Black History Month Series

The Preservation of Seattle’s Black History- Shelf Life Project – Documentation of Gentrification

Yesterday the Apple Promenade building was torn down, when I initially saw the video my heart dropped. Although I knew that the day was coming, this was the day that the project had been preparing for that initially inspired activists to collect stories, even then I couldn’t help but be surprised as the concrete was destroyed to make room for an apartment complex, “The Promenade is coming down, and with it a number of small businesses, most of them owned by POC. And, of course, the Red Apple, a community center masquerading as a grocery store. All to make way for more market-rate apartments that no one can afford,” Shelf Life described on their Instagram post. The truth behind the statement is heartbreaking.


“I’m devastated that Red Apple is closing, I don’t think people realize the impact of that; of being in that grocery store with the soul music pumping through and when you tell people how to get to Jackson and 23rd you’d say ‘go to the promenade’ that’s where you met” -Maria Kidhe

Seattle’s Black history is shocking, we like to think that segregation was limited to Southern regions of the country but de jure segregation was legally enforced in Washington State as well, and for centuries Central District was the only area in Seattle where Blacks were allowed to rent or own a home, banks redlined Blacks making it impossible for them to get a loan for any other neighborhood and although racial discrimination was illegal in the state many business including hospitals like Providence and Swedish, refused to serve minorities. Shelf Life reports, “Residents responded to housing discrimination, inadequate infrastructure, job discrimination, underfunded schools, and police violence, with innovation, creativity, community leadership, tenacity, and solidarity.” Like in areas throughout the country where Blacks were forced out in an attempt for them to shrivel back, instead they built up within themselves and among their own. Shelf Life used a space just to the right of the shopping center as a recording studio and gathering hub, its aim is to preserve the beauty of this communities response by capturing as many stories as possible.

Instead of continuing to allow residents to build up, embracing the businesses owned and operated by people of color the city is using the narrative of, There was nothing here anywhere, to tear down and replace the communities successful response to centuries of racism and discrimination. This narrative is perpetuated by new residents, anxious to replace the old with new, policymakers arguably seeking to cover their own asses to replace this symbol of strength an effect of their centuries of working to maintain racism, and developers who see the transformation of the community center as a money-making opportunity. The situation reminds me of the destruction of Black Wall Street, its been less than a century since mobs destroyed one of the country’s most profitable Black neighborhoods in Oklahoma city. Mobsters don’t need torches and pick forks now that they’ve evolved into the role of policymakers and developers they can more effectively transform Black community centers without the risk of violence that would draw negative attention. In Michigan, where my father and other Black business owners operated stores in Green 8 Shopping Center, a shopping center across the lot from Northland, America’s oldest mall was torn down in order to build another development. My father was forced out of his store, Tracks, where he’s made millions in the early 90s. This reality made my blood boil. Why are the rights of some communities valued over that of others? If a community is thriving in an area, that ha’ve been historically flourishing in, why is it that a developer can see ‘nothing’ there?

Like Green 8 Shopping Center, the Apple Promenade functioned as a black community center and I’ve come to realize that because that the function and preservation of the center isn’t valued simply because community isn’t valued. In Seattle, Detroit, Oklahoma and across the nation, the evidence is clear, where Blacks are flourishing in the areas we’ve been ‘assigned’ or pushed off to deteriorate after discriminated by the schools and hospitals, we thrive and that flourishing is not only exasperating, its threatening. This is why I was drawn to the Shelf Life project when I’d heard about it from my previous professor, Jill Freidberg, a documentary filmmaker, oral historian, radio producer, and youth media educator. While at the University of Washington her course taught me how I could use film to inspire change and I was excited to see that in action with this project.

Over the Summer of last year I’d attended a few of Shelf Life’s events. In June I’d participated in an audio recording workshop that taught community members hands on skills in how to use audio recording equipment while recruiting additional story recording volunteers. Shelf life was doing work on the front and back-end, serving communities on both sides of the mic. Capturing narratives to document the history of the area while concurrently teaching community members how to use recording equipment and audio editing software. Shelf Life provided a space for community members to reflect and celebrate Central District, it was doing the work of preserving the history of the promenade by inviting members of the community to record their experiences with the project in the story booth which also served a therapeutic role for individuals struggling to see what was their ‘home’ away from them. Residents would no longer have access to the place that helped shape them, meet friends, make connections, hangout. Last year I’d also attended events hosted by Shelf Life which featured live talks from prominent individuals who’d been shaped by the promenade as well as artwork and poetry, a sort of interactive gallery that celebrated the Central Districts History. Not being from Seattle I appreciated the Black History oozing out of the room, I was learning more about a culture that new Seattle residents aren’t being introduced to and that policymakers are leading us to believe was never there.

When you visit Shelf Life’s website you have the chance to hear and read about several stories from young and old alike, please take the time to bask in the glow of Seattle’s Black History:

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About Amani Sawari

I am a University of Washington alum, Class of 2016. I graduated with my Bachelors Degree in two majors: Media and Communications AND Law, Economics and Public Policy. It's a mouthful but it illustrates how I have a hard time doing only one 'thing'. I am a writer, poet, singer, songwriter and much more. I enjoy sharing my experiences and perspectives with those who are interested and I am a proud member of the black diaspora!
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