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Originally published on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2015 at 8:00 AM

The Gentrification of Seattle's Central District

The long-term Black residents in Seattle’s Central District agree: the gentrification of Seattle is near complete. Folks of color are being directly forced out of the historically black Central District and South end neighborhoods at epic rates. In the past four decades our city has witnessed a staggeringly “dramatic shift in the racial landscape of the Central District, Seattle’s traditionally African American community,” (No New Jail blog). The neighborhood transformed from being 79% black in 1968 to 21% today. Understandably, Central District residents report feeling the heavy weight of displacement. “I never thought I would see the time when I am driving through and white folks would look at me strangely. I’m like, ‘I grew up in this area, what are you looking at me for?’” says Mount Calvary Christian Center pastor Reggie Witherspoon.

Historically, Black people didn’t decide to reside in this area because they actually had a choice. Rather, they were shut out from many other parts of Seattle. In 2006, University of Washington students uncovered 126 covenants relating to thousands of properties all over Seattle. The documents reveal the racism of Capitol Hill’s not-too-distant past. It was once an intentional community policy to keep the Central District Black so that Capitol Hill could remain White.

Specific examples of these racial/racist covenants include:

Greenwood: “No person or persons of Asiatic, African, or Negro blood, lineage or extraction.”

South Lake City: “No person of African, Japanese, Chinese, or of any other Mongolian descent.”

Ballard/Sunset Hills: No “Hebrew or … any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race.”

And if it wasn’t legal housing discrimination restricting Blacks from other areas around Seattle, then it was other informal practices. Historically, “redlining” was the practice of denying or charging more for services, such as loans and insurance, on the basis of race, in a particular area. It refers to when banks marked a red line on a map to delineate the communities they wouldn’t invest in. Seattle banks discriminated against Black families, making it difficult for many to improve their neighborhoods. It was so bad, that in 1968 Thomas Purnell, a Black man, opened Liberty Bank at 23rd and Union, in part so he could lend money to black families who were otherwise shut out of white-owned banks.

Institutional and historical racist acts forced an entire population of people into an area, cutting them off from economic opportunity and mobility. But if racist systems forced Black communities together, then today, those same systems are tearing these thriving communities apart. Our sister-paper, Seattle Times, Reporter Gene Balk states, “While Seattle’s median household income soared to an all-time high of $70,200 last year, wages for blacks nose-dived to $25,700 — a 13.5 percent drop from 2012. Among the 50 largest U.S. cities, Seattle now has the ninth lowest income for black households.”

As one of the most prosperous cities in the nation, Seattle must fight anti-Black racism that marginalizes and devalues the people who have made their lives here and contribute to the richness of Seattle. That’s why is it is up to all of us to make a personal pledge to change ourselves, policies, and institutions to reflect a world where Black lives really do matter, where Black and poor communities have the opportunity to decide the destinies of their lives and their neighborhoods.