Don’t Displace the South End

by Irene Jagla

The time for grief is over; the time to act is now.

That was the common refrain during Got Green’s Town Hall event, “Don’t Displace the South End.” What began as a campaign to ensure community organizer Esther “Little Dove” John avoided displacement from her longtime residence by a micro-studio development has evolved into a broader effort to stop predatory developments across Seattle’s most vulnerable communities.

Set in an event space inside Seatac’s Bakaro Mall, a conglomeration of immigrant and refugee-owned businesses, the Town Hall brought together more than 60 people for a panel Q&A, a series of break-out sessions, and a special appearance from John herself, who announced that she would be moving out of her apartment the very next morning. She gave few details about her decision to relocate and excused herself early from the Town Hall to finish packing for the next day’s move.

Lin Little Dove Gyasi

The purpose of the Town Hall was to share the ideas of experts—Wyking Garrett, Yin Yu, and Gyasi Ross—and then engage the audience in table discussions featuring their own experiences with displacement, gentrification, and climate change.

Hodan Hassan, a climate justice organizer at Got Green who served as master of ceremonies for the evening, invited the audience to help themselves to Ethiopian food before Ellany Kayce shared a Klingit welcoming song to commence the Town Hall. Hassan’s colleague, who goes by “B,” moderated the panel.

Wyking Garrett, representing the Central District’s Africatown, started with an overview of displacement and explained how his own existence is the result of a mass resettlement: forcing Africans onto the American continent to become slaves.


Garrett’s own family first came to Seattle in the 1940s to chase the Boeing boom and settled in the Central District, which the black community has called home for more than 140 years. Garrett’s grandfather took advantage of the stability that community offered by becoming one of the founders of Liberty Bank.

When the Central District first experienced the threat of displacement, it developed the Africatown community land trust. While much of Seattle pays lip service to the cultural and historical heritage of its black community, the Central District has empowered itself with the community land trust, which strives to ensure that the community’s presence continues into the future.

When asked how communities can counteract gentrification, panelist Gyasi Ross, Blackfeet author and activist who works with a variety of Native organizations, elaborated on the community land trust idea. “It works for residential housing, corporate, and industrial buildings. But you have to have capital first,” explained Ross. Because you have to have capital to start, you sometimes must unfortunately resort to owner-financed deals at the onset. Further, Ross emphasized that these kinds of difficult, incremental steps must become part of a multigenerational vision to solve multigenerational problems like displacement.

When Hassan outlined the uncertain future of the very building in which the meeting was held, this idea of using a community land trust as a tool for protecting not only residents but also businesses struck a chord with the audience.

The cities of Seatac and Tukwila are considering Bakaro Mall for a new development. The location’s proximity to the airport and the Tukwila light rail station make Bakaro an attractive real estate investment. When a new development is proposed, the refugee and immigrant communities who run the mall’s businesses will be the next victims of South End gentrification.

Yin Yu, a member of the Chinatown International District (CID) Coalition, explained “businesses are an important element of how culture is preserved and moved forward.” She represents a population that has experienced a few rounds of displacement already and is organizing against a proposed 17-story hotel/condominium development. The Asian communities that constitute CID are advocating not only for their homes but also for the businesses that serve them.

“Chinatown was my sanctuary coming in as an immigrant from Taiwan,” said Yu, who fondly recalled being able to eat all the foods her mother and grandmother made back home.

Over 4,000 CID residents share Yu’s experiences and stand to lose a sense of community and security should the development be approved.

According to Yu, one of the most maddening aspects of the CID Coalition’s fight against displacement is dealing with the City of Seattle’s divide and conquer tactics. “The City responds by putting us into work groups, having lots of minutes, and creating a lot of reports. The City already has a lot of information and pays for lots of information, but hasn’t taken action to serve communities that it needs to,” Yu said.

The CID Coalition’s current campaign, “Humbows not Hotels,” is attempting to counter the City’s tactics by pressuring the International Special Review District to follow through on its promises of protecting the historic, cultural, and economic character of the Chinatown community.

The panelists’ ideas about community land trusts and pressuring local governments fueled lively discussions during the break-out sessions. The audience gathered into small groups and sat at tables where Got Green posted short lists of discussion prompts: “What does a King County without displacement look like?”; “Who is there and describe it in a sentence or less.”; and “What’s the story of your community that’s motivating you to come tonight?”

Common threads ran through participants’ answers to these questions. Many respondents detailed abundant green space and well-paying jobs as two elements that may shape a King County without gentrification. Others alluded to access to healthy, local food and neighborhoods without segregation.

Hugh, a participant sitting next to me during the table discussion, described a future south King County that included “equitable access to schools, parks, and open spaces with housing in all shapes and sizes that meets different needs.”

The groups then re-convened as one for the final session of the night, when Hassan addressed them and explained that the exercises they just undertook—sharing expertise, brainstorming, and gathering feedback—are critical to ensuring all members of vulnerable communities feel heard in the otherwise confusing, and sometimes alienating, process of demanding that local governments protect their constituents against displacement.

And if the crowd’s passion and focus is any indication, then we are getting closer to something Yu urged during her talk. “Move beyond grief and take action because the city won’t do it unless we demand it,” she said.