Gentrification in Seattle
Seattle today is a tale of two cities. For developers, government officials, and many new residents, Seattle is about its places of plenty: shopping opportunities, property values, beautiful views, and potential profits. Look beyond the skyscrapers and a different image of Seattle emerges: that of a blue-collar port city with an immigrant soul--a place of strength, survival, and struggle against racism and poverty. When these two Seattles collide, it's called gentrification: the displacement of poor and working class people by upper-income residents. It's a conflict over values, over purpose: who is claiming the city?
Before gentrification, there was Jim Crow segregation. The Central District (CD) was one of the few areas black residents could live. As they moved there, the predominately Jewish community fled. Now, with gentrification, wealthy, predominately white residents are returning. This dates back to the 1970s, when deindustrialization forced US cities to reorder their economies. Since then, Seattle officials have scrambled to build a profitable economy around those who don't even live here: suburbanites, tourists, and international investors. In the 1990s, a decade that also saw the city lose large amounts of its working-class residents, over $700 million in public money went to developers to build upper-class amenities like convention centers, museums, and retail stores.
The trend continues today, as rising housing prices push people of color further south--even out of Seattle altogether-- and new sweeps on homeless encampments physically remove people from public property. Yet people are resisting across the city. In February 2008, when the new South Lake Union Trolley was tagged with graffiti, it was not hard to see it as a statement against the city's priorities and the millions of dollars spent on a trolley that goes nowhere except Paul Allen-owned real estate. But the resistance goes well beyond small isolated acts.
In Little Saigon, Seattle's Vietnamese district, lies the Goodwill site on Dearborn St. and Rainer Ave. This prime piece of real estate is the location of a proposed new development, including a huge shopping mall and 550 housing units. Fearing the project threatens the vitality of their neighborhood, community members formed the Dearborn Street Coalition for Livable Neighborhoods. After several years of protest, the Coalition and the developer recently signed a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) to ensure good jobs, low-income housing, traffic mitigation, and support for Little Saigon.
Elana Dix, an organizer with Puget Sound SAGE, one of the coalition's 40 organizations, explains, "Reshaping how redevelopment and growth happens in the city is a good way to build a movement for workers." According to Dix, the CBA is a potential model for other neighborhoods in the city threatened by harmful development. She also admits, though, the strategy is limited to instances where a large development is planned. Fighting gentrification in other areas proves harder if the forces changing the area cannot be attributed to a single site or developer.
This has been the case for the Hidmo Eritrean Restaurant in the CD, which has experienced attacks from neighbors and the Seattle Police Department (SPD). Two years ago, sisters Rahwa and Asmeret Habte created Hidmo, "conceived from love of culture and structured after the village model of family." Their restaurant has grown into a community center that has supported the growth of local Hip Hop by hosting five regular shows, including an all-female Hip Hop show, a youth writing circle, and African music.
Lately, however, the Hidmo has been unjustly targeted as a "nuisance" business and an attraction to a "dangerous criminal element" by new white neighbors. About a year ago, the Habte sisters were summoned to a meeting, held in a police station, to hear racist fears from some of these neighbors. The Habte's responded by hosting a community gathering and extending invitations for future events to concerned neighbors.
Unfortunately, the Habte business has continued to receive a disproportionate amount of attention from the SPD. With nightly visits, the police continue to harass the restaurant by randomly carding patrons, ticketing people for smoking outside, and persistently threatening to pull the liquor and health licenses.
The stories of the Hidmo and Little Saigon represent only two stories in an ongoing battle over what Seattle looks like. They are only stories in a larger battle over what the cities of the United States look like. All across the country working class people and communities of color are also being displaced by sky-high rents, mass evictions, and low-wage jobs.
Will the struggles of working people take priority, or will the business motives of the rich?