Local organization works to restore Black culture, history in Seattle's Central District
SEATTLE - For people like K. Wyking Garrett who grew up in Seattle's Central District, they all said it's just not the same as it used to be.
Boxy homes and businesses—dubbed "Lego block developments"—now stand in the place that was once home to the soul of the city's historically Black neighborhood. The population was nearly 75% Black in the 1970s.
Now, the neighborhood is just over 15%.
"It's a lot of change," said Garrett. "The Black community, basically, being nearly completely displaced."
Several Black business owners and families were displaced due to gentrification in decades past.
"There was a time when people were really just like, 'Man, we really lost everything and there's no future for us.' I think Africatown not accepting that future and saying, ‘No, we’ve been here. Our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents that put blood, sweat and tears in this—they shaped this, they contributed to the city, and we can build on the legacy of that,'" said Garrett.
That new legacy is taking shape with the help of Africatown Community Land Trust.
"If Seattle is a thriving city with economic prosperity and the center of innovation, we think that our community should also be that. It should be more advanced—a thriving Black community in the nation," said Garrett, who is the President and CEO of Africatown. "We’re seeing a renaissance in the community that’s connected to a lot of the work that we’ve been doing. So, it’s very promising."
Garrett said Africatown is putting its mission into motion by acquiring, developing and stewarding land to restore Black culture in Seattle. This includes acquiring the old Fire Station 6. This building is now the William Grosse Center, named after the pioneer of the Central District.
"William Grosse worked on the Underground Railroad before coming here, navigating safe passage for Blacks escaping slavery into Panama and Canada. Came here and was an entrepreneur, pioneer, hotelier, developer, restaurateur," said Garrett.
At one time, Fire Station 6 was the only place in Seattle where Black people could join the fire department. Africatown is now using the space as an innovation hub where young people can explore technology and creativity. It’s a shining example of Africatown’s mission, and fulfilling the vision Grosse had when he developed the Central District back in 1882.
"Once he had bought this 12 acres of land in the Central District from Henry Yesler, he began to partition his land off for other Blacks to settle, and that’s what established this as a Black community. So, his legacy is really one of making space," said Garrett.
Today, making space is how Africatown is reclaiming the neighborhood and its legacy.
"It’s good to have a crane in the sky, building something for us. We see so many cranes in the community or in the city and most of them are not building that, are not facilitating a future for us," said Garrett.
There is a new construction site led by Black architects, contractors, designers and workers in the Central District. This will be Africatown's headquarters, in addition to more than 120 affordable housing units, plus a retail and event space.
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"I know a lot of people are exhausted by the Lego blocks. So, [we're] bringing some of the uniqueness of our culture," said Garrett. "It’s about being seen, being visible. Not being made to be invisible. It should never be as if our community was never here. And that’s what we saw happening was an erasure. Now, we see a different trajectory being taken on this corner. And if it can happen on this corner, it can happen on another corner, happen on another corner—and that’s the goal."
Africatown is hosting its 10th annual State of Africatown discussion on Saturday, Feb. 25. This is a chance for elected leaders and organizations to hear Africatown's progress on current developments, room for improvements and future ideas. Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell will be speaking at the event. It’s open to the public at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.