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Grassroots Revolution

From left Tarik Abdullah, Ben Hunter and Rodney Herold inside the Black and Tan Hall, still under construction. Photo by Steve Korn

 

Black and Tan Hall is a celebratory model of radical inclusivity.

Here it is, the latest emblem of Seattle’s ongoingstruggle for self-definition: the intersection of Rainier Ave. S and South Orcas Street, crossing the beating heart of Hillman City. Flanked by old, nondescript buildings of brick, concrete and clapboard and canopied by old, swaying oak trees, it’s a colorful, even garish South End nexus, home to a polyglot cornucopia of locally owned businesses including a halal pizza place, an Ethiopian grocery, a vintage furniture store, a tattoo shop, a couple of beauty salons, a martial arts studio, a coffee roaster and a dive called Union Bar (motto: “Where labor rests”).

This leafy, low-rise intersection is well-worn, water-stained and faded, a living relic of a not-long-ago past. Aside from the everyday thrum of cars and foot traffic—mostly Southeast Asian and African folks coming and going from side streets that lead deeper into the neighborhood—not much appears to happen here. The community exists without a corporate footprint, which makes it an anomaly.

You probably know Hillman City’s big brother, Columbia City, about a mile north on Rainier; you’ve probably been to a concert at the Columbia City Theater or the Royal Room or had drinks at Lottie’s or scored a primo baguette from Columbia City Bakery. Last year Columbia City landed its own PCC Natural Market, the arrival of which signaled to some South-Enders the final dissolution of the inconspicuous enclave that Columbia City once was. Like in much of Seattle, many longtime residents have been priced out of their neighborhood by rising rents. Hillman City is the shadow that remains.

But that will change. In today’s ever-expanding Seattle, choked by a housing crisis and an affordability crisis and over-served by an unprecedented bar and restaurant boom, no piece of real estate stays in the shadows for long. No neighborhood stays “up-and-coming.” All is fair game for development. According to Hillman City locals, community organizers and entrepreneurs, the tide of gentrification is heading this way.

The G word! So fraught, so threatening, so promiscuously applied. One of those Hillman City locals, who happens to be a community organizer and entrepreneur, offers a definition so essential it’s hard to challenge: Gentrification, according to Ben Hunter, is urban development imposed without input from the community.

One way to gather input is to bring people together and ask them for it. In 2014, Hunter co-founded the Collaboratory, a nonprofit community space on the ground floor of a stately building at the northwest corner of Rainier and Orcas. Since then, the Collaboratory, or Collab, as it’s known, has been Hillman City’s communal living room, office and kitchen, operating as a coworking space and hosting all kinds of classes for kids and adults, jam sessions (sometimes led by Hunter, an award-winning, blues-loving fiddle player), talent shows, art shows, fellowship meetings and neighborhood council meetings. Hunter calls it “an incubator for social change.”

The idea is to give Hillman City residents a place to get together and, ideally, decide the fate of their neighborhood. As Hunter told this magazine in 2014, “People in South Seattle need to own South Seattle.”

Once Hunter moved in, it didn’t take long for Tarik Abdullah to find him. As a member of the SEEDArts collective, Abdullah operated a leather-making workshop one floor above the Collaboratory. When he saw the full kitchen in the back of the Collab he realized an opportunity: This would be his classroom. An accomplished chef who spent years at Serafina, appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s ABC cooking competition show The Taste and runs a brunch pop-up called Morning Star Café, Abdullah began teaching cooking classes for kids on weekends and throughout the summer. 

In all its offbeat, open-armed, grassroots bustle, the Collaboratory is the kind of operation that’s being squeezed out of higher-priced areas in Seattle. Here in Hillman City, it’s an institution.

But it’s not enough. The Collaboratory is an incubator, not an engine—and in 2016, Seattle is obsessed with economic growth. Abdullah and Hunter have long been aware that the Collaboratory needs a for-profit counterpart. So the two have made a leap—calculated but risky—into the unknown. They’ve gone into the nightclub business.

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"We’re modeling this place on old stuff—the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club. Stuff that existed in the ’20s and ’30s in Harlem,” Hunter says. “We’re trying to bring it back to the days when entertainment wasn’t just…”

Abdullah finishes Hunter’s thought: “…It wasn’t a one-night thing. Just like it was normal in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s for the average Black male to wear a suit, it was the same thing with theatre and live music. You dress up and go out and enjoy the show. It’s what people did.”

It’s mid-September, and Abdullah and Hunter are standing inside the vast space inside the former Maxim’s, a shuttered nightclub on the northeast side of Rainier, a few doors north of Orcas. The interior is a construction zone, piled with uprooted carpet and wood planking and other, indiscernible materials. Given the rough look of the place, it’s hard to picture the vision that these two, along with their third partner, longtime Hillman City activist and organizer Rodney Herold, have in mind. But on New Year’s Eve they will open the doors to the Black and Tan Hall, Seattle’s newest—and in some ways, most unprecedented—dinner-theatre cabaret.

Like a lot of Seattle’s oldest buildings, this one has an eclectic and mysterious history. The place was built in 1921, three decades after Clarence Hillman, a transplanted Midwestern real estate broker with a shady reputation, first settled nearby and began selling freshly logged parcels to would-be landowners. It was opened as the American Theater, one of Seattle’s earliest vaudeville houses (the Columbia City Theater up the street was built in 1917), and for years hosted an array of low-cost entertainment by local and national performers. Opera was also a big draw.

Before long, the American’s footlights dimmed as vaudeville theatres across the U.S. were converted to accommodate the burgeoning art form of cinema. During the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s the space reportedly operated as an Asian movie theatre that showed Japanese-language and kung fu films. Current Hillman City folks know the spot as the home of Maxim’s, a dance club that operated for decades under various owners until a couple of years ago.

Tendai Maraire, the musician who comprises half of Shabazz Palaces and Chimurenga Renaissance, grew up on Orcas Street, around the corner from Maxim’s. In the mid ’90s, he tells me, he and his teenaged friends threw dance parties there, with Maraire DJing the latest hip-hop hits by LL Cool J, Akinyele, Mase and Foxy Brown. Maraire used to walk his records from his house to the club. Now he’s hoping to be an investor in the Black and Tan, but getting on board isn’t as simple as throwing money at the project (more on that later).

Abdullah and Hunter embrace the place’s role as a vaudeville theatre and dance club, but they have another touchstone in mind as they develop their new business, one that inspired not only the place’s name but also its ethos: black and tan saloons.

During the same jazz era that spawned the Savoy and the Cotton Club, black and tans were places of racial intermingling found in many American cities. They were initially considered disreputable and dangerous, places that represented a scandalous degree of miscegenation—though races were often separated by a rope splitting the dance floor. The real action was on stage, where Black and white performers often played together in mixed bands and orchestras.

From the ’20s through the mid-’60s, Seattle had its own black and tan, which went by a few names but eventually settled on the apt Black and Tan Club. It was housed in the basement of another, more mainstream nightclub at Jackson and 12th St. called the Entertainment Club and originally operated by a Black entrepreneur and opportunist named Noodles Smith. The Black and Tan was the city’s longest-running jazz club and was reportedly the first in Seattle to book a Florida-based musician named RC Robinson, who later changed his name to Ray Charles.

As Jackson Street’s jazz scene flourished through the early 20th century, so did the Black and Tan. The place was small, but because it was known as an after-hours joint, it regularly hosted all-night jam sessions by musicians coming in after their other gigs, like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. George Griffin was just 14 and had recently moved from New Orleans when he first played the Black and Tan in the early ’50s as part of Seattle’s popular Dave Lewis Combo. In the ’60s, his own trio often headlined the place, playing to packed, dancing crowds from midnight until sunrise. Men would sneak booze inside flasks and ladies in bottles hidden in their pocketbooks, he says; the bar would set them up with ice and mixers. Now 80, Griffin remembers the place as one wild, sometimes reckless party.

“Pimps, whores, regular people,” Griffin says of the old Black and Tan crowd. “Everybody spent money, everybody dressed up.”

Perhaps minus the pimps and whores, Abdullah and Hunter are going for a similar vibe: swank, sophisticated, fun and inclusive.

“Anybody could come here if you abide by this code, where everyone is equal,” Hunter says; he’s speaking simultaneously of the old Black and Tan and the new one. “There is no discrimination if you walk through this door. We’re repeating history in so many different ways societally right now, so why not bring back some of the other aspects of 100 years ago that exemplify the beauty of society?” The Black and Tan is an old idea re-energized, and judging by America’s charged social climate, the timing couldn’t be better.

Among all of Seattle’s nightlife venues, the Black and Tan will be one of the few run by a majority of Black partners (Herold is white). Additionally, the three primary partners have decided to operate it as a consensus-based, worker-owned co-op. Rather than seeking investment from a bank or small cadre of major players, the trio has enlisted 12 individual supporters—mostly South End musicians, artists and builder-types who share an ethos of “creativity, humanity, community,” says Hunter—for a smaller financial buy-in offset by sweat equity. Everyone is expected to put in their fair share of hours to operate and maintain the club.

Hunter calls it a “socialist-capitalist” business model. “Capitalism doesn’t work as we [Americans] have it,” he says. “If it’s profit-driven, there’s no attention to the people or the community around you, and then you start to lose values really quickly. A community-owned worker cooperative challenges gentrification in a very explicit way.”

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm play the Black and Tan on Jackson Street in 1944. Photo by Al Smith Sr., courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

The bar at the Jackson Street Black and Tan in the mid-1940s. Photo by Al Smith Sr., courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

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Sean Divine is a Seattle-based blues musician and friend of Ben Hunter who’s performed all over the Northwest. In January, when Hunter first pitched him on the Black and Tan, Divine wasn’t convinced that a co-op concert venue could work. But the more he considered it, the more it made sense.

“I’m not normally the investor type, and it think that’s true of most of us,” Divine says. “There are no investor types involved yet. That’s by decision. We’re not soliciting people to come in and say, ‘Here, take some money.’ We’re looking for people that wanna invest but also have their hands in the process.”

As we continue talking inside the gutted venue, Hunter and Abdullah describe their plans to expand the theatre space with a full light rig and stage wings. They’ll host theatre, film screenings, seated recitals and full-on dance parties. Upstairs, in the balcony, they’ll host a daytime educational program—music, dance, art and cooking classes and job training. At the outset, the kitchen will offer a reasonably priced breakfast and brunch menu of Abdullah’s Mediterranean-inspired cuisine and, during events, a full bar with reasonably priced booze. By March they hope to offer a full dinner menu. The place will be hand-decorated with an eye for Art Deco detail on a shoestring budget. Luxury, Abdullah insists, doesn’t have to come with an upmarket price tag. Like the Collaboratory, it’ll be a neighborhood hangout—but with full-service dining, dancing and entertainment and a lot more space for socializing.

“I think a new model is refreshing, especially in a place like Seattle,” Hunter says. “We voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders. We’re not happy with the current model. People recognize that it’s not profit-driven for us. It’s about hanging out with good people all the time.”

Abdullah sees it as destiny—one that could only come to fruition in his beloved Hillman City, a neighborhood far from the shark-tank competition and restaurant empire-building that’s gripped neighborhoods further north. The Black and Tan Hall isn’t just a nightclub. It’s a flag planted for Seattle’s creative independence.

“We have a choice,” he says. “We could wait the next ten years and probably get pushed out of the neighborhood, or we take our chance, we believe in it, stand by it, and go for it.”

What these people are doing is nothing less than a revolutionary act. Black and Tan Hall could certainly fail because of its idealistic business model. But if it succeeds, it will be for the same reason.

“All the dynamics happening in the world are happening in Hillman City—the inability to connect, these differences that divide us rather than join us together,” Herold says. “We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift with the Black and Tan.”

This article has been changed to reflect a correction: We previously stated that Tarik Abdullah established the Collaboratory's community garden, when it fact it was planted and is maintained by Rachel Tefft. 

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