This morning around 8AM, near the intersection of Madison and 23rd Ave, a small Counterforce assembled to block another Microsoft shuttle bus in another heavily gentrified Seattle neighborhood. For roughly 30 minutes, people holding banners reading “GENTRIFICATION STOPS HERE” blocked the front and back ends of the bus. Others attempted to distribute flyers to the Microsoft employees boarding the bus, but they were grumpy and only two took them. During the delay in what is probably a boring and uneventful commute every other day, they sat in quiet misery, playing with their smart phones, not even really talking to each other.
The gentrification of Seattle is an oft forgotten tale, buried underneath glossy advertisements for new houses and below the foundations of sleek apartment buildings. While the first dot-com boom of the late nineties was bringing gentrification to different Seattle neighborhoods, something evil was unfolding in the streets of the Central District, one of the historically black neighborhoods of the city. While multiple Microsoft employees colonized the neighborhood, a federal program called Weed and Seed forcefully removed entire multi-generational black families from their homes.
Weed and Seed was a program sponsored by the Department of Justice and implemented by the FBI, the ATF, the DEA, the Seattle Police Department, Seattle Parks Department, Seattle Housing Authority, land speculators, neighborhood groups, and individual gentrifiers. The federal government initially allocated 1.1 millions dollars for the Seattle program in 1991. Two thirds of this money was dedicated to law enforcement, the remaining third was used for social services.
While federal and local law enforcement began targeting young black men, locking them up and destroying their families in the Weed aspect of this operation, the Seed aspect began grooming neighborhood groups to internalize the hierarchy being imposed upon them. These groups were encouraged to snitch on their neighbors for every reason from trash in the yard to suspected drug deals. In this way, law enforcement outsourced its intelligence gathering to these neighborhood groups. In exchange for helping to lock up and evict their neighbors, these groups were awarded access to city resources, development projects, the passage of ordinances, bus routes, and grants.
The young black student was raised a block away from the elementary school. He knew of a plum tree up the hill from his house and would quench his thirst with plum juices in the summer, a time when these plums were the most refreshing. One day in 1997, he arrived at the location of the plum tree to find a stump, hidden behind a new fence. A young white student lived in this house with his parents. The young black student captained the elementary school chess club in which this young white student played. Both of his parents were members of the local neighborhood groups. The father of this household worked for Microsoft.
This family was part of a broad movement of gentrifiers, ranging from gay couples to aspiring parents, all belonging to the same socio-economic class and perpetuating the same prefab aesthetic. From 1995 to 1997, the percentage of households in the Central District without children increased from 57% to 73%. Buried within this piece of data is the story of all the multi-generational black families that were incarcerated, evicted, ripped apart, and weeded out so that these new residents could begin seeding the area. In the same time period, the black population of the Central District decreased from more than half to less than one third, while the white population increased from 13% to 43%
In 1997, the young black student’s best friend had an uncle with a drug habit. His uncle did not live in the family house but used it as a mailing address for social services. It was a stable space where he knew his family could always receive the mail he needed. When the authorities arrested him for his habit, the City of Seattle used the mailing address as grounds to begin evicting the family using the variety of legal mechanisms provided by the Weed and Seed program. After the family was evicted and the house was seized, the young black student only saw his best friend once in the next fifteen years. His friend’s family moved south to Kent and disappeared from Central District life. This family was one of the many weeds removed by the federal gentrification program.
Starting in 1997, the housing prices in Seattle began to sharply increase month by month. The first tech bubble and the national housing bubble arrived simultaneously in Seattle. Thanks to Microsoft, Amazon, and the startups, more and more tech employees began invading the Central District. At the crescendo of the first tech bubble in 1999, Seattle property values had jumped over 18% since 1997. When the bubble burst in 2000, these housing prices continued to rise, in part because of the stability of Microsoft and the local housing market.
The young black student noticed that Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School had begun to decline. Due in part to the new childless professionals moving into the area, enrollment began to drop at the school. Funding was consistently cut to the school and by 2003 the idea of closing it was first proposed. In the Central District, the grandparents of children born in the 1980’s began to pass away, leaving the family houses to their children. An average single family house in the Central District was worth $190,000 in 2001. By 2003, that home would be worth $262,000.
Suddenly these children were being offered a quarter of a million dollars for the family house, a sum of money few had ever conceptualized or encountered. The incentive for these black families to leave their neighborhoods only increased, especially as the Weed and Seed continued to lock up young black men and women. By 2005, the average single family home was worth $355,000 and the black population continued to decline in the Central District.
In 2006, the doors of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary were closed, just as the Weed and Seed program released its final report. A woman named Betsy Harris, co-chair of the Weed and Seed Steering Committee, summed up the program as follows: “It’s the big picture, and as overwhelming as it seemed at first, we have all worked hard and our community is being revitalized, one block at a time!” By the time she said this, many gentrifiers had been living in the neighborhood for a decade.
At the end of 2007, the national housing bubble burst, sending Seattle housing prices down for the first time since the beginning of the boom in 1997. But by this point, most of the original black residents had been weeded out of the Central District. In 2009, the traditionally black T.T. Minor school closed its doors after suffering the same fate as Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. Microsoft went mostly unaffected by the recession, so much so that it began running the Connector Shuttle into all of the neighborhoods its employees had gentrified.
Microsoft employees continued to move into the Central District throughout the deepening recession, exacerbating the problem that had led to the closure of the elementary schools. While these schools were boarded up, Bill Gates continued to push his ideology of charter schools and standardized testing. It is difficult to see these two processes as separate. On the one hand, the majority of the Central District black population had been removed and deprived of its traditional schools. At the same time, the proliferation standardized testing allowed for schools to be deprived of their funding if they did not perform according to a rigid criteria. This allowed people like Bill Gates to point at the boarded-up schools and low test scores as objective proof that his ideology of charter schools was superior to public education.
Beyond this, the high capitalists of Seattle like Bill Gates, Bill Gates, Sr., Jeff Bezos, and Paul Allen, diverted some of their money into an organization that reflected their capitalist ethics: Rainier Scholars. This philanthropic organization selected poor elementary students of color and enabled them to become good capitalists. The very white and very protestant work ethic was spread like a religion amongst these young students of color. Rainier Scholars tracked and monitored specific students throughout their academic careers and encouraged them to enroll in private schools at the first opportunity.
By the time these students reached college age, Rainier Scholars helped place these students in the same white hierarchy that had destroyed their neighborhoods and limited their opportunities. This pipeline to higher education, facilitated by the closure of neighborhood schools, insulated these select students from their own communities and culture and championed the dominant culture of corporate loyalty, self-denial, and consumerism. If they worked hard enough, these students might one day work for Microsoft and be able to take the Connector Shuttle with the other gentrifiers.
The gentrification of the Central District is all but complete. The white population is now over 60%, the highest it has ever been. The young black student mentioned in this text is now a service worker, still living in Madison Valley at his family home. The young white student whose family cut down the plum tree is now employed by one the tech giants in Silicon Valley. Today there are gentrifiers in the Central District who can claim to have been in the neighborhood for almost twenty years. These people can reassure other gentrifiers that it is okay to move into the Central District. They say we are all uprooted anyway and that community can be whatever you want to be. But the community of gentrifiers that exists today in the Central District has almost no conception of the brutality that allowed them to move into houses that once belonged to multi-generational black families.
We tell this story as a warning. The techniques of gentrification practiced in Seattle over the past twenty years are now being exported south. Our comrades in San Francisco and Oakland should know that if they do not fight with all of their hearts, what happened in the Central District can happen again in another neighborhood. We wish everyone luck in their struggles against gentrification.
For the love of the Central District For the end of Microsoft For the end of gentrification