SEATTLE – Not so long ago, few whites wanted to live in Seattle’s diverse Central District, so it housed the people who had no choice.
Synagogues point to the neighborhood’s long-gone Jewish past, an immigrant community that was joined by Japanese-Americans. Their internment in World War II left the way clear for a wave of African-Americans, who settled in big numbers and turned the area into the heart of Seattle’s black community.
Now things are changing once again and the district’s long-term black residents don’t much like it.
After a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, sausage and potatoes, Michael Brown reminisced about local life 50 years ago, recalling the tense nature of relations between the city’s police and its African-American residents.
“Every time the police came, it would draw groups of people,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Brown, then just 9, remembered police landing en masse one day, how he was instructed to run at full speed to the nearby office of the Black Panther Party, a political organization founded in 1966 to monitor U.S. police forces and challenge any brutality meted out to blacks.
Today, that old Panther office is an Ethiopian travel agency, a lone immigrant business on an otherwise establishment block of wine shops, cafes, and boutiques — fancy businesses that anchor a neighborhood of million-dollar houses.
The only panther to be seen in this rapidly rising distinct is the one that serves as mascot for the local elementary school, a beacon of hope far removed from its activist roots.
In April, the Black Panther Party’s Seattle chapter celebrated its 50th anniversary with a free breakfast like the kind it offered children in the 1960s and 1970s, but in a city that has changed dramatically since the Panthers’ heyday.
Founded in the aftermath of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the Seattle chapter was the first to be established outside of California, where the African-American activist group started out in Oakland.
The Panthers — in trademark berets and leather jackets — established themselves in majority black neighborhoods and were known for militant politics, preaching self-determination and armed self-defence in the face of police brutality and widespread discrimination.
The Seattle Panthers also provided essential social services to an underserved community, offering free breakfasts — later turned into a federal program — grocery deliveries for the elderly and a free health clinic that still operates today.
Yet much else has gone in the intervening half century.
Many of the old-timers who convened for the anniversary celebrations said they no longer recognized their own neighborhood after a decade of intense population growth.
Freda Burns, a retiree who volunteers at the city’s African-American history museum, moved to Seattle as a child in 1950, a time when nonwhites in the United States were restricted by real estate covenants and mortgage loan policies to certain neighborhoods, a practice known as “red lining.
Seattle’s red-lined neighborhood was the Central District, an enclave of single-family homes east of downtown and home to the first black-owned bank west of the Mississippi River.
When the Panthers kept watch, its black population topped 70 percent, creating a strong sense of community.
“Growing up as a child I always thought there were a lot of black people in Seattle,” Burns said, even though in the 1950s, census data show the city was 94 percent white.
In today’s Central District, less than 1 in 5 residents is black, according to census figures.
Brown attributes the drop to rapid redevelopment in one of the fastest growing U.S. cities, fueled by developers who buy older bungalows from black families and replace them with multiple townhouses that sell at or above the neighborhood’s average home price of $800,000.
“We’re not losing people one for one,” Brown said. “One black family moves out and they build four to six houses.”
Those who can afford the new houses, meanwhile, are more likely to be white and work in the booming high-tech sector.
Nor is this trend just hitting Seattle, perched high in the Pacific Northwest.
Brown pointed to similar waves of white gentrification and black displacement on the East Coast, transforming Harlem in New York City and the seat of government in Washington, D.C.
“This ethnic cleansing thing is going on all over the country,” he said. “I don’t know of any place that did it better than Seattle — they completely dismantled the community.”
Seizing on the Panthers’ legacy, some locals now hope to get political and turn the tide.
K. Wyking Garrett is a third-generation resident of the district who acutely diagnoses the city’s current paradox.
“Seattle is booming but black Seattle is busting,” he said.
So Garrett started Africatown, a community land trust that has acquired land for redevelopment into affordable homes, marketed to blacks who cannot afford the district’s hefty rents and home prices.
Africatown received a $1 million grant from the City of Seattle on July 5 to support its redevelopment of a strip mall in the heart of the district into housing and stores for black-owned businesses.
“Our values call for a Seattle that all communities can call home, and where all residents have access to a positive future,” said Seattle planning director Sam Assefa in a statement. “Our aim is to improve racial equity and knock down institutional barriers to create a city in which everyone thrives.”
The effort comes as long-time residents feel disoriented.
“When I moved back to the Central District in 2010, it had changed so much,” Burns said. “There are hardly any black people now, they are spread out all over. It’s really ironic because this is the only place they were allowed to buy homes at first.”
Brown described how a recent visit to the neighborhood with his brother provoked an anxiety attack.
“I have landmarks but the physical environment isn’t the same anymore,” he said. “It’s tragic because when you lose your community, you lose your sense of being.”