Central District community members, including the descendants of Liberty Bank founders, celebrate the groundbreaking of a new community land trust.
Central District community members, including the descendants of Liberty Bank founders, celebrate the groundbreaking of a new community land trust. ASK

On Monday, members of the Central District community gathered to celebrate a groundbreaking ceremony on the Liberty Bank Building and Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The redevelopment project, intended to address the neighborhood's rapid gentrification, will provide affordable housing units and retail space for minority- and women-owned businesses on the former site of Liberty Bank, the first Black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest.

"This is about bringing ownership back into our community," K. Wyking Garrett, co-founder of Africatown, said during the celebration. "The work and principles of Africatown embodied in the Liberty Bank Building are critical, are crucial to making Seattle a world class city... not just a one class city."

The Juneteenth celebration included singing of the Black National Anthem, dance performances by Northwest Tap Connection and Otunoba African Dance Theatre, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and a host of speakers, including King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, and Washington State Representative Eric Pettigrew.

Although the air of the celebration was jubilant, a deep anger and grief for the death of Charleena Lyles, a Black mother of four who was killed by Seattle police on Sunday, loomed over the event. In the ceremony's opening remarks, Marcia Arunga connected Lyles' death with the ugly history of lynchings of Black people in the United States.

"The events of yesterday, the tragedy, the murder makes [today] bittersweet," Garrett said in his remarks. "Juneteenth is a celebration of the resilience in the face of extreme adversity. ... [to fight for] those rights, the freedom to live, the freedom to grow, to be well, to thrive, to be safe—rights that Charleena Lyles was robbed of yesterday.

He continued: "We celebrate this groundbreaking of the new Liberty Bank Building to provide a sense of place, connection, rootedness, and sanctuary for our communities going forward. This is what the Central District has been for Black people for more than 130 years."

Pat Wright and Josephine Howell sing the Black National Anthem before the groundbreaking ceremony.
Pat Wright and Josephine Howell sing the "Black National Anthem" before the groundbreaking ceremony. ASK

Africatown, Black Community Impact Alliance, Centerstone, and Capitol Hill Housing agreed to work together on the Liberty Bank Building and equitable development plans in the Central District through a formal partnership announced last October. Once construction is complete, the Liberty Bank Building will provide five floors—about 115 units—of affordable studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments, which will be specifically marketed within the Central District community to people who have been or are at risk of being displaced.

In 15 years, when it comes time to sell the building, Central District community members and groups will have the first right of refusal to purchase the building, said Joshua Okrent, senior manager of fund development at Capitol Hill Housing. This type of arrangement, which is uncommon, allows community groups "to own [the building], to keep affordable into perpetuity," he said.

Kenneth Ransfer, who has served as a pastor at Greater Mt. Baker Baptist Church for 21 years, said the original Liberty Bank, founded in 1968, "planted the seed for a prosperous African American community." This redevelopment, he says, continues that legacy.

"Without the African American community in the Central District, there is no true Central District," Ransfer said. "Most folks don't want to move. They want to be loyal [to the neighborhood]. There's too many memories, history here."

Makeda Ebube, a solo artist, said rapid gentrification in the neighborhood has "made it difficult to cohesively, collectively work together" as a community. "Now is the time to recognize that we need to have an inclusive policy going forward," she said.

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Garrett of Africatown, whose grandfather Holbrook L. Garrett co-founded Liberty Bank, said these type of community redevelopment projects, which are also called community land trusts, are "an important tool" to ensure communities of color don't get pushed out of their neighborhoods.

Africatown recently partnered with conservation nonprofit Forterra and Seattle-based developer Lake Union Partners to redevelop MidTown Center, which stands across the street from the Liberty Bank Building site.

Construction on the Liberty Bank Building is expected to be completed in September 2018, according to Capitol Hill Housing.