Central District Community Members Hope Displacement Conversation With City Department Heads Leads to Overdue Policy Shifts

by Thea White

“The process of storytelling is itself a healing process, partly because you have someone there who is taking the time to tell you a story that has great meaning to them.”-Alice Walker

I grew up as a member of Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church on 15th and Fir, just two blocks northwest from the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI). Goodwill was my home outside of home. I wrote my first paper at early morning Sunday School, learned about advocacy work through the stories of my elders and built lifelong friendships serving on the usher board and youth choir.

I saw the people who made up the church as family, despite no blood relation. Everyone looked out for one another, whether that meant keeping an eye on the children, collectively managing the church grounds, or sneaking a few loose bills into the hands of someone who needed them. To help our elders get to and from the church, my mother often volunteered to drive the church van. We would take the scenic route, driving up to the Red Apple grocery at the Promenade on 23rd and Jackson to grab some fried catfish while talking about memories that were scattered across the Central District (CD).

Now, most of the family homes that I had come to recognize on 23rd and Jackson as a kid are gone, some replaced by million dollar condos. Many of the elders I had come to love through those van rides have either relocated or passed away. Driving down E Yesler Way, I glance over at Pratt Park and see empty basketball courts and playgrounds. Growing up, there was always some family function happening at Pratt Park, from local basketball games organized by community centers to Juneteenth events that the late Ms. DeCharlene Williams, owner of DeCharlene Beauty Salon, would put on to bring the community together.

Now there is less and less of the Black community in the CD to bring together, and I’m not the only one noticing.

On Jan. 25, community members gathered at the LHPAI to speak with the City of Seattle’s department directors about the effects of gentrification on the CD. This was the first step of the Impact 2020 Initiative organized by community organizations including Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas (CD Forum), Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (DoN).

Unlike usual city conversations, it was not led by Seattle officials but facilitated by grassroots organizer Sharon Nyree Williams, Executive Director of the CD Forum. In the first half of the discussion, current residents and community members displaced from the CD were called onto a panel to speak about issues they felt were pushing Black families out of the CD. Angela Rae, Engagement and Outreach Strategic Advisor of DoN, served as active moderator.

Wade Blanks listens to the discussion during the Impact 2020: Central District Community Conversation, Saturday January 25th at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Gerald Singletary, one of the panelists, had lived in the CD since the early 1950s. He attended Garfield High School, where he set the record for the long jump in the summer of 1969 at the Quaker Oats AAU Junior Olympics, after completing his sophomore year. From 1967 until the 1980s, the Singletary family owned Singletary Texaco, located on 23rd and E Cherry. It was one of four Black-owned gas stations in the CD, with Lloyds Rocket on 12th and Yesler, Simpson Texaco on 23rd and Madison, and Hightower and Brown (Exxon) on 34th and Pike.

Gerald Singletary, talks about why he left the Central District during the Impact 2020: Central District Community Conversation, Saturday January 25th at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Mr. Singletary said he could afford to stay in the CD but the neighborhood had changed so much that he no longer felt at home there anymore. (Photo: Susan Fried)

After living in the CD for more than sixty years, Singletary and his family relocated to Tacoma in May 2019 due to the steep rise of property taxes, having dog poop placed routinely in their trash, and the neighborhood no longer feeling like home following the mass exodus of longtime neighbors.

“It was a matter of economics. I was paying about $10,000 in property tax to live in an area that wasn’t home anymore” Singletary said.

When asked about his relationship with some of the newer families that moved into the neighborhood, he stated “We were different people,” in that there was no real connection between them.

Similar to Singletary, longtime residents of the CD seemed to all agree that no one knows their neighbors anymore, with more Black families being pushed out and relocating to cities like Renton, Kent, and Auburn. There also are not many Black families that can afford to move into the CD due to the increase in commercial housing and the price inflation of single family homes. As of today, a house around 23rd Ave S can range from $800,000 to $1.65-million, depending on location.

Angela Rae saw promise from this initial dialogue. When asked to recount what she experienced at LHPAI she answered with these words: strength, resilience, and a refusal to give in. The last she proudly explained as the will of the Black community to stay in an area they love and work to build for future Black residents regardless of setbacks. Rae moved to Seattle in September 2017, from Washington DC and is aware of the crippling effects of gentrification on Black Communities.

“[Black people] should not be priced out of the city,…it doesn’t look good for the city, it doesn’t look good for our country, it doesn’t look good for the world,” Rae says, and she’s right. The fact that Black residents are the only ones who have been steadily pushed out of the CD in the past three years is a clear indication of Seattle’s failure to protect and serve residents who are not white. That’s not a good look. Especially for a city that prides itself on being “a diversified city”.

To Rae, conversations like the one at LHPAI can evolve into intentional policy change. Speaking with Rae about her dream for Impact 2020, she expressed a desire to help members of the community who want a seat at the decision-making table get access to policy makers in order to build solutions directly related to the needs of the people.

Many residents expressed interest in continuing community conversations, which was exactly what Sharon Nyree Williams, had hoped for:

“I’m a storyteller, I’m all about telling stories and I believe that if we know each others stories we can help with change. Today we got a real sense of those stories, of people really taking their gloves off and bearing their souls and sharing [with us] what is happening with them and their families.”

So If you are reading this piece and, like me, have seen the loss that has transpired in the CD. Please do all that you can to share your story and ideas at the next impact 2020 community conversation. Our lives, words and experiences hold so much power. It is up to us to preserve our neighborhoods.

Peace & Love

Thea White is an educator, community advocate and aspiring truth teller who calls Seattle home. Few things are more wonderful to her than reading her favorite comics while listening to Janelle Monae.