A Central District Story
A Bar, a Mugging, a Protest, and a Misunderstanding
Everyone at Hidmo, an Eritrean bar and restaurant on 21st Avenue and Jackson Street, was talking about two things last Saturday night.
First, there was the angry e-mail sent out on May 22 by a resident of the Central District after a mugging the night before.
"Last night, [two of our friends] were mugged and assaulted in front of Thompson's Point of View at 23rd and Union," read the e-mail. "Thankfully they are OK and were not physically harmed. However, this is UTTER BULLSHIT and is totally UNACCEPTABLE and I believe that it's time for some HOT HOT BURNER NEIGHBORHOOD REPO ACTION... We're going to send three clear messages: First, we are not afraid of punk-ass thugs. We don't need to look 'tough' to be strong. Second, there are a metric shit-ton of us around here and we care about our friends and our neighborhood. The thugs have already lost, it's time for them to go elsewhere. [Third,] our fire-breathing art car(s) with the Mackie sound system(s) beat your boom-mobile any day of the week.... The poor thugs who messed with [our friends] will never show their faces here again, and the story they'll tell all their little rock-smokin' friends about how they tried to roll these two easy-lookin' kids and then the next day a hundred of their friends were on the corner would go a long way.... Clearly, we need to make a long-term effort to make ourselves visible in this community."
People were also talking about the arrest of 47 suspected drug dealers in the Central District area.
"[We have arrested] 47 gang members and associates who have infested the Central District in Seattle with guns and trafficking," said Seattle's Violent Gang Task Force in a press release. "Throughout the six-month investigation, investigators have recovered 31 firearms from a concentrated three-mile area surrounding the Central District."
The drinkers and diners at Hidmo saw the e-mail and the arrests as connected; both were seen as consequences of the decade-long gentrification—and some would argue the destruction—of the Central District.
"Why are the police taking an interest in drug dealers now?" asked Jace, an African-American resident of the Central District and a rapper for Silent Lambs Project. He was sitting at the bar in Hidmo. "These guys have been selling drugs forever—and now the police want to clean up the streets? Why didn't they clean them up 20 years ago?"
The answer, says Jace, is obvious.
"Because of white people," he said. "The white people want blacks out of this neighborhood."
Hari Kondabolu, a local comedian, was also at Hidmo. For him, the e-mail was proof of what the new white settlers in the Central District really desire—nothing less than the total removal of blacks from the area.
"I just can't believe that kind of racism exists today," said Kondabolu. He says he got the e-mail "from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a Burning Man lister." The author of the e-mail wanted it forwarded to as many people as possible, "and his friends did."
Kondabolu's main problem with the e-mail was its language: "[This e-mail] highlights the level of ignorance, racism, and disregard for community that the gentrification of the Central District brings," Kondabolu wrote in an e-mail he sent to me on May 23. He protested the "racist coded language against African Americans (boom-mobile/rock smoking... etc.)," the "Us vs. Them mentality," and was troubled by the line, "DON'T BRING: Weapons."
"Are you serious?" wrote Kondabolu. "This had to be said? Does this mean violent retaliation against the African-American community was actually considered?"
* * *
"I've lived in the Central District since 1977," said Michael Holden, the author of the e-mail. (Holden is the brother of Stranger contributor Dominic Holden.) Holden is 40, has two kids, and is part of the local Burning Man scene, a community of "fire-oriented, bad-ass, public-art people," according to Holden. Once a year, burners (as they call themselves) from around the country meet in the Nevada desert to dance, create temporary art installations, and burn a massive wooden statue of a human being.
Against the charge of racism, Holden held up his impeccable CD credentials: "I was here when [the CD] was a good neighborhood. I saw the crack epidemic. I saw the neighborhood go down, and now I'm watching it come up again. I'm not new here. This is where I have spent most of my life."
Why the hostile tone of his letter?
It was born of frustration, says Holden, and love for his neighborhood.
"I'm part of the Burning Man and public-art crowd in town," said Holden. "We meet regularly down at the Lower Level in CHAC. But that is Capitol Hill, and most of us live in the Central District. And I want us to use the businesses and services in our neighborhood. Thompson's is such a business... I want us to meet there regularly. But if one of us gets mugged in front of the place, then everyone in my group will say: Look, it's just not safe. Let's meet on Capitol Hill."
On May 22, Holden and about 20 of his friends showed up to "occupy" Thompson's Point of View.
"We put on our art, sat down, and ordered food and drinks," said Holden. "Some people stared at us, but nothing happened. They were cool with us and the way we looked." Holden described the action as a success. "It was low-key, and going down there after the mugging was absolutely the right thing to do."
* * *
Union Street and 23rd Avenue has seen its fair share of violence, including one hapless white mayor getting clocked with a megaphone by an angry—and as crazy as any crackhead—black man. But recently, there has been an increase in the number of drug dealers and users in the area. After Chocolate City—a black-owned bar and restaurant that used to be called Deano's Lounge (the site of too many violent black deaths)—closed on March 1, the sad society of crack dealers and users that congregated at Deano's migrated down to Union Street and 23rd Avenue.
Go to 21st Avenue and Madison Street now and you will find nothing of the recent past—the black junkies have vanished, replaced by white joggers. But head down to Union Street and, my god, you will see them everywhere. And if you go inside the black-owned Thompson's Point of View, you will find black bartenders working hard to keep the dealers and junkies out.
When I was in Thompson's on Wednesday, May 30, a young, tough-looking man was getting the eye from the bartender. The younger man had been stepping in and out of the bar and he did not look like one of the regulars. Thompson's regulars tend to be in their middle years, dress in smart clothes, and share fish fries and stories about family reunions over drinks. This young man looked and dressed like a thug.
"I'm not loitering," the young man said defensively to the bartender. "I was just having a cigarette... You have to do that outside... That's the law, right?"
"I just don't want any trouble," warned the bartender. "If there's any trouble, I'll get the police down here."
Thompson's Point of View represents soul culture, a holdout from the pre-crack-epidemic Central District, the CD that Michael Holden grew up in. Chocolate City was part of the crack culture that devastated the CD in the 1980s and 1990s. Now that Chocolate City is gone, along with most of the black-owned businesses, the human remains of the crack era are looking for someplace to go.
"They are doing all they can to deal with the problem," says Stephen Mollmann of Thompson's. Mollmann is the owner of the Twilight Exit, a club that operated for a decade in the face of the violent disruptions of Deano's. Mollmann maintains a close relationship with area business owners; he knows who's having trouble with the law, their neighbors, and violent drug dealers. "The people at Thompson's don't hesitate to call the police and report a problem," Mollmann said. "They don't want what happened to Chocolate City to happen to them."
Here's an interesting note: Not one of Mollmann's white customers was ever killed or injured by the drug-related violence that regularly went down across the street. For the most part, black guns kill black people.
The black patrons at Thompson's don't like the situation they find themselves in any more than the Burning Man and art crowd. They don't want the violence that comes with the crack trade, so it's unfortunate that Holden's e-mail divided white and black residents of the CD.
"I wish I had worded my e-mail better," Holden told me over the phone. "There was the reference to occupying Thompson's. There was the line about our 'fire-breathing art cars' could beat their 'boom-mobile[s] any day.' These were not the best choice of words, and I do regret using them, as I said in my follow-up e-mail. But there were no racial words in my letter. I was trying to deal with this problem, with crime, with people who carry guns."
* * *
I moved to the Central District 13 years ago. My house was near 19th Avenue and Cherry Street—a house, by the way, that I paid $70,000 for in 1994, and please don't ask me what I sold it for in 2001 to white buyers—and in all honesty, the CD is a much better place today than it was when I first moved into the neighborhood. In 1994 it was easier to find a place to get your nails done than a place that sold a gallon of milk. There were only a handful of grocery stores, bars, and cafes. That is no longer the case. And it's not just the increase of amenities that have improved the quality of life in the neighborhood, but also its increasing diversity.
The Red Apple on 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street now has a section dedicated to foods familiar to Mexican immigrants. And the apartment building where I now live is not dominated by whites or blacks, but by Central Americans, whose music (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3) fills the parking lot every Saturday afternoon. Then there's the proliferation of East African businesses. In the early 1990s, Kokeb was the only East African restaurant of note in the area (it was located on 12th Avenue, in the building presently occupied by the fancy restaurant Lark). Today, you can find not only East African restaurants on almost every commercial block, but also East African barbershops, grocery stores, entertainment and community centers. Despite these changes, the Central District/Rainier Valley area still has the highest concentration of African Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and many of us in the neighborhood want that to continue to the be the case.
Still, as much as I support the diversity of the Central District, I'm tired of hearing the "pop, pop, pop" of automatic weapons. It happens almost every weekend—and invariably it is blacks shooting the guns. So I understand Holden's frustration. But the CD's emerging mixed-race community has yet to develop a common language that allows us to share our grievances. At the moment, the dialogue about crime in the Central District is stuck—caught between whites who think they're talking about violence and blacks who think whites are talking about them.
So when black residents of the CD read: "[Gang members] have infested the Central District," they think, "Oh, so now we're rats." When they read, "It's time for thugs to go elsewhere," they think: "Oh, so you want us completely out of the new lily-white CD."
There's a real history of racism in the Central District—in fact, the neighborhood became black in the 1940s because of racism, because restrictive covenants forced African-American residents of Seattle into the CD. So it's not easy for many to separate racial issues from criminal issues, particularly when a long history of job discrimination, underfunded inner-city schools, and poor housing options contributed so much to the creation of the CD's crime problem. This is what whites have to understand.
What blacks have to understand is that the violence—which tends to be black-on-black violence—is real. White people don't like being mugged any more than black people. Something has to be done. And that something is going to involve law enforcement.
The Violent Gang Task Force stressed in its press release that drug dealers in the CD "were operating an open-air market in the middle of the neighborhood street." But the problem is not drugs. Drugs certainly don't bother Holden—he is one of the founders of Seattle's Hempfest, an annual open-air celebration of an illegal drug. No, most of us in the CD don't even care about the drugs—or even the crackheads. It's the violence, the gun battles, the stray bullets, the blood, the aggression. No one in the CD wants any of that.
What we all want is simply this: for the dealers to do their thing without guns, without violence, so that the rest of us can do our things—our drugs, our art, our drinking, our shopping, our hiphopping, our fucking—in peace.
And that's it, man.