In five years, Terrell Jackson went from frying hush puppies in a tent on the side of a South Seattle street, to cooking in his own million-dollar restaurant in Seattle’s historically black Central District. When Jackson’s Catfish Corner opened on Juneteenth this year, he carried on the legacy of his grandparents’ restaurant, which served its famous tartar sauce from a low building less than a mile away for more than two decades. Jackson sees his return to the neighbourhood as an anchor for the community’s diaspora. “People come in, like, ‘This is our Catfish Corner,’ it’s not just mine, this is ours, this is our hub,” Jackson says. “I take pride in that.”
Jackson's Catfish Corner Restaurant / Photo by Naomi Tomky
In the 1960s and ‘70s, more than 70% of the Central District was African American. “Used to be you could walk down the street, back in the day, see old friends, wave at them,” Jackson remembers. “We have sold our family houses, things just aren’t the same.” By the time Woodrow and Rosemary Jackson sold the original Catfish Corner in 2008, the black share of population in the neighbourhood had halved – even as the city’s total black population remained steady. The median annual household income for black people in Seattle fell significantly from the years 2000 to 2013, while white households' income grew significantly. As the city grew, the area’s prime location led to skyrocketing prices. Convenient to commuters crossing the lake to Microsoft or heading down the hill to Amazon, the neighbourhood has been fighting off gentrification for close to half a century.
A wave of black businesses receded from the Central District as the community was pushed out, but now Jackson’s Catfish Corner leads the way as many crash back in. Over the last decade, a range of groups – a non-profit mental health agency, an affordable housing developer, and for-profit real-estate titan Vulcan – saw the value in restoring the Central District's small, black-owned business infrastructure. Committing their time and money to the cause, they each separately worked alongside, and in partnership with, community leaders, neighbourhood activists, and organisations like Africatown and the Central Area Collaborative. It took years, but now their success shows in the return of black-owned soul food restaurants to the heart of a neighbourhood where one generation of black Seattleites were pushed in by redlining policies, and the next pushed out by gentrification.
Across the street from Jackson’s Catfish Corner, newly-opened Simply Soulful is the latest evolution of what started as Barbara Collins selling her mom’s sweet potato pies at a farmers market. When Collins and her daughter, Lillian Rambus, opened a sandwich shop, customers fell in love with all of their food, and eventually it turned into a full restaurant – but with Collins and Rambus still cooking on a five-burner stove and frying chicken in home turkey fryers. “We wanted to expand,” says Collins. “And be able to serve our community better and faster.”
Photo courtesy of Simply Soulful
A few blocks down the neighbourhood’s main arterial, 23rd, longtime local caterer and black-eyed-pea-hummus entrepreneur Kristi Brown and her son, Damon Bomar, started greeting customers at Communion in the waning days of 2020. When non-profit affordable housing developer Community Roots Housing reached out to Brown five years earlier and asked her to imagine her dream space, she sketched ideas for what would become Communion on a napkin. Community Roots Housing built it into their Liberty Bank Building, named for and built on the site of the Pacific Northwest’s first black-owned bank. Since opening, the restaurant earned praise as one of the 12 best new restaurants in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, and one of the 50 most exciting restaurants in the country by the New York Times.
Photo courtesy of Communion
“Liberty Bank Building was really a development that was attempting to put a stake in the ground and stop the displacement of the African American community,” says the organisation’s CEO, Chris Persons. Community Roots’ mission includes building neighbourhoods, not just apartments, so they focus on bringing local small businesses in. “We try to get variety, so the streetscape is vibrant and active.”
Chris Szala, the executive director of Community House, a non-profit mental health agency, started planning the tenants for the organisation’s new complex of housing for people experiencing low income, mental illness, and chronic homelessness as soon as the property was purchased around 2012. He didn’t know Jackson himself, but went down to the previous location and introduced himself and the project. “Right then and there, I did not lie to that man,” Jackson says, laughing at the memory. “I do not have one dollar to invest in no building like that.”
Despite the buzz about successful African American entrepreneurs like himself, Jackson notes, they need more. “There are a lot of grants, but we don’t have the right resources, so we tend to give up on our dreams,” he says. “No one tells us about these things.” When Szala first started pointing him towards grants for thousands of dollars, Jackson thought, “This shit is never going to happen,” but he ended up getting $700,000 in grants plus a full business plan put together by students at Seattle University.
Community Roots, too, helped Brown find grants to fund the restaurant, while Vulcan Real Estate, which recruited Simply Soulful to their development, took on the custom buildout. “A lot comes from the way we are delivering the space,” says Vulcan Real Estate’s director of commercial marketing and leasing, Geralyn Vannoy. They worked with Simply Soulful to design to their needs and gave flexibility so they could open on their own best timeline. “We aren’t setting them up to fail.”
Liberty Bank Building
Community House, as a non-profit, saw the opportunity to take their commitment to the neighbourhood and building black wealth even further: Jackson and the other tenants have 15-year leases with terms to renew for five years at a time as long as they want to stay, and the rent will remain the same. If they ever want to buy the space, Community House will sell it for what they paid. “We think that’s key in terms of being able to help minority businesses in the long run,” says Szala. “The margins, we know, are small, and [black business owners like Jackson] are not apt to just walk up to a bank and say: ‘Give me a nice big line of credit.’ Doesn’t happen.”
The same systemic problems for black entrepreneurs – like the lack of traditional banks loaning to them – that kept them in a cash or shadow economy, still create barriers. “If you think it’s just going to be a do-gooder thing and all fall into place, it won’t,” says Szala. “There’s a lot of people in the black community who have been doing this forever.” The only change he sees is that some government agencies started paying a little bit more attention. Even then, he places blame on those same people for creating further hurdles. “Hell, the paperwork, I’d walk away from it too.”
But the alternative that he and others see is worse. “Had we not done Liberty Bank Building,” says Persons, “that neighbourhood just would have turned. It would be like a 90% white community now with a bunch of Amazon workers.” Community Roots spent significant financial resources to get Communion and two other black-owned businesses in the Liberty Bank Building, he explains. “Because those businesses didn’t have a lot of money, we committed our own money, we helped them raise additional money, we reduced the rents considerably.” They do this, in part, by charging market rates at other properties. They also use federal funding through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which allows them to keep rent much lower. “If we can make it pencil on half the rents, just think what it’s like for a market rate developer who is bringing in twice the rent,” says Persons. “That’s why they all have fancy motorcycles and big boats, and we drive beat-up cars.”
After more than thirty years in housing, Szala knows the margins, and that any developer – non-profit or market rate – could do what they did. Vulcan’s investment and commitment shows a model of how – and why – that works. “We want them to succeed,” says Vannoy. “When they do, then we will see the financial benefits from that.”
For the business owners – and the neighbourhood’s residents – the return of black-owned soul food restaurants means even more. “Being from the Central District, being a part of the community has a lot to do with why we do it,” says Brown. She points to the insignia which reads 'I am home' on the floor of Communion. It’s there, she says, “[to recognise] that we’re human and we deserve to be here.”
Moving to the neighbourhood’s major intersection gives Collins opportunities that she dreamed of from her smaller space. “It’s going to be really nice to be in the Central Area, serving the black community, serving the community, period.”
Opening Jackson’s Catfish Corner while his grandparents were still around to see it was Jackson’s number one goal. “I always told my grandparents, we deserve more,” he says. Now people – including Woodrow and Rosemary Jackson – can kick back and watch sports or live music some nights. “To bring it back to the Central District, where it belongs, it’s nothing but a dream come true for me,” he says. After a lifetime of watching his neighbourhood get torn down and his friends and family pushed out, he sees Catfish Corner, Simply Soulful, and Communion as a beginning. “Each new building should have a black business in it, no matter what.” says Jackson. “That’s the only right thing to do.”