Africatown Central District is neither “Little Amsterdam” nor Lower Capitol Hill: Capitol Hill Housing opposes preserving first and only Black Bank in Pacific NW
-The Africatown News Digest Editors
The quasi-government Seattle NGO known as Capitol Hill Housing has recently announced on its website that it will actively oppose the preservation of Africatown history represented by the Liberty Bank building at 24th and Union, the only surviving commercial building in the CD to have been designed and built, from footing to roof, by Black people for Black people for the specific purpose of housing a Black institution.(1)
Liberty Bank was uniquely designed and completed by architect Mel Streeter in 1968, and opened its doors the same year. Streeter is known for leading in the construction of, and, in some cases, contributions to a number of landmark institutions in King County, such as: John Muir Elementary, City of Auburn City Hall, the regional Federal Aviation Administration Building and Beacon Hill Neighborhood’s former African American Academy Building (which is now Van Asselt Elementary School). Notably, he was integral in the construction of Seattle’s world-famous Qwest and Safeco Fields. Liberty Bank opened as the FIRST and ONLY African American bank in the Pacific Northwest region of the United Sates. Its founders included a number of people of historic note, and its design is reflective of the culture that characterized Seattle’s predominantly African American Central Area in the 1960s, a culture that Seattle’s mayor has acknowledged the need to protect and preserve against gentrification. The changing demographics of Seattle’s Central District, without protection of the neighborhood’s historical landmarks, portends an erasure of a rich cultural past and heritage created by Seattle’s African American community.(2)
Liberty Bank opened as a Black owned and operated Bank in Seattle at a time of tremendous national and regional Black upheaval. It was also a time when the African American community was actively creating sustainable institutions to combat racism in the forms of red-lining and economic exploitation, which went unchecked by the dominant culture leading up to, during and after the Black self-determination and institutional development era. The need for African American-owned and -run institutions that offered equitable opportunities for success was clear. Indeed, the absence of such an African American financial institution in Seattle today has long raised calls for the reestablishment of a Black bank. (3)
Liberty Bank would be one such key institution, used to expand the African American entrepreneurial class, and as an antidote to the refusals by enterprise capital of mainstream institutions to invest in that class despite comparably positive credit worthiness, relevance, and need. It was a natural outgrowth of the NAACP’s Sentinel Credit Union and soon became a source of needed capital and developmental loans to many African Americans whose entrepreneurial creations still exist today. The Bank was thriving enough after its opening to begin a second branch on 3rd Avenue in downtown Seattle in 1988. What the African American community experienced as economic “apartheid”, however, halted the effort. The bank regulator during this time was Thomas Oldfield, who aggressively seized both bank branches. Within four days Liberty was re-formed, with new and compliant owners, as Emerald City Bank. Very shortly thereafter, ECB was merged with Key Bank, which itself has now abandoned the Liberty building as a banking service location, and is seeking to liquidate it as a profitable real estate sale instead. In response, local neighbors have appealed to Seattle´s Historic Landmarks Nomination Board to protect the building. The hearing will be Wednesday, Feb 5th, 3:30 PM, in Room 1756 of the Seattle Municipal Tower, 700 5th Avenue, 17th Floor.(4)
Enter Captiol Hill Housing, a perspective buyer and developer, whose gentrification influence within the Central Area has steadily grown in the years since the City-Hall-led takeover and shutdown of its former neighbor and Black-controlled competitor, the Central Area Public Development Authority (1976 – 1994). The minutes of CHH’s January 2014 Board Meeting state “At that hearing, CHH and our consultants (DKA Architecture and Larry Johnson Partnership) will present our opinion that the building does not merit preservation, however, the history of Liberty Bank will be honored.” (1)
It is not surprising that CHH’s interests conflict with preserving Liberty Bank, and it is good diplomacy for them to hire both DKA Architecture and Larry Johnson Partnership to represent those interests, given Larry Johnson’s expertise in the historic designation process and Don King’s effective work in converting the African American Heritage Museum building into 36 allegedly affordable apartment condominiums, even if few Black residents of Africatown Central District could actually afford them. This is more diplomatic, for example, than developer Ian Eisenberg’s blunt proposal to install a cluster of marijuana shops nearby and to re-christen this part of Africatown-Central District as “Little Amsterdam”. (5) However, it is Black contractors and construction workers who will actually build and develop Africatown.
It is surprisingly presumptuous for CHH, in the very same breath in which they propose to tear it down, to authoritatively declare that “the history of Liberty Bank will be honored”, assuming for themselves the right define and verify such an alleged honoring. It is similar to the Roman general Manius Manilius politely “honoring” the city of Carthage with a few tears and verses from The Iliad as he carried out the utter destruction of that African city. (6)
Capitol Hill Housing’s quasi-government bankster board includes a former VP of Bank of America, an associate of HAL Real Estate Investments, an associate of Vulcan Real Estate, an agent of ShoreBank Pacific, the owner of Dunn & Hobbes LLC, a representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a former chair of the South Lake Union/Queen Anne Design Review Board and a facility manager for Seattle U, but this board is notably lacking for African Americans. There is, of course, the one recently added exception to that rule, Pamela Banks, the President and CEO of none other than the dead anti-Black Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, which is fronting with CHH for this project, much like it has fronted for the Urban League Village/Housing Resource Group in years past. (7)
This is the same Urban League that was the single largest recipient in the Urban League/Seattle Public Schools Scandal of 2011, in which nearly two million dollars was reportedly misspent, and in the midst of which the former Urban League CEO James Kelly conspicuously resigned (The same James Kelley who, while still serving as CEO, brought a firearm onto Rainier Beach High School’s campus and threatened students with it in 2002)(8), the same Urban League that still claims it is innocent of any wrongdoing in that scandal.(9) This is the same Urban League that has received annual no-bid City contracts of approximately half a million per year, year-after-year until 2011, for youth violence prevention initiatives, while youth violence continued to mushroom, and community members kept asking what, if anything, the Urban League was doing about it.(10) This is the same Urban League that is now negotiating for a similar $400,000 contract, allegedly for creating job opportunities and reducing violence. And this is the same Pamela Banks who served as the UrbanLeague’s liaison to the City under the James Kelly administration while the previous no-bid contracts were negotiated. This is the same Urban League that helped both City Hall and the School District to illegally breach their 1997 signed contract with the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center (a contract which is still a clear matter of record no matter how many prominent Seattle players wish it wasn’t), and turned most of that Museum’s building into not-so-affordable condos in what became known as the NAAM Scam.(11) This is the same Urban League that orchestrated the false arrest of AAHMCC founder Wyking Garrett for attempting to tell this story at the 2007 unveiling of the NAAM Scam, as proud former FBI Agent and NAAM officer Carver Gayton (who once claimed to possess privileged information on Lee Harvey Oswald(12) looked on and cheerfully gloated into the microphone. (13) It is therefore not surprising that this Urban League lacks substantial credibility among long time Central Area residents, and must still instead allow itself to be used as a front by forces and interests originating outside of the Africatown Central District. In fact, we continue to demand a federal RICO Racketeering investigation of the City of Seattle’s, King County’s and the State of Washington’s dealings with this Urban League.
Some of CHH’s apparent supporters, on various forums and blogs, are already attempting to falsely frame this issue as a choice between “affordable housing versus an ugly bank building”. Liberty Bank has never been ugly and never will be. But even if beauty was unilaterally defined by the followers of Oscar Niemeyer and Paul Andreu, it would be ridiculous to say that Liberty Bank’s supporters were against housing. Everyone knows and agrees that all humans need housing. The more obvious but less comfortable questions, concerning red-lining and reverse-red-lining, are about who shall be empowered to develop and administer housing, who shall be housed where, and who shall have to plead with whom in order to request a place to live in any certain area.
On January 18th at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, Mayor Murray recognized the importance of the Africatown Central District as no less than that of the Chinatown International District. He went so far as to say that the colonial relationship between Seattle and its African American population needs to change. Liberty Bank at 24th and Union is an excellent place for that change to begin.
We look forward to seeing you all on the 17th floor of Seattle Municipal Tower on February 5th!