Nehemiah is the 16th book of the Old Testament, one that draws on the teachings and traditions of a regenerated community.
In this spirit, a working group of community advocates from the The Nehemiah Initiative is attempting to regenerate Seattle’s Central District amid rampant gentrification. It supports the idea of a community that values retaining church members in the neighborhood where their church is located and to entice members who have had to move out to move back. I and other founding members of the initiative aim to build a beloved community in accord with the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., himself a Baptist preacher who organized in predominately Black churches.
There’s little doubt that The Nehemiah Initiative faces an immense challenge combating the displacement of African Americans from central Seattle. When you drive through the Central District today, you see gentrification in its stark reality. New market-rate buildings line the intersections of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, as well as 23rd and South Jackson Street. Rising property values and higher property taxes have forced the sale of what once were affordable, formerly redlined homes and businesses. The attractiveness of the Central District’s proximity to downtown, its grand housing stock and mature tree-lined streets have contributed to boosting pressure on Black families remaining in the neighborhood to sell.
Gentrification and displacement are significant threats to the retention of the Black population in Seattle. The Central District was the historic home of African Americans for over 130 years and the largest enclave of African Americans north of California. In the 1970s it was over 70% Black, but today it’s less than 14%. The average wealth of Black families in Seattle is $37,696, compared with white families’ $125,824. Homeownership rates are around 24% versus 50%, respectively. It’s incredibly difficult for Black families to build wealth through real estate in this city, which consistently ranks among the country’s most expensive housing markets. These economic pressures also make it exceedingly difficult for Black worship centers to maintain their former status as places of Black social cohesion and community activism.
The Nehemiah Initiative, launched in 2018, has met every week for almost a year to explore options to retain ownership of property that historically Black churches hold in central Seattle. According to the initiative’s leader, Bishop Garry Tyson of Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church, more than a dozen churches in the Central District have sold and moved, or closed and sold, over the past 10 years.
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