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Walker Chapel: Is doomed Seattle church a ‘micro-landmark?’

When they’re threatened with demolition, well-known places like The Showbox get all the attention from activists and politicians. In the process, we even learn that some of the places and things we assumed would be considered landmarks don’t make the cut.

But what about but lesser-known neighborhood places that might not officially qualify as landmarks by any criteria; the buildings and institutions that only mean something to people who live within a few blocks?

In other words, if a forgotten old church falls in a neighborhood and nobody notices, does it make any difference?

RELATED: Save The Showbox? Should have saved Arena, too

The Walker Chapel AME Church – AME stands for “African Methodist Episcopal” – at 28th Avenue South and South Dearborn Street in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood is slated to be torn down and replaced with as many as 21 townhomes. The congregation, which had apparently been dwindling over the years, sold the land to a developer earlier this year and moved to a new location in Renton.

Changing neighborhood

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver grew up in Seattle, and she’s lived a few blocks from Walker Chapel AME Church since the 1980s. It was very quiet there this past Sunday, when she stood along the sidewalk and described how different it once was at the now-derelict church.

“When I moved here 30 years ago, it was just vibrant,” Johnson-Toliver said, raising her voice to compete with noise from jets taking off from Sea-Tac Airport.

“We’re standing here right now at the front of the church, you can see where all the weeds are and all of the trees are neglected,” she said. “It was a beautiful place. They had a beautiful rose garden out front, and the parishioners took really good care of it.”

And it was also much busier.

“I have to confess that 25 years ago, when I would round this corner on a Sunday morning, I would go, ‘Oh, I’m not going to get through this traffic,’ because there were so many people coming to the church on Sunday morning,” Johnson-Toliver said.

“And now? Nothing.”

Johnson-Toliver is a neighbor of the old church. She was never a member of the congregation, but she describes herself as a “community advocate.” She’s president of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, and she volunteers with other arts and cultural organizations in the Central District. Though she wasn’t a member of the congregation at Walker Chapel AME Church, she says the church served the entire neighborhood.

“It wasn’t just a church on this corner, it was a hub,” Johnson-Toliver said. “I mean, it was a community space.  They served the community from this church. So, it wasn’t just the congregation that came together here, but the neighbors were always invited to every event. They would have big family events, they would have dinners, they would have free programs for the kids that were in the neighborhood. I got sentimental the other day, pulled out a photo of me and my two sons, right on this hill, where we were picking up litter. [Walker Chapel] had organized a ‘pick up the litter in the neighborhood day,’ and we’re out there with our litter sticks with some of the congregation.”

Even with all the litter picked up, Walker Chapel itself was never exactly a pretty structure. One online history says that the church was founded at the old Stadium Homes public housing development (near the old Sicks Stadium) in 1951, where the congregation met in a community room for a few years before buying the property at 28th and Dearborn. The current chapel, according to the online history, is actually an old YMCA building that was moved to the site in 1964 to replace an older structure.

But Stephanie Johnson-Toliver says it was never about the building; it was about the people there, and the events and activities that created a sense of community.

More than a building

Johnson-Toliver also says that Walker Chapel AME Church isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the past few decades. She described a neighborhood that, not long ago, had a very different vibe.

“We had dogs in this neighborhood, but the dogs were running around – they weren’t on any leashes like we see now people walking their dogs,” Johnson-Toliver said. “And I had a neighbor who would come out on her porch every morning because her dog would be all over the neighborhood, and she’d be out there yelling, ‘Smokey!  Smokey!’”

“So it’s all that kind of craziness” that Johnson-Toliver says she’ll miss, like “the basketball hoop at the bottom of the hill where SDOT [the Seattle Department of Transportation] would come and take it down, the kids would put it back up, and two months later, SDOT would take it down.”

Johnson-Toliver describes this vibe of earlier years as the “spirit of the neighborhood.”

“I’m mourning it,” Johnson-Toliver said. “But I’m going through this grieving process about being upset about it, how to bargain with it, deal with it, and then accept it and figure out how to move forward.”

Walker Chapel leaves Seattle

So, what actually happened to Walker Chapel AME Church? Why did it leave the neighborhood it called home for more than 60 years?

Multiple phone calls to the congregation’s new location in Renton this week went unreturned, but the working theory is that changes in the demographics, density and housing prices in the neighborhood – as it shifted from a century or so of being Seattle’s traditionally (and legally forced) African-American community — meant dwindling numbers of congregants.

And a good-sized piece of townhome-friendly land in 21st century Seattle, of course, became very valuable.

Historical information about Walker Chapel AME Church is hard to come by. A check with the City of Seattle Landmarks program found that they have nothing in their files. Meanwhile, Central District historian, author and founder of BlackPast, University of Washington history professor Dr. Quintard Taylor, said via email that he had never heard of Walker Chapel AME Church.

The land where the decaying church sits was sold to a developer based in Bellevue — BDR Urban LLC. BDR Urban LLC has engaged Caron Architecture of Seattle to design the new homes and manage the public involvement process.

Caron representative Marsha Mawer-Olson said in an email that the project is in its very early stages. She had no further historical information to share, but she invited residents and other interested parties to attend a public meeting about the project tonight at 5 p.m. Wednesday, August 22 at Douglass-Truth Library located at 23rd and Yesler.

Stephanie Johnson-Toliver will be there.

“I hope that the room is full of people that have interest,” Johnson-Toliver said. “And maybe it’s not just for Walker Chapel, but just some interest in the development in the community and what we see on all of the corners … at Jackson, Union Street and soon to be Cherry.”

In general, she says, she’ll ask the developers to “have some clear sense and consideration, as they build, for the residents who are here in the community.”

She also has one fairly specific request.

“Why not consider [having] a shout-out in a historic or legacy sort of way that maybe they call this development the ‘Walker Apartments’ or the ‘Walker Townhomes’?” Johnson-Toliver said.

Walker community

The origin of the “Walker” in “Walker Chapel AME Church” is actually somewhat unclear. It may be related to a group within the larger national AME movement that was more active in the early 20th century and that was known as the “Eva Walker Missionary Society.” Or, it may be in honor of a local person named Walker who’s now, at least temporarily, lost to history.

Apart from what it’s ultimately called, Johnson-Toliver worries about the economics of the new development, and what this will mean for the future of her neighborhood.

“Are these homes gonna be affordable for the people who would love to live in the Central area, particularly people of color?” she wonders. “Are they going to be able to afford to even stay or live in these homes?  I don’t think so.”

Stephanie Johnson Toliver says she understands the allure and the economic pressure that the church was likely under to sell the land. She still lives in a single family home a few blocks away, which is now surrounded by townhomes, and she gets offers all the time from people who want to buy her property and likely replace it with multiple residences.

“I’m approached, too, almost every day,” Johnson-Toliver said. “Not only the letters in the mail, but phone calls. I get knocks on my door from developers. And one call I received the other day said, ‘We realized your property was under utilized.’”

I’m like, ‘What?’” she said. “’Here I am!'”

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