By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A leading scholar of Seattle’s “white supremacist” history of housing discrimination said it was important for the property developer that is demolishing Keiro and building an apartment complex in its place, to be sensitive to the history of the Central Area.
James Gregory, director of the University of Washington (UW) Seattle Civil Rights and Labor Project, questioned a narrative that implied that an influx of Blacks into the Central Area had displaced Japanese Americans.
Shelter Holdings, LLC, which held a meeting for the Keiro community on Jan. 9, presented the narrative through a signboard that appeared to present two events as happening simultaneously in the year 1942.
Just below 1942, in capital letters, appeared the statement: “WWII JAPANESE ARE EVACUATED TO INTERNMENT CAMPS.”
Immediately below that read, “African Americans move into Central Area.”
The Northwest Asian Weekly later asked Gregory about the apparent conflation of historical events.
“It is true that Nihonmachi was destroyed by internment and that war workers, including African Americans, moved into the neighborhood,” he said.
“But how one tells that story is important.
This was not an African American invasion. Housing discrimination made the Central District virtually the only space which Black families could rent or buy,” he added.
When asked about apparent insensitivity to a racist history of displacement, perpetrated almost exclusively by property developers, Shelter Holdings, LLC said any errors were unintentional and they had hoped to learn from the community the correct narrative.
“The timeline positioning was not intended to make those references or to provide social commentary,” said Eric C. Evans of Shelter Holdings. “Rather it was intended to acknowledge some of the historical events and shifts that have occurred in the area.”
“It was intended to be an acknowledgement of the many cultural groups that have called the Central Area home and whose influence is still evident in the community. We are obviously not historical scholars, but have tried to research the neighborhood’s history,” he said.
“We hoped that if there is information that is incorrect or improperly prioritized that those in the community would … help us better understand the neighborhood,” said Evans, in an email.
At the same time, however, Evans said the timeline was based primarily on information from the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
“In the interest of space, a number of significant events in the history of this very large and diverse neighborhood were unavoidable,” he said.
But it was not clear how events were chosen from the pamphlet he was referring to, “History of the Central Area,” by Thomas Veith. Veith, an architectural historian, researched it for the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.
The pamphlet describes a long and steady history of displacement, first of American Indians out of the Central Area, and then of other marginalized groups into the Central Area.
For instance, according to Veith, the first occupants of the Central Area, American Indians, “surrendered their lands” in exchange for cash and were relocated to reservations.
Blacks began to move into the area as early as 1890 and by 1900 had begun to build a nascent middle class there.
Veith discussed at length restrictive “racial covenants” that defined the history of the area, according to the UW research project.
“Institutionalized racism took many forms, but one way in which it affected the character of the Central Area was through the framing of the legal documents used in the buying and selling of property,” wrote Veith.
“Real estate developers often employed discriminatory language in these documents in the form of “real covenants” (i.e, legal obligations imposed in a deed by the seller upon the buyer of real estate) designed to prevent non-white persons from buying property in particular developments,” he wrote.
According to the UW Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History website, “People of color had little chance of finding housing except in the central neighborhoods of Seattle.”
Moreover, the perpetrators of this practice were the real estate developers themselves.
“As the ‘residential security maps’ illustrated, it was genuinely believed that the presence of racial minorities in Seattle neighborhoods would bring down real estate values. Therefore, realtors encouraged racial segregation in order to maintain property values and sell housing,” according to the UW website.
The timeline provided by Shelter Holdings skips over this defining feature of the Central Area.
The description on the Shelter Holdings timeline states, “As the predominant cultural group in the Central Area shifts throughout history, the neighborhood make-up also shifts.”
“Today, the Central Area consists of each of these cultures, with a concentration of Japanese American history surrounding the project site,” it concludes.
By contrast, one new white resident of the Central District (CD), Carrie Hawthorne, created a YouTube video to explore her feelings of guilt and sadness about the “displacement” she is a part of.
“Gentrification is in motion and not slowing down in the CD. Once the heart of Seattle’s Black community, by 2019 it’s estimated that just 14% of the CD will be Black,” Hawthorne states. She wrote below in her video, “Gentrification in the Central District.”
Hawthorne appears to show remorse for the loss of community that marginalized groups once found in the Central District.
She quotes a Black pastor as saying, “When I grew up here, everyone knew each other. In the 1970s, you didn’t even have to lock the door when you left the house. It was an extended-family kind of concept. That part is completely gone.”
Hawthorne added, “My objective is to help the new wave of people moving to the CD understand the history of the community being displaced and reflect on the sharp contrasts highlighted by our transforming community. I hope to inspire conversation about the conflicts we see around us and what we can do to have a positive impact on the evolving neighborhood.”
Her concerns reflect a broader cultural conversation that is spiraling through Seattle.
The Wing Luke Museum has an ongoing exhibition on redlining. And from November 2017 to June 2018, the Museum of History of Industry (MOHAI) held an exhibition with photos of the Central District, mostly regarding its lively jazz scene, starting in 1940.
Shelter Holdings, in a letter last month inviting community members to attend its meeting, wrote, “We build and own for the long-term and we invest in the communities and neighborhoods where we operate with this in mind.”
Evans told the Northwest Asian Weekly, “We intend to honor the history of the project site and community in both the landscaping and design—it’s too early for us to interpret exactly what that will mean, but we will be back to the community to share ideas as we know more.
After the meeting, Evans, in another letter, thanked community members for ideas they shared and promised to act on some.
He told Northwest Asian Weekly that community members hoped the new development, which is a multi-use apartment building, would be suitable for families. He said some community members had also asked that local retailers on the ground floor include vendors “that help with day-to-day needs like a small-scale grocery store, small restaurant, or coffee shop.”
He said Shelter Holdings does not have any projections yet for pricing for the units or for demographics of who will live in the building, which is set to open in July 2023.
Evans also shared a brochure with community members, entitled “The Meaning of Community,” that introduced the philanthropic contributions to various foundations made by Shelter Holdings.
Asked if Shelter Holdings would consider donating to charities or organizations that help low-income Asian Americans cope with displacement from the area, he said there have been no contributions yet.
“We are just beginning our involvement with this project and have not made any philanthropic contributions to the organizations you referenced to date,” he said.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.