Let's begin our walk here, at Promenade 23 Shopping Center. Its north side has a Starbucks that opened in 1997 as part of a Earvin "Magic" Johnson inner-city revitalization project. (If you do not know who Magic Johnson is, I can do nothing for you, man.)
The theme of this Starbucks's interior and exterior design was plainly inspired by South Jackson Street's once-popping jazz scene. The scene took off in the 1930s, flourished in the 1950s, and declined in the period (the late-1960s) that experienced white flight and urban disinvestment. In the late 1970s, the city destroyed the old buildings that housed the jazz clubs and attempted to renew the area with small and large businesses. When Starbucks opened in 1997, the Seattle Times painfully described it as "urban re-brew-al."
Let's turn to the south part of Promenade 23 Shopping Center. Today, there is a new and massive apartment development that Seattle's third-most-famous billionaire, the late Paul Allen, bankrolled. But not too long ago, this was the site of a number of small businesses owned by black Americans and East African immigrants, and a very large Red Apple supermarket that played the best soul music for its mostly black shoppers. A week before the Red Apple closed (the fall of 2016), I visited it for one last look. I bought some fried chicken from its deli and pigs feet from the meat department, and I took pictures of the building's exterior from its sea of a parking lot.
After I took my pictures, a middle-aged black man approached me and said that I had better take the picture quick, because the Red Apple would not be around much longer. There was no irony in his words. He said them as plainly as someone giving useful advice. The disappearance of the big building and its huge parking lot was so imminent that by the time I pressed the button on my touch screen, there was virtually nothing left but a huge hole and construction machinery.
The black man, who wore carefully pressed clothes (blue shirt and gray pants), then entered a brown and new-looking Honda Accord sedan that had in its back seat two small white dogs. At that moment, the black man and these dogs cracked open something deep inside me. They brought to the surface of my awareness an old and rather upsetting memory.
This memory was from the late 1990s, the twilight of the traditionally black Central District (by 2010, most black Americans had either left town or moved to the deep south suburbs and cities like Renton). This memory concerned another middle-aged black man who also owned two little white dogs. All three lived in a house not far from the one I lived in on 21st Avenue and East Cherry Street.
Many homes and apartments on this street were still occupied by black families back then. The black man and his little white dogs lived in a two-story house on the corner of 21st Avenue and Columbia Street. And whenever I walked by this house on my way to work on Capitol Hill, or to visit a good friend who lived in an apartment building behind the former location of a club that had almost no white patrons, Deano's (it changed its name to Club Chocolate City in the early 2000s), the little dogs would tear across their owner's unfenced yard and bark and nip at me on the sidewalk—a public space.
The owner, who often sat on a plastic garden chair next to the house's main door, never failed to make a big show of doing nothing about these attacks. He would sit there with the distant air of an African king, sit there watching his hounds attack one of his subjects, sit there without saying a word. I hated him and his dogs with the kind of passion that can break a mind.
They forced me to use other, less pretty streets during my walks. And every time I took these unsatisfying and roundabout routes, my hatred deepened and intensified. So rude, so uncalled for, so unsocial was this imposition. Why did he not get a fence? Why did he not discipline his mini-beasts?
Then one night, a great fire consumed his house. It killed the black man, his little dogs, and three children I had never seen before.
The iron grates on the windows might have prevented burglars from getting into the house, but they certainly and surely prevented the occupants from getting out. The next morning, the property looked like something from the end of the world. The fire burned to a crisp everything that could burn in that house. But a week later, a week after the horrific deaths, I found that my favorite street for walks was finally liberated. The dogs were gone. And the happiness I felt at this realization only made me hate the dogs' owner even more.
He had permanently cursed me and that part of the street.
Yes, I was pleased to have my sidewalk back, but this feeling was not unmixed with a sense of horror. Those children in the barred windows. Their desperate eyes. Their little, powerless hands. Their ghosts haunted the space returned to the public by the death of those pesky dogs.
Okay, let's leave the past (that horrible fire, those doomed children, their cries) and return to the present (one rainy day out of too many rainy days—meteorologists with a little poetry in their weathered souls describe this very wet Seattle period as an "atmospheric river") and walk down to 21st Avenue South and East Yesler Way.
On the south side of the street, you'll find a building that had the misfortune of being built when postmodern architecture was still alive and kicking. This very bad imitation of one of the worst architects ever to be born, Robert Venturi (he designed the Seattle Art Museum), contains three clinics, one of which, the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, has a fascinating history.
In 1968, the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense opened the medical center (then called the Sidney Miller Free Medical Clinic). In 1994, the clinic moved to its present location, which is only two blocks from the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, a black American cultural institution that's presently housed in a former synagogue designed in the early years of the previous century by an architect, Benjamin Marcus Priteca, who also designed the splendid Admiral Theater in West Seattle.
In 1997, I happened to be in a dentist's chair in one of the three clinics (Central Area Dental Clinic) inside of the postmodern mess of a building on 21st and Yesler. A middle-aged Eastern European woman was placing a crown on a tooth of mine that she destroyed because it was too rotten to live. As she worked my mouth with a drill and the aid of a plastic tube that sucked out excess saliva and tooth debris, her full breasts repeatedly bumped the upper part of my body and sometimes my face. I did not mind this at all—it soothed me in a maternal and erotic way.
That said, let's walk down to the Panama Hotel, our next destination.
But before getting there, I need to point out that the reason blacks wound up in the south part of this city is because they were not permitted to live in the north part of the city. Due to housing covenants, the Scandinavian neighborhood of Ballard, which is north of Queen Anne, was restricted to "whites and Caucasians only." It seems the famous Scandinavian tolerance failed to reach the Pacific Northwest.
Now, if you enter the Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee House, which is on the ground floor of a five-story brick building designed by the Japanese American architect Sabro Ozasa in 1910, you will find one of the coziest places in what was once a thriving Nihonmachi (Japantown).
The wood here is so warm, and so is the brick wall, and the lights hanging from the high ceiling. The chairs and tables and the standing lamp and the jars of tea on the counter and the maneki-nekos (beckoning cats) on wooden barrels have what classical Japanese aestheticians call sabi, or the signs of time on an object, or the way a thing—living or nonliving—has been aged, worn, shaped, and perfected by the slow passage of time. This sabi is the source of the serene feeling that suffuses the cafe and its light, which also feels old. But before you get too comfortable in this teahouse, you will come across a very ugly chapter in Seattle's history.
Not far from the counter, there is a Plexiglas floor panel offering views of objects that are in the building's basement. These objects have a sabi that's not serene but haunting: There's a slowly disintegrating kimono, a suitcase with stickers on it, some dead tools, a ghostly green chair, a dusty basket, and a winter jacket with white fur on its hood. This stuff was left by Japanese Americans who were forced into concentration camps in Idaho and California in 1942.
The telling thing about this disgraceful period of history is that most whites in Seattle did not make much noise about it. There were no protests, no acts of civic disobedience such as we see today at the ICE detention center in Tacoma. White Seattle thought it was perfectly normal to consider Japanese Americans the same as the Japanese, the enemy.
But Seattle's white history is not all bad.
According to the excellent and indispensable website Historylink.org, in 1973, the Seattle mayor, a white man named Wes Uhlman (a pacifist who impressively refused to help the FBI crack down on the Black Panthers—an organization targeted and destroyed by the state), listened to a suggestion by Trinidad Rojo (a man who led the Filipino American cannery workers union in the 1940s and 1950s) to change the name of one of the city's oldest bridges, the Dearborn Street Bridge, to Jose Rizal Bridge.
This bridge is the next and final stop of our walk. It is the steel bridge that connects the International District to Beacon Hill.
The mayor who succeeded Uhlman, Charles Royer, finalized this suggestion. As a consequence, white Seattle has a bridge named after a real-deal 19th-century Filipino revolutionary who was executed for challenging the power of white Europeans (Spaniards). That's not half bad. It would be like replacing the University of Washington's statue of George Washington with a statue of Fred Hampton, a black American revolutionary who was also executed for challenging white power.
The Jose Rizal Bridge also has one of the most popular views of Seattle. If the sky is clear and the sun is setting, amateur photographers (some of them Filipino Americans) rush to the west side of the bridge to capture with those expensive-looking lenses images of the darkening waters of Elliott Bay, the ferries, the perennially snowcapped Olympic Mountains, the purple-tinged clouds, the dusk-darkened towers.
Seattle is always much more beautiful than its history.