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Seattle and the Central District ‘On the Spot’ Then and Now

A man named Al Smith named his photography business “On the Spot” as he recorded life in the Central District from the 1940s to the end of his life. The Museum of History of Industry adopted that same name for the major exhibition of his work on view until June 17. “On the Spot” can also apply to the present moment for the Central District as it grapples with gentrification and the erasure of the community that Al Smith photographed.

Born in 1914, Smith grew up in the Central District and attended a Catholic High School as the only African American, then traveled the world on steamships as a steward. He returned to Seattle in the early 1940s and worked at the Bremerton shipyard, living in the Central District. In those years, he haunted the black jazz venues on Jackson Street, creating some extraordinary photographs. African American musicians could not perform in white clubs in those years of intense segregation. But, as Smith tells us in his photographs, the after hour clubs were integrated, we see mixed race couples and white couples, and Asian couples, as well as many black people having a great time. These clubs were also speakeasies since alcohol was banned in Washington State until 1949.