On the corner between 24th and Union in the Central District, a five-story mural covering a six-story apartment complex depicts a man playing the saxophone. The artwork shows woman dancing beneath the saxophone player, alongside green, red, and black accents on top of a vibrant orange background.
The mural pays homage to the pan-African community of Central District and to the legacy of the building itself.
In 1968 the building was Liberty Bank, the first black-owned bank west of the Mississippi River. In response to redlining in the Central District, the founders of the bank sought to provide financial support to marginalized communities who were turned away by white-owned banks.
And today, a group of community partners have redeveloped the Liberty Bank property in a way that centers the housing and business needs of the neighborhood’s black community and preserves this space despite the rapid gentrification of the Central District.
For 20 years Liberty Bank served the Central District community until it closed in 1988.
Eventually the Liberty Bank building was bought by Key Bank, which sold the property in 2015 to Capitol Hill Housing. The housing agency and other key Central District leaders wanted to honor the Liberty Bank founders’ by developing the building into a $34 million affordable housing complex, with community space and retail space. Other partners listed by Capitol Hill Housing include Africatown-Central District Preservation and Development Association, the Black Community Impact Alliance and Byrd Barr Place.
The purchase came as the Central District’s population changed drastically, with many African American families and other families of color forced out due to increases in the costs of housing and living brought on by Seattle’s growing population as a technology city.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Central District was 70% black. Today, African Americans are now in the minority of this historically black neighborhood. Only 20% of the Central District’s population is African American — a decrease of 50 percentage points.
In March, Capitol Hill Housing opened the new development, calling it Liberty Bank Building in honor of the building’s historic significance.
It features 2,695 square feet for local black businesses and 115 affordable homes for the community. The one, two and studio bedroom affordable housing apartments range from $448 to $1,013, and are available to people making 30% to 60% of the area median income.
So far, the housing agency’s efforts have helped maintain the traditional community of this rapidly changing neighborhood. About 87% of the housing at the Liberty Bank Building is occupied by black residents.
Three black-owned businesses have signed leases to open in the new space — Cafe Avole, That Brown Girl Cooks and Earl’s Cuts and Styles barbershop. The barbershop, a stronghold in the Central District for decades, is holding a crowdfunding campaign to cover its moving permits, advertising its new location and the purchase of new barbershop equipment.
Honoring the neighborhood
Affordable housing was not the only goal for the project. The community and developers also created a building that used art to reflect the bank and community.
Nine black artists with ties to the community collaborated on the artwork, which was an investment of more than $250,000.
The massive mural on the exterior was created by artist Al Doggett. Doggett was also the co-curator of the entire art development.
“My vision was to highlight the history of Central District and the history of Liberty Bank,” Doggett said. “Although our artists have the freedom to choose a variety of themes, the community actually dictated the direction of the artwork. For years we sat in meetings going back and forth over designs, concepts, and preliminaries.”
One of the biggest challenges was tying in a collaboration of African American and pan-African contemporary art on a building. Artists focused on the image to overcome their struggles.
Now, the exterior of the building features Doggett’s mural, plaques where you can learn about the bank’s founders, interactive displays to learn the communities’ history and a statue of swimming salmon in an ode to the Pacific Northwest.
The banks’ original logo is front and center beside the building’s new sign. Inside, the building, the original bank vault door has been transformed into a large art piece.
Along the walls, the artwork features bank lockboxes in the entrance archway, the founders’ faces, and information about the building’s history. The inside of the building includes an arts and crafts room for residents.
With the help of Doggett and his team, the building’s interior and exterior now reflect its past and Central District’s hope to reclaim their community.
“Making pieces, and knowing that it benefits not only me as an artist but empowered the community as well was very pleasing. There were very few disagreements as we came together to make this happen as a community,” Doggett said.