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Remembering Red Apple: Why they’re collecting stories about a Seattle grocery store

Michael Moss remembers his first day as a manager of the Red Apple Market in the Central District. That was the day, about 20 years ago, when some of his staff — who were white — told him that kids from the neighborhood — who were mostly black — were about to get out of school and come to the store. The staff planned to stand in the store’s aisles and stare at the kids to make sure they wouldn’t steal anything.

“I know if I was a kid, and I were to witness that… I’m stealing,” he said with a laugh. “If you’re gonna accuse me, I might as well steal.”

So instead of staring down the kids, Mike opened a bag of candy and gave every kid who came by the store a piece. He kept doing that every day for the next two weeks. “Kids are gonna be kids,” he said “But let’s treat them like kids, let’s not treat them like criminals.”

Mike’s story is one of many that have been recorded and posted on a site called Shelf Life – a project started by a group of storytellers and community organizers who are documenting the Red Apple store, the neighborhood and all the changes happening there.

Jill Freidberg, a documentary filmmaker who spearheaded the project, says Mike’s story is just one example of how the Red Apple and its staff take care of people in the neighborhood.

The Red Apple is a community center masquerading as a grocery store,” said Jill, who’s shopped there for 11 years. “It seemed like a good place to find stories that would interrupt the narrative that says there was nothing here, which was this narrative that accompanies gentrification and displacement.”

Seattle’s Central District neighborhood used to be more than 70 percent black in the 1960s and early 70s. Today, with more development pushing up rents and home prices, it’s just 20 percent black. (Earlier this year, Tyrone Beason wrote this beautiful story for The Seattle Times about the changes in the neighborhood).

In February, Vulcan Real Estate bought the land where the Red Apple sits. That’s the same developer that’s transformed much of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood in the last decade. Now it looks like Red Apple might close.

When Jill heard the news, she moved quickly, knowing this could be her last chance to collect stories about the store from people in the area. In May, she got a grant from 4Culture to start her project, and by September, she’d convinced Vulcan to let her clean up what used to be a Subway sandwich shop next to Red Apple so she could set up a place to record people’s stories. She’ll be in the space until the end of next June.

Next to Red Apple, a sign invites people to enter what used to be an old Subway restaurant. That’s where Jill and her team are recording people’s stories. (Photo by Anika Anand)

So what does Jill hope Shelf Life achieves? On a city-wide policy level, she wants the stories she collects to add to the calls others are voicing to slow down development in the Central District, so that neighbors feel like they can look at what’s at stake and build consciously.

Jill also wants the project to help new Central District residents better understand their neighbors and the neighborhood’s history.

“Oftentimes neighborhood story and oral history projects imagine themselves only in the context of preservation, before something is all the way gone,” Jill said. “But I do think about ways to activate stories and amplify voices now to actually change the way people think and act now.”

Next to Red Apple, a sign invites people to enter what used to be an old Subway restaurant. That’s where Jill and her team are recording people’s stories. (Photo by Anika Anand)

After last week’s election, Jill said the project suddenly seemed small and insignificant. She asked herself how she could sit around in an empty storefront waiting for people to walk in and record their stories, when everyone she knows feels like their lives are in danger. But she reminds herself that people’s experiences are precisely what connect us to each other’s humanity.

“And not letting people’s histories and identities be erased or rewritten seems more important than ever,” she said.

Want to get involved with the Shelf Life project? Spread the word to those who live or have lived in the Central District and let them know when the story booth is open (the hours are here). You can also submit your story by voicemail or write it in here. Want to volunteer to help collect stories? Send Jill an email at [email protected].