By Ron Upshaw and Logic Amen.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my life living in “transitional neighborhoods.” At least that’s what they were called when I bought in.
Now these areas are being referred to as a “gentrifiable census tracts.”
Seattle is now the 3rd most gentrifying city in America according to a new study cited in the Seattle Times.
Just so we’re on the same page, Dictionary.com defines gentrify this way: “to alter (a deteriorated urban neighborhood) through the buying and renovation of houses and stores by upper or middle-income families or individuals, raising property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.”
As a person who only recently even entertained the idea of white privilege, let alone understand and accept it as a reality, I use to operate under the following assumptions:
1) Ignore the past. My first instinct, upon reflection, was to not even consider thinking about the historical significance of a neighborhood. I looked at it only as the current set of circumstances and if there was an economic opportunity for me.
I did not stop to ask who lived in this area historically? What is the heritage of this place? Does that story have value?
2) Don’t be the first guy in. If I’m honest, I typically waited until there was some momentum in a neighborhood before I jumped in. I would tell myself, “This might not be the safest place in the world right now, but things are trending in the right direction. In 5-10 years, this house is going to be a gold mine.”
And by “right direction,” I meant the continuation of the gentrification of the area. Property values going up because people were investing in the community. To me, the racial and historic mix of those investing was of no consequence. All that mattered to me was that the values went up.
3) Don’t focus on the losers. In every equation like neighborhood gentrification, there are winners and losers. I don’t know if I did it consciously, but I always focused on the winners. The people I saw buying in low, making improvements, then cashing out high. That’s the club I wanted to be a part of.
I can’t say that I gave much thought to the families that may have called this street home for generations that can no longer afford to live in the house they grew up in. Some people are happy to sell and make a handsome profit, but there are many who feel squeezed by the increase in property taxes and leave begrudgingly. Many even feel coerced by the force of the market’s invisible hand.
The more I’ve lived, the more I’m trying to evolve and open my mind to see more nuance to the things I take from granted. To that end, I reached out to a friend of mine and asked him to respond to my mindset from his perspective.
By way of introduction, the counterpoint is authored by Logic Amen. Logic is a journalist and weekly commentator for 91.3 KBCS. Educator and recording artist who created The Griot Party Experience to create safe places for marginalized people to heal via storytelling.
The story of how the Black seed was weeded or weed the Black seed to meet the white need…
I often tell people there is power, healing and strength in telling your story. The story of how gentrification impacted Black and Brown people in the central district of Seattle is a great example how storytelling can be used to heal old wounds, resolve conflict and lay the blueprint to building a better future.
A brief story of the relationship between the Black and Brown people and the Central District of Seattle, Washington…
The central District aka the “CD” is the second oldest community in Seattle. The international district or China Town is the oldest. The CD was also the Mecca for the Black upper, middle and working class. The CD became a robust bastion of Black and Brown intelligence and talent. The CD became the home of Quincy Jones, Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, The Black Panthers, and Ernestine Anderson. Ray Charles documented how the CD was a major stop in the Chitlin Circuit. The CD was home to a robust financial community where Black owned businesses decorated the blocks. The CD was home to Garfield high school where Bruce Lee, Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix attended. Garfield was Washington state’s first school to break the color barrier with an enrollment of 50% or more Black students. This was Seattle prior to the 80s and 90s. It was the United States’ proverbial Hiram Abiff laying in a shallow grave in the northwest corner of the country.
As Black and Brown people began moving in, white people’s xenophobia, white supremacy, and racism were triggered. They attempted to redline the area which included gerrymandering and other exclusionary tactics until the white people conceded and fled in droves. They didn’t want to share the CD with Black and Brown people. This impacted the value of the property because with Black and Brown people comes the profile that you’re slumming it. We were dirtying up the proverbial country club pool water. It was common in the Jim Crow era that when Black and Brown people got in the pool, white people would get out. This did not change when we moved into “their” protected safe places to congregate, spread mayonnaise and pass the Grey Poupon. They headed across the water to Mercer Island, Issaquah, Kirkland and Everett. They drove south on the I-5 corridor to Renton, Kent, Federal way, Tukwila and west to West Seattle. When the white residents left, they took the property value with them.
White residents deserted the CD and the community became financially deficient. The CD became the epicenter of predatory policing where law enforcement came thru like broken contraceptives spreading their unethical practices around like a virus. The Clinton Administration rewarded the Black and Brown vote with Weed and Seed with a side of Three Strikes you’re out legislation. This led to not only predatory policing, but also predatory arrests, convictions and unjust sentencing assigned at a disproportionate rate to the predominantly Black and Brown citizens. This was the CD in the 80s and especially the 90s where I was harassed by law enforcement for having a dirty license plate and no litter bag in my car. People were getting racially profiled, harassed, stopped and detained for suspended licenses, no tabs and minor non moving traffic violations that often resulted in arrests. Too many of my comrades, loved ones and friends were pulled over while walking and riding a bike. The CD became fundraising for the Seattle Police Dept. The monitoring and supervision of the CD became job security for people who worked for the city of Seattle. Black and Brown businesses suffered because the CD became profiled as a high crime community which was instigated by how law enforcement labeled our behaviors, and this influenced how they engaged us. A gang became known as when three or more of us were gathered. Lack of job opportunities facilitated by institutional racism resulted in Black and Brown people abusing drugs and alcohol.
Gang activity flourished because they found profits in selling illegal street drugs. Street entrepreneurs from California migrated to Seattle because Seattle was labeled a new market to sling crack. Seattle is a port and military city thus many poor Black and Brown people had come to the Sea for resources and to escape poverty. Seattle has been known to have more resources than its competitive big and mid-sized cities. With this migration came the Crips, the Bloods and the BGDs. Seattle did not allocate resources to address the needs and health of the CD during this era. As with any place where there are a predominate number of Black and Brown bodies: there is a loss of empathy and compassion. Restorative and social justice is deemed inferior to punitive consequences for unwanted behavior. Contrary to popular racist stereotypes: Black and Brown people do not like or appreciate crime or poverty. Thus, Grandparents wanted out and financial opportunist sought to fund their mass exodus. You see…as a result of government policy, predatory policing and the latent discrimination in real estate: Property in the CD was cheap but was prime soil to go anywhere in Seattle—especially Downtown Seattle and neighboring communities that were home to Microsoft and emerging dot com businesses. Grandparents wanted out of the CD because of the crime and predatory policing. They sold their property for far less than it was worth. No one took the time to educate this community of homeowners who were custodians of a legitimate cultural landmark in Seattle. There was not a concerted effort to educate the Black and Brown home owner. The ruling class didn’t want us to win. The value was in them winning and us losing. So, the majority white real estate venture capitalists proceeded to flip homes like it was a pop culture trend. It was modern day colonialism. White owned interests built their future on the graves of deceased Black and Brown owned businesses. Starbucks started the purge and yoga studios lobbed cherries on top of the white American pie, while white owned cannabis dispensaries set up shop to profit on the same block that we were arrested on during weed and seed. All puns intended. The more white people, the absence of predatory policing. They stand on the block and smoke their weed without being harassed. They run thru the hood in the middle of the night but don’t get stopped and frisked for violating a non-sanctioned curfew like We did.
As I write this, I get sad. I mean tears on the edge of my eyelids sad… threatening to jump. Because too many of these white real estate venture capitalists are attracted to some vintage homes on prime soil. But there is more to the story and I am confident the people in power don’t tell them the story I just told you for the same reason the leaders in military don’t tell soldiers the entire story when they occupy a foreign country. If they told you they were there primarily there for resources and not the welfare and history of the natives…they would be less likely to follow directions. Perhaps if they knew the whole story white real estate venture capitalists would have done more to protect the cultural identity of the CD and thus show compassion to a displaced and oppressed people. The question now is: Now that you know…What are you going to do?
Indeed. What are we going to do? I can’t speak for everyone, but I would like to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
As I type this, my house is in a city that is barely majority white: 50.2% to be exact. By the next census, it will be a white minority. Like all homeowners, I want the value of my house to go up. I want the schools to be strong so that children get a good education. I want there to be successful restaurants, bars, and local businesses.
As for what I intend to do? I think my biggest contribution can be in educating people about their options in real estate. I have represented people from many different nationalities buying and selling real estate, and knowledge truly is power.
We live in an area on the rise. There is a lot of wealth, power, and competition in play right now. I don’t know of a way to stop the march of development, but I can do my part to be more respectful of the past. I can do my part to fight hard for people to get what’s theirs, and to never be a part of being a predatory mindset when it comes to the place people call home.
Gentrification is happening, it’s up to all of us to shape it in a just and fair process for as many people as possible.
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