Earl Lancaster has been cutting hair at the corner of 23rd and Union for a quarter of a century.
"Some of the highlights have been cutting some of the Sonics, Mariners. Cutting young kids and turn into fathers and cutting their kids’ hair. It’s been amazing," Lancaster said as he glided his clippers along a man's scalp.
Earl’s Cuts & Styles used to be surrounded by other black-owned businesses, and a working-class community. Today, most of those businesses are gone. To live across from Earl’s will cost you $1,725 a month for a tiny studio in glassy new construction. The wrecking ball is coming for his barber shop, in the Midtown Center shopping complex, next.
"I never thought I’d have to lose it,” he said. “I love this space on 23rd and Union. It’s done a lot for me."
For much of the 20th century, Seattle’s Central District was the heart of the city’s black community. Today, skyrocketing housing prices have driven many black residents out of the neighborhood – and often out of the city.
Unlike many of the black businesses priced out of the area in recent years, though, Lancaster has a plan to stay in the neighborhood. A group of community partners is redeveloping a lot one block away into 115 affordable housing units, along with retail space for businesses like Earl’s. The homes will be marketed specifically to black people who make between 30 and 60 percent of the median income. Murals from local black artists will line the courtyard to provide cultural and historical context regarding the site, and the neighborhood's black past.
"We want to create a sense of place for people to be able to connect to, and learn about the great stories of those who have made the Central District their home," said Wyking Garrett, CEO of Africatown. His organization is partnering with Capitol Hill Housing, Centerstone, and the Black Community Impact Alliance on the project.
Garrett, who's black, grew up in the neighborhood, and his connection to the land where the new development will sit is personal: In 1968 his grandfather co-founded Liberty Bank on this site. It was a rare financial center focusing on the needs of people of color at a time when getting home and business loans could be nearly impossible if you weren't white.
For decades, black Seattleites had been largely relegated to the Central District due to redlining and racial housing covenants. Even so, the co-founders themselves had to have a white man buy the land for the bank.
"These are the type of obstacles that were faced by blacks at the time, and many of those obstacles exist in different forms," Garrett said.
In a city flooded with young, white newcomers here for high-paying tech jobs, Garrett said the Liberty Bank development would let lower-income black residents live in the middle of Seattle, where many still work even if they have to move to the suburbs to afford housing.
"We’re striving to disrupt that kind of status quo of people just being, you know, pushed around in this place, and create a model where communities can actually grow and thrive," Garrett said.
He dreams of the kind of iconic black businesses that used to line this street. Like Thompson’s Point of View, the soul food restaurant where his sister worked. He’d go there after school to see her and eat French fries. It’s now a hipster bar with a bordello theme.
Fifty years ago, this neighborhood was 70 percent black. "Today it’s under 20 percent. And the community doesn’t want to see that continue," said Chris Persons, CEO of Capitol Hill Housing, the developer on the project.
Ironically, the same open housing laws that made it illegal to limit black residents to this part of Seattle could now complicate efforts to bring them back. Today, it's illegal to give rental preference based on race. Persons isn't discouraged.
"We are certainly going to follow the letter of all the fair housing laws," Persons said. "There is ability in marketing particularly to communities that have been displaced, or are at the risk of being displaced, and that’s where we’re going to focus our energy."
Persons says the law does allow preferential leasing to black commercial tenants.
Like Lancaster, who's planning to make the move across the street. He says it’s bittersweet to leave his old barber shop, but he’s optimistic.
"Change is good. Change is real good. New fresh paint, new walls, new start – new everything," Lancaster said. He is concerned about parking, which is plentiful in his current shopping plaza. Only a dozen spaces are slated for the Liberty Bank development, he said, which could make it hard for customers.
The prospect of affordable apartments in new construction is creating buzz in the neighborhood. "There’s some people I know who’s waiting to get on the list," Lancaster said.
The Liberty Bank project is slated to be complete next summer.