Where in Seattle can you find a new apartment building with an exuberant, colorful mural rising through five upper stories above a courtyard; bronze salmon swimming upstream in a rainwater channel; decorative edges to the canopies over the sidewalk; colorful tiled benches, and plaques on the wall composed by a well-known poet? In contrast to all the drab or flashy, apartment or condo buildings that appear all over our city, the Liberty Bank Building on Union and 24th, resonates with the ideals and aspirations of a strong African American community. Its completion shows what people with passion, persistence and energy can do. But we must recognize that many more projects of this kind are needed.
The Liberty Bank, the first African American owned bank west of the Mississippi, founded in 1968, occupied the site of this new building at a crucial time. Redlining restricted African Americans to the Central District; racist bank policies made it impossible for them to obtain mortgages. The new bank enabled them to get loans and provided many services to the community, helping businesses to thrive. Since the 1990s gentrification and rising prices have driven long-time residents out of the Central District, which is now 95 percent white. This new apartment building, housing mostly black tenants, honors the historic role of the bank.
Africatown a vibrant group, headed by Wyking Garrett, the grandson of one of the bank’s founders has, for years, demanded racial justice and promoted black culture. After a long struggle, in partnership with the Black Community Impact Alliance and Capitol Hill Housing, he helped obtain grants to construct the Liberty Bank Building. Apartments are rented to tenants making 30 to 60% of the area median income.
Al Doggett and Esther Ervin of Doggett Studios selected the artists whose work adds so much vitality to the building. They collaborated with the architect Mithūn on exterior colors, which reflect African culture, and commissioned six other artists to create the works of art. Doggett painted a small version of the giant mural in the courtyard which assistants applied to the wall. A saxophone player and a dancer celebrate the contribution of the black community to entertainment in Seattle. In this same entry space Esther Irvin created “Salmon Against the Current,” three bronze salmon swimming in a sinuous line in a channel that often fills with rain water. Esther spent time at the locks when she was making them to observe their characteristic movements.
Nearby, also designed by Esther, four circular benches ornamented in tiles and topped with African hardwood add both comfort and color. The metal entrance arch with the name LIBERTY BANK BUILDING across the top integrates the doors of safe deposit boxes and bricks from the demolished bank. On the wall facing Union Street, four panels attract the passersby. The first three show poems by Minnie Collins one of which reads:
Here We Stand on Liberty Ground / Speaking for Ourselves / Here Heritage and Legacy Sustain / Community Courage / Creativity, Challenges / Redlining no more / Racial covenants outlawed / Civil Rights, Economic Equity, Persistence.
The other panel addresses the founding of the bank. Above our heads as we read these texts, decorative motifs in black, orange and white emblazon the edge of the rain canopy. Between sections of the canopy, designs etched into glass panels, allude to the neighborhoods of the district.
In the entrance hall a twenty-foot long mural by Al Doggett evokes the complex history and aspirations of the Black Community. He also contributed two paintings of masked heads referring to an African past. Inye Wokomo created four mixed media collages. In his own words “Turning the Earth” is “a hybrid visual and narrative exploration of the Liberty Bank story . . . of transformation and transcendence in four chapters based on the central metaphor of making barren land fertile. Through this metaphor I am exploring the systemic racism African American faced upon migrating to Seattle in the 20th century, how we as a people confronted those challenges to build a community and the role Liberty Bank played in that story.”
Among the business on the ground floor will be the fabled hairdresser Earl’s Cuts and a restaurant run by Kristin Brown (aka. That Brown Girl) whose catering is legendary. I have enjoyed it at many events and was impressed by the delicacies she offered at the opening celebration. I urge you to make a beeline to it when it opens this summer.
~Henry Matthews, Architectural Historian