Community thought leaders, activists and performers are organizing events around the city as part of Town Hall’s a year-long artists in residence event series. Designer Erik Molano brought together passionate activists for an ambitious undertaking with his first event, Histories of Capitol Hill and What We’ll Build Next. Before an audience at the Summit on E Pike last week they explored the challenge of maintaining the heritage of a community through growth and development.
“A lot of these buildings are being erased and with them the memories and people who inhabited them or gathered in and expressed themselves in those buildings,” said Molano, co-founder of brand agency Photon Factory. For Molano, who moved to Seattle five years ago to work at Microsoft, the demolition of old buildings “is a loss of history.”
Following individual poetry readings and a presentation from Capitol Hill Housing at the Summit on Pike, a group of community advocates responded to prompts from Molano in an effort to determine what preserving heritage in a developing city means. The group spoke on a wide range of intersectional issues related to the affordable housing crisis.
The event was presented by Town Hall Seattle with funding from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods and sponsorship by The Cloud Room. The Inside/Out Resident program is a series of community events during the year-long renovation of Town Hall on First Hill. The events are organized by a number of Seattle artists, performers and advocates from each district.
Participants last Monday grappled with the complex undertaking of negotiating equitable large scale municipal growth through poetry and personal stories. A consensus on ideas of ownership, heritage, and inclusion was difficult to achieve throughout the two hour gathering.
Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia Renee described her preference for self segregation as protection from perceived appropriation and land grabs. “I’ve been watching white people go to soul food restaurants and they come in as if they own the place, or that they have power and are rude to people working there, never acknowledging that they’re taking advantage of someone else’s culture.” Renee has lived in Capitol Hill for two years and Washington for over a decade. She shared her personal experience with racial tensions, invisibility and social appropriation of black public figures.
In this tense environment of fear, it seems like new arrivals face an uphill battle. “Anyone who has been at a place longer with more roots should automatically have more privilege in determining what is happening in the area,” Renee said.
The group of seven activists represented an array of gender identities and races and many points of view but shared the same fear of losing their community identity. The focus of the event evolved from a general concern for retaining a sense of place to the affordable housing crisis.
Through their poetry and insight, the participants who work as artists and educators modeled a community looking for common ground while simultaneously jockeying for social and literal territory as rapid and expensive development thins the density of niche social venues like The Cuff and minority populations like LGBTQ+ community elderly.
Capitol Hill Housing senior planner Alex Brennan presented a slideshow depicting the cost structure of projects past such as the 12 Ave Arts development and future endeavors to install affordable housing for youth and elderly members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“We’ve created a system where we’re restricting all of the new development in our city into a very tiny fraction of the city and that’s one reason we’re getting the kind of development we do. We are starting to see people organizing and going to the 65% of our city that is exclusive to single family zoned areas where those houses are becoming worth a million dollars and saying we need to have affordable housing here,” he said.
Participants agreed that affordable housing anywhere in the city should be regarded as a right and not a privilege, though for whom revealed competing agendas. Author Sara Galvin anecdotally suggested the long running tenure of working class residents should be rewarded by entitlement to the neighborhood, whereas others equated the idea of population shifting to the subjugation and discrimination of resident minority groups.
Galvin said she grieves the separation of her family with roots on the Hill as the rising cost of housing is pushing out its previously defining human infrastructure. “I hate the overseas investors that have no stake in the community. They don’t care about queer people or people of color, or poor people or my dad who’s a carpenter who has been working in the shipyards since I was a little kid and he’s had to move out of town. My own dad had to move out of town. I have to get on a f****** bus for an hour to see my own dad,” she said. Galvin read selected poems from her book Ugly Time.
While city officials, unscrupulous developers and the tech industry in Seattle were generally blamed for costing out long time residents, some of the poetry and insights from the speakers implicated negative social dynamics as well. Tokenism, appropriation, ancestral guilt over disenfranchisement of Native communities and regressive identity politics were named as disrupting to the community. The likely conclusion being that once an economically driven exodus from the city center fractures a neighborhood and social friction weakens the community, development can proceed relatively unchecked.
Renee says Capitol Hill’s communities are facing erasure. “Not only are you taking over a place and kicking people out but when you do it you’re being rude and disrespectful and you have no idea about the history – Like why are you upset? We’ve made you ‘re neighborhood safe. I don’t think anyone should come into a space and take over and not even acknowledge – It’s the privilege of wherever I go I own this space.”
As the panel sifted through the vast topic of wealth and inequality, answers to the city’s housing crisis were few — and emblematic of class warfare. Less bleak was the earnest attention of a room filled with 75 community members and the neighborhood’s willingness to talk it out, vent, and come together.