“Seattle’s losing a part of its soul.”
That’s how Wyking Garrett sees it. He is a third-generation resident of the city’s historically black Central District and he discussed how his community has been left behind by Seattle’s growth at Forterra’s annual breakfast Thursday.
“Seattle is growing,” he said. “Black Seattle is not. Seattle is booming. Black Seattle has been busted.”
Garrett is president of Africatown Community Land Trust, an organization that worked with Forterra to secure a hotly contested piece of property in the Central District for affordable housing and local business development. Historically, Forterra focused on preserving wildlands in rural areas but the organization is now taking on urban challenges with a new fund backed by high-profile investors from the tech industry.
Despite those investments from individuals in tech, Garrett sees the overall industry taking off without including Seattle’s communities of color. The region’s tech boom “has driven prices far beyond the means of those who have been excluded from the economic mainstream has created a sense of urgency,” Garrett said. “When we look at the median income of black families in Seattle today, it’s less than half of white families.”
Garrett’s family has watched the Central District transform from more than 70 percent African American in the 1970s to less than 20 percent in 2015. By next year, the neighborhood’s black population is expected to drop to 14 percent. Seattle’s black community was first pushed into the Central District because of racial discrimination by property owners and lenders.
The Central District’s black community has been shrinking while industries like tech and healthcare have grown in Seattle. High-paying jobs in tech are especially attractive to newcomers.
Faced with this dramatic displacement, Garrett asked Forterra’s audience, “Who will have a place in Seattle and, more importantly, who will you work together to make space for?” Garrett also challenged the tech industry to use its vast resources to address Seattle’s lopsided growth.
“If we can have three companies, here in Seattle, in a race to build communities and condos on Mars in outer space, we figured it would be possible to find solutions to help … communities grow and thrive right here in our own backyard,” he said.
Seattle isn’t the only city grappling with this problem. Tech companies have been moving out of the suburbs and into cities in recent years. In cities where tech is booming, like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston, these companies bring with them massive wealth concentrated among a relatively small segment of the overall population. That leads to displacement of historic communities in cities. Urbanist scholar Richard Florida calls this the “New Urban Crisis,” in which “small areas of privilege are surrounded by vast swaths of poverty and disadvantage.”
“Seattle is becoming less inclusive by the day,” Garrett said Thursday. “The reality for us is, across every indicator of quality of life — home ownership, educational attainment, business ownership, commercial land ownership, participation in the economic sectors that are driving the region — the indicators say black people do not have a future in Seattle.”
But Garrett hasn’t given up hope. He and other leaders in his community are actively working to preserve the Central District’s heritage, create a space for future generations of black Seattleites, and help them access opportunities in Seattle’s booming economy.
“It’s not about being anti-development,” he said. “We’re pro-equitable participation. What that means is, if Seattle is growing, then our community should be growing as well.”