We’re all getting numb to stories about important civic institutions and historical buildings falling to Seattle’s redevelopment boom. So numb that we’ve stopped noticing.
A few weeks ago a backhoe moved into a corner lot in Seattle’s Central Area and, in the space of a few days, wiped away the quaint, 118-year-old wood-frame building that stood there.
This now happens every day on lots throughout boomtown Seattle. Maybe that’s why this demolition was all but ignored.
But it turns out this building, the now-gone Cherry Hill Baptist Church at 22nd Avenue and Cherry Street, had a richer history than most. It was a key center for Seattle black activism and community organizing during the civil-rights movement, as well as through the urban-renewal era of the ’70s and ’80s and into the present.
“It was all things to the black community,” says Barbara Laners, 78, whose late brother Jerry Laners was pastor at Cherry Hill Baptist for 20 years, until 2009. “I mean literally all things. Because in the ’60s, if you were black and an agitator, they wouldn’t let you gather in the public facilities. So it all had to happen at the church.”
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This one small church, according to The Seattle Times archives, was used to rally people for black equity in schools, tenants’ rights, more blacks in the public universities and an end to apartheid. It was used to protest redlining in the banking industry, as a food bank for the poor, and, in a reminder that the arc of the moral universe sure can take its time bending toward justice, in the 1970s for tense, protest-fueled showdowns with public-safety officials about the police shootings of young black men.
In 1966, the church doubled as a “Freedom School” to educate black kids while they were on strike from Seattle Public Schools over unequal treatment.
Two years later, the church’s basement was turned into one of the most successful homegrown education experiments in city history — a rigorous preschool, called Central Area Mothers for Peace and Improvement. By the time the program closed three decades later, after outgrowing the church basement, it had educated more than 6,000 kids.
“Cherry Hill was as much a community center as it was a church,” says Carla Caldwell, who wasn’t a member but held a funeral there for her mom, Jewel Howard, in 2016. “It’s so sad it’s gone.”
This ritual of replacement is as regular as the weather right now in Seattle. But shouldn’t we at least mark the passing of history? There was a short item about the church move in the African-American newspaper The Facts, and some real-estate focused stories about the property-development plans. But otherwise the church was demolished with little mention of its historical significance.
The current pastor, Willie Seals, says the congregation “felt we had no choice but to sell and move on.”
“We have an older congregation and could not raise the funds for all the needed repairs to the building,” Seals said. So to stay alive, the church sold to developers in March for $2 million. Plans show 14 town homes, or other residential development. What’s left of the congregation moved to an existing church spot in Beacon Hill, under a new name, The Christ Spirit Church.
We could write stories like this every day. This past week we had a story about a 78-year-old metals-forging firm shutting down. But notably it wasn’t because the company was losing money. It closed because Seattle land values are so giddy, there’s more future in selling than staying put.
“They see much more opportunity in redeveloping this land than continuing with operations as a forging facility,” the manager said.
In that sentence you could swap out “forging facility” for almost any older thing in the city. Your historic neighborhood bar. Your century-old diner. Your backpacker-beloved youth hostel. Definitely your church, and probably, your own home.
“Everybody is facing this same pressure to sell,” Laners says.
This wasn’t a lament from Laners, but a simple observation. The pressure — emanating out from our “prosperity bomb,” as I called it a while back — isn’t all good or bad. But it is all-powerful. It’s changing Seattle now so relentlessly that people are becoming numb to it.
Local historic preservationist Knute Berger had an essay recently about the development fight over the Hahn Building, the brick structure at the entrance to Pike Place Market that houses the Green Tortoise youth hostel. He suggested fighting is futile; all you can do is try to cope.
“I’ve become a bit of a fatalist about Seattle,” he wrote. “Seattle is a wonderful city, but less and less does it feel like ‘my’ city … I find the thing I need to practice is sometimes letting go.”
I sympathize. But to let go, we need first to at least take notice. Otherwise it feels like the history being knocked down by the backhoes was never there at all.