Seattle’s new Black and Tan Hall aims to be community hub — and economic model for changing neighborhood

Benjamin Hunter, Seattle musician and co-founder of Black and Tan Hall, recently bought the building with a group of community partners after receiving $ 1.2 million from the City of Seattle's Equitable Development Initiative.  (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Seattle-based musician Benjamin Hunter co-founded Black and Tan Hall in 2016 and dreamed of a community center with partners where artists, entertainers and educators could thrive in a changing neighborhood in the South End.

Hunter and his two co-founders, Tarik Abdullah and Rodney Herold, used their organizational, educational, dining and entertainment experience to create “a for-profit business that puts people above profit,” said Hunter.

They longed for a home for residents to find good food, paid scholarships, rental space for workshops and lectures, and performances by national and local actors. They found the house in an abandoned historic theater between a vintage furniture store and a tattoo parlor on 5608 Rainier Avenue South. The Hillman City area, south of Columbia City in the Rainier Valley, is full of small businesses, including Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants, as well as the upscale Filipino American restaurant Archipelago.

After three years of negotiations with the city and the builder, their dream came true when they bought the building last week for $ 1.05 million. The Black and Tan Hall will open its doors to the public in late 2021.

The venue was named after a club that served in the international district for nearly five decades until the 1960s. Performers such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin played to a diverse audience at the original Black and Tan Club on 12th Street and Jackson Street. Across the country, “black and tan” was a slang for integrated nightclubs that operated during segregation.

“It was a portrayal of challenging, unjust, discriminatory systems that prevented people from knowing each other’s humanity,” Hunter said. Hunter has been a violinist since childhood and performed in locations around the world that helped shape his vision for a new cultural hub.

The purchase was made possible through $ 1.2 million in funding from the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) earlier this month. In 2020, the city’s Planning and Community Development Bureau, which coordinates the program, granted $ 11.1 million to projects led by community groups that would help preserve diversity as rental and property prices rise.

The Black and Tan Hall project is unique among organizations that have received grants in that it includes a consortium of 33 partners representing nonprofit and nonprofit organizations within one mile of the venue, said Sam Assefa, director of the planning and community development office at the City . He said the project could serve as a model to counter the displacement of marginalized communities across the city.

The venue fulfills the core equity initiative goal: “Empowering and creating wealth for community organizations at risk of displacement in the Rainier Valley and Central District is to stay in their neighborhood,” Assefa said.

The initiative, launched in 2016, funds organizations in historically marginalized neighborhoods in order to reduce economic and health disparities. Scholarship holders submit proposals that are reviewed by an external advisory board made up of members of the community affected by such differences. The program is managed by six municipal departments, including the Planning and Community Development Office and the Office of Housing.

“When community members advocated the creation of EDI, the intent was to create a collaboration between community-initiated projects and the city to respond to historical injustices and increase community ownership,” said Ubax Gardheere, EDI department head, in a statement.

In 2020, funding reached the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, which received $ 2.1 million for their Food Innovation Center in Rainier Beach, while seven organizations – including the Wing Luke Museum, the Rainier Valley Midwives, the Multicultural Community Coalition and the Ethiopian Community in Seattle, Chief Seattle Club, Byrd Barr Place and Africatown Midtown Plaza – shared $ 4.4 million for land purchases, building expansions or repairs.

In November, 36 organizations helping small businesses and color communities during the pandemic received a total of $ 1.8 million. An additional $ 1.25 million went to existing recipients to expand their services during the pandemic. The program also contributed $ 475,000 to fund COVID-19 relief.

While Hunter and his partners own the Black and Tan Hall, financial arrangements mean that they must benefit the public and create opportunities in the area such as professional training and mentoring programs, as well as a space for arts and culture programs. The money to buy the building came from the sale of two townhouses on Civic Square and Mercer Street.

The initial funding for the EDI program came from the sale of a vacant property across from Seattle City Hall for $ 6.5 million. In 2018, the city council created a permanent source of funding for the initiative by providing $ 5 million annually from short-term rental tax. Due to the drop in the number of travelers this year, the city council took additional resources from the general fund.

A new system

The new Black and Tan Hall strives to “create a new system that challenges us to get better and get better,” said Hunter.

He has seen a lot of historical business evictions in South Seattle as a resident for over a decade. His first job in town, he said, was with the nonprofit Arts in Motion, which was housed in a Zion prep school that was being demolished to build condominiums.

An important question, he said, is, “How do we grow intentionally so that we don’t leave people behind and forget the history and legacy of the people in the neighborhood?”

Benjamin Hunter, Seattle musician and co-founder of Black and Tan Hall, recently bought the building with a group of community partners after receiving $ 1.2 million from the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

His considerations motivated him to co-found the Coworking Space Hillman City Collaboratory in 2011 to serve as an incubator for social change. He noticed the empty theater across the street and decided to lead another project based on similar principles of people-over-profit.

When the co-founders signed a lease for the Black and Tan Hall building in April 2016, they were faced with the costly repairs necessary to comply with city building codes. They first applied for the EDI grant to modernize the building. In 2018, the organization received $ 300,000 to install the plumbing and pay for the lease, and the city soon got involved in negotiations with the landlord to purchase it.

While the Black and Tan Hall has not officially opened its doors, the organization has partnered with the Museum of History and Industry, the Northwest African American Museum, and the Seattle Art Museum to organize events in recent years. The Good Jobs Fellowship was launched last year to encourage young people in skills like cooking, arts and crafts, and community development. In 2020, three fellows focused on the organization’s communication plan by revamping the website and creating blog posts on topics such as nutrition and food justice.

On December 5th, the venue broadcast its fourth annual Hall-i-Day party on Facebook Live, YouTube and their website, which featured music and interviews with local vendors. In a taped interview with Hunter, local artist and jewelry designer Eve Sanford, of accessory brand Evolve Revolve Repeat, shared the philosophy behind her company: “Learn, but don’t be afraid to be outraged by what you’ve learned have and the thought was sacred. Don’t be afraid to step out of this box and learn something new. ”

In 2021, the Black and Tan Hall plans to expand its digital presence with an app and a merchandise store.

The business will be based on the tenets of modern art, Hunter said: “Listening, adapting, improvising, listening and being open to what comes your way.”

Melissa Hellmann:
206-464-2168 or [email protected]; on Twitter: @M_Hellmann. Seattle Times staff reporter Melissa Hellmann covers South Seattle and South King Counties with an emphasis on marginalized communities.