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Seattle Council Elections, District 3: Central District Worries About Gentrification

Seattle’s Central District has long been the hub of the city’s African American community -- in part because until the late 1960’s, racist housing covenants and redlining prevented most blacks from living elsewhere in the city.

Even after fair housing laws were passed, the area continued to have the largest percentage of African Americans. Now, long-time residents say they are being forced out by gentrification. And they worry about what is being lost. 

K.L. Shannon has lived here all her life. She works with the Seattle King County NAACP. She’s pretty blunt about what she sees happening to her neighborhood.

“The black community has been pushed out of the Central Area,” Shannon said.

Sitting at a picnic table at Edwin T. Pratt Park -- named for a slain civil rights leader -- Shannon says this Central District spot always been a place where black families gather for birthdays and community events, like Juneteenth. She remembers coming here to at 20th Ave. South.  and E. Yesler a lot as a kid.

Credit Google Maps

“Just playing with my friends, climbing up on the swings, just up here having fun,” she said.

There’s one big difference, though, from when Shannon was young.

“You know, we’re seeing more white folks in the area ,” she said.

White mothers and children and several young white men with dogs stroll by. Shannon  says yes, there are definitely more dogs now.

“I think I’ve seen every kind of dog,” Shannon says with a laugh.

Change is evident, as well, in the businesses across the street. There’s now a white-owned coffee shop along with the traditional black-owned businesses.

“There’s the barbeque that’s right across the street, there’s the corner store,” Shannon said. 

She says these are the sort of places that are disappearing in the neighborhood.

Affordability Is Moving Out?

And it isn’t just the loss of touchstones, like corner stores, that Shannon sees as the downside of gentrification. There’s also the affordability factor. New ‘green built’ condos down the street are selling for $700,000.

In 1970, the population in the neighborhood was nearly 75 percent black. Now it’s less than 20 percent. As the Central District population has shifted away from its black roots, Shannon says she’s noticed what shes as a sense of entitlement on the part of some newer residents. 

Unexpected Allies

But Shannon's views of neighborhood changes are not limited to the downside of gentrification.

A week earlier, there was a march and rally in the Central District. Organized by the NAACP and local African American churches, it was to honor the nine victims of the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Many whites marched alongside blacks chanting, “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice. No Peace.”

“A lot of white folks turned out, they turned out, and a lot of those folks were from around this community,” Shannon said.

So,what does the switch to city district elections mean for gentrification?

Shannon is skeptical it will matter much. She says at a recent candidate forum at an historic black church in the neighborhood, the issue barely got mentioned.  She attributes that to the changing demographics. She says African American issues just aren’t given the weight they once were.  

As for her future in the Central District, Shannon is looking for a new place to live.

"My nephew keeps saying, ‘Let’s move out to the north end.’ But I  don’t want to move out to the north end. I want to be where people look like me,” Shannon said.

Shannon does have to move, though. Her current residence in the Central District has been sold and is about to be demolished to make way for new condos.

Additional District 3 facts:

-- The district is nearly evenly split between women (49.4 percent) and men (50.6 percent);

-- It has the highest percentage of renters (66 percent) in the city;

--  It's the third-largest council district in the city with 91,000 people;

-- The median income is $63,000.

Sources: U.S. Census American Community Survey 2013 and City of Seattle.

Registered candidates for the 2015 District 3 Primary:

Pamela Banks,

Morgan Beach,

Leon Carter,

Rod Hearne,

Kshama Sawant,

Other links: Meet the Districts;

The Seattle Times: district map and information.

About this series:

KPLU is exploring an issue central to each of the seven new districts in the upcoming city council primary election. Last Monday, we explored South Park in District 1 and residents' concerns about crime. On the following Tuesday, we were in District 2 at the Othello light rail station, where residents wait for as-of-yet undelivered new commerce. Then on Wednesday, we went into District 3 and  the Central District where locals fears gentrification is changing the neighborhood for the worse. The next day, Thursday, we went to District 4 where we talked with group of neighbors who were able to limit a developer’s proposalto build five townhomes on a lot currently containing a classic single-family home. On Friday, we discovered why walking is a little riskier in in far-north District 5 than in other parts of town. Yesterday, we heard from District 6 where Ballard residents are concerned about the breakneck pace of development.We wrapped up primary election district coverage with District 7, where an apartment building on Queen Anne's Roy Streethas traditionally has been home to service-industry employees. But now residents there are wondering how much longer can they afford to live in the neighborhood.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.