the house on East Spring.

But his siblings took away his control of the property with a vote in 2015, triggering multiple lawsuits. Those have been winding their way through the courts ever since.

“This is about who should own the property. There’s almost no black ownership in the city of Seattle,” said Bangasser.

The property is prime real estate — close to downtown in an increasingly affluent neighborhood. The intersection will likely be upzoned in the next year or two.

On other corners of 23rd and Union are Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop and a new apartment building called The Central where studios rent for more than $1,600.

A vacant lot on the fourth corner, formerly a gas station and minimart, is scheduled to become another market-rate apartment building.

But more than one deal for the Bangasser block has fallen through. A sale to a California-based company, reportedly for $23.5 million, didn’t pan out. Then a pair of Florida-based firms sought to buy the property for retail and housing development and were working on a partnership with Africatown, another group Garrett is involved in.

Forterra, a nonprofit that buys and holds wilderness and urban land for community purposes, was lending assistance. This year, that plan also collapsed. The Bangassers now have a purchase-and-sale agreement with yet another developer, according to Hugh Bangasser, one of the siblings controlling the property.

He declined to name the company and said he didn’t want to comment on how community groups may or may not have a say moving ahead.

“It’s ultimately a dialogue between the purchaser and the community about what happens on that site,” Bangasser said.

Despite various evictions and disputes, community groups could still take part in the block’s redevelopment, said Michelle Connor, a Forterra executive vice president.

Forterra is in contact with the Bangassers and is prepared to buy the entire property, if necessary, Connor said.

“What we’re most concerned with is not having this opportunity slip away,” she said.

Sgt. Jason Hauck, a spokesman for the King County Sheriff’s Office, said someone was inside the house on East Spring when deputies arrived but refused to come to the door.

They forced their way in, but by the time they entered, the person was gone, Hauck said.

The spokesman said there was no intention of arresting Tahir-Garrett. But personnel at the house included a canine unit, which outraged demonstrators.

Det. Patrick Michaud, a spokesman for Seattle police, said officers were there to direct traffic and control the demonstration.