Around the time of the annual Umoja Fest Africatown Heritage Parade earlier this month, some folks including the United Hood Movement went out and painted several crosswalks in the Central District red, black and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag.
The action calls attention to what many people who grew up in the Central District have experienced: As more white people (including yours truly) and more money move into the neighborhood, longtime black community members are getting priced out. And with them goes the sense of identity and belonging the neighborhood used to provide. The CD has been gentrifying for a long time, but the physical space is changing quickly now that investment in big new buildings has crossed south of Madison.
In response, some community activists have rallied around the identity of Africatown, which refers both to the African-American history of the neighborhood and to newer immigrant and refugee communities from African nations that have made the CD their home. Just like Chinatown and International District organizations work to preserve Asian heritage in Seattle and many other cities, Africatown is meant to preserve the identity of this neighborhood before it simply becomes Capitol Hill South.
So activists took matters into their own hands and painted several crosswalks at MLK and Cherry and near Powell Barnett Park. They didn’t wait for the city to approve them or find a spot for the project in the annual budget. Here’s how the UHM described the action in a Facebook post:
We didn’t get $100,000 to do it. We just knew it would give people a sense ownership back to our community since gentrification has changed it so rapidly, and dramatically it’s hard to recognize the place we call… Home.
This put Seattle leaders on the spot. Do they call it vandalism and clean it off? Or do they go even further and try to investigate and press charges? Sadly, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Seattle or any city going this route. After all, Seattle’s City Attorney Pete Holmes has been trying to prosecute a group of protestors arrested for blocking Hwy 99 during a Black Lives Matter action, even though it was an obvious (and brave) act of civil disobedience we should be praising.
In a smart move by city leaders, SDOT instead embraced the painted crosswalks, even adding new reflective markings to make them official and safe (spray paint isn’t reflective at night like the specialized crosswalk materials). For now the spray-paint version remains, though SDOT Director Scott Kubly told King 5 they are considering a more permanent version (the spray paint probably won’t last too long under so many car tires):
Obviously, cool Pan-African crosswalks aren’t going to solve gentrification or create affordable housing and space for black-owned businesses in the Central District. But it’s amazing how powerful street space can be as a part of a community. All these activists did was spray paint these crosswalks, and it sparked a surprisingly strong conversation (the Capitol Hill Seattle story has 96 comments as of press time).
That’s why the city should support actions like this, which I hope spurs more and even bolder actions. Because the neighborhood is going to keep changing: The buildings, the businesses, the schools and the streets. The question is: Who will it change for?