Light rail on the left, Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts on the right, and The Original Phillys front and center.
  • Courtesy of Artspace
  • Light rail on the left, Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts on the right, and the Original Philly's front and center.

Last April, it was a fight. A record number of applicants showed up to compete—sleeping on the cold sidewalk—for the 57 new low-cost artist apartments at Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts.

Six months later, the lofts are full and the businesses at street level are open, and everybody's celebrating. Along Rainier Avenue in the new loft building, next to the Mount Baker light rail station, there's a cafe, a grocery/deli, a capoeira center, a gallery specializing in African painting and one specializing in artists who have disabilities, storefronts for Washington Trails Association and Urban Wilderness WORKS, a Vietnamese bilingual preschool, and a child-modeling agency. Quite a mix. Everyone can still get a Philly cheesesteak at the joint that's been next door all along, the Original Philly's.

What was the fight about? It was about whether Mt. Baker Lofts would look like its racially and economically diverse neighborhood.

Nobody wanted to see the centrally located city lofts become a white outpost, but nobody had a clear answer for how that was going to happen.

A street campaign arose to raise awareness about the disproportionately high number of white artists in other art buildings in Seattle that are also owned by nonprofit developer Artspace. On the night of the sleepout at Mt. Baker Lofts in April, the line was buzzing with talk about "our" neighborhood. Across the street from Mt. Baker Lofts, Franklin High School has a student body that's 90 percent people of color. Young artists who'd graduated from Franklin came to the sleepout in force, as did other artists of color living or working nearby, to stake their claim.

Well, it turns out several of them got spots at Mt. Baker Lofts, including Bo Kim, Ari Glass, Syed Taqi, and Jamil Suleman.

At the October 1 grand opening of the building—a night when the artists performed and presided over their open studios—Kristi Brown-Wokoma (That Brown Girl Cooks) and Cyreeta Mitchell were rushing around prepping and hosting. But both said in passing that Artspace had done a good job making sure the building reflects the neighborhood. "Too white?" I asked, in shorthand. "No, no, it's good," Brown-Wokoma called out.

See 37 of the 57 artist residents on their collective Mt. Baker Lofts website.

Definitive or complete data won't be forthcoming.

Artspace, the nonprofit development company responsible for Mt. Baker Lofts, is based in Minneapolis. It has two other buildings in Seattle: Tashiro Kaplan Artists Lofts and Hiawatha Lofts. In both of those, Artspace was required to compile and submit demographic data to the government due to rules that came with federal money. Mt. Baker Lofts got no federal money, so no demographics have been compiled, "for privacy reasons," Artspace spokesperson Melodie Bahan e-mailed.

Artspace is also forbidden by law from giving preference to any racial group. But to address what Artspace admitted could turn out to become a bad situation, Artspace spent months trying to get the word out about the upcoming project to diverse South End, and hoped it would work. The activists who organized were a force, too.

"We do believe that we have a very racially diverse community of artists in Mt. Baker, based on the intake process and artist interviews," Bahan e-mailed. "And the commercial tenants are certainly reflective of that."

Rules are different in New York, where Artspace recently received 53,000 applications for 90 units for El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, she said. You are reading those numbers right: 53,000 applications for 90 spots. Bahan elaborated:

The issues you raise are good ones, and in my (somewhat brief) time at Artspace I’ve seen tremendous effort going into the pre-leasing outreach at properties across the country. For example I’m very involved in the lease-up of our first New York City project and the process is one you should take a look at. Because of the huge need for affordable housing in that city, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development has very strict rules that govern the process. They do not allow “first-come, first-served” applications as is the case in most communities [including Seattle].

The 53,000 applications we received for El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 (yes, that’s 53,000 applications for 90 units), were entered into a random lottery. Those applicants with a preference rise to the top (that includes artists, of course, but also current residents of East Harlem, where the project is located; as well as preferences for those with mobility, visual and hearing disabilities).

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I’m not saying that every city should use a similar process, but by reserving 50% of the units for current residents of East Harlem, the City and Artspace hope to have an artist community in the building that reflects the (particularly Latino) culture of the neighborhood.

Addressing the persistence of socioeconomic disparities in this country today often requires making end runs around the fed-level illogic that says that, as Supreme Court Justice John Roberts wrote (committing an intellectual felony for which he should be disbarred), "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

On the contrary, when you start noticing that you're already discriminating on the basis of race—by reaching out only to, say, mainstream artist venues you already know—you can begin to rectify the situation. Go Artspace, may the trend continue, and hey, Seattle, if you're worried about gentrification in the city proper, why don't you consider a stipulation like New York's?