In a new documentary about gentrification in the Central District, “On the Brink,” an advocate of Seattle’s historically African American neighborhood talks about recent construction projects in the area digging the soul out of that community.
The film, not formally released but viewable at a few special screenings in coming months, hits you with lots of wrenching lines that lament the steep decline of the area’s black population over the past 20 years.
Watching the film with producer Jeff Shulman and co-director Steven Fong pricked my own memories of the CD.
My first connection to the neighborhood came when I was a summer intern in the mid-1990s, when a colleague told me I needed to head over to Ms. Helen’s Diner at 23rd and Union to sample her chicken, greens and cornmeal griddle cakes. I came from Kentucky, so the soul-food snob in me doubted that anybody out here knew how to properly prepare the Southern dishes that I grew up on.
But I took my colleague up on his suggestion and went to Ms. Helen’s after work one evening. The place was empty but the TV was on in the dining room. The TV was always on, I’d come to realize.
The owner, Helen Coleman — who’s in the documentary alongside well-known figures from the neighborhood like NBA great Slick Watts and chef Kristi Brown of That Brown Girl Cooks! catering company — hollered from the kitchen that I should find a seat, like a beloved relative who didn’t need to indulge in formalities.
Her focus was the food. And it was fantastic, all the flavors and textures of home — crispy chicken skin with just the right amount of salt and pepper; collards stewed to within an inch of their status as vegetables; rich, spiced yams baked in their own syrup and corncakes the size of small plates.
Not healthy in the least, but utterly fortifying, the meal and Ms. Helen made me feel like I’d gone back to my own African American roots in the South.
Recalling what the CD meant to me then, makes visiting now — when white residents far outnumber black ones — an unnerving experience.
The CD became a nearly 80% black neighborhood in the late 1960s and early ’70s because African Americans, regardless of income, had almost no other option, due to restrictive housing covenants in most parts of the Seattle metro area and redlining in the lending industry. Go see the new exhibit on redlining at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience for more history on that subject.
People stuck together in the CD because they couldn’t live anywhere else. Still, they formed a stable, middle-class community based on home ownership, small businesses and cultural place making. On Sundays, ministers preached not just the lessons of the Bible but also the gospel of economic empowerment.
Back in the old days, the CD was “a community that embraced you, that was you,” DeVon Manier, who started the talent management and record company Sportn’ Life Music Group in the neighborhood, says in “On the Brink.”
Likewise, “Ms. Helen,” as I still think of her, treated me not just as a customer but as family. She truly “saw” me and I saw a little of myself in the CD, which even at that point was feeling the tug of change as black families either got priced out or sold their homes.
Anyone who believes that culture, heritage and economic opportunity should weigh heavily on the minds of policymakers and developers should feel responsibility for what’s happening in the CD, and all over Seattle, right now.
We all have to act to prevent Seattle’s legacy communities — from Capitol Hill’s LGBT village to the Chinatown International District to South Park’s Latino community — from slipping through the spaces between new apartment complexes, boxy townhomes and eateries built for a different kind of clientele.
Past and future won’t balance out on their own. We have to be the stewards of that delicate equilibrium.
While I published Sunday magazine and front-page stories about the decline of the area’s black community in 2016, I’m also mad at myself for watching the CD transform all those years without figuring out a better way to articulate the strange sense of witnessing a slow-motion vanishing act whenever I’d drive down 23rd or up Jackson.
While I can accept and even enjoy some aspects of today’s CD, I can’t see myself in that community anymore.
I do see glimmers of hope in the work of groups like Africatown Community Land Trust to promote cultural preservation, affordable housing and business development for people of color — and in the determination of neighborhood old-timers and supporters featured in “On the Brink” to keep gentrification in the public discourse.
“[Gentrification] doesn’t concern Seattle enough,” Pastor Carl Livingston, Jr., also featured in “On the Brink,” told me. “We need to see something that’s in some relation to the scale of the loss.”
Shulman, a University of Washington marketing professor and host of Seattle Growth Podcast, says he and Fong, a UW alum, made the film “to acknowledge the pain of the people who are still there by showing them stories of people who feel the same way.”
The film, he says, gives voice to their anguish over what’s been lost — and to their ambivalence over “progress.”
But it’s up to all of us to make sure that the people who make our most culturally rich neighborhoods so distinct have a say in how they change.