The Power of Loyalty in the Central District
Gentrification and displacement in Seattle’s African American community brings both pain and opportunity
April 11, 2018
Guest blog By Marie Kidhe
Note: Marie Kidhe is a lifelong resident of the Central District, the events and facilities manager at the Northwest African American Museum, and the project manager for the Seattle Black Panther Party’s 50th Anniversary Conference April 26-28 at Washington Hall and Langston Hughes Cultural Performing Arts Institute.
I was raised in the Central District. This is the area my Ugandan parents were instructed to move to upon their arrival in Seattle in the early 70’s by relatives who had migrated a few years prior. Growing up, it meant something to say you were from the “CD,” as those who were born and raised in this part of Seattle affectionately call it. Being raised in the Central District meant you were blessed with daily exposure to music, organizing, education, spirituality, businesses, food, barber shops, beauty salons, art, adventure… and at times, mayhem, in a place where the people who planted and sowed these seeds represented a strong collective of blackness, a collective that was cultivated with loyalty.
A very smart man once asked me what words I affiliate with “community,” and what word(s) I pair it with when people ask me where I’m from and where was I raised. My immediate response was “loyalty” and he quickly jotted it down and nodded his head in agreement. This smart man happens to be Raleigh Watts, Executive Director of Country Doctor Health Clinics (CDHC), which has operated Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center since the two merged in 1988. The patients served by Carolyn Downs, a clinic that was initially created and overseen by the Seattle Black Panther Party in 1969, are still a strong mixture of black, Latino and other people of color.
Sadly, a great number of Carolyn Down’s current client base no longer live or can afford to live in the Central District, yet they continue to travel to the intersection of 21st and Yesler out of loyalty to a place that gives them respect and great healthcare, caring for each patient like a family member. As many know, gentrification has consumed many parts of the Central District community — leaving a drastic decline in black home ownership, ridiculous rent hikes that have forced many minorities to relocate outside of Seattle, a scarcity of affordable housing, depletion of black-owned businesses and a dramatic surge in out-of-state transplants moving to the neighborhood. Yet there are still many invaluable organizations and institutions like Carolyn Downs and Odessa Brown Clinic, BlackDot/AfricaTown, LANGSTON Seattle, CD Forum, Black Heritage Society and Northwest African American Museum that provide a sense of this community’s black history, brilliance, loyalty and continuity in their work.
The Promenade 23 shopping center, at the intersection of 23rd and Jackson, was one of those special places. But this shopping center, business and social hub of almost 40 years is now an empty hole in the ground. A place that housed a beloved Red Apple Market and a variety of social and economic outlets was torn down and reduced to rubble and memories a few weeks ago. I stood in front of this now hollow place and cried, unsure why my heart felt so heavy and my blood boiled. The property had been purchased by a developer exactly two years ago, but something inside wouldn’t let me really rationalize the undeniable changes, which will transform the block into an apartment building with more than 500 units. Will these units house faces that look like mine?
For nearly four decades this corner, block, shopping center, meetup spot, grocery store and neighborhood hub was a de facto community center. To see it gone brings about feelings of disgust, abandonment, reality and displacement. The blessing is that the loyalty lives on, as does the need to make sure the CD grows and thrives as a vibrant community for those of the African diaspora ... past, present and future.
So when philanthropists or funders ask what they can do to address the problems in this community or the black communities of Greater Seattle, first and foremost ... listen before assuming you know what our community needs. Provide financial support to the organizations whose missions are to cultivate and create in these arenas. Advocate and fund affordable housing and develop homes that incorporate first-time buyers and minority ownership programs. Invest in small businesses, specifically for people of color. Most importantly, be a vanguard in partnership and collective enterprising while encouraging other funders or philanthropists to follow suit.