Central District Arts could nurture a threatened legacy

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The Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center

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."

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Second Saturday is a monthly Central District Art Walk, launched in 2010 Credit:

The actual projects or steps to pursued haven't been outlined yet, but Phillips says the district will build off momentum around ongoing projects like the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute moving toward becoming an independent non-profit; the development of the Jimi Hendrix Park near the Northwest African American Museum; and establishment of a Central Area Collective and the Central Area Revitalization Plan — both of which would be efforts to plot a larger roadmap for the changing Central District.

In addition to Phillips, the body responsible for leading the district will include representatives from the Northwest African American Museum, Meredith Matthews YMCA, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center and more than 10 other organizations.

Funding for the districts is a combination of $50,000 from the NEA and some funding from the Office of Arts and Culture. In his most recent budget proposal, Mayor Ed Murray allocated 80 percent of the money received through Seattle’s admissions tax to the Office of Arts and Culture — up from 75 percent the year before.

Measuring the success of an arts and cultural district is elusive, and success for Capitol Hill is likely different from success for the Central District. But the City appears committed.

Childers says they are in contact with community members from Greenwood, Georgetown, Uptown and Rainier Valley to expand the districts program. For now, though, despite hearing from those areas, the City plans to pace itself at one new district per year.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.