The Struggle to Stay in the Central District
September 23, 2021 - 2:37 am
Seattle’s Central District was shaped by racist real estate and financial practices, but kept vibrant and loved by its Black residents. The neighborhood is now a shadow of its former self. Many of the former residents have been priced out of living there. Houses in this neighborhood are selling for at least a million dollars today, with property taxes shooting up each year.
Inye Wokoma is a Media Maker and Co-Founder of Wa Na Wari, a Black cultural arts center in the Central District. Wa Na Wari is housed in his family home. Wokoma describes why it’s important for him to fight to stay in the neighborhood, and how his journey is part of a movement to resist the erasure of the foundations of the community.
Producer: Gol Holghooghi, Hans Anderson, Adria McGhee Jesse Callahan and Yuko Kodama
Photo: Wa Na Wari
91.3 KBCS-music and ideas. Listener supported radio from Bellevue College. I’m Yuko Kodama. Next is a story about Wa Na Wari, a community centered space in Seattle Central District. Co-founder Inye Wokoma, takes you around his neighborhood and through his family’s home, as he shares the intense journey of why he started this project. Near the corner of 24th and East Marion, on a tree-lined residential street in Seattle Central District sits a house. It looks like other houses on the block, except for a sign out front that says Wa Na Wari. It’s a Kalabari term meaning “our home.” Kalabari is a language from Southern Nigeria. Wa Na Wari is a center for Black art, stories, and social connection in the Central District. The neighborhood around it was at one point, almost 80% Black but today, due to rising housing prices and property taxes, the Central District is under 10% Black. Gol Holghooghi and I spoke with Wa Na Wari founder, Inye Wokoma about how this house became not just a holdout in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, but an art space actively seeking ways to reclaim parts of the Central District.
This is 911 24th Avenue. The house next door which is a two storey white duplex was actually the first piece of property that my grandfather bought in 1947.
Inye Wokoma is standing in front of Wa Na Wari. A multi story craftsman house in the central district. He’s telling his family story with this house. The duplex next door was purchased in 1947 by his grandfather, Frank Green, who had moved to the city from Arkansas. A few years later, he and his wife Goldeen Green, bought the house that is now Wa Na Wari. And then some more houses. Wokoma moves over to the end of the block.
24th Avenue, East Marion Street. And from that vantage point, I can show you two additional houses that my grandparents purchase, renovated, and rented to family here in the neighborhood. And so all these properties were family homes, occupied by family. So it was a very sort of fluid space where people came and went, you know, on a regular basis. And so the idea of them being community spaces is very natural.
There have been aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, family members of all kinds who have called these places home. It’s a warm sunny day, we walk down 24th Avenue. A street lined with bungalows, and mature trees and gardens.
Somebody’s putting up a roof on a house.
There’s a guy hammering on the roof of a new neutral colored box styled house on the corner a half a block away. Its echoes usher in new houses and residents building over the history of the Central District.
So you know, one of the foundational visions of Wa Na Wari was that we wanted to experiment with the ways that Black art could be a tool to fight displacement, and gentrification. Right? Well, gentrification has already happened. So now we’re working on, you know, how can we how can we stem the tide of displacement. Right? And in this case, you know, thinking about how art can really be a tool to support the needs of Black homeowners, right, and preserve Black homeownership in the neighborhood. So that’s actually was a foundational part of our vision, even from the beginning. So you know, the first thing is just to demonstrate that something is possible, right? That you can take a house turn to a community space, and it can be something that’s real, relevant, and meaningful for the community. That’s the first step. And in doing so, you’re also demonstrating to other people in the neighborhood, in this case, specifically, you know, other Black homeowners that there are a wider range of possibilities than selling your house because of rising property taxes and in the cost of, of maintenance, and just living in the neighborhood. So you know, just the act of holding the space, you know, what I’m saying is a profound act in and of itself, in transforming the consciousness around it, but then taking it further and using it as a platform to organize around really tangible issues. Specifically, in this case, you know, land use issues around what’s allowed, you know, by our laws, and the bureaucracy that set up for people to be imaginative about creating solutions like this. So that gets into more of the implementation of art as a tool for change.
Wokoma had been feeling pressure to sell the house Wa Na Wari is in. His grandmother owns it, but Wokoma is her court appointed guardian and is tasked with balancing her finances. There were years where he was drawing from her savings to pay for expenses, and his estate attorney urged him to sell the house. But he was committed to keeping this home in his family. Eventually, he was able to team up with artists Alicia Johnson, formerly of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, writer and artist Rachel Kessler, and Jill Freeburg of the Shelf Life Project. They worked together on a community engagement project in the central district. Wa Na Wari became that project’s physical home. Plus it provided Wokoma with enough money to support his grandmother.
My estate attorney, you know, who for the first couple of years was like, ‘okay, when are you going to sell a house? When are you going to sell a house?’ Last time I talked to her, and we were doing the annual report for the court. She’s like, ‘you balanced the books. That’s good.’ [laughter] And that’s all she had to say. [laughter] You know, so I didn’t have to like stall her. I stalled it for like two years, like, ‘I’m gonna get to it, I’m gonna do it, I’m about to do it right.’
Holding this space is critical to Wokoma. Of course, it’s been in his family for generations. But a home serves many purposes. Yes, there are the obvious purposes, the physical purpose, a place to sleep protected from a cold, rainy winter, the monetary purpose, an investment to transfer intergenerational wealth. But there’s also the community purpose, a backyard to throw a party in, a porch to strike up a conversation on, a living room to invite someone into. A tangible investment and connection to those around you. The community that was there when Wokoma’s grandfather built this house is not the same today.
There was a time when I could have walked out my door and gone up to 23rd in Union to get something from the store, you know, and spent a couple of hours, you know, hanging out in the parking lot just talking to people, right. Social interactions that might then have turned into, you know, us walking back down and then coming and doing something at the house or coming down here. And then, you know, seeing a cousin or seeing somebody and then hanging out with three or four people, right, and then it turns into an entire day, or it turns into somebody saying, ‘Hey, we’re having a party over there. Let’s go over there. And let’s go do that.’ You know, or ‘let’s go downtown.’ There’s a whole, you know, different kind of experience that sort of bleeds in and out of, you know, your intimate spaces. There’s hard to quantify, it’s hard to like, pin down and say, it’s specifically this, you know, it’s kind of everything.
Houses in the neighborhood sell for around a million dollars, and they sell quickly, which favors people who have readily available money. Wokoma says these factors make it difficult for residents who left the Central District to come back and be homeowners. There are new developments nearby on 23rd and Union that provide affordable housing, but only as rentals.
There’s the aspect that you know, when you live in a neighborhood, where people’s lives are so intertwined between their personal, their work, their recreational, and their institutionalized, meaning where they go to worship, or places where they go to engage in various forms of community service, whether it’s sports. There are lots of interwoven relationships that come along with that, and a lot of cross generational relationships. And so, you know, leaving your house doesn’t feel like you’re leaving a familiar space into an unfamiliar space. It just feels like you’re leaving maybe a more intimate, familiar space to a more communal, intimate space. That’s not the case anymore. If you were to take that as sort of a foundational anecdote and sort of extrapolate all the possibilities of what community life is based on, being a part of that kind of rich sort of relationship, you know, network or ecosystem, you can imagine, you know what it means when that’s gone.
Wa Na Wari is preserving that sense of familiarity. Even if it’s contained inside 911 24th Avenue East. It’s become a space where other members of the community can meet and engage with each other. Even though the neighborhood has changed and people have moved, there’s a house that people are invited into to connect with the community. [inaudible] The house is an old craftsman with wood floors and a big living area on the first floor. And then there’s bedrooms upstairs. Inside Wa Na Wari, Wokoma shows us the films of videographer and curator Amir George, a featured artist at Wa Na Wari.
So you know we do this is the one that we use for you know, for film installations. And so sometimes it’s just the film.
We move on to an installation by Shelf Life, an oral history project. In the room, there’s a big map of the neighborhoods.
Yeahm this is the Shelf Life community story project room where we do oral history gatherings, sit down and talk to folks. So this is now a permanent feature here and will grow over time.
And by holding space telling these stories, Wa Na Wari can inspire other people to keep the spaces that are meaningful to them, even though it is an easy. Wokoma is no stranger to the challenges of this. He went through his own fight to keep a house. It’s the one next door, he lives in it.
The subject emerged of this story having, you know, some really deep spiritual dimensions and any emotional and that’s all true. So the house that I live in, is the first house that my grandfather, before he was married, purchased in 1947.
In fact, Wokoma calls himself a steward of that house. And there’s a story that shed some light on this, but it’s a bit complicated, so try and stay with me. Wokoma’s grandfather, at some point, put his brother or Wokoma’s great uncle, on the deed to his house. The one purchased in 1947. Wokoma is unsure exactly why this happened. But he has a guess.
I have often speculated that they were put on the deed of the house so that they had some equity leverage to purchase their first home. But then they stayed on the deed, like nobody went back and took them off [laughter] took them off the deed. It’s one of those things that is not a problem until it’s a problem.
It became a problem when that great uncle passed away. The great uncle’s wife had dementia, and her estate was put in guardianship. That guardianship but the house up for sale. Wokoma and his wife took out a loan to buy the house and keep it in the family. And just think about that for a moment. Wokoma is essentially repurchasing a house that has been in the family for over 50 years. Anyway, Wokoma buys the house. And then it’s 2008, the year of the financial crisis, the housing bubble bursts. Wokoma took out a subprime mortgage, and is now in 10s of 1000s of dollars worth of debt. Oh, and the stress of debt and trying to save the house breaks up his marriage. Wokoma coma calls this time, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” In the end, he was able to keep the house and “The Dark Night of the Soul” was fundamental to the creation of Wa Na Wari.
That experience for me personally, is entirely bound up with the trajectory of the emergence of this space here. For me, that personal experience of going through that, living through that pushing through that fighting, like sleepless nights of anxiety, and, you know, I’m probably undiagnosed depression, and all sorts of- and just sort of constant fear and uncertainty. And then coming out on the other side, gave me the kind of staminas would be like, ‘Okay, I’m not giving up.’ And it really did let me know that the thing that people say is a foregone conclusion is not always a foregone conclusion, right? That there are always other possibilities. You know, when you get a notice, that says, your active balance is $88,000? And how would you like to pay today? It just makes you laugh? Like, really? Is that a real question? And then they’re calling you like ‘Mr. Wokoma,’ they do their whole spiel, right? ‘We’re calling from so and so. So we want to let you know that this call is gonna be recorded and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and this is an attempt to collect the debt. And your, your balance today is $92,372.54. How would you like to make that payment today,’ and you just laugh. [laughter] You’re like, because, because it’s not like you can set payment arrangements up. They’re not gonna set payment arrangements up. The only way that they’ll, that you can set up any kind of payment plan is if you pay the active arrears and get current and then they’ll set a payment plan. And so there’s a point at which it just becomes impossible to actually do anything, right with the way that the industry works. And so you become resigned to the absurdity of the situation, at a certain point, coupled with all the real fears around actually being homeless, right? And then for me, you know, all the anxiety around being the custodian of this home and then ultimately losing it right. You know, so for me coming out on the other end of that and still being in place, I was just filled with possibility I come out on the other side of that dark night of the soul and was a transformed person.
There are other stories like this in the Central District. Wokoma tells a story about someone he saw often at Wa Na Wari.
He was coming to our events on a regular basis. And so, you know, it’s one of maybe the second or third time that he come to one of our, our opening events and I was sitting on the porch and he just came up to me and he just was ‘man, I just, I just want to know how you did this. I want to know how you did this. I’m living in in my mother’s house and she passed, and my sister has control of it and she doesn’t live in a city, and she just wants to sell it and I’m living in this house and I’m afraid that this house is gonna be sold and, and it’s just gonna be gone.’ For the first time in coming here, he felt like there was a sense of possibility other than just selling the house. Like and for me, for at this point, that was almost a year ago, and it’s still one of the most for me personally, moving moments and probably the moment that is most perfectly aligned with why I’m doing this work, you know, for someone just to say, ‘I see what you’re doing.’ And not only does it give me hope it makes me want to do something it makes me want to figure this out, you know, instead of giving up.
For KBCS I’m Yuko Kodama. This story was co-produced with me by Gol Holghooghi, Hans Anderson, Adria McGhee, and Jesse Callahan For more KBCS stories and to support our work with a donation you can visit kbcs.fm
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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