by M. Anthony Davis
The last time the Emerald caught up with Black and Tan Hall (B&TH), the South Seattle performing arts and restaurant space deeply rooted in the history of Rainier Valley, we spoke with co-founder Ben Hunter about their Hall-i-Day Party. During that conversation, Hunter mentioned some of the struggles B&TH had been having with leasing their space.
Hunter explained then that when they signed the original lease in 2016, there were known problems in the building that would need to be fixed. But B&TH founders soon realized that they were facing major issues in parts of the building that would prohibit them from obtaining permits necessary to open to the public.
“[This] speaks to a larger problem,” Hunter said. “Columbia City is an example of gentrification and this new interest in the South End. Nobody cared about this stuff before. When Maxim’s was Maxim’s nobody cared, I mean, the whole building was connected by a series of household extension cords, and the whole electrical system was literally spliced together extension cords. That’s not even allowed anywhere, but nobody cared. And that business was running because nobody cared about the South End.”
In 2016, with a new interest in business growth in South Seattle and new ownership in the building that formerly housed Maxim’s, where B&TH is currently located, getting the building up to code assumed a new urgency. Even with a portion of renovation responsibilities belonging to the building owner, much of the burden fell upon B&TH. To be specific, about $400,000 worth of upgrades were the responsibility of B&TH, which forced the partners into the position of deciding whether it was worth it to renovate, or try to own the building outright.
B&TH general manager and co-owner Karen Toering viewed the renovation situation as an equity issue and pointed out that “equity is in ownership.” This idea is a value that’s the foundation of B&TH’s work. They have a path to ownership for any member, even including a path that is based on service hours for members who can’t contribute money. This is also what led B&TH founders to establish themselves as an LLC instead of a nonprofit.
“We own this business,” Toering says. “We are a group of neighbors and community folks, and we own this thing. And that is the true path to liberation for us. And owning, when you get into indigeneity, and all that kind of stuff, becomes a complex concept. But we at least wanted to take that first step into saying, ‘This is a community, we are a community, and we own this thing’.”
The path to ownership for B&TH led them to apply for funds from the City of Seattle Equitable Development Initiative (EDI). Being an LLC put B&TH in a different position than the typical organizations applying for these funds, with most of the fellow applicants being nonprofits. Toering wanted to show that a worker-owned business like B&TH could also be socially responsible and have a community-driven purpose for doing business.
Now that B&TH has used an EDI grant for $1,190,000 to purchase their building, the work to renovate and get the building ready for a 2021 grand opening continues. With major projects like strengthening water pressure to the building and constructing a sprinkler system needed to bring the space up to code, there is still a lot of work to be done. But Toering remains optimistic about the future and looks forward to upcoming events and projects set for 2021.
When asked what receiving the EDI grant means to B&TH, Toering explains, “It meant a lot to us. It said that they believed in our model, that they trusted us to be a business, and they trusted us to understand that our business was about social purpose and equity, and that we would steward these funds.”
The Black and Tan Hall Good Jobs Fellows program that provides paid job training to youth in the community who want to learn about entrepreneurship will continue in the first quarter of 2021. There is also a plan to document the renovation so that community members can join in on the journey and learn from the triumphs and missteps along the way.
And one project that particularly excites Toering is the Green Book Walking Tour. This project, which is still in development, will be a walking tour of the historical Black and Tan Halls in Seattle’s Central District and International District. A B&TH partner, Ashley Harrison, is doing a deep history of the clubs. According to Toering, you’ll be able to download an app that will lead you to places and give you historical facts about artists like Quincy Jones who once played in the historic building you’re currently looking at.
There is a lot to be excited about in B&TH’s acquisition of the building, and now that they are stewards of public funds, Toering’s focus is on continuing their work. As a worker-owned business, B&TH currently has 30 partners and is still open to new partnerships and looking for additional ways to serve the community.
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
Featured image courtesy of Black and Tan Hall.