This summer on KUOW we've broadcast many stories about one street corner.
23rd and East Union is near the geographical center of Seattle. Cars flow through this intersection, on a straight shot to downtown, the University District, Lake Washington and Rainier Valley.
It's just one corner in one Seattle neighborhood, the Central District. Like other neighborhoods in this city, it's changing fast. Newcomers have moved in, and housing prices have gone up. Now neighbors are grappling with the change.
KUOW's Jenny Asarnow and a team of multimedia artists set out to create an experiment in community story telling. Their project is called The Corner. It's a radio documentary created WITH the people who make 23rd and Union part of their lives.
In June, The Corner opened up a phone line and asked people to call in and share their stories. Callers left messages. Their stories collectively depict a rich and complicated point on the map.
Caller: "Hi, my name's Bob. I wouldn't go near 23rd and Union if- No way I'd go near there!""
23rd and Union is often talked about as a place to fear. Boarded up buildings live there. So do memories of violent drug deals gone wrong and police shootings. It's like a ghost corner.
But lurking beneath is a rich history.
Today we reveal life on 23rd and Union in the decades before and after World War II. In those years, the Central District was a working class neighborhood. Increasingly, it became the center of Seattle's growing African American community. And the corner - 23rd and Union - was the neighborhood's hub.
Caller: "23rd and Union."
Caller: "When I think of 23rd and Union-"
Caller: "When I think of 23rd and Union, I think of, uh -"
Caller: "I think about -"
Jack Richlen: "I don't know, I just liked it up there. I felt very much -"
Caller: "I think about home."
Richlen: "Home. I felt very much at home.
Richlen: "Hello there. My name is Jack Richlen. I was a member of the community in 23rd and East Union for 57 years. We moved to Seattle in 1934, the September the first. My parents were from Russia. And my mother kept a nice home and a Kosher home. And paid 25 dollars a month for the rent. Anyway."
Caller: "I lived on 23rd and Union in around 1935. Now, those were good years and I remember them very vividly."
Richlen: "The neighborhood when we moved in 1934 was predominantly Jewish. They had the Kosher meat markets. We had a nice drugstore. We had two nice delis and we had a barber shop."
Quintard Taylor:" Before World War II, I would say the population was very much like it is now."
Richlen: "Oh yes, there was for years an African population there. We had Japanese and we also had Italians."
Taylor: "I am Quintard Taylor. And I am the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt professor of American history at the University of Washington here in Seattle. In the World War II period there was this huge surge in the population as blacks came out to work for Boeing and they came out to work in the shipyards."
Jeannie Barnes: "My mother was from Arkansas and my dad was from Washington DC. And they came up here during the war. Mm-hmm. And my dad worked at Pier 91.
"My name is Jeannie Barnes. We grew up right there on 22nd and Union. Since i was born, on 22nd and Union. We were right there.
"I don't know we was such a fun loving little kids. We would go visit the people in the apartment buildings and knock on the door, and have 'em look out the window. And we would sing little songs to 'em thinking we were doing some vaudeville acts or something out there! We was no more than seven or eight years old. If we wanted to go over to the store we would go to Jack Richlen's."
Caller: "I was calling to see if anyone remembered the store with the meat market."
Caller: "I remember Richlen's"
Aaron Dixon: "Richlen's, yeah Richlen's"
Pearl: "...was a mainstay"
Dixon: "It was a little small grocery store."
Caller: "An old store on the corner of 22nd and Union."
Richlen: In 1944 I opened my first meat market on East Union. We had meat, we had fresh produce. And then I always had penny candy handed out. Haha. Just something to let em know that you like them to come into your store.
Rozetta Marshall: "Mmm, I went in there for candy. Haha. I went in there for candy. You know on Sunday, you know, you're given your offering money. And I think I mighta took part of mine and go get some candy, you know. And then the rest went in the offering thing. God knows, like I said, he knows everything."
Barnes: "Yeah, those were the days. Mm-hmm. Jack Richlen's, the hardware store. There was also a laundromat. The barbershop was just right there, and the church was across the street. So you had everything right there."
Richlen: "Yeah, going back to the black folks there. You're talking about my customers now. I would have to say around 1950, 55, the area changed. It was very eventful, to me anyway. Yes."
Caller: "Yes, I live on 21st and Union and my parents bought their home back in 1956 and I remember a time when of course this was a mostly African American community. And most non-African American people were afraid to come in this area, didn't want to buy homes here. And African American people had migrated here from the South, and different other places, this was the only area they could buy homes in."
Taylor: "You know people say, well how did black communities come to be? And often there's the assumption that African Americans choose to reside in a particular neighborhood. And to some extent African Americans will come and live near other African Americans. Sometimes there's the family connection and all the rest.
"But the bottom line in terms of segregation is that this is an order that's imposed from outside. Restrictive covenants were deeds that were enforced by law that said African Americans cannot live in this particular community. The first restrictive covenants emerged on Cap Hill around 1905. And eventually they swept across all of the city, except for a couple of places. And the restrictive covenants had the consequence of channeling African Americans into the area that we now call the Central District."
Dixon: "Black people and Chinese, Japanese and Filipino. You know, that was the only place that people lived."
Taylor: "85 percent of the black folks in 1960, 1965, in metropolitan Seattle lived in the Central District. That's where they lived. So that was the classic ghetto."
Dixon: "But even then the Central Area was still integrated."
Barnes: "Everybody all mixed and getting ALONG with each other."
Caller: "In those days 23rd and Union was a wonderful place."
Caller: "We all went down to 23rd and Union, my friends and I, for many, many years. That's where we grew up."
Caller: "And there used to be a drugstore there."
Caller: "Called Mayran's"
Dixon: "Mayran's drugstore."
Caller: "I always went to Mayran's Drugs."
Pearl: "And it was a neighborhood drugstore, and also a meeting place."
Barnes: "And they had almost everything you could think of. All the nice jewelry and perfume."
Caller: "And I bought 3-cent stamps, nickel candy bars, and boxes of snuff for my grandmother."
Pearl: "You could go in and talk to Mr Mayran."
Caller: "I remember Ken-"
Barnes: "Yeah his name was Kenny."
Caller: "-at Mayran's drugs."
Marshall: "He knew everybody in the neighborhood. It wasn't a small neighborhood. I was just, the retailers knew the families.
Pearl: That's the key thing. And it was owned by blacks.
Dixon: You know 23rd and Union has always been the hub of the Central Area. And pretty much the hub for the African American community. And I hope it stays that way.
Aaron Dixon was the first captain of Seattle's Black Panther Party. We'll hear more from him tomorrow as our series The Corner continues. We'll learn how the explosive forces of civil rights struggles and crack cocaine changed the Central District. And we'll hear how black culture thrived during that tumultuous time, on 23rd and Union.
The Corner is created by Jenny Asarnow. Photography and research by Inye Wokoma.
The Corner comes to you from Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0 [two-point-oh], an initiative of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated.
This project is made possible with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This summer on KUOW we've broadcast many stories about one street corner.
23rd and Union is near the geographical center of Seattle. It's a commercial hub surrounded by old
Craftsman homes and new townhouses.
For decades it's been a center for Seattle's Black community. Now, like other neighborhoods, it's in flux. And the community is grappling with culture clash as newcomers move in.
KUOW's Jenny Asarnow and a team of multimedia artists set out to create an experiment in collective
storytelling. Their project is called The Corner.
In June, The Corner opened up a phone line and asked people to call in with their stories about 23rd and Union. The messages people have left collectively depict a spot that's feared, and loved.
Dorothy: "I just - just wanna talk about"
Kenyatto Amen: "23rd and-"
Aaron Dixon: "23rd and-"
Dorothy: "23rd and Union."
Pearl: "The union of Blacks being together."
Dorothy: "I surely do miss 23rd and Union."
Dixon: "Because it's it's always been the center-"
Omari Tahir-Garrett: "Center of the black community."
Asia Mitchell: "The Central Area is black history fo sho." [beep]
In part one of our series, we heard how African Americans moved to the Central District because of
housing discrimination in most other Seattle neighborhoods.
Now, in part two, we hear how Civil Rights struggles and crack cocaine disrupted the neighborhood.
Through it all, culture thrived.
In the mid 1960s, the Central District was a Black neighborhood. More than three quarters black. Ghetto. It was getting crowded. It had poor schools, crime, deteriorating housing. And why?
For one, the Central District was plagued by a practice called redlining.
Quintard Taylor is a history scholar at the University of Washington. He says it started in the 1930s when the federal government created lending guidelines for American cities. It drew maps.
Taylor: "And essentially what they did and this is where the term redlining comes, they color coded certain areas of cities."
The most risky areas were colored red.
Taylor: "And those are areas where banks are pretty well instructed - if they need instruction - not to lend. And most of those areas were African American areas. And the Central District was one of those places that
Which means it was hard to get a business or property loan there.
Taylor: "Understand the importance of this. If you can't get money to buy a home in that area. If you can't get money to renovate the home that's in that area. Guess what's going to happen. It's going to become a
Even so, the Central District was where it was at.
Taylor: "It was a community that was identifiably black. It was a community that had a vibrant nightlife, that was culturally set apart from the rest of Seattle."
And 23rd and Union was a center of that culture. In 1966 the corner thrived. There were two big grocery stores, a meat market, a drugstore, doctors and lawyers offices and a pool hall.
Aaron Dixon: "Ooh, I think about the first African American bookstore that used to be located up on 23rd and Union. It was called the Garvey bookstore."
Aaron Dixon was 15-years-old. He grew up in the Central District. And he was already into politics.
Dixon: And the bookstore provided us a place to find books that we couldn't find anywhere else. You
know. Books about Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. I just remember at that time reading a lot of books,
you know. And they were all books on African American experience."
Civil rights protests. Desegregation. The Watts riots. That's what was going on in America at the time.
Dixon: "Race was always in our face constantly. Race was a big issue. And justice was a big issue. And you really couldn't escape it if you were African American."
Alicia Cross: "Yeah. I want to talk about the extreme racism that has been heaped upon the Black
community in the Central Area."
Dixon: "Just a lot of pent up anger and frustration that had been building up for decades. Finally it erupts and it lets it all out. You know it all gets out."
Pearl: "Oooeee. Yeah."
Rozetta Marshall: "'68"
Dixon: "yeah, in 1968."
Aaron Dixon and other young activists in the Black Student Union held a sit in at Franklin High School. They demanded the school teach Black history and let students wear Afros. Aaron and 3 others were
arrested and sentenced to six months in jail for unlawful assembly.
The Central District rioted on 23rd Avenue.
Dixon: "Police cars were overturned and people were throwing rocks. And police helicopters almost shot out of the sky. It was mayhem! It was mayhem on the corner of 23rd.
The riot lasted almost 3 days.
Dixon: "There was some type of relief in that."
In letting out that built up anger.
Dixon: "Uh, even though the damage that was done was usually to our community, you know the people
gone to jail and burned out businesses."
The tension in the neighborhood was too much for some people. Plus, new laws made it easier for blacks to buy homes outside the Central District. So some people left.
Taylor: "As opposed to those who said, no. We were stuck here because of racial discrimination but it's now our home. And now we want to improve it."
Aaron Dixon helped form a local Black Panther Party and became its captain. The group opened a free
medical clinic on 23rd and Union where they gave out groceries. They took up arms. And they patrolled
the police. They would follow cop cars, carrying their rifles, and watch out for harassment.
Dixon: "We were always thinking about you know what our ultimate goal was. At the time was creating
revolution. And uh, making the world a better place for everybody."
Business was good during that time. And Black entrepreneurs thrived on the corner. In 1970 Helen
Coleman moved to Seattle and opened up a restaurant called Helen's Diner.
Coleman: "And it used to be a barbershop. And -'scuse me - we went in there, and tore up the linoleum, we painted and I made a kitchen out of it. And the health inspector passed it because it really was a nice
cute little place. Got our business license and went right on into business. Just a blessing. It was just a
blessing. That's what I was supposed to do."
Helen cooked soul food.
Coleman: "I call it soul food because I cook from my soul. But it's southern, like uh red beans and rice and oxtails and greens. Pig feet, pig tail. Chitlens. You name it."
Ms Helen's became a hub of community life.
Coleman: "At that time we needed a good soul food place to go and so it worked out just fine. People
would come for lunch and they would have such a good time they wouldn't even go back to they jobs you
know? They would stay there and we'd party. And by 8 or 9 o'clock the bands would start coming in to
Neighborhood bands used to play at Helen's and other clubs around the corner.
Pearl: [singing] "This is a dedication to our wonderful, our beautiful Black sistas yeah."
Dixon: "A lot of great musicians were coming out of Seattle. And it was just real funky R+B with a lot of organ, lot of bass."
Pearl: "So that was homegrown stuff. See they didn't have to go nowhere else to get it. Seattle was picking it up and putting it down."
Dorothy: "And we just loved 23rd and Union. It used to be SO much fun."
Coleman: "We were just having a swell time. It wasn't about - uh, the drugs wasn't there. If they were there, everybody was so quiet about it that you didn't know it."
Things changed in the late 1970s, when crack came to Seattle.
Raymond Wright, Jr: "I was around when the crack hit the scene. When the crack hit the scene, that was the worst thing that ever happened to the streets of Seattle."
Raymond Wright, Jr. is on the corner of 23rd and Union. He's 52 years old and grew up in the Central
Wright: "Still here, and never left. I hope to not ever leave."
Ray first smoked cocaine in 1978.
Wright: "I was smoking cocaine before there was crack."
He used off an on for 20 years.
Wright: "It was the whole basis of this whole community falling apart. Because see first of all if people weren't on drugs, maybe they had a chance to go to school. Maybe they had a chance to get educated.
Maybe they had a chance to get a good job, a good paying job. And maybe they could just take over, the
next generation. Keep the rent up. Keep the mortgage up. Keep the property value up. No."
Ray says he knows people who lost the family home because they were strung out on crack.
Wright: "I mean there is a lost generation. And you got killings and stabbings and shootings. And oh, it was a mess. Cause everybody was strung out."
In the 80s and early 90s, the corner was notorious.
Kalina: "And that's when I went over there. Um. It was mostly gangs. Drug sales. Prostitution. Just the underbelly of our society."
[music: "Posse on Broadway," Sir Mix-a-Lot]: "Wheeling 23rd we saw nothing but thugs. The girlies was
too skinny from smokin' all them drugs. Cause the rock man got em and their butts just dropped. The
freaks looked depressed because our Benz won't stop. At 23rd and Union the driver broke left. Kevin
shouted Broadway! It's time to get def."
Daudi Abe: "When I think of 23rd and Union I think of the growth of hip hop in Seattle."
A new culture was born on the corner, even as people were dying.
Kenyatto Amen: "What was happening was that people was trying to say that we were criminal oriented -
only. You see?"
Kenyatto Amen grew up near Union. He ran with the East Union st hustlers.
Amen: "It was just like you know like a neighborhood crew you know? So we just hung out rapped,
danced, do our music and stuff. It was like you know a community group."
A community group law enforcement identifies as a gang.
But Kenyatto says the crew was trying to PROTECT the neighborhood from gang members who moved
up from LA. And yeah, they were hustling.
Amen: "Why we hustling? Because we don't got jobs. That's how you eat. Hustle or die. Hustle don't
necessarily mean selling dope though. Hustle means you have to come up w/ creative ways to make a living. Period."
Kenyatto sold tapes. That was his hustle. He's a rapper.
Amen: "So I wrote raps to explain what we was about."
[music: "East Union St Hustlers," Ice Cold Mode]: "It's the ghetto American Dream. Fast honeys and cash money. Naked Playboy bunnies. Sandy beaches and weather sunny. Under palm trees, cool breeze. The
crime clients start the crack science. Black giants in an alliance with the street soldiers. Heat holders are
slaying boulders as big as your shoulders. Black crack chemists with baking soda. Smell a strong odor.
Rockwiler? Draculas that come to tackle ya..."
Kenyatto used to hang out at the gas station parking lot on 23rd and Union
Amen: "People used to pull up. It was so many of us. I mean groups of like twenty young Black men that ran together. So we would drive up. Park. Turn the system all the way up. Made a perimeter of cars and
danced in the middle. The police would come. They'd be like, well, you guys are going to have to
disperse! We're like we're not dispersing. Where we gonna go?"
[music]: "East Union St Hustlers. East Union Street Hustlers."
Amen: "It was just, this was our neighborhood. So this is where we come together. You see? And these are the types of things that were in the Central Area prior to the change that made it livable."
The change was coming. Soon the central district would NOT be a majority black neighborhood. Ray
Wright remembers his dad saw it coming.
Wright: "He said, you know the white man's gonna realize he made a mistake when he moved to the
suburbs. And I didn't want to put it like that but that's exactly how he told me. But he says right now they
all live in Bellevue. But they're gonna come back."
And they did.
We'll learn WHY newcomers moved to the Central District - and hear how the community is grappling
with the change - in part three of our series.
The Corner is created by Jenny Asarnow and narrated by Yirim Seck.
It comes to you from Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0, an initiative of AIR, the Association of
Independents in Radio, Incorporated.
This project is made possible with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This summer on KUOW we've broadcast many stories about one street corner. Twenty–third and Union is a commercial and cultural hub in Seattle's Central District. For decades, it's been a center for Seattle's African American community. But that's changing. Ray Wright is a lifelong resident: "My dad, he used to sit down and he told me about gentrification. He told me. He says, well, the white man wants this land back. He wants it back. This is the prime real estate in Seattle." Twenty–third and Union is a short trip from downtown, the University District and the parks on Lake Washington. Upwardly mobile folks – many of them white – have found deals here on old Craftsman homes and new townhouses. Housing prices have shot up. Now neighbors, old and new, are struggling to find their place in this changing community.
In June, "The Corner" opened up a phone line and asked people to call in and share their stories. In the final part of our series, community members talk about gentrification on 23rd and Union.
Aaron Dixon: "What I see is a – "
Will: "... post office."
Pearl: "There's a church."
Dixon: "There's a gas station across the street."
Carolyn Walden: "Strip mall, a liquor store, and uh ..."
Dixon: "Drug dealers."
Caller: "There's a lot of crack."
Kristi Brown Wokoma: "No real stores that provide any kind of services."
Will: "Earl's Cuts and Styles."
Dixon: "Which is kind of a hangout for a lot of young people."
Dillon Rego: "And uh, there's been that big empty fenced out ..."
Callers: "Vacant lot."
Will: "Some weeds."
Caller: "And the empty Philly Steak."
Dorothy: "The guy that ran Philly Steaks, he got killed."
Brown Wokoma: "And it's sad."
Pearl: "It's sad to see how a vibrant community can become an eyesore."
Caller: "Fifteen years it's been looking like this."
Caller: "It's quite ugly."
Pearl: "When I think about 23rd and Union I think about it being no more."
Caller: "Because the neighborhood that I grew up loving and appreciating is just a fragment of my memory now."
Jack Richlen: "I can't look at the corner. I stay away from 23rd and Union, and when I go, I close my eyes. I don't look. I just look straight ahead."
Dorothy: "It's dead to me."
Pearson Cummings: "There's a sense of – it's not an established community. It's a community where things can, you can make something happen."
Jeannie Barnes: "My name is Jeannie Barnes. We grew up right there on 22nd and Union. So I guess I lived there until I got married and then I left! And then after that the neighborhood started changing. Lot of us kids started moving out going on to different places, different states. You just have to let the past go. Just think about the future. Because I look over at the house I can still see my mother walking around and my dad sitting on the porch and the same kind of flowers. In fact, I went over into the old house. It's no more like it was when we were living in there. All that is completely gone! So you just have to leave stuff in the past! But you're enjoying our little neighborhood now, I hope."
Amber: "Hey! My name is Amber and I actually am just walking away from the corner of 23rd and Union having gotten off the bus. I moved to the Central District (CD) close to 23rd and Union in March. And I've been thrilled to get to know the neighborhood and just get to experience all the dynamic energy that is here."
Quintard Taylor: "I am Quintard Taylor and I am the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt professor of American History at the University of Washington here in Seattle. What is gentrification? It is the transformation of a particular neighborhood, usually with the idea of enhancing the neighborhood's appearance and it's value. So there are economic motivations. And there are also cultural motivations. There are a lot of people who find living in the Central District exciting because the area is diverse."
Jean Tinnea: "My name is Jean Tinnea. I've lived on 20th Avenue for thirty years."
Taylor: "People think gentrification takes place in a relatively short period of time. At least in the Central District the gentrification process started clearly by 1978."
Tinnea: "1978. When I came here, the neighborhood was pretty run down and a lot of businesses had left. The house that we found was absolutely gorgeous. The woodwork hasn't been painted except in one room. You know, it has wood emolients in the windows and it just blew me away. I was the second white family here, on the block. And I think we had to prove we weren't carpetbaggers. We weren't coming in to buy a relatively cheap house in a neighborhood that was beginning to change. We expected it to change a lot faster than it has."
Wright: "There was a time when you didn't see any white people in the Central Area. And when they did, they were passing through. And let alone, never walking. Now they'll walk through, jog through. And as I saw the transformation coming about, I remember I used to always see a lot of police right up around here."
Omari Tahir–Garrett: "That's one of the problems with gentrification. People don't care who moves in the neighborhood. But then all of a sudden the police start harassing black folks. And it's like, oh you want to put all the black folks out of here? That ain't gonna work. That's not gonna work."
Taylor: "On the other hand now that there's a greater presence of whites, there's more suppression of crime and on and on and on. Is the Central District better off now than it was before? I can't answer that question."
Caller: "They come over here and they build their nice house, you know what I'm saying, these – these yuppies and guppies you dig? It skyrocketed the price of the homes on the block, you know what I'm saying? These cats been living – their mamas and grandfathers and grandaddies built this neighborhood, you dig? And – and now we can't even afford to live here? I'm not with that homie."
Caller: "I've had black friends move from the CD to Federal Way to Kent, to White Center ..."
Taylor: "Or places like ..."
Caller: "...to Renton."
Taylor: "Places that wouldn't even accept a black person, you know, fifty years ago."
Caller: "And they're more or less forced to sell their homes because of the high cost of maintenance and utilities and taxes always going up."
Taylor: "In other words, their opportunities are limited just as much as their grandparents' opportunities were limited in the sense that the grandparents were forced to live in the Central District."
Pearl: [singing] "I should be happy. But all I do is cry. Yeah. No more laughter. Yeah, y'all is doing a good job of taking the joy away and the laughter away from the black community."
Tahir–Garrett: "He's saying that his girl will beat the other girl up. And the other girl is saying, well listen, you come up on 24th and Spring and they'll fight. But they're making a lot of noise, because they're not making no business. They're not making no money."
Shellen: "They litter a lot and they sell drugs in our backyard and ..."
Elizabeth. "They've – they've – just periodically, they come along and tag in the middle of the night. Kind of marking their territory. Even though they don't own it. They think they do."
Rego: "And oh, and one time I saw someone laying on the ground who I think got stabbed out on the street fifty feet from my front door. I don't know. I feel like a witness to these things. But I don't feel threatened in any way, like that could happen to me."
Tahir–Garrett: "Because the conflict don't involve them. Because right now there's basically two communities coexisting. One's violent and – and real survival oriented. And the other is, oh I have a job, I work for Microsoft. And they're walking their dog and doing this and that. And they're existing – It's amazing! Just on the sidewalk. They just walk right past each other."
Brooke: "I'm Brooke and when I think of 23rd and Union, sadly, I think about how many people there are around here that are wasting their lives. That seem to be just hanging out on the corners and dealing drugs and doing things that don't make any difference in this world in a positive way. And it's just sad how sometimes the stereotypes that I always fought against and that I've always said were never true. Sometimes I feel like they are and I still have to fight them internally. So, God help this neighborhood and hopefully we can work together to make it a better place."
Dixon: "One thing about gentrification that is good, it doesn't completely wipe out the old. It doesn't completely change the community. The old and the new are coexisting together. And, when I ride through 23rd and Union on a warm day, you know, I'll see a lot of young black people hanging out. That is something you can feel good about. That there's still life there. There's still black people there."
Pearl: "Yes, this is Miss Pearl calling. I'm calling you because of the fact that, I'm just really thinkng about this whole thing and how to take a neighborhood and revitalize it. And you have to have equality. You have to have a sense of admiration and respect for people in general. We should be mature enough to settle our differences. And I think that it needs to happen. And it needs to happen in Seattle right away."
Kenyatto Amen: "But you know, you need safe spots, man. Where people can come and shake hands and be friends, you know. And then, transform. Dada!"
"The Corner" is created by Jenny Asarnow. Photography and research by Inye Wokoma. Public art on 23rd and Union by Handsome Murals. Website by Anna Callahan. Software by Joseph Sheedy. Production assistance from Emily Eagle and Ann Kane. Edited by Jim Gates. Thanks to JC Mueller for donating use of its property on 23rd and Union. Thanks to Davis Sign Company and Urban Press for donations.
The "Corner" comes to you from Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0, an initiative of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated. This project is made possible with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
There was a club up on 23rd and Union. This was in the late 60s, early 70s, and it was called the Checkmate. And I have a lot of really good memories of that.
It wasn't a dive. It wasn't run down. It had a lot of class. And it really became a hangout for members of the Black Panther Party.
My name is Aaron Dixon [former captain of the Black Panther Party].
Just having something in your neighborhood was really important that you could go to, instead of going outside of your neighborhood.
There was a lot of neighborhood bands at that time. A lot of great musicians were coming out of Seattle, and it was just really funky R&B music with a lot of organ, a lot of bass. So many good bands: The Majestics, which was about a twenty piece band, The Blackmen with Dennis Blackman, Black on White Affair.
You could say The Checkmate was a place of therapy, a retreat. A place where you could relax and unwind from all the other things that were happening outside of the club.
There was one incident where we had been out on an armed patrol, patrolling the police. There was a confrontation with the police and we ended up going into the Checkmate with our rifles and shotguns. It kind of caught everybody off guard. But it was just one of those incidents during that time, when you never knew what might happen.
I wish we had the Checkmate back again. But this is different times.
Well first there was a movie that came out. Scarface. So this created what I call the Ghetto American Dream.
Fast honeys and cash money. Naked Playboy bunnies. Sandy beaches and weather sunny. Under palm trees, cool breeze. The crime clients start the crack science. Black giants in an alliance with the street soldiers. Heat holders are slaying boulders as big as your shoulders. Black crack chemists with baking soda. Smell a strong odor. Rockwiler? Draculas that come to tackle ya. Bite into the vernacular. It's like the latest trends, Mercedes Benz, and Gator Skins. Playa haters cringe, envious of the ladies' friends. Calling on the celly from the telly, with porno jelly. Tattoos on their belly. Rest in peace Machiavelli. Crime philosophies. Black-Black monopolies equal atrocities. Moving at a velocity that's undetectable. Living life as a spectacle. People respect your dough. While they hang from your testicles.
East Union Street Hustlers. That's what lured us in. They showed us the Scarface dream.
East Union Street Hustlers. It was just like a neighborhood crew you know? So we just hung out, rapped, danced, you know, do our music and stuff. It was like a community group.
We're from East Union. We're hustling. Why we hustling? Because we don't got jobs! That's how you eat: hustle or die. Hustle don't necessarily mean selling dope though. Hustle means you have to come up with creative ways to make a living. Period.
No I wasnt no big time - uh-uh. Because that's not what I'm about. I'm a musician. I sold music myself. I hustled tapes. I sold my first 5000 tapes from people who was right in the neighborhood, who knew that the story I was telling was a very accurate story. And nobody else is gonna tell our story.
Uh, my name is Dillon James Rego and I live in the Centrla District of Seattle, Washington. I'm almost 22 years old.
I think about music all the time, I don't know, that's what I do.
We're roughly at 21st and Union in the kitchen of my house, dubbed Chilladelphia. Because naming houses is a thing that everyone does around here.
Yeah, my friends are all other musicians or artists. They all pretty much live in the Central District too, right off of Union Street. Just walking down the street I'm like, oh there's that kid riding a bike in super bright colored clothing. Yeah, I know who they are.
I know that I am definitely one step of gentrification that is happening. Being the poor artist that's living here. The poor white artist I should say. That's living in what is, or was, a black community.
And, we're all just seeking the cheap rent. And after enough of a period of us living here, that's when the people with more money come, and people get pushed out to a different neighborhood. And that's my understanding of it.
I don't know if I've made up my mind yet for how I feel about my role. I feel like this is where I need to be. And this is where I want to be. It's not my fault if it's gonna end up changing the whole neighborhood or anything.
I'm just caught in the middle of it. I'm an innocent guy.
We grew up right there on 22nd and Union. Since I was born, on 22nd and Union. Right there.
So I guess I lived there until I got married and then I left!
And then after that the neighborhood started changing. Lot of us kids started moving out, and going on to different places, different states.
Well, uh, everybody has his own time. Like I said, once it was - what was it - Italians and Jewish. They left. Then it turned black. We're gone. So the next generation is coming along, you know? Mm-hm.
You just have to let the past go, and just think about the future.
I look over at the house, I can still see my mother walking around and my dad sitting on the porch and the same kind of flowers. In fact, I went over to the old house. It's no more like the way it was when we were living in there. All that is completely gone.
The way he has it, got marble floors all throughout. None of that back in my day!
So. You just have to leave things in the past. And trudge on down, down the new road that's coming for you. But you have to stick with the Lord, though. You can't do it by yourself. Can't do it by yourself.
My name is Jean Tinnea. I've lived on 20th avenue for 30 years.
In 1999 my husband and I bought a commercial building on Union, and I decided I would walk to the post office every day. It's only two blocks.
A lot of people wouldn't make eye contact with me. And my dear neighbor told me, he was actually taught as a child in Louisiana: Do not make eye contact with white people.
Here it was 2000 and people would not make eye contact with me. And I decided - I made a conscious decision - I would say 'hello.' Actually, the street greeting is 'how you doing.'
And I would greet everybody I met. I'd say, 'how you doing.'
Some people wouldn't respond at all. Some people would look at me and look away quick. Some people lit up like you'd turned on the Christmas tree lights.
It's important to me and I did it because I wanted it to be like any other neighborhood. Why should it be different here because we're different races? Why should these people be afraid of me? Why should I be afraid of them?
I've learned that courage is not being without fear. Courage is acting in spite of the fear. And even if some of these people look downright scary to me, because there are gang bangers, drug dealers, pimps, hookers, in the neighborhood. I don't care. They're people in there. I don't like what they're doing. I would like the drug scene to get cleaned up. But, they're people.
The sun's dropping.
The days are getting old.
It's too late, it's tooking place in unusual rigmarole.
Headphones on my dome, on a leisurely stroll.
On a search for dough, when it hit me like - woah.
Sprawled on the pavement, a statement.
A brother's life is taken.
Community left shaken.
Amongst the floral arrangements and burning candles.
Uneasy hearts until the situation's handled.
One cop, one gun, one bullet short of a full clip.
Then I got to thinking, what if?
We were all action instead of nothing but lip.
I'm here to take you on an ego trip.
My name is Yirim Seck. This happened after Aaron Roberts got shot [by police officers in 2001].
I was walking through the Central District, on my way downtown to sell music. And right there on 23rd and Union somebody had spray painted on the pavement, Stop Police Brutality.
There was family members, friends, people were speaking out: How they felt about the death of Aaron Roberts and so many people who have died before him at the hands of police brutality. So, the scene was grim.
I dream for a living.
Flip back on track and sing for a living.
I've never sold cream for a living.
Everybody's kings in my division.
On a crash course collision to manifesting our vision.
Squash all the stereotypes.
We be blazing through your speakers with various types.
The situations and scenarios experience life.
We pose questions.
Then give answers-
Quick, this here has never been diluted or tampered with.
Pure, never abstract or obscure but for sure you flip like.
Them cats got techniques plus they rep the streets.
Them cats rep the streets plus they dead the beef.
With a sound that's so loud it leaves you deaf for weeks.
They ain't princes in Benzes but oh yes, they chiefs.
Who got the whole town on lock.
We be floating like boats in the harbor with no place to dock.
Or an MC with a mic and no stage to rock.
We keep it realer than the killers that raise the glock.
And discharge on the boulevard and fade to spot -ah.
My name is Carolyn Walden, and I live a block from 23rd and Union. On a late Friday afternoon in December, it was after 5 o'clock so it was dark, I came to the post office to mail Christmas packages, and a young man followed me home.
I'd cross the street, he'd cross the street - back and forth, that kind of thing. And I was trying to get to my neighbor's house so that I could scream. But I didn't get that far. There were two vacant houses and in front of one of those the guy closed the gap.
And suddenly I felt his hands on my neck.
And I ended up with my purse gone and a broken arm and a broken leg and assorted other - stuff. At the time I was 70.
My first thought was not logical, but my first thought was he needed money to buy his mother a Christmas present. And I quickly realized that was quite naive on my part, and he probably was involved in drugs like most of them are.
I don't remember ever being particularly angry at the young man.
I just suddenly became concerned, as I should have been long ago: why. Why is all this happening, why are they selling drugs, why aren't they in school, why aren't they doing part time jobs, whatever.
And thinking and learning about the realities for people who are not growing up the way I did. And so, I've joined some groups to see if there's some way I can help.
We're all in this together. And the more we can help each other, the better it's gonna be for all of us.
Hi. I'm Jim Mueller. I'm a local activist and real estate developer active in Seattle's Central Area.
We are at the corner of 23rd and East Union where we own one of the four corners. And so what we have here is a vacant lot that several people have tried to figure out how to develop.
Well, the building is going to be apartments. It's six stories and it's got a larger restaurant space and a smaller retail space on the ground floor. And we will start it as soon as we possibly can. But we have to wait until there's capital again.
Our role in these communities is to come to the center of the community and give the community a place where they can focus their public life. And I think we'll get there.
Pearson Cummings is president of a new community group, the Central District Neighborhood Association. He bought his home five blocks from 23rd and Union in 2006.
Couple of things, for me, really was proximity to downtown. I worked at Microsoft at the time, so proximity to 520.
And also for me was, quite candidly, I bought at a time when the housing market was out of control here, and I went and tried to buy the most house I could. That was my motto. Most house I could in a neighborhood that I thought had a lot of interesting things going on and was kind of up and coming.
There's a sense of, it's not an established community. It's a community where you can make something happen.
We're gonna create something totally organic here in a lot of ways. It's not gonna be how it's done in Wallingford, Ballard, Fremont, Georgetown, West Seattle. It's gonna be unique to this area. And it's gonna be diverse.
So it's a unique opportunity. And it's a challenge! And it's a challenge to not make people who have lived here for a long time feel disenfranchised.
I was up at Beacon Hill. And started talking to a guy. I was at the golf course, hitting golf balls on a Sunday three weeks ago. This African American guy worked behind the counter. We started talking.
And he said, where do you live? I told him where I live. He said, I grew up in that neighborhood. I said, oh, cool.
He said, I don't feel like I'm welcome in that neighborhood anymore.
And that was really disappointing. He said I feel like, people look at me like I'm not supposed to be there.
And I couldn't refute what he said. I couldn't say, come by, I'll say hi to you and I'll welcome you into my home. Um. But I hope we can continually keep that in mind.
Yes, I live on 21st and Union. And I've been here 53 years. I was born and raised here in Seattle.
And my parents bought their home back in 1956. And I remember a time when, of course, this was mostly an African American community. And most non-African American people were afraid to come in this area, didn't want to buy homes here.
And African American people back in the 40s and 50s who had migrated here from the South and other places - that worked at Boeing and the shipyards - this was the only area they could buy homes in. And they were redlined in any other neighborhoods.
And I remember 23rd and Union. We would have the Black community festival. The parade would go down the street.
And it used to be a friendlier neighborhood. People knew each other. Families grew up together and people watched out for one another.
The community has changed. We have people who have come from out of town, are not very friendly. Move in the neighborhood, don't speak to their neighbors. It's just not what it was./p>
My name is Daudi Abe. When I think of 23rd and Union I think of the growth of hip-hop in Seattle.
In late 1979 my father took me to Dirt Cheap Records, which was actually on the corner of 22nd and Union, and told me to pick my first record. I was nine years old and had no idea what I wanted.
As I tore through the aisles, the jacket of one 12 inch single caught my eye. A design featuring a series of swirling, multi-colored lines made me stop and choose this record as my first.
As we got to the front, the man working the register said, 'Yeah good choice. This is a hot new record out of New York.'
Once we got to the house, I played my record. When the music came on I remembered thinking that it sounded familiar, but upon hearing the vocals I was thoroughly confused.
What is this? I thought. Why isn't anybody singing? All these guys are doing is talking.
Needless to say the design on the record was the logo for Sugarhill Records, and the song was 'Rapper's Delight' by The Sugarhill Gang. Within a day, I knew all the words to the extended 15-minute B-side version.
In 1988, Sir Mix-a-Lot featured 23rd and Union in his landmark song 'Posse on Broadway'. It's important to remember that in 1988, the mainstream view was that real rap music could only come from essentially out of New York or maybe Los Angeles.
'Posse on Broadway' was not only a hit around the country, it was an identity track that named and glorified historic spots around town for the world to hear. And if Broadway was the star of the song then 23rd and Union was presented as the gateway for access to it in Mix-a-Lot's narrative.
Today I'm a community college instructor who teaches courses based in and around hip-hop. Recently my brother Peter hit me to a song from a local producer named Jake One called 'Home.'
The video, which makes connections to the 'Posse on Broadway' video, is set around various spots in the CD including 23rd and Union. I had my students watch both videos and read the lyrics to both songs and write a paper comparing and contrasting them.
It was interesting, but not surprising, that so many of them kept connecting the dots with this intersection, as a landmark not only to the Central District or hip-hop, but the entire city of Seattle as well.
This is AJ Mitchell from 21st and Union. I feel that the Central District needs to go back to its old ways: Black people. We need Philly's back. We need Richlen's back. We needs Helen's Soul Food back. We need church. We need the kids to get off the corner, and we just want to have peace.
I have a lot of friends that are out there and confused. But we really just need to come together and just have our neighborhood back to the way it was, where everybody can walk down the street without the police sitting on every corner harassing us 'cause we wanna hang out with our friends.
And plus we need all these people to stop coming here, trying to take down all the houses, buy up all the houses, and make it something that it's not.
My name is Dan O'Keefe. I've worked as a clerk at the 23rd and East Union liquor store off and on for the last 25 years.
I've made, I estimate, more then a million and a half sales at that store and I've got hundreds of stories I could tell if I had the time.
But since I don't, I'll instead list the three most important lessons I've learned from working in that neighborhood.
Lesson one: Stick up for yourself Don't be a target.
Lesson two: Be polite After watching how my customers interacted with each other over the years, it became clear to me that polite behavior is not a straight jacket forcing society into spouting dull communication-less drivel, but instead is an art form.
And like all art forms it is infused, at it's best, with intelligence, knowledge, originality, compassion and passion.
And like all other art forms, the more you practice it the better you get at it. And the better you get at it, the richer your life is likely to become.
Lesson three. And this comes from observing how intense a relationship so many of my costumers have with God. It got me thinking about my own soul. That part of me that is at the heart of my thoughts and fantasies. At the heart of my innermost feelings and desires, where my truest self dwells, and where there is my strongest link with the warm, loving universe that is God.
So. Lesson number three: The stronger your contact is with your own soul the closer you draw to God.
I love the community of people that's around the corner of 23rd and Union. It's been my honor to serve them over the last three decades. And they know I'm not lying when I say that because I demonstrate my gratitude and deep respect with every greeting I make and every bottle I bag.
-Rebecca if you wanna fight, come to 24th and Spring, I'll slap five from you bitch on Union.
-Slap her, that's all you gotta do.
-I'll drop you right now, bitch. She dont want to fight, she's weak!
One of the girls is saying the guy is mad at her because his girlfriend is selling for her, and got her - package.
So he's saying that his girl will beat the other girl up. And the other girl is saying well listen, you come up on 24th and Spring, and they'll fight. But they're making a lot of noise because they're not making no business. They're not making no money.
Why do people choose this particular place?
Well this is like the center of the black community, 23rd and Union. So everybody wants to have a spot. So they feel that this is the Union spot. But they don't own anything.
Hi, my name is Stefan Gruber, and I was a student and am now a teacher at the school just a few blocks from this corner, at Nova High School. And that corner has a real strange magical effect.
Whenever I drove by it, there's a church there. Its address is 1412. And there's this little setup of mailboxes and tubes that are all arranged in this perfect fashion so that if you're driving by in the evening you'll see their shadows are cast. And the shadow and the objects together, woven together, they look just like this sitting lion.
And honestly, out of the corner of my eye, I frequently register this as an actual little sitting lion. And I've had other people in the car as well, who I pointed it out to, say that they recognized the same effect.
So there's a little spirit lion sitting there guarding the corner.
Hi, my name is Kalina. I'm a Seattle native. And I grew up in the South End.
And when I was younger, say in my teenage days, 23rd and Union was always a place that I recall you did not want to be. And if you were there you were most likely causing trouble. And if you weren't part of the trouble, like the gangs and the shootings and drug dealings, you probably would not want to be there. And I would feel for someone who wasn't familiar with the area.
Today it's almost unrecognizable. There's a few staples that remain. But I have to tell you I do resent a little bit not being able to see so many of my black people there. I know times change and we have to let things go. But, I - I kind of - I kind of miss it just being our special space. But, progress happens and change happens, so I guess you have to go with that.
But um, today if my daughter was to tell me that she was on 23rd, I would have to ask her why is she there and when will she be out of the area. Because I still have those feelings from the past.
Yes, my name is Pearl and I'm original. I'm a Seattleite. A true Washingtonian.
What needs to happen? You mean what is happening, what's gonna happen on 23rd and Union? You see, we really need to broaden the spectrum and then we can really get down to, like the woman said, to the real nitty gritty.
Get down to the real nitty gritty and pull out some of them songs from days of old. Like Stevie Wonder, living just enough for the city. Yeah.
This city? Trash man didn't get my trash today. Oh, why because they want more pay. Yeah. But that's what makes the world go round. The ups and downs of carousels. Changing people, they go round. Go underground young man.
My name is Dorothy McIsaac. And I've lived here in the Central Area since 1967. Think it was '67 or '68. And I'm still living here, in the same house on 20th and Jefferson.
I had a clothes store up there. I had a dream. Because I wanted to sell clothes to the full figured women. And I opened a shop up there called Our Place Clothing. 'No more muumuus. I've got your size!'
I enjoyed myself so much up there. I wished that I could have had more support from the neighborhood and from the full figured women. I wished I could have continued to sell my clothes for the full figure, but there just wasn't enough clientele. So I was forced to close down.
But I so much, so much enjoyed being an entrepreneur on 23rd and Union. But it's gone now. It's dead to me.
Yeah, yeah, we gotta give a shout-out. East Union! Man, you gonna get in this? Come on, man, get in this man. East Union. Yeah, we're gettin' money out here. Come stop through man, come to Earl's man, get a fresh cut.
You feel me? East Union. 21st. Union Market? Yeah, we love that Union Market. They got fresh white tee's, pro-tees. CD, man. You can get the cheapest swishers man. Don't have to pay no buck fifty. You feel me?
Comin' back from the East Coast. Listen to the flows. I'll tell you how this bullshit reality goes. I don't know if I can cuss, but please don't fuss. Because even though we say we don't swear, it's all in us. Lettin' cats know, we all about that money. But even though you tryin' to get that money, it's real funny. I told my man over here, the currency is changing. We blinded by the TV. The mind's rearranging. But dang, I don't know what else to say. So I'm gonna kick it with the freestyle and tell y'all cats to have a nice day.
My name is Chris Washington. I'm 18 years old, doing hip hop right now. And I just recently moved back here from Maryland. And right now I'm staying in Renton Highlands. But I just be kickin' around the CD, the Central Area.
Because in Renton, I can't do nothing out there, and I got a family member who keeps talking to me about jobs, jobs, jobs and stuff. And I'm trying to pursue my dream which is, actually becoming a hip hop artist. This is just basically where I actually grew up at, and I just walk around here.
I come down here man, cause, I don't come down here to kick it. I come down here because this is a neighborhood that I grew up in. You know. So, there's no other place that I know better than right here.
My name's uh, Adriana. Grew up in the Central District. 23rd and Union.
Um. Guess it's fourteen years ago. '95. And I used to catch the bus right there on the corner. I was at the bus stop waiting for my school bus to come. It was about seven in the morning. And uh, all kinds of crows up on the power lines.
This old man comes up to me and he starts telling me that one of them must have died.
I said, what are you talking about?
He says, yeah, you know, they all look out for their own.
Which kind of freaked me out. But yeah, he said one of the crows must have died. And that's why they were all there. Kind of having a wake of some sort I guess. I don't know.
I do know that since that day I've been terrified of crows.
Hi my name is Ben and I was asked whose corner is 23rd and Union. And I'm honestly not sure. I've lived here for a few years. And it seems like it could be such a great community gathering space, but it's been frustrating to me to see it fall into disrepair.
After we had the unfortunate murder at the cheese steak shop in January 2008, nothing has really changed. And I'm glad y'all have built the project there. I think that's great. But it makes me just wonder whose corner is it. I mean, it seems like it would be such a great place to have community gathering spaces and events. But I don't see a lot of that happening.
It was really nice earlier this summer. We did have one. And I think that's important, and maybe our community should look at more ways to make it a more pedestrian friendly, usable space for all. At all hours of the day and night. Instead of just a place it seems like kind of seedy characters hang out.
Hey, my name is Amber and I actually am just walking away from the corner of 23rd and Union having gotten off the bus.
I moved to Seattle about a year ago, and just recently moved to the Central District close to 23rd and Union in March. And I've been thrilled to get to know the neighborhood and just experience all the dynamic energy that is here.
And I'm excited to see what's gonna happen here. I'm excited to be new to the neighborhood. I'm excited to dive in and hear stories, make stories, and see stories unfold. Thanks much.