Central District pot shop Uncle Ike’s has weathered a lot of heat since it opened in September. First there were protests against the business, led by Pastor Reggie Witherspoon of the neighboring Mount Calvary Christian Center. Then a lawsuit was filed against the business, alleging Central District residents hadn’t been properly informed of the pot shop's opening. By October, the protests had died down, and by early December, the lawsuit was on a back burner, its next hearing set for almost a year out. Still, concern about Uncle Ike’s lingers among some in the neighborhood. For certain community members, it brings up feelings of disenfranchisement, along with discomfort and rage connected to how rapidly the community is changing.
The worries are a subset of the broader angst over the changes under way at the intersection of 23rd and Union. But it's worth exploring the roots of these specific fears and complaints five months after Ike's moved into the CD.
The protests began in the fall, when a few to a dozen people began showing up every day to picket after Pastor Witherspoon expressed concern that the pot shop was too close to Mount Calvary Christian Center. Witherspoon grew up six blocks away from the church, has largely felt misrepresented throughout the debate over Uncle Ike's, and continues to have concerns about what the store will bring to his community (and his church in particular). Ian Eisenberg, the owner of Uncle Ike's, claims Witherspoon knew in advance that a pot shop would be opening next door, but Witherspoon says he was not informed what the store was slated to sell.
“While I’m personally against marijuana, it’s legal now, and that’s not my fight,” Witherspoon said. “I’m against what it means for our kids, for our institution, and for our community, for it to be here. This is a way in which capitalism has resulted in an unfair disrespect to an institution. I’m tired of being disrespected.”
Initially there was the question of whether it was legal to open a pot shop near a church, but the subject of the lawsuit concerned the Joshua Generation Teen Center, which is located across the street from Ike’s. State law prevents pot shops from opening “within 1,000 feet of an elementary or secondary school, playgrounds, recreation and child-care centers, public parks and transit centers, or libraries or arcades.” The lawsuit further alleges that the WSLCB (Washington State Liquor Control Board) and the City of Seattle “violated the due process of Petitioners and disrespected the historically African American neighborhood by failing to give notice of Uncle Ike’s application for a retail marijuana license.”
Omari Tahir-Garrett, who's been a resident of the Central District for 63 years and is respected by many in the community as a local activist—others know him for hitting Mayor Paul Schell with a bullhorn in 2001—also has a problem with the way gentrification has changed the neighborhood. Well before the controversy surrounding the pot shop even arose, he was picketing on the block Ike's sits on daily. His father helped found Liberty Bank, and he’s continuously fought to have the bank designated as a historical site. It’s located just down the street from the new pot store.
Tahir-Garrett said business owners fought hard against drugs and violence in the area in the years before Eisenberg moved onto the block and started selling drugs legally. Notably, he mentioned the unsolved 2003 murder of Troy Hackett, who owned the Philadelphia Cheese Steak restaurant that once stood where Uncle Ike’s is today, and the 2008 murder of Degene Barecha, known commonly as “Safie,” who owned the restaurant after Hackett and was shot by Rey Alberto Davis-Bell. According to Tahir-Garrett, the only people who want Ike’s there are “the white gentrifiers.”
His son, Wyking Garrett, who has played a key role in the Africatown Education and Innovation Center movement, says that the future of the intersection that Ike's sits on is a major topic in #BlackLivesMatter rallies and community organizing. “We need the willpower to really recognize if black lives matter, how is that being shown in the development, and how space within the city is being used and allocated?” he said. “We need to let everyone have a space... I’ve attended several #BlackLivesMatter events and rallies, where this is being brought up... This is all about what this community is to become, and who is to be included in that future. When people feel excluded or marginalized, that’s the root of tension.”
Filmmaker and former Central District resident Rafael Flores used the murder of Barecha as a focal point in his graduate thesis and docudrama, 23rd and Union, which explored the issue of gentrification and the tensions between the African American community, Ethiopian immigrants, and gay couples who reside in the Central District.
Flores believes that Barecha's murder, and gentrification, are a result of a “competition for space and resources” in the neighborhood, and that the way businesses have changed on the block and the clientele they attract are largely reflective of gentrification. He also believes that the legacy of Hackett and Barecha, as men who “invested in their community and tried to help young people who struggled to survive in such an economically polarized city,” needs to be considered when redeveloping 23rd and Union. “The fact of the matter is, Ian’s activities on that corner further alienate black families who feel their voices are not being heard by the city in the midst of the aggressive gentrification process,” Flores said. “I think Ian needs to do a better job in engaging the community and work closely with local community-based organizations who are dedicated to preserving peace and health for people of color in the Central District.”
“Putting a weed store on 23rd and Union is problematic because the murder of Safie happened in the parking lot next door to the church,” Flores continued. “[Degene and Troy] provided young people with hot meals, clothes, and shelter, because they were responsible business owners who cared about the community. I think the question we should all be asking ourselves is, what would Degene and Troy want on that corner?”
When it comes to the various criticisms circulating in the community about his presence and engagement, Eisenberg—who owns the land under the Neighbor Lady bar, Uncle Ike’s, and the Sea Suds car wash, and is also the business owner of Sea Suds, in addition to Uncle Ike’s—generally believes that “community” consists of not who’s been here historically, but who’s living here today. “We can sell legal pot and they can stage a legal protest,” he told me. “That’s what makes America great!” (Eisenberg made $13,736 per day in his first week of business.)
Obviously, many people are happy about Ike's arrival. For some pot smokers, it means something simple, progressive, and positive: legal weed. And over at the Neighbor Lady bar (which Eisenberg owns the property of), employee Ty Omlin believes the pot shop is a positive addition to the neighborhood’s local economy. “I know people come in here a lot looking for [Ike’s], and it's given us a lot of attention as a business,” Omlin said. “The way I see it, people are finding out about us because of Ike’s being there. I don’t see how a well-run pot shop can hurt the neighborhood.”