by Ben Adlin
Amazon opened a new grocery store in the heart of the Central District this month, a sign for many longtime residents of the uncertain future facing what was once the established core of the city’s Black community.
The Central District location is Washington State’s second Amazon Fresh — the retail behemoth’s new line of full-size grocery stores — and the first to open its doors in Seattle itself. The chain, which launched its first store in Southern California late last year, now has 17 locations nationwide.
“We’re thrilled to bring the first Amazon Fresh grocery store in Seattle to the Central District, providing customers with a wide selection of low-priced, high-quality fresh foods and a convenient in-store shopping experience,” David Nielson, regional manager of Amazon Fresh grocery stores, said in a statement. “We’re proud that this store has brought hundreds of great jobs to the area and we are committed to continuing to contribute positively to the community.”
In moving into the historic intersection at 23rd Avenue South and South Jackson Street, however, Amazon Fresh has put itself at the center of a decades-long conversation about gentrification and displacement, which have splintered the neighborhood’s Black residents and businesses. Some who were born and raised in the Central District see Amazon as a potential partner — even a good neighbor, if the company lives up to its promises — while others harbor deep distrust of a brand seen widely as a symbol of Seattle’s growing exclusivity.
“Amazon’s here, the neighborhood’s been gentrified,” Reginald Dennis, who was born in the Central Area in 1959 and has lived there nearly all his life, told the South Seattle Emerald. “It just seems like more of what the neighborhood has already been through.”
Judging from its press release, Amazon Fresh is keenly aware of the tension. In addition to highlighting its affordable prices and jobs starting at $17 an hour, the company also notes recent donations of food and beverages to a nearby Boys and Girls Club and “the equivalent of 50,000 meals from the Amazon Fresh store to local food banks.”
Prior to the store’s opening, Amazon says, it worked with local groups and held a virtual recruiting event to let residents know about available jobs and what Amazon Fresh would offer. Its press release about the opening includes quotes from a community advocate and a Central District artist commissioned to paint a mural on the storefront.
“We’ve engaged with Amazon Fresh over the past few months and we believe the new grocery store will provide everyone in the community with easy access to a variety of affordable, fresh foods,” Ruby Holland, of the Central Area Neighborhood District Council, said in the company release.
Eric D. Salisbury, a muralist and the owner of nearby C Art Gallery, said in the release that he was “honored to partner with Amazon Fresh to help create a vibrant and inspiring wall mural to welcome customers into a happy shopping environment.”
Other residents are still wary of Amazon’s arrival. They said they remember meeting extensively with the project’s developer, Vulcan Real Estate, to talk about the community’s desires for the intersection’s redevelopment. Amazon Fresh, they said, was announced as a tenant after the meetings and wasn’t involved in those early conversations.
Evelyn Allen, who works in low-income housing and said she’s lived in the Central Area for decades, is the co-convener of the Black Community Impact Alliance, a network of businesses and other organizations focused on building and maintaining economic stability for the Black community.
“From my perspective, as an activist within the community who was very involved with all the community meetings that we had and that Vulcan came in and organized,” she said, “I feel that we were fooled about the grocery store that they were going to bring in.”
Meetings with Vulcan, which took place in advance of the development project, appeared to be “excellently organized” and brought together a group of diverse leaders, Allen told the Emerald. Amazon Fresh, by contrast, “came in in a very manipulative way, where we didn’t know what grocery store was going in until they put the sign up.”
“They said they wanted to keep it quiet until it opened up,” she said, “and now I know why.”
Allen said the Amazon Fresh store opening “further gentrifies the community, ignores the historical nature of our community, and shows us who they want in that area.”
“It seems like a further hostile takeover of our community,” she added, “this big, hulking building with that big Amazon Fresh sign.”
Amazon announced the Central District Amazon Fresh location back in January, along with a store in Bellevue’s Factoria neighborhood that launched in June.
The company now sells food under a cornucopia of brands and services, including a handful of Amazon Go convenience stores and a small-scale grocery on Capitol Hill that opened in February 2020. (The company announced this past May that the shop would be rebranded as an Amazon Fresh, but it’s still using the original name, Amazon Go Grocery.) Another Amazon Fresh is reportedly in the works in Ballard.
Amazon also famously bought Whole Foods in 2017, and it also sells food through its various online services, including Amazon Fresh delivery, Whole Foods delivery, and Prime Now delivery. And, of course, there’s always food for sale on the classic Amazon.com.
Though the store on Jackson Street didn’t begin sales until Thursday, Aug. 12, one Google reviewer noted earlier this summer that the store appeared to have “been fully stocked for months but not open to the public,” speculating there would be “huge amounts of food waste.” Amazon replied last month to assure the reviewer “that we partner with local non-profit groups to donate unsold food that meets requisite food safety standards.”
While Amazon Fresh’s promotional materials have focused on bringing “low-priced, high-quality fresh foods” to the neighborhood, longtime residents emphasized that the Central District, unlike many historically Black neighborhoods that lack access to fresh groceries, doesn’t have a history as a food desert.
“That was not the case in the Central Area in Seattle,” Dennis said. “There was always a grocery store.” He took issue with the project being framed as a “redevelopment” project.
“The old excuse of blight doesn’t explain what happened here,” he said. “What happened here was particularly egregious because they destroyed a perfectly viable, functioning, working-class community.”
Before the location was home to Amazon Fresh, it was a local Red Apple Market, which Dennis and others said hired workers who reflected the local community and stocked culturally appropriate items — residents cited Black hair products, oxtails, smoked ham hocks, and chitlins, among others. Before that, the intersection was home to a Thriftway, which opened in 1980. Other groceries, such as Safeway, have come and gone.
“We’ve had grocery stores,” Dennis said, “and those grocery stores have paid attention to the community as it existed.”
In his view, the new Amazon Fresh caters more to the Central Area’s newer arrivals — generally younger, wealthier, and whiter — rather than the diverse community that has its roots there.
“Do you value the people that, on one hand, used to be predominant in the community and, on the other hand, are still fighting to hold onto what is left and hopefully reverse the damage?” he asked.
Lois Martin, a childcare center director at the Community Day Center for Children, said she’s trying to reserve judgment on the new Amazon Fresh until she has a chance to see how well it responds to the community’s needs.
“I haven’t been in the store myself yet,” she said in an interview this week. “What would make me happy is being able to see diverse staff, not just at the counters but in management.”
Martin noted that some neighbors have said they’re disappointed Amazon Fresh isn’t a union grocery store, a request Vulcan seemed committed to accommodating during earlier community meetings, she said.
“We didn’t meet with Amazon Fresh, we met with Vulcan,” she explained. For her, that raises questions about how to hold the companies accountable for commitments made to the community around employment, affordability, and more.
Asked whether she was skeptical of Amazon’s commitment to the community, Martin replied: “If you were to say, ‘Put your money where your mouth is,’ would that be skeptical?”
Lois’s brother, Theo Martin, who owns Island Soul restaurant in Columbia City, described the situation as “getting used to the new neighbor.”
“You just hope you work as neighbors and you get along, because you sleep there, you live there,” he said. “That’s your home. That’s your palace. So you want your community store to respect and reflect.”
A sign that says “Amazon” sends the opposite message, he added. “Once you use the word Amazon, to me, the community is out. It’s about the bottom line and what makes the money.”
As a business owner himself, Theo Martin is wary that Amazon is positioning itself to serve not the Central Area’s longtime Black community members but the incoming residents displacing them.
“Amazon probably did their homework. They’re pretty smart people, and they know who they’re catering to,” he said. “I guarantee it’s not the community that’s been living there, because that community’s moved away.”
While Martin said he believes it’s possible for Amazon to serve both groups of customers, he’s still not convinced the company will try.
Others acknowledged Amazon Fresh’s arrival in the Central Area as a sign of gentrification but insisted there are plenty of opportunities for the store to establish itself as a community ally.
Brione Jeffrey-Scott, director at the Black-led nonprofit Clean Greens Farm and Market, which grows and supplies produce to community markets and has received donations from Amazon, noted that a key selling point for Amazon Fresh was its commitment to bringing affordable access to quality food to Central Area families.
“It definitely has displaced local groups,” she said. “And we appreciate their donations to businesses like us, but that doesn’t stop the damage that has come into the community. And it’s like, what are your plans to fix that for families that have been displaced?”
If Amazon can fulfill its role as a community grocer — offering affordable, high-quality, culturally appropriate foods as well as entry- and management-level jobs for local residents — “then yes, I’m here for it,” she explained. “As long as they’re here to create more access and not more damage in our communities as far as families having to move out.”
As for what that looks like, Jeffrey-Scott said she hopes Amazon Fresh keeps local produce affordable and creates community partnerships with small and Black-owned businesses and organizations like hers.
“At the end of the day, Black people and Black families, we’re not against anybody,” she said. “We want to be a part of the conversation. We’re not against change, but the change can’t happen and shouldn’t happen without us.”
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Lois Martin’s position as “daycare center director.” This article was updated on 08/23/2021 to clarify that the position is actually a “childcare center director.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Entrance of the Amazon Fresh Jackson Street store on opening day Aug. 12, 2021. (Photo: Sharon Maeda)
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