Film examines impact of gentrification on African-Americans in Seattle's Central District | KNKX

Film examines impact of gentrification on African-Americans in Seattle's Central District

Jun 7, 2019

Growth and development have reshaped much of Seattle in recent years. That's especially true in the Central District, the neighborhood that has been the heart of the city's African-American community for decades. A new documentary screening this Sunday explores the toll of gentrification on the community.

The film, "On the Brink," tells the story of a neighborhood that hummed with black-owned businesses, from Helen’s Diner, famous for soul food, to Mr. Gideon's drugstore, where kids would sip malts.

The concentration of black people in the area resulted, in large part, from racial discrimination in housing elsewhere, such as restrictive covenants written into property deeds and redlining in home lending. But that density led to a vitality of culture that drew people such as Donald King, an architect and affiliate professor at the University of Washington College of Built Environments, who moved to the Central District from Los Angeles in 1980 and has lived in the neighborhood ever since.

The neighborhood has lost more and more African-Americans in recent years, especially with the rise of property values that has priced many people out. According to the film, the percentage of African-Americans in the Central District dropped from 73 percent in 1970 to 18 percent in 2014.

But the out-migration actually can be traced all the way back to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, said King, who is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

“When those that had more resources, more education, more money, more value in their property, found that they could live anywhere, over a period of 20 years, there was a brain drain,” King said. “So the neighborhood became poorer.”

Filmmaker Steven Fong teamed up with Jeff Shulman, a professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, to make the hourlong film. Shulman, who produces the Seattle Growth Podcast, said he wanted to examine the particular impact of development on the Central District.

“The film is intended to build a little bit of empathy so that you can understand why some people are not as thrilled with all the new buildings and all the new people and all the new businesses coming in,” Shulman said. “All this 'progress' is also causing some severe sadness.”

But Shulman and King said even with the large numbers of people who have been displaced, there is reason for hope. Groups such as Africatown Community Land Trust are working on building affordable housing and some black-owned businesses are planning to move back to the neighborhood. Additionally, the City of Seattle is making funds available for underserved communities so they can develop their own projects through its equitable development initiative.