In 2017, the Red Apple grocery store — a beloved neighborhood hub in the Central District — closed its doors.
As its shelves emptied, local documentarian and Central District resident Jill Freidberg set out to collect stories from the community about the market and the neighborhood quickly changing around it. She used an empty Subway storefront as a storytelling booth to piece together an oral history of the Central District as it’s been rapidly gentrified. She called the project Shelf Life. And you can hear its voices in a brand new podcast.
We caught up with Jill to learn more about the Shelf Life podcast and how she and longtime neighbors have seen their community change.
This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.
Why was it important to you to tell the stories of longtime Central District residents?
I started having conversations with other Central District artists probably about four or five years ago. … For me, those were motivated partially by being a white homeowner in the Central District and having access to the conversations that other white residents, especially new residents, were having. Like, “There was nothing here” or “Gentrification is making the neighborhood better.”
Those narratives fuel behaviors that make it really hard for the people that built the neighborhood to be safe and feel safe and thrive where they built their lives, their families, and their community.
What’s a favorite story of yours from the podcast so far?
The funniest story is in Episode 1 where [Central District resident] Isiah Anderson tells the story of the time Ms. Cleo, the famous TV psychic, pretended to be someone else and produced a play at Langston Hughes [Performing Arts Institute], then split with all the money and changed her identity to Ms. Cleo. [It’s a pretty wild story you can read more about here].
I think one of the most important stories is in the “Entrepreneurship” episode, Episode 2, where [community leader] DeCharlene Williams talks about how hard it was for her to buy commercial property and open her salon in the CD. She [died recently], so the story is especially relevant.
You’ve pursued this project because you deeply care about the effects of gentrification in the Central District, which went from being 70 percent black in the 70s to 20 percent black today. What does the issue boil down to for you?
To say like white people should never move into the Central District or that nothing should change fails to recognize the layers of complexity and nuance around gentrification. Lots of people move into historically redlined neighborhoods because it is the only place that they can afford. But it’s the processes that follow that that are problematic.
Until people can embrace that complexity and be willing to have conversations about it and examine their own behavior, it will just continue to be this really polarized conversation.
White musicians from elsewhere in Seattle would regularly come into the Central District to play at its venues, but when black musicians wanted to go play even just like jam sessions in people’s homes outside of the Central District, they weren’t welcome. It would be an act of organized resistance for a bunch of black musicians from the CD to say, “We’re going to that jam session in the University District and we’re going to show up and play. And once they hear us play, they’ll be glad we’re there.”
How can people in our city get involved and informed about the impacts of gentrification?
I would say the easiest thing people can do is study up on housing segregation and the history of redlining. Talk to your neighbors, not enough paternalistic little old lady kind of way, but like, “Wow, you took really good care of this neighborhood. What an honor it is for me to live here. How can I be a positive contribution to this place?”
I think a lot of people don’t do that simply because they have so little knowledge of the history of the neighborhood that they don’t even know that that would make a difference.
What’s the most fascinating thing you learned about the CD from this project?
A lot of people have heard about how amazing the music scene was in the Central District — and not just jazz. There were major soul, funk, and R&B bands and a crapload of venues, like every intersection had one or two live music venues.
Check out the three posted episodes of the Shelf Life podcast: “Music and Arts,” “Entrepreneurship,” and “Migration and Arrival.” Want to learn more about how gentrification has changed Seattle? Check out this piece on the history of “redlining,” a practice that kept black Seattleites from buying homes in all but a couple parts of Seattle, and the maps in this story showing how we’re working to undo its impacts.