In Seattle's rapidly changing neighborhoods, the world of arts and culture has voiced some of the sharpest cries about growing pains. Seattle’s finger-in-the-dyke response is its new program to establish arts and cultural districts.
Last November, Capitol Hill was the first and so far only neighborhood to receive this designation, in an effort to preserve the artists' community. The Central District will be next, but perhaps with a greater focus on an African American culture that seems to grow smaller by the day.
The idea to create arts and cultural districts in Seattle emerged in 2009, thanks in large part to Councilmember Nick Licata and former Councilmember Sally Clark. The sale of the Oddfellows Hall on Capitol Hill in 2008, displacing a number of arts organizations, helped to spur them into action.
More broadly, Capitol Hill has become one of Seattle’s most desirable and expensive neighborhoods, and the Central District is close on its heels. As housing prices go up, the range of those who can afford to rent or own narrows. The irony, of course, is that the people moving to those particular neighborhoods often do so to be near the culture, arts and ambience the district exemplifies. The districts are, in a sense, a way to protect people from themselves.
The program, developed through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is built around a "toolkit" – a mini instruction manual and set of options for the city and neighborhoods to use as ways to protect culture in changing districts. The toolkit approach is not specific to Seattle; the national American for the Arts is a huge proponent of cultural districts on a city, state and national level.
At its most ambitious, the toolkit advocates for incentive zoning and preservation of structures in order to foster artist communities. Seattle's original 2009 proposal for the districts foreshadowed some of the ideas in Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing and Affordability Livability Agenda (HALA), addressing issues of construction costs, redevelopment of older buildings and zoning.
At a certain point, though, Seattle's ambitions were curbed slightly. When Capitol Hill was introduced as the first district, the strategy pointed more in the direction of marketing and support rather than changing land-use laws or practices. The tenets of the toolkit now include things like "District Identification” — rainbow crosswalks, for example, identify Capitol Hill as historically gay-friendly. The toolkit also encourages busking, mapping the neighborhood with important arts and culture markers, building mini-parks and labeling arts-friendly buildings. The toolkit doesn’t rule out the heavier lifts of cultural preservation and landmarking, but doesn't get specific, simply saying, “Various mechanisms are being explored for the support of older buildings and the innovative small local companies and arts organizations they tend to house.”
What exactly the designation means, says Calandra Childers with Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, depends on what the community itself wants. “The way that we’re approaching it is a community-led designation,” she says. The city does not handpick the districts. Rather, community members come together and decide to apply for the status. “It’s not intended for us to say ‘we now declare this a cultural district.’ [Community members] come together and rally around a body like a chamber of commerce.” Spearheading the Capitol Hill designation were a huge number of recognizable organizations including 12th Avenue Arts, Chop Suey, Elliot Bay Books and Hugo House.
Legislation to designate the Central District as an Arts and Cultural District was recently sent to the Seattle City Council, says Childers, and will likely come up for consideration in December when the council resumes committee work after the budget is approved.
What that district looks like will be different from Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill is dense and compact; the Central District is not. Childers says, “How you approach the CD is going to be different. … Maybe some tools aren’t what’s needed.”
Designation in the Central District will likely address the changing demographics of the CD, where gentrification and the loss of communities of color have become serious concerns. Vivian Phillips of the Seattle Theater Group spearheaded the effort to designate the Central District as an Arts and Cultural District. The opportunity to apply for the designation, she says, aligns perfectly with the "desire to better secure the African American legacy in a fast-changing neighborhood environment."
Specifically, Phillips suggests, the group's goals will include working to: "Preserve an African American legacy, through art and culture. Strengthen and sustain the physical identity and sense of place for cultural relevancy, rooted in the African American aesthetic. Establish a formalized forum for continued support of artistic creation, economic vibrancy, livability, affordability, desirability, and artistic vitality."