By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Catfish Corner, Simply Soulful Cafe, QueenCare and Boosh, an indoor plant nursery, are the cornerstones of a Black business revitalization in what used to be a vibrant Black community business hub in Seattle’s Central Area.
The businesses are opening in retail spaces that are part of Vulcan’s development project on 23rd & Jackson. The completed development will provide affordable housing and retail spaces for small businesses.
As a gesture of good faith, Vulcan, Paul Allen’s real estate development company, has committed to providing space in the development to Black businesses in an area that once was home to a Red Apple Grocery store and many Black-owned businesses that served a community that, until gentrification occurred, was predominately Black.
QueenCare, a natural skincare company, opened earlier this year, while Catfish Corner and Boosh both held their grand openings a few weeks ago on Juneteenth. Simply Soulful Café, which is currently located in Madison Valley, is scheduled to open in August.
A racial shift in the landscape of the Central Area, or “the CD” as it is affectionately known to members of Seattle’s Black community, has been going on for quite some time. In the 1990s, there were nearly three times as many Black residents as White residents in the community, but by 2000, the number of White residents surpassed the number of Blacks for the first time in 30 years.
“I think it’s great that people like myself and the Black community are coming back,” says Terrell Jackson, owner of Catfish Corner. “I’m all about that, I’m all about the future and us being a part of the new Central District. The new and improved Central District is great because it gives us opportunity to begin building generational wealth for our community.”
The transformation of Seattle’s Central Area and its African American residents resembles the story of many American cities. New York City’s Harlem, Chicago’s South Side, South Central Los Angeles, and San Francisco’s Fillmore District, to name but a few, have all seen once-shunned Black districts re-populated by the children of “White-flighters,” who now crave the convenience and proximity of living close to downtown areas where many of them work and hang out.
During the onset of gentrification in Seattle, Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, the only African American to be elected to the position, expressed his frustration with gentrification at the time.
According to an article on the history of gentrification in Seattle on Blackpast.org, Rice says, “I’m concerned and I am frustrated because I don’t know what the alternatives [to gentrification] are. [This process] clearly isn’t racist, it’s economic. The real question you have to ask yourself is: Is this good or bad?”
Today, with the help of Vulcan and organizations like Venture, who are actively seeking to help small businesses participate in the development that is currently taking place in Seattle, businesses like Simply Soulful Café, a soul food restaurant in Madison Valley, now have the opportunity to solidify their roots and bring Black businesses back to the Central District.
“I started working with Vulcan and the advice of Venture several years ago,” says Lillian Rambus, who co-owns Simply Soulful along with her mother, Barbara Collins. “Vulcan made a commitment, a promise to keep Black businesses in the community and they wanted to deliver on that promise.”
According to Rambus, Simply Soulful will occupy a space in the new development with the hopes of bringing back patio dining and summer entertainment in the courtyard, which is visible from Jackson Street. As a Black business owner, she understands the importance of this effort to include Black businesses in the new economic growth that is happening in the area and what is means to the community.
“We have a vision to liven up the community, to liven up the property’s courtyard with outdoor events and concert series featuring Black artists, musically and artistically, being able to come and display and show their art and talents,” says Rambus.
The Central Area, for Blacks in particular, has increasingly become a community for the very young or the very old, with many working-class Black families having moved out to more affordable places like Renton, Kent, Federal Way and other suburban cities in the area.
Business owners like Shawn McWashington, who owns Boosh, believes it is important that Black business take advantage of the influx of all people in the community in order for them to be successful.
“For a community to be healthy it is important that several hands touch the same the dollar,” says McWashington. “For example, for every Amazon employee that lives in the CD it’s vital that they eat at local places and procure items like plants from local nurseries and the employees at these local places need to spend those same dollars buying local goods.”
Jackson agrees and says that it is important for Black businesses to have a pathway to participate in the economy that is being generated by the development that is taking place in the city.
“With the new Central District there is opportunity for entrepreneurs to be part of these projects,” says Jackson. “It will take a little bit of work, sticking to your dreams but there is opportunity as these new buildings are going up.”
“I know it looks like their taking over or gentrifying everything but at the same time there is opportunity to be apart of these new things going on,” says Jackson. “It will take a little bit of footwork to do it, but the opportunity is there, you have to be willing to be a part of the new future.”
While nothing is guaranteed, especially in business, all four business owners hope that they can help keep the historic nature and culture of the Central Area alive as part of the new African American business hub on Jackson.
“It is empowering to be on that corner,” says Rambus. “We have an open courtyard, we have a new facility and so I think it’s going to be a very, very good thing for the community to be able to bring that culture and keep that culture in the community.”