Like me, Farayi grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe, and although there was more poverty than anything else in that African capital, there was nothing as bleakly surreal as what he showed me in the predominately black sections of Seattle. What made the Central District and Columbia City more miserable than any of our home country's High Density Areas--that's Zimbabwean for slum--was the almost complete lack of businesses that serviced basic needs. Even in the most impoverished parts of Harare, you could always find a shop that sold things you actually needed to live (beds, blankets, a variety of home appliances); in the most impoverished corners of the Central District and Columbia City, all that thrived were businesses that sold things you could very well live without.
The 'hood had stores that shelved snacks with zero nutritional value, raggedy porn videos and magazines, and the cheapest booze a human being could possibly stomach. If a business wasn't a convenience store filled with useless things, then it was either a bar that required a great deal of courage to enter or a beauty business (barbershops for males; nail boutiques for women) that promised to make you look like a million bucks with the little you earned at your minimum-wage job. In these desperately poor parts of town, you could get your nails done like a queen at five different locations, but you had to work hard to find a place that sold toothpaste.
In his book When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, the sociologist William Julius Wilson describes a time when black American neighborhoods had a healthy mix of practical and impractical businesses. But in the late '60s, these neighborhoods, hit hard by three types of flight (white flight, black middle-class flight, and factory-jobs flight), began to decline. Eventually the 'hood's economic base became dingy bars for patrons recently out, or soon to return, to prison; convenience stores without conveniences; and all kinds of beauty establishments. These ephemeral businesses stood between the eternal business of the church and the funeral home.
The '90s changed all of that. During that prosperous decade, two movements made 'hoods into neighborhoods again. One movement was the de-concentration of black Americans, which was the result of an improved economic situation for all Americans coupled with the end of racist zoning practices. In Seattle, this triggered the steady migration of blacks to southern King County and beyond. The News Tribune notes ["South Sound," Oct 8, 2004], "In Federal Way, the black population increased 144 percent between 1990 and 2000; in Lacey it increased 162 percent; and in Puyallup's South Hill area, the number of black people increased by a jaw-dropping 566 percent." The other movement was the return of white Americans to the inner city, which they had abandoned after the race riots of the '60s. One might have thought that the L.A. riots in 1992 would have been enough to keep white Americans out of the 'hoods for at least another 30 years. The investment opportunities, however, were too tempting to resist and young whites began purchasing cheap homes from elderly blacks.
"[White Americans] were tired of the traffic and wanted to live in the city again," explained Alan Justad, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. "They wanted to live closer to work. And so the neighborhoods in the south part of the city became attractive. The homes were cheaper because there had been no growth in those areas for decades."
At the time that my cousin showed me the horrors and perversions of the Central District, it was over 50 percent black. Today, that figure has dropped to 30 percent, and whites now constitute the neighborhood's majority, at 40 percent. Not only is the color of the Central District and Rainier Valley changing but so is the topography. Since the end of the '90s, there has been a development boom along the 23rd-Avenue corridor and Rainier Avenue. Massive condominiums and dense clusters of triplexes are devouring whole blocks of the postindustrial 'hood.
Like peaks soon to be engulfed by a rising sea, little islands of the past remain visible. Grim ghetto islands survive here and there in the Central District and South Seattle. These islands with their dingy bars, junkyards, misery marts, useless nail boutiques, condemned homes, and decaying apartment buildings will soon disappear under the waves of multimillion-dollar real-estate investments. One day soon the 'hood will be entirely swallowed up by the chain coffee shops, large supermarkets, corporate drugstores, and national banks that were nowhere to be found when I had my little tour in 1989.
East Madison Street
and 20th Avenue The most prominent and endangered island in the 'hood archipelago is the corner of 20th Avenue and Madison Street. There you'll find a parking lot dominated by a broken-down truck that has several bullet wounds. It's almost impossible to believe that this truck was ever used to transport goods from one point to another; it's easy to believe that it grew out of the cracked and oil-stained concrete like a metal fungus. The dead parking lot separates the Twilight Exit, a bar that services the Capitol Hill hipster crowd, and a two-story apartment building that has no name, no number, and appears to have no residents. Its arched entrance never seems to be used for the purposes of exiting and entering, but instead for smoking or injecting cheap drugs.
Often, a crack zombie searching for the apartment building's entrance will stumble into the Twilight Exit looking like something out of the deep past walking into the distant future. After a moment of pure amazement, the zombie realizes that he or she is in the wrong place and time, and stumbles back out in search of, one supposes, the nameless apartment building that has Deano's Cafe and Lounge on its east side. Deano's is covered with red signs that say "No Loitering." The order is universally ignored. On the 2000 block of East Madison Street, loiterers crowd the sidewalk like so many birds crowding a telephone wire.
Opened in 1984 at the height of the crack epidemic, Deano's is the most visible establishment in the 'hood archipelago. In May of 2003, Helen Coleman and Darnell Parker took over the lease of the long-troubled bar and attempted to turn the place around, to clean it up, and shake it out of the nightmare of the '80s. But despite their impressive efforts (remodeling the bathrooms, new carpets, more security), the place still refuses to wake up to the real-estate realities of the 21st century. Deano's is a relic, an endangered species. You can almost smell the Tully's or Taco Del Mar that it is destined to become.
Next to Deano's is a grocery store, also called Deano's, on the ground floor of a once-beautiful brick building. The inside of the partially boarded-up grocery is dank and gloomy, and no amount of thirst or hunger would persuade me to enter it without a bulletproof vest. The gloominess of this grocery is in stark contrast to the Summit at Madison, an enormous, bright building directly across the street. The Summit has 242 apartment units and two glittering corporate businesses at its base (Safeway and Starbucks). According to a street sign, the alley behind Deano's Grocery is closed to the public between 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. Because the universe has only granted me one life, I did not venture into the alley to see if this law is respected. But I can tell you that what I have seen in this alley during the day can best be described as utterly hellish. Here and there men and women, all more dead than alive, crawl out of broken-down shacks and wrecked cars, in full view of the coffee sippers at the shiny new Starbucks.
The black patrons of Deano's seem to hang outside of the business as much as they hang inside of it. And it is this loitering about on the sidewalk and parking lot that most frustrates the bar's new neighbors. These new neighbors, most of them white, fail to appreciate the true cultural significance of black loitering. While strolling is the art of the white urban intellectual (the fláneur), loitering is the art of the black urban tough. The fláneur looks at the city as he moves along the street; the tough watches the city move as he stands on the corner. At the root of strolling is the considerable freedom that whites have always enjoyed in big American and European cities; at the root of loitering is the racist confinement of large minority populations to small parts of American cities. What the neighbors of Deano's want are middle-class strollers, not underclass loiterers, and inevitably they will get their way.
The land on which Deano's currently stands will eventually become the foundation for a condominium, much like the one recently completed across the street. This isn't my prediction: there's a sign on the building stating as much. The bar has been living on borrowed time since last summer, when construction was scheduled to begin. (For several reasons, concerning financing and zoning, the project has been delayed.)
"It's going to happen," says Stephane Mollman, the owner of the Twilight Exit, "that's why I'm moving [the Twilight Exit] to Oscar's," across the street. "I'm actually sad that Oscar's is going, but they apparently got tired of doing business and decided to call it quits... Our place is going to get knocked down sooner or later (probably sooner), and I want to stay in the area."
Oscar's II is a bar and restaurant that, like Deano's, primarily serves black Americans, but unlike Deano's, its black patrons are older, with deep roots in the civil-rights era. Indeed, novelist Alex Haley, a towering figure of that age and its dreams, is said to have dined there. The atmosphere of Oscar's is always cool and calm. While the jukebox beside the small bar plays soul music (the Isley Brothers, Al Green, and Sam Cooke sing to women they love), across the street at Deano's, a DJ plays 50 Cent, who, once again, is rapping about fucking bitches and "running up on niggas."
One recent night at Deano's I watched a young brother in baggy pants, braids, and bomber jacket stare through the window at the large, green Starbucks sign across the street. There was something melancholy in the features of his face. I imagined that he was reflecting on the fast-approaching end of this little world, which is totally black and mostly poor. In the back of the bar, hardcore thug-hop pumped through a stack of speakers. Young women and men danced. And by the window the braided brother stared out at the street as if dazed by the towering wall of a tsunami rushing toward him.
Yesler Way and 17th Avenue At the corner of 17th Avenue and Yesler Way there is a junkyard whose days appear to be numbered. Called Nile Auto Repair, owned by an East African, Teshome Tedros, and barely protected by a chainlink fence, the place claims to be in the business of repairing automobiles. But it is hard to imagine a damaged car entering this place in the manner of a wounded man entering a hospital; any vehicle that passes through the gates of Nile Auto Repair does so in the manner of a man being pushed into a morgue. The 30 or so cars on this property rot in the day and starlight like the hundreds of corpses that were found in the woods by Tri-State Crematory in Georgia in the of winter of 2002. Some of the dead vehicles have crunched doors, others have no doors, many look like they were hit hard by something that fell right out of the sky, and all met their end violently.
All around the rusting heaps, the oiled soil, and the ugly crooked shack, one can see new construction. Four new condominium triplexes are going up directly behind Nile Auto Repair. Two more triplexes are going up across the street. Anyone who borrows large sums of money to own one of these future homes will certainly make it their life's work to wipe Tedros' little island off the face of the earth.
South Dearborn Street
and 23rd Avenue The new neighbors of the old convenience store on the corner of South Dearborn Street and 23rd Avenue, Parnell's Mini Mart, which was opened in 1985, have tried their best to kill this business. Borrowing a page from the Pioneer Square Community Association's playbook, the neighbors of Parnell's Mini Mart attempted to make the location in which it operates an Alcohol Impact Area, thus removing from its shelves the kinds of alcoholic beverages favored by working-class and unemployed brothers. This has yet to happen. The concerned neighbors have also tried to make Parnell's owners sign what the owner's of Deano's signed two years ago--a GNA, or Good Neighbor Agreement. But because the business is dependent on ghetto dollars, the store's owners have refused to sign the agreement. In an act of desperation, the neighbors offered to patronize the dingy store if the owners removed the cheap booze. The owners have yet to take this direction. But until it's either killed by an Alcohol Impact Area or decides to replace bottles of Old English with bottles of Bordeaux, the parking lot of this business that stands in the shadow of the massive and ever-expanding Welch Condominiums will continue to be an excellent point from which young brothers can watch the city pass by.
The door of Parnell's Mini Mart has a sign that says, "Only Three Kids Can Enter the Business at One Time." If your group comprises kids and numbers four, then one must wait while the others shop and buy the 'hood items that the store stocks. With very little money, you can buy do-rags, dice packs, and framed pictures of Tupac (shirtless with a gangsta handkerchief tied around his head), Al Pacino (in his violent role in Scarface), and 50 Cent (wearing a bulletproof vest and standing in front of a store that looks much like Deano's Grocery). At the counter, and protected by glass, there is a shiny arrangement of lighters modeled like Tommy machine guns, automatic pistols, revolvers, and voluptuous women. There are also sharp, serrated knives that could kill a vampire, rings with skulls and other symbols of death and evil, and long bling-bling neck chains that resemble the one 50 Cent wears over his black bulletproof vest. On a high shelf behind the counter are a number of porcelain religious figures (black angels and saints), and African kings proudly standing with their African queens. Below these noble figures are shelves packed with Mad Dog, and above them is a video camera.
Charlestown Street and
Rainier Avenue Not long ago the corner of Charlestown Street and Rainier Avenue played host to a junkyard (a bit better than Nile Auto Repair) and a detailing shop where an immaculate lowrider could become an even more immaculate lowrider. Between the junkyard and detail shop was a nail boutique, wherein sisters could get their nails varnished with a comfortable view of brothers getting their rides garnished. Then suddenly a massive multi-use development, Rainier Court, appeared, and the water began its unstoppable rise around the businesses that serviced the vanities of the urban poor. Construction is spreading beyond the first of four projected phases, and now all that remains of the island is one business, North Bend Nails.
The day I visited the nail boutique, it was empty except for a young Asian woman, who answered my questions with an honest smile. She informed me that the nail boutique had been around since the beginning of the end of the 'hood, 1990, and that business was good and they planned to stay for the foreseeable future. I wanted to ask more questions about how she got into this line of work, but the smell of varnish was too powerful and I had to get out of the place before it choked me the way development choked the life out of so many other 'hood businesses.
Marketing 'Hood Nostalgia In the early '90s, rapper-turned-actress Queen Latifah released a song, "Just Another Day," that detailed the horrors of the postindustrial 'hood--drive-by shootings, drug abuse, unemployment, and so on--and expressed nostalgia for what sociologists in the 1930s and '40s called "the black metropolis," which, though poor, had its leaders, stable working class, and home owners. This year, Queen Latifah is to star in a big Hollywood movie, Beauty Shop, that's set in, and expresses nostalgia for, the very 'hood she described with great desperation in "Just Another Day." In the way that the French speak of nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud) we can now speak of a nostalgia for the 'hood. In a suburban multiplex, blacks can now pay $10 to sit and watch Queen Latifah working and living in a world that is quickly vanishing. Granted, 'hoods were bad, but as the comedian Chris Rock once said, they had their benefits--for example, where else could you buy a color TV for five bucks in the middle of the night? But in the end, it is much better to have the 'hood on a movie screen than on a city block like 20th Avenue and Madison Street.