The exterior of the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation at Africatown

Africatown Celebrates the Opening of the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation

by Lauryn Bray

The Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT) ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 16 marked the end of a week of events celebrating the opening of the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation. Under the legacy of William Grose, ACLT transforms the decommissioned Fire Station 6 into a technology center dedicated to helping mold Seattle’s next generation of tech developers, creative professionals, and future entrepreneurs.

“We’re designing the William Grose Center to have public partnerships that help us tread the waters for entrepreneurship, creative industry, and STEM,” said Evan Poncelet, director of information technology at ACLT.

ACLT, an organization aimed at acquiring land to empower and preserve the Black diaspora community, has been developing projects focused toward the revitalization of the Central District as a majority-Black neighborhood for years. The Benu Community Home, Liberty Bank Building, and Africatown Plaza are all examples of ACLT’s commitment to support the Central District’s Black residents by creating free and affordable housing in the face of rising rent and high property taxes. Now, the William Grose Center demonstrates ACLT’s commitment to invest in the creative capital of Seattle’s Central District.

The weeklong celebration consisted of four ceremonies: three open houses and a ribbon cutting. “When we were doing the launch events, we wanted to make sure that each stakeholder had a specific day where they could come in and engage with the team that they have been building relationship with for William Grose Center,” explained TraeAnna Holiday, an Emmy Award-winning artist and activist and community organizer at ACLT. “Monday was conceptually the business/entrepreneurship day where Black Dot Underground, who has been doing Mastermind Mondays and a lot of other events for Black businesses, had their launch. … Wednesday, we had the STEM team bring in their stakeholders so that they could see the center, do the tours, and also see some of the work from some of the programs that we’ve been running in the summer. … Thursday was the creative economy day, where we brought in creative economy partners — some of the partners we’ve been working with, with All is Well Studios and Fuji Films and some of the interns who have already finished their internships at All is Well showcasing their work. And Friday was all about ribbon cutting, the whole community kind of celebrating,” Holiday said. 

“We wanted everybody to have a day where they could have their specific needs talked about and addressed in terms of what the center is providing for programming and opportunities and partnerships,” said Poncelet. 

Nicholas C. Penland, the great-grandson of William Grose, cuts the ribbon at the William Grose Center as people around him smile and clap
Nicholas C. Penland, the great-grandson of William Grose, cuts the ribbon at the William Grose Center at Africatown. (Photo: Susan Fried)

The center is named after William Grose, Seattle’s second Black resident and one of its wealthiest. Owning a hotel, a restaurant, and a barbershop, Grose wore many hats throughout the span of his lifetime, but he is most fondly remembered for developing the Central District into a neighborhood for the city’s Black middle class. In 1882, Grose bought 12 acres of land at East Madison Street from Henry Yesler. As Grose sold house lots to other affluent Black families, these 12 acres would become the foundation of Seattle’s Central District.

The goal of the center is to not only use technology and other mediums of creativity to demonstrate to youth in and around the Central District that there are many pathways toward professionalism in Seattle, but also to demonstrate to companies looking to diversify their work environments that there are Black creatives, Black tech developers, and Black entrepreneurs available for hire right here in Seattle. 

“One of the things that we modeled the William Grose Center after was the fact that we have some very specific sectors of economic drivers throughout the city of Seattle that are not particularly allowing our young, Black scholars to participate. So, we understand tech is here, but tech has been pushing us out. Rather than being inclusive and bringing us up through the tech boom and really digging into the talent of Seattle, they bring a lot of talent in, which actually adds to gentrification,” explained Holiday. 

Although the William Grose Center just formally opened, ACLT has been facilitating programs since the start of the summer. It organized a Digital Storython where it invited Brit Moorer, Peabody Award-winning storyteller and former KING 5 reporter, to build a curriculum and give a presentation on how to tell a story. “We brought in experts from journalist and storytelling backgrounds and partnered them with teams of youth. So, Friday, they got a lot of information about how to tell stories, how to build a narrative, how it’s done professionally, and the different kinds of formats stories take in a major newsroom. … Saturday, we had broke the students up into five teams, and they went out and interviewed Black business owners in the Central District. They came back and we showed them how to do the edits on their phones. So it was very easily accessible for young folks to participate, because a lot of young people have phones now,” said Holiday.

The technology room of the William Grose Center, with computers along the walls and large tables in the center of the room
The technology room of the William Grose Center at Africatown. (Photo: Alex Garland)

In addition to the Digital Storython, there was a summer coding class taught by a group of underrepresented minority computer science students at the University of Washington. A Vision for Electronic Literacy and Access (AVELA) developed a curriculum for Python programming and taught computer coding to a group of kids ranging from 8 to 17. “They were learning the basics of Python programming, all the way up to how to program artificial intelligences to play pong and Tetris and tank battle simulators. [It was about] getting them from nothing to the forefront of conversations that are being had about relevant, current topics in computer science, which gives them that compounding interest for the rest of their lives,” explained Poncelet. “[The course] this fall is going to be learning how to program our new microcontroller so kids can learn fundamentals of computer hardware and electronics, and then that will turn into another course, which is going to be creating a heart rate monitor so people can actually develop practical applications from their basic understanding of computer science and electronics.”

Another program this summer was the FutureFounders VR Fellowship Build a Block program, which was a partnership with Simulated Immersive eXperimental Realities (SIXR) where they taught 11 youth to do architectural visualization of the William Grose Center using Unreal Engine 5.

Michaeljohn Green, board treasurer of Africatown Community Land Trust, speaks to the community about the William Grose Center from in front of a screen displaying his presentation while onlookers clap and take photos
Michaeljohn Green, board treasurer of Africatown Community Land Trust, speaks to the community about the William Grose Center.

Getting involved in the William Grose Center is easy. Whether you’re an individual looking for resources to expand your creative abilities or you’re a creative professional, entrepreneur, or tech developer looking to speak to youth about how they can do what you do, the William Grose Center welcomes you. 

When asked how a child can get involved in the center, TraeAnna Holiday explained, “They can look up William Grose Center depending on what pipeline they want to join. They can submit a form that goes to the team so we can get them into the programming. But also, the doors are going to be open, so if a kid is walking in from Washington Middle School and just wanted to check in and see — ‘Man, what is going on in here?’ —there’s going to be an intake person/receptionist at the front door. They can come in and actually tour, see what’s going on, see how to get engaged. Maybe they’re interested in tech or business, or they’re creative — they’ll be given that spiel at the door.”

The opening of the William Grose Center signifies the end of a long and arduous bureaucratic process. After 10 years of advocating for community ownership and two years of renovations, the community can now redirect its energy toward the development of future projects. 

On the 10 years the City spent trying to figure out what to do with Fire Station 6 while organizers were advocating that the building be put to community use, ACLT President and CEO Wyking Garrett said, “Move faster and invest more into effective solutions to address these issues, because the time that goes by cannot be recovered; that is lost. There is an opportunity cost, so it is wonderful that it is opening now. We’re excited about that, but it’s not just this project. [There are] many solutions that exist to change the material conditions of our community, that if the urgency is met and the need is met, we can see more significant change and impact happening.”

Wyking Garrett, President and CEO of Africatown Community Land Trust, speaks to community members about the William Grose Center, standing in front of a screen displaying his presentation and gesturing to that presentation while speaking into a microphone
Wyking Garrett, President and CEO of Africatown Community Land Trust, speaks to community members about the William Grose Center at Africatown. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.

📸 Featured Image: The William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation at Africatown. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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