Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Seattle Central District (CD) over Eighty Years

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Seattle Central District (CD) over Eighty Years

Article excerpt

The "Central District" (CD) and the "Central Area" are the accepted names for the historical Seattle black community, dating to around 1920. Fifty years ago, in 1961, I undertook a study of forces that led to expansion in this community, published in this journal in 1965 as "Negro Ghetto: Problems and Alternatives" (Morrill 1965). Nomenclature has changed, but the dynamics of community evolution are as fascinating as ever. In this revisitation, I first review theory of racial segregation and of urban change, recognize some relevant literature, then trace the changing distribution of the Seattle black population from 1930 through 2010, followed by an interpretation of this change in the context of theoretical expectations.

The story is one of: (1) substantial growth in the black population; (2) differential discrimination and resistance to entry of black households into formerly white neighborhoods; (3) a logical if somewhat guided channelization of growth from the core community to the southeast, in part related to mandatory school desegregation; (4) the effect of economic and social restructuring, especially in the Seattle core; and (5) Seattle's planning policies, which together with (4) have resulted in the gentrification of most of the original Central District core, and in the displacement (-) or relocation (+) of black population, not only to the southeast of the city, but from the city to south King County suburban cities.


The motivation for the earlier research was both personal and professional. My wife and I were charter members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in a number of direct-action projects. While the Seattle black population was not large, the effect of discrimination was both visible and disturbing. Professionally, my interest in modeling led me to experiment with a simulation approach to racial settlement change. At the time of the original study, the southeastern part of Seattle was working-class white and highly resistant to the entry of black households from the historic core. To the north, the relative openness of the Jewish community and the more-educated populace related to the University of Washington led me--and the model--to predict a continuing northward movement, in an available lightly settled corridor. As will be shown below, what really happened was quite different and constituted a motivation for the present study, in which we will find out why the earlier prediction was wrong.


I took as given that substantial growth of the black population would occur, because of many black soldiers passing through during World War 11 and the Korean War to local bases; the direct tie of Seattle and Chalmette, Louisiana, through Boeing plants; the generally rapid growth of the Seattle economy since 1940; a relatively less antagonistic employment climate; and subsequent channelized migration to Seattle (Taylor 1994).

The overarching reality was and remains, even in self-proclaimed "liberal" Seattle, the fact of perceived social incompatibility between Blacks and whites, and the deep-seated experiential preference to remain with one's own "group," maintained by multiple means of discrimination (Massey and Denton 1993; Jackson 1987). Until after 1970, restrictive covenants and distinct real estate markets, including redlining, legally maintained Seattle segregation, which since then persists through preferences and behavior of sellers and buyers, landlords and renters. Their revealed behavior, I contend, shows their underlying attitudes. Thus the entry of black households into new neighborhoods did lead to selective white flight, which became more pronounced after the introduction of mandatory busing for school desegregation in 1978-1979. Catherine Veninga (2011) participated in this busing and reports that students and families usually reacted favorably. It may be that Seattle has relatively lower levels of segregation than cities with very large black communities, but separation remains pervasive. …

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