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Ms. Helen, Africatown, and Black Wall Street: Visions for the future of 23rd and Union

(Images: Jeremy Hurd-McKenney for CHS)

With major elements like a Public Development Authority or a land trust still on the drawing board, community members met with Africatown Seattle and the Union Street Business Association Saturday to talk about the future of 23rd and Union and landowner Tom Bangasser’s still-for-sale Midtown Center block. There was one solid announcement about the future of the property, however.

Bangasser introduced longtime community members Helen Coleman and her daughter, Jesdarnel “Squirt” Henton. The ladies were there to provide lunch and context for the changes at 23rd and Union and to announce that a lease for Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Bistro had been finalized with Bangasser.

Ms. Helen said the legacy of the Central District is “all about community and how you define home. I’m glad to have this privilege to come out of retirement to get what we need back in this community.” Ms. Helen and Henton spoke of the four generations of family the business would be representing. “Not only does it benefit my family, but it benefits my family,” Henton said, gesturing to the audience. “Ya’ll understand me, right?”

Bangasser and Ms. Helen

Bangasser and Ms. Helen

The two confirmed a plan to have Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Bistro open in October after a late spring jumpstart capital event. The pair spoke highly of Bangasser’s support, acknowledging that “he is so on board with us. The space is going to be awesome.” A volunteer sheet was created In the audience after Henton indicated they are also open for community assistance and volunteers to help get the restaurant open.

While the original Ms. Helen’s location has been out of commission since the Nisqually quake of 2001, the mother-daughter team talked about how the neighborhood has seen a “whole, total shift” in just over ten years, a shift away from a black business center. As Africatown’s materials describing a “Black Wall Street” summarized, “[t]he more we align and collaborate around a shared vision for our children and community the more progress we will make.”

Bangasser briefly spoke about how the property remains for sale and how a few offers had been received, but indicated that he is working with Africatown and the Union Street Business Association to determine what should happen with the property. CHS reported in February on Bangasser’s plans for incremental improvements to improve the property following the City Council’s rejection of his bid for a rezone.

Saturday, Africatown representative K. Wyking Garrett began the presentation recognizing that “Seattle has the opportunity to rise to the values it aspires to […] or follow the path it’s on now, like San Francisco, where communities are being uprooted. We have to think of the ecosystem of people.” As part of their community development, the groups partnered with Dr. Sharon Sutton from the University of Washington School of Architecture. Dr. Sutton’s undergraduate architecture class was tasked with considering how to reestablish African identity in light of the gentrification happening across the city within the confines of the original architectural plans of 23rd and Union.

As part of this process, Dr. Sutton led her students in an exploration of African art, dance, literature and textiles in order that students could learn to “design in an Afrocentric way.” This is more than slapping bright patterns and colors on objects, but rather about designing in specific ways to represent black lives. Three student teams worked on projects, with the winning design presented to Africatown. The winning team of students was present and represented a cross-section of the kind of community being discussed, with both males and females from diverse cultures and races.

Incorporating the concept of “Material Justice,” wherein whatever is built should create jobs and utilize local workers, students designed a block complete with public and private spaces, as well as residential units and community locations like an International Business Exchange, a non-denominational Spiritual Center, a fine arts center and a jazz education center, and senior housing.

The idea is to build a multigenerational community with, as Dr. Sutton noted, “buildings that last a long time.”  As she completed her presentation of the work of her students, Sutton noted that “daily life practices, not consumerism, can provide a guide for a more evolved neighborhood.”

More conversation about  preserving and building a black-focused business and residential community will continue in May with an Africatown Entrepreneurs meetup at Taste of Caribbean on 4/25 at 5pm, and a Black Seattle 2035: A Way Forward meeting on 5/2.


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17 thoughts on “Ms. Helen, Africatown, and Black Wall Street: Visions for the future of 23rd and Union” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

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  3. While I am intrigued by the possibility of a bistro run by Ms. Helen (I hear she cooks fantastic things!), I am confused as to why she would locate in a site which is for sale. Isn’t it likely that the Midtown Center will be razed and redeveloped in the not-too-distant future? I wish Ms. Helen the best of luck, but am not sure this is a wise move on her part.

    • Is she going in the old post office? I wondered the same thing, raising money and investing in something that is for sale.

      Is Bangasser holding off on pursuing selling this property?

      Would love some clarification.


      • The whole thing sounds like window dressing, smoke & mirrors to me. As I understand it, The most any new tenant is getting over there is a lease with a 6 month kick out clause. I find it highly improbable that anyone is going to build a restaurant with a lease like that.

      • Agreed! make it meaningful. We’re talking about a $20 million + property. Make a condition of sale that she gets free rent or reduced rent for a specified amount of time or set aside funds for her build out. Make it real not feel good abstractions.

    • Ms Helen and the Bangasser family have a long history. The Bangasser family owned the Coleman building for many years, where Ms Helen’s Soul Food was located, until the Nisqually earthquake in 2001.

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