The hood came and went and now all that remains are the crack addicts. There's no place for them in the gentrified CD and there's no place for them to go.
The man is addicted to crack.
He is standing in front of the space that was once occupied by the Twilight Exit, which last year moved across the street into the space once occupied by Oscar's II. The man, who is black and in his late 40s, shows me his rocks, which are in a tiny vial with a black cap. For a small price, he tells me the story of his life: His name is D, he has lived in this neighborhood for many years, and once owned a house up the road, on 17th Avenue. Those were the happy days, and as he reflects upon them, he seems proud of once having been a homeowner and a productive member of society.
Now he is unemployable. D doesn't own much more than the contents of his vial and the bag at his feet. We talk for a few more minutes before he makes an amazing claim: At the lowest period of his addiction, seven or so years ago, he was hitting the pipe at least 500 times a day. Responding to the expression of disbelief on my face, D asserts: "I'm telling you, man. I did about 300, 500 pulls a day. It's all I'd do from the moment I woke up to the second I fell asleep."
"How much do you do now?" I ask.
"Not so much anymore. Slowed down," he answers.
"Is that because it's hard to get crack here, with police always driving up and down the street?"
"No, that's done nothing to slow anybody down. I can get crack as easily as I did back in the day. Nothing's changed."
"Are there less addicts on the street?"
"No, same as before."
"What is the price of crack these days?"
"Depends on what you want. I try to buy a $125 bag when I can. But you can get a rock for five bucks."
"Five bucks—that's cheap!" I say with astonishment.
"Cheap!? That ain't cheap. Do you know how hard it is to hustle five dollars? That's hard."
Hustling is the labor of the addict. It means doing whatever is needed, legal or not, to raise just enough cash for the next rock. The world of the "crack head" vacillates between two points: hustling and hitting the pipe.
"Have you noticed any changes in the neighborhood?" I ask, still a little embarrassed at calling five dollars cheap and exposing my class position.
"There has been plenty of change. See over there—" he points to the massive condominium project on 22nd Avenue, the Summit at Madison, which I wrote about last year in an article that described the small ghetto islands that remain in the gentrifying Central District ("Going Under," March 2005). "Over there, there used to be a playground for Planned Parenthood. Black kids used to hang out there. Now it's gone. White folks are buying up everything."
D speaks with a lucidity that you wouldn't expect from a person whose brain has been fried like an egg for nearly 20 years. Though D's skin and hair are rubber-rough, the addiction has not entirely destroyed his mind and appearance, which is certainly not the case for the addict standing next to him, who is old, thin, and in a daze. A regular-looking black woman passes by us, heading, it appears, to the Safeway; both addicts recognize her like someone who's stepped out of the distant past and, like fallen gentlemen, they sober up, straighten up, and politely greet her. She acknowledges their show of respect with a quick nod and crosses the street.
"What do you think about the white people moving into this neighborhood?" I ask, getting to the reason why I'm talking to D. This corner of the Central District has witnessed the mass departure of black Americans, and what now remains of that past are a few churches, a few small businesses, and addicts of a drug that, between 1985 and 1995, ravaged every inner-city neighborhood from San Francisco to Baltimore.
"White folks? They're all right by me. I can get along with them." Regular white folks, like regular black folks, do not, however, get along with crack heads like D. No close or careful examination is needed to know exactly how homeowners feel about people who support their high habits by hustling.
Seattle's Central District—or the Colored District, as blacks once proudly called it—has seen rapid change before. In the late part of the 19th century, it was a Jewish neighborhood; then during the first half of the 20th century, it became a Japanese neighborhood. Although black Americans began settling in the Central District in the late 19th century, it wasn't until World War II that their presence became large enough to transform the Central District into the heart of Seattle's black community. This community went into decline at the end of the 20th century as the numbers of white Americans, as well as East Africans, living there grew.
At the moment, it is hard to tell exactly what will become of the Central District when the latest in a long history of changes is complete, but the settlement of each passing group has left its mark on the area. For example, along Fir Street there are two synagogues: one on 26th Avenue, which is small, weather-worn, and crested by a dead Star of David; the other on 19th Avenue, which is large, noble, made of brown brick and concrete, and has traces of erased Hebrew letters on its façade. Both are presently occupied by black churches (Upper Room and the Tolliver Temple, respectively). As for the Japanese influence, across the street from the Seattle Buddhist Temple is a small park with a ghostly statue of Shinran Shonin. There is the beautiful Japanese Congressional Church on 17th Avenue South and South Jackson Street. And throughout the neighborhood are wooden torii (decorative archways) that enclose bamboo gardens.
The black American presence in the neighborhood had three distinct stages: pre–World War II, post–World War II, and the Reagan era. The most lasting mark from the first stage is the First AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church at 1522 14th Avenue, not far from the ruins of the synagogue Temple de Hirsch (all that remain of that once-proud building are its fluted columns on 15th Avenue at East Union Street). First AME, the oldest black church in Seattle, is part of an older black neighborhood whose hero was the successful businessman William Grose (the details of his life can be found in Esther Hall Mumford's Seattle's Black Victorians).
The second stage is marked by the African-themed Mount Zion Baptist Church on 19th Avenue and East Madison Street. It dates from the black neighborhood that thrived between 1940 and 1970, the period that expanded Seattle's black American population from 1 percent to 10 percent. When tourist guides and encyclopedias mention Seattle's rich jazz history (Encarta: "During the 1940s, the Seattle jazz scene fostered the careers of musicians such as Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson"), they are referring to this particular black neighborhood. This era is memorialized by the Starbucks on 23rd Avenue South and South Jackson Street, which celebrates black America's highest contribution to American culture, jazz.
In his review of Dr. Quintard Taylor's vital book The Forging of a Black Community, Waldo E. Martin calls this type of black neighborhood, one which had a stable working class, a "Soulville," referring to the Aretha Franklin song ("Show me the way to get to Soulville/Show me the way to go home"). When blacks came to Seattle looking for work on the docks or at Boeing, what they wanted to know was the location of Soulville, the Colored District.
Not only did Seattle's Soulville have famous jazz musicians, it also had its own baseball team, the Seattle Royal Giants, which Taylor claims "epitomized the spirit of the black community." This type of neighborhood peaked with the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s and '60s and began dying after the race riots triggered by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. By the end of the '70s (the decade of deindustrialization), Soulville had been replaced by a third and very different type of neighborhood, one which came to be known simply as "the hood."
The hood was not grounded or based on a stable working class, had almost no middle class, and had an economy that, by the mid '80s, was dominated by an explosive crack market. The drug, a cheap form of cocaine that first made its appearance in the early '80s in Miami and took New York City by storm in 1984, had by 1986 entered postindustrial Seattle's Central District. With it came gangs, guns, murders, and a new race of people called "crack heads," who lived in "crack houses," and whose women were "crack whores" (who gave birth to "crack babies").
Although the Drug Enforcement Administration dates the crack epidemic as occurring between 1985 and 1990, it actually lasted until 1995. Even in 1998, the crack market was still thriving and volatile in the CD, despite the rapid decline of the black population and steady increase of white property owners and East African immigrants. (Stories concerning the gentrification of the CD often make no mention of the fact that East Africans have also moved into this area and now run many of the small businesses that were once owned by black Americans. Though not as influential as white American capital, black African capital has transformed large sections of the CD.)
The black Americans who once populated the hood—the people who survived its horrors (drive-by shootings; drug-related robberies; both police brutality and police indifference), and who are now moving to the Rainier corridor, Renton, SeaTac—are leaving just one imprint, one mark on the CD. In the way that synagogues are imprints of the departed Jewish community, and torii and bamboo gardens are imprints of the departed Japanese community, and jazz on Jackson is an imprint of Soulville, the hood's main imprint, its lasting legacy, is the crack head. The hood has gone but crack addicts are still there.
"It's really sad," says Officer Rich Pruitt of the Seattle Police Department, "It's because they [the crack heads] are too poor to move."
I'm about to talk to a crack addict.
I'm standing five blocks from the corner of 18th Avenue and East Jefferson Street. Other addicts are in a beat-up station wagon smoking rocks. Drug dealers drive by slowly looking for the same old customers. I read somewhere that the Maasai people of East Africa make nonfatal cuts in their cows and survive by drinking the cow's blood when milk is in short supply. A similar relationship exists between the crack dealer and the crack addict. The dealer does not bleed the addict to death, but keeps him alive enough to hustle up the cash needed to stay up, to stay high. The dealers tend to be younger, drive ordinary cars, and run their business at all hours, because crack is needed at all hours. No matter how early you wake up, or how late you arrive at home, you will always find a crack addict on the street corner, or standing in the middle of the street, or standing on the doorstep.
The crack addict in front of me, like the addicts in the station wagon, and the addicts on 20th Avenue and East Madison Street, is unbelievably thin; his skin is textured like an old tire, his eyes are permanently bloodshot, and the teeth missing from his mouth outnumber his existing teeth. He wears a hat that resembles the one Gilligan wore on his island, except Gilligan was in the habit of washing his hat. To borrow the words of the rapper Slick Rick, the hat on the head of the addict doesn't "know the meaning of water or soap." The addict, however, doesn't stink; he has about him a thick, stale smell, like a moist basement.
I ask the addict for his name. He gives me his name but I don't understand a word he is saying. I ask for his name again, and again I can't make sense of what he is saying. I give up on his name and ask him what it's like to be addicted to crack for so many years. He tells me he is the philosopher of crack, he knows all about crack, and—the rest of what he says I don't understand. He talks for a while, and I begin to notice the birds on the branches above us, a dog in a backyard, a squirrel running up a trash can, bamboo stalks swaying in the wind, a townhouse being banged together by construction workers. The words coming out of the addict's mouth arrive at my ears much like the words from the adults in the animated versions of Peanuts cartoons. But even if you didn't exactly hear what the adults were saying to Charlie Brown, you got the sense of what they were saying. That's not the case with the addict in front of me. His English is not Black American English but something else, something unique to a mind severely damaged by a drug that deserves contempt.
The addict talks for a good 30 minutes. I understand almost none of it. I thank him for his time. He climbs into the station wagon and 10 seconds later he obtains a high that will last five minutes. Surrounding this 24-hour drug activity that has its essence in a neighborhood that no longer exists are construction sites for soon-to-be completed condos and townhomes.
It occurs to me that there's a good reason we say "Are you on crack?" when someone says or does something that makes no sense.
Four years ago, the local hiphop group Central Intelligence released a record, C.I., with a closing track, "Aim for the Sky," that lamented the demise of the hood. "From the suburbs to the city/city to the suburbs/these devils got nerve," declares one rapper, "Pushing my race over the curb/held captive on 23rd/so fast you wouldn't believe what just occurred/memories of my hood just a blur... It's hard times, dodging obstacles of all kinds/if I knew then what I know now, we would all shine/but for now we are all fucked/we waking up to the smell of Starbucks smack dab in the CD."
The members of Central Intelligence can't afford to live in the CD; they and others in their situation have to move south because they'd "rather pack up than be financially strapped." The mood of "Aim for the Sky" is one of hopelessness, a sense that, no matter what, blacks will always be on the losing end. First, blacks were confined to the CD, then, in the 1980s, neoliberal policies and deindustrialization brought the neighborhood they were forced to live in to an economic standstill, and now that the CD is being revived and redeveloped, blacks are being forced out by escalating property values—"I know you want me out of the hood/so you can change the shit, like Pleasantville/making it hard for me to make my scrill/it's a cold feel..."
It's fitting for rappers to document the end of the hood because hiphop is the music of the hood. The South Bronx, Compton, North Minneapolis, South Chicago, and the Central District are black neighborhoods that birthed not only the crack addict but also the rapper. But the fate of the crack addict, who is stuck on the street corners of the vanishing hood, is not the fate of hiphop, which has left the hood and become a billion-dollar market, globally connected, completely respected.
Near South King Street and 18th Avenue South, there used to be an apartment building that housed working-class black Americans. I lived next to this building, and besides the occasional drunken fight or domestic dispute, it was a stable environment. In the morning, the building's parking lot would empty out, its inhabitants driving to this or that job; and on the weekends one occupant would relax by playing loud R&B and the street was alive with area kids on scooters and bikes. This building is no more, and in its place yet another townhouse rises and will most likely be occupied by white Americans.
Ten blocks from this construction site, I come across another addict. He is carrying a bag. It is sunny and the sweet smell of honeysuckle sticks in the air. A white man with a pair of slick greyhounds leaves his home and goes for his morning constitutional. The addict is short, his skin has turned to rubber, and his body is Third World thin. I ask the addict how long he has been on crack.
"Since it got here."
"Got here, the CD."
"Have you noticed the CD is changing?" In the distance, we hear banging from a construction site on Yesler Way.
"Yeah, it's changing. All of the black folks are leaving us here. They want nothing to do with us. Crack destroys everything. Destroys your family, your friends. It is evil. Only God can save you from crack. You need to turn to God. There is no other way. I have seen so many friends get killed, get thrown into jail, lose everything because of crack. My whole life is spent in and out of jail. I have nothing else."
The addict sways like bamboo as he talks. His eyes are heavy from a lack of sleep. All of a sudden a shiver seizes his thin frame. It's very likely that the former synagogues will still be around when the black worshippers have long moved to South Seattle, and the torii will continue to adorn enclosed gardens, but crack heads have been living on borrowed time for almost two decades and it should only take a few more years before they are dead and forgotten.
"Do you plan to move out of the CD? To move south?"
"No," the crack addict tells me. "This is where I have lived for 53 years. It's home."