If you live in Seattle and you're not familiar with the idea of Africatown, well, you should be. Think Chinatown, but for African-Americans and African immigrants in the historically black Central District. This new video, produced by community activist Wyking Garrett, introduces the concept in a brisk two minutes:
On Saturday, Garrett hosted the third annual State of Africatown event at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, bringing together an auditorium full of activists, entrepreneurs, and city officials to talk about how the Central District is changing—and how it should change.
The statistics are grim: Mayor Ed Murray noted that income for African-Americans in Seattle has dropped, not increased, since the recovery from the recession began. African-Americans make up the majority of minimum wage workers in the city. And in the Central District, the black population has plummeted from 51 percent to 21 percent over the past 20 years, according to census data.
"Seattle has a chance to lead the nation in mitigating gentrification and realizing the principles of shared prosperity," Garrett said. "When we're our best, it benefits everyone."
Community activists explained how this work is already underway:
- Develop the Central Area Arts and Cultural District, starting with a $50,000 grant from the City of Seattle. Steve Sneed, who co-chairs the committee in charge of the grant, asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine... a piece of art at 23rd and Union so memorable that everyone wants to take a selfie with it; a walking path that passes from Washington Hall to the Langston Hughes Center to the Pratt Fine Arts Center; affordable studios where artists can hold jam sessions; a strip of dance and music clubs buzzing with activity every weekend; and historical markers throughout to make the area's history of culture and art come alive. Imagine, he said, "a tourist destination that the whole region can be proud of." Want to get involved? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Honor the legacy of Liberty Bank: Liberty Bank was the first black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest, but the property is poised to be redeveloped by Capitol Hill Housing. Murray announced an agreement reached on January 15 between the developer, Centerstone, Africatown, and the Black Community Impact Alliance to use construction workers and firms drawn from the local community, recruit black-owned businesses to the ground floor retail, and make the property's long-term ownership reflect the black community. "Self determination is the framing that we want around this," said the city's Brian Surratt, who helped negotiate the deal.
- Turn Fire Station 6 Into a "Cultural Innovation Hub": The idea here is to turn the old fire station into the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation, named after an African-American businessman who helped free slaves, settled in Seattle in 1861, and purchased land from Henry Yesler, according to the Black Community Impact Alliance. The city commissioned a feasibility study on this proposal last month.
- Stop incarcerating black youth: Senait Brown, a member of the Seattle-King County NAACP, talked about the city's recent allocation of $600,000 to a "black-led giving circle" that will distribute funds to community groups working to create alternatives to youth incarceration. More details here.
Notice a common theme? The city is supporting this work with funds and influence.
The mayor himself was effusive about the forum, calling it the "most constructive public dialogue" he's ever been involved with. Murray said there's still much work to be done to overcome racism.
There was a notable lack of enthusiasm in the room when he began talking up the city's progress on police reform. Both of the Obama administration's U.S. attorney generals, the mayor said, "have met with me and acknowledged that Seattle is turning the corner on police reform."
Murray concluded with a wry smile and a nod to the activists in the room: "I look forward to the challenge that you will give me over the next year."
This post has been updated since its original publication.