Restoring the CD: A historic neighborhood music scene with a penchant for trouble is clawing at the face of gentrification

When I ask Reggie, the imposing doorman at Waid's, a Haitian restaurant and lounge in the Central District, if there have been any recent incidents at the club, he shakes his head, his necessarily gruff exterior loosening to a half-smile. "Not anymore, thanks to me," he says with pride. The corner of 12th and Jefferson is an unusually quiet home for one of the Central District's most active nightclubs.

A year ago, it wasn't uncommon to see several patrol cars outside Waid's, responding to rowdy loiterers or watching patrons exit after last call. Now Waid Sainvil, who opened this club four years ago and who often sits at the bar on weekday nights, says he calls the police whenever the slightest thing is awry. Frequent communication with the police—a constant presence on the thoroughfares of the CD after dark—is mandatory for keeping his club's doors open.

Far from its jazz heyday of the '20s and '30s or the raw buzz of the hip-hop scene in the '90s, the Central District has shifted from being a predominantly African-American community with a significant nightlife to one with a scattered cultural identity that receives more attention for its crime than its music scene. Several city-funded projects, like the current restorations of Washington Hall and the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, are meant to provide more space for art in the CD. But some community leaders, who have seen the CD's local economy disperse, are concerned that increased attention and investment may mean that resources intended for the community will be overrun by those from outside. "Will it just become an extension of Capitol Hill?" asks Rahwa Habte, owner of Jackson Street's Hidmo Eritrean Restaurant. "Or is it going to stay true to its cultural roots?"

In response to the vacuum created by a cocktail of gentrification, uneven development, and the closure of storied nightclubs, a few key individuals are working to revitalize the CD, providing the sounds and secure spaces of its current cultural eclecticism.

Rahwa Habte, co-owner, Hidmo Eritrean Restaurant

"When I opened, the Liquor Board told us specifically not to do hip-hop and not to cater to young people, which is kind of what I do," says Habte, whose father established the city's first Eritrean church. Hidmo hosts all-ages hip-hop open mikes, Guinean DJ collectives, monthly "Ladies First" events featuring all women performers, and a popular weekly African-music night with both local and touring musicians. Hidmo is now the only live music venue on a street that once housed a row of R&B clubs where Quincy Jones and Ray Charles played as teenagers.

In addition to promoting all-ages shows, a new branch of the restaurant, the Hidmo Empowerment Project, convenes neighborhood forums about topics like youth violence and safety at the Garfield Community Center, drawing a solid intergenerational turnout. Among Hidmo's fans is Mayor McGinn, who hosted a pre-election meet-and-greet at the restaurant.

Tendai Maraire, musician, Shabazz Palaces

If any musical project best signifies the CD today, it's Shabazz Palaces; its interlocking, diasporic sound—Middle Eastern and African instrumentation with digital looping, rooted in hip-hop—defies easy categorization. Member Tendai Maraire says he "grew up" at the Langston Hughes PAC in the late 1980s, where as a teen he developed his traditional Zimbabwean musicianship while throwing underground parties for the burgeoning hip-hop scene.

Maraire notes that he played at Hidmo's African Night with his family in the same week Shabazz Palaces packed out Neumos last January. In his opinion, Hidmo is "what a lot of venues in this city should be," citing its diverse programming and championing of unpretentious musicianship. "Hidmo keeps it real and wholesome, where my whole family can dance as if we were back home."

Jacqueline Moscou, artistic director, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center

"We have lost institutions where we take care of our own. That is the common definition of community; we have lost that," Moscou responds when asked how the CD has changed since she moved to the neighborhood in 1979. "The investment has gone backwards. There's less work, more corporate footholds, and the black middle class has been displaced. Decisions are being made outside of the community now."

Moscou, who has directed the Intiman Theatre's Black Nativity for the past 12 years, has high aspirations for Langston Hughes when its doors reopen in 2011. "My generation was the civil-rights generation, where we were breaking down the doors of institutions that were traditionally white, that we didn't have access to. Now there are no institutions here to break the doors down." She sees the opportunity to reclaim the Central District as the crucible of the African American artistic community, hoping to steward black artists "to reinstitutionalize, to have ownership, be the glue." She notes the generation after her is "based on entrepreneurship, like my parents' generation," and calls the grassroots restaurants-cum-nightclubs examples of "cultural survival."

Waid Sainvil, owner, Waid's Haitian Restaurant and Lounge

"I knew the neighborhood was bad when I bought this place. That was part of the challenge, part of the fun," says Sainvil, who came to Seattle from Haiti in 1995 and opened Waid's after working at various chic bars and clubs in Pioneer Square and Belltown. Waid's boasts a corner stage large enough for a full band and an elevated DJ booth. A wide spectrum of independent and international artists and fledgling promoters find Waid's a place to grow their grassroots niche. It hosts weeklies, like blues dancing, reggae, and 18-and-over indie-rock shows, that would otherwise happen in a garage. When the Haiti earthquake hit in January, Waid's was the first venue to throw a fundraiser, with all proceeds going directly to expats traveling back to assist their families.

Mulu Abete, owner, Ras Dashen Ethiopian Restaurant

Ras Dashen is a popular Ethiopian restaurant on Cherry Street whose elegant dining room turns into a nightclub on weekends. Resident DJ Yohannas spins a blend of Ethiopian pop, jazz, reggae, and hip-hop for a young East African clientele, and the restaurant stays packed with dancers until 4 a.m.

Abete moved to Seattle in 1997, when, he says, there was only one Ethiopian restaurant and grocery in the CD. Now Ras Dashen is one of many Ethiopian-owned businesses that line Cherry Street, which "is becoming the center of the community," hospitable to new immigrants seeking churches, gathering places, and guidance. While the Ethiopian community continues to root itself in the neighborhood, he says more affordable housing would attract more Ethiopian residents (he himself lives in Renton).

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