#blacklivesmatter: As the Central District blanches, a house speaks

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Inye Wokoma inside his mother’s former house (Image: Casey Jaywork)

On New Year’s Eve, Inye Wokoma joined three of his brothers to tour the gutted skeleton of a house on Marion. “This was our mother’s house,” he later told friends, “owned by our grandparents, and the center of our childhood and young adult lives.” Strapped for cash, the family recently decided to sell the house and reinvest the proceeds into adjacent rental properties.

The house’s story is a microcosm of the Central District, the historically black and increasingly white series of neighborhoods between downtown and Lake Washington. “The black vitality of the Central Area was mighty and strong” during the post-WWII decades, says longtime resident Vivian Phillips. From 1940 to 1960, the black population of Seattle grew by more than 600%. Phillips describes the CD of that time as a bastion of black business, black community, and black activism.

But in recent decades that outpost of what some call “the African diaspora” has been eroding. In 1990, the CD’s black residents outnumbered whites by nearly three-to-one, writes Seattle University’s Henry McGee, Jr. By the turn of the millennium, whites had become the majority. “You can call it displacement, you can call it an exodus,” says Wokoma. “The community I grew up with no longer exists… People basically dispersed and found places where they could afford to live.” Places, that is, outside Seattle.

“Nobody’s disputing that communities change, that people move from one place to another,” Wokoma says, but because of rising housing prices, “this issue of forced displacement is a real issue” regardless of whether “that forced displacement is…a result of folks taking an interest in an area, or [of] more overt mechanisms like housing covenants.”

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From the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project’s overview of racial housing covenants. CHS looked at the covenants here.

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Spatial concentration of Seattle’s black population, 1960. 1 dot = about 25 people. (Source: The Forging of a Black Community)

Like many black Seattle families, Wokomas’ family’s residency can be traced to World War II. After serving in the military, Wokoma says, his grandfather, Franklin Joseph Green, took his discharge money and started looking for a house to buy. “He essentially was about the business of creating the life that he wanted his family to have,” says Wokoma. Like any homebuyer, Green used the telephone to call different realtors to ask about potential properties.

One memorable reply: “We’ve got a great house in a neighborhood with no niggers and no Jews!” said the realtor. Green showed up to the realtor’s office the next day. He said, “I’m here to see the house in the neighborhood with no niggers and no Jews.” And then he went and saw it.

Green eventually bought a duplex on 24th Ave, where he and his wife became the first black residents on their block, says Wokoma, “against the wishes of their neighbors.” Over the next 30 years, his grandfather gradually acquired and renovated more than half a dozen properties, some abandoned, which he rented almost exclusively to extended family members. Wokoma recalls growing up in those houses as part of a tight-knit community of mutual aid. “You had this kind of internal economy that developed” between family members and neighbors, Wokoma says.

Today, Wokoma is trying to hold the properties together, as the CD he knew and loved becomes evermore diluted by outside money and new neighbors. When you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and are watching your home gradually deteriorate around you, he says, it’s hard to say no when someone offers you $100,000 for the property. But self-exile in exchange for fast cash can turn out to be a Faustian bargain. “In the moment, it seems like an ideal proposition. Because in every other sector in your life, you’ve hit roadblocks,” he says. But then “you find yourself somewhere in Kent. The grocery store is three miles away, there’s no sidewalks… [and] half your family is living in the CD.”

Wokoma reckons that the CD’s soul is already dispersed beyond repair. But that doesn’t mean he wants Black Seattle to march quietly into the suburbs. Far from it: Wokoma wants to have “a larger conversation about what’s happening in our society, about what gentrification is a symptom of.” And that conversation has to happen now, Wokoma says, because we’re at a crossroads: Just as the influx of blacks into northern cities after the Reconstruction shaped the urban demography of the 20th century, the influx of whites into city centers and corresponding displacement of blacks onto cities’ peripheries will shape the urban demography of the 21st century.

Do we want that?

“We should decide whether we’re going to create something with intention,” Wokoma says. “Do we want a 21st century [social] Darwinian society?… We have an opportunity to create something different, something more equitable… and these conversations aid in that intentionality.”

CHS met Inye Wokoma after reading this essay he shared via Facebook on December 31st:

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 9.48.20 PMWe were born into an amazing story.

On New Year’s Eve 2014 three of my brothers and I walked through the home we grew up in. This was our mother’s house, owned by our grandparents, and the center of our childhood and young adult lives. The home was sold earlier this year by the guardians of our grandmother’s estate (our grandmother has alzheimers and requires 24/7 care) in order to generate cash to renovate two other homes in the family. The new owners have gutted the entire house, stripping it down to its frame.

As we walked through the house we talked about what it means to be a black family fighting to maintain a foothold in the neighborhood we grew up in. A neighborhood that has rapidly transformed around us. We talked about the economic challenges and all of the ways we need to reorient ourselves to the current reality to avoid the loss of more of our family homes, and by extension, more of our sense of place and identity.

This is the most recent chapter in our family’s 67 year story of building family and community in Seattle’s Central District. It is a story building community and family despite the monumental forces of racism and discrimination during the 20th century. It is about nurturing a thriving community, culture and economy over half a century. It is also about individual and communal displacement, gentrification, and the struggle to maintain a cohesive sense of family and community despite overwhelming tides of change.

As the sun set on 2014 we stood together, facing the new year with a quiet challenge to one another to think bigger, plan farther ahead, stay focused, committed and connected to a shared goal of saving what is left of our family homes and continuing the legacy of community building that our elders and ancestors passed on to us.

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20 thoughts on “#blacklivesmatter: As the Central District blanches, a house speaks

  1. At what point do you “freeze” the neighborhood so you can call it historically this race or that race? Before it was historically black it was historically another race.

    • I hear this comment enough to ask, where do you see anyone suggesting “freezing” the neighborhood? Citation please. (And no, “implying” doesn’t count)

    • I too keep wondering why we only here about this one window of time in the CD’s history. It has a very colorful history. It was first logged off by European Americans, then came the Jews around 1890. The Japanese shifted over around 1920 from the International District until WWII and they were physically removed from their CD.
      It wasn’t until after the war that it really grew into a “bastion of black businesses.” According to Historylink.org this only lasted into the ’90’s. That is barely one generation. An important chapter in Seattle’s history, but one of many chapters that make up the story of the CD.

  2. So, as we head into elections, ask yourself: What, if anything has ANYONE on council, apart from Kshama and maybe Mike O’brien done to raise the issue of the exodus and realignment of Seattle to be one for the wealthy?

    The fact is, many who are fleeing Seattle today are NOT flocking to “better” neighborhoods, idealized suburban “pastures” or running from rampant violence. They are being squeezed out by rich people with too much money (but want that money to earn them even more and want to shelter that money from taxes) who park it in real estate investing that’s a huge cause of the current construction boom. If Seattle’s City government wanted to blaze a trail and actual represent those it’s forcing out, it’d come up with new ways to manage that cash influx, new ways to manage housing costs and demands. Shit, pick up a copy of Dwell magazine and you’ll learn more about affordable and nice housing solutions than we ever get from City Hall!

    Gee, let’s create an ‘arts district’! (that’s $50 million short, a failure on its framework and 15 years too late).

    This is what results when we elect process dullards beholden to developers and the super wealthy. Vote them out!

    • I was forced out due to constant sky rocketing rents. I lived in Cap Hill for years. Until about 2008 everything was fine. After that with the influx of tech workers, my rent kept going up and up. I was forced to move every 6-12 months due to greedy landlords who could obtain a higher rent rate with little to no remodeling simply due to the demand from the tech market and others with money flooding the city.

      I now live in Des Moines, can’t walk anywhere since there is nowhere within a decent walking distance, a neighborhood lacking avibrant culture and overall, my quality of life in terms of my neighborhood sucks. Many of my neighbors are also former long time Seattle residents displaced by the ridiculous price out of the lower to middle class. Every neighborhood in Seattle is feeling the tech industry pinch. Longtime residents are being forced out left and right and being replaced with new residents willing to pay $1500+ a month for a place that rented for only $800 five years ago. I normally have no problem with new residents coming in and people moving into the city. But at what cost? People should not be losing their homes, small businesses and neighborhoods at the rate that is currently happening in all parts of Seattle.

      • “Every neighborhood in Seattle is feeling the tech industry pinch. ”

        Since everyone blames the tech industry, what’s the alternative? Where would jobs be coming from if it wasn’t for Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc.? This was a blue collar kind of city, but manufacturing jobs have already left the country. Tech may have kept Seattle from basically going the way of Detroit.

        It would be useful to hear more data about people leaving the city; I’m guessing it wouldn’t be quite as black and white (er, unfortunate pun not intended) as stated here. People with value in a house can get a much larger house in the ‘burbs, and may not be as fixated on walkability and such because maybe they’re a family. (Suddenly the quality of schools become more pressing than the quality of the local bar and coffee.) The burbs also tends to be more conservative, and not all people like the Socialist Republic of Seattle (particularly when all of these social services mean higher property taxes on homeowners).

        These are complex issues where throwing out the boogeyman of tech ruining the city doesn’t tell the whole story.

      • Or to put another argument out there, instead of attacking tech for pricing people out of the area, why not attack the city (and the tech companies) for not producing more tech workers, particularly in lower-income areas? Companies like Amazon are hiring from all over the country because this region has failed to keep up with demand because we have fundamental problems in our school systems.

        So yeah, raising rents sucks. But the issue there is that salaries also aren’t rising with the increases. You can try to attack both problems instead of fixating on one.

  3. I’ve been wondering about this house for a while…I live right around the corner from it and really hope it gets the restoration it deserves. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Things change. Seattle is a “hot” city, especially for tech, that increases prices. Unless the economy or Amazon tanks(not out of the realm of possibility ) prices are going to keep going up.

    Being a West Coast city, I’d gamble long term pricing is going to continue to go up. So you can
    1. Leave
    2. Buy
    3. Increase your pay

    I’m quite sure 40-30-20-15-10-5 years ago people in the Bay Area said the same thing. As long as demographics and economics are pairing together…good luck.

    • Well, that’s a myopic oversimplification “Simon”.

      Gee, let’s ignore the fact that black people (and all less-powerful people) are pushed AND pulled around by “market forces” and, instead, post metaphorical drivel. Heck, it’s easier than taking the time to fairly analyze and consider what’s been posited.

      When white people resort to White Flight, yes, it’s rooted in racism. When black people are forced out/priced out of their neighborhoods that they settled long ago (or Jews, Japanese or plaid-colored people, or any less-powerful folks for that matter), it is wrong. The system is broken and has been for a long time.

      It amazes me how so many people seek to justify it all as “just the way it is” rather than wake up and get out of the lemming’s stupidity lane. I suppose most folks don’t care until it’s happening top them.