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Seattle gentrification: Why locals struggle to maintain family legacies

A view from Seattle looking over Lake Washington to the Eastside. (Joe Wolf, Flickr)

It’s hard to say what defines a city’s soul, whether it’s the buildings, the stories, or the complaining. But whatever it is, Seattleites are feeling the loss. That was certainly the case back in the year 2000 when The Seattle Times asked readers if our city was losing its soul. The newspaper returned this year and asked the same question as Seattle gentrification continues.

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At the time, 18-year-old Seattle University freshman Meg Matthews lamented that “We’re no longer a city of people.”Now at 36, she’s still concerned about classes of people who can no longer afford the city.

“I certainly feel that there are fundamental differences now,” Matthews told the Times. “Maybe I’m wrong.”

Artist Inye Wokoma tells KIRO Nights that many in town worry about their family legacy in Seattle.

“I’m personally concerned with my family’s legacy,” Wokoma told KIRO Nights.

He says he regularly receives offers of a million dollars on his Central District property — offers he regularly turns down.

“My grandfather purchased the property in 1947 … and his sense of purpose was driven by the fact that his family were sharecroppers in Arkansas, literally living hand to mouth,” he said. “The genesis of what my family became, really, had its beginnings in a field, in a shack in Arkansas, with one man dreaming of what his family could become.”

Wokoma is motivated by that legacy. He wants his children to be connected to that same level of purpose and identity, much of which is held together by his generational home and the neighborhood around it. That sentiment informed Wokoma’s previous solo exhibit at the Frye, titled This is Who We Are. It was a video meditation on identity and displacement in the shadow of Seattle gentrification.

Seattle is replete with thousands of similar stories getting lost in the wake of such gentrification. The recent influx of tech workers has seemingly pushed lower-income earners farther and farther out of the city. It has rapidly changed the cultural landscape, and has often loosened the sense of a shared history among friends and family.

Seattle gentrification

A 2014 study by the Puget Sound Regional Council identified affordability as the primary concern among 60 percent of Seattleites choosing a place of residence. Census data shows that African-Americans have fallen to less than 20 percent of the Central District’s population, down from 73 percent in the 1970s.

When Wokoma sees old friends, one of the first questions they nervously ask him is whether he still lives in the same neighborhood.

“And when I say ‘Yes, I’m still in my family’s home’, you can see their body just relax, because they want to know that there’s still something of the community, of the life they lived, of their collective sense of self,” he said.

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For Wokoma, the solution is more than government policies, tax codes, or historical landmark designations. Rather, it’s about “taking into account the value of keeping communities cohesive … because people have lived in these communities and invested in them, and they deserve, as stakeholders in this city, to enjoy those later years without threat of being chased out of the place they helped to create.”

Hear Wokoma’s full interview with KIRO Nights here.

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