Shelf Life Community Story Project
Amplifying community voices, learning from neighborhood stories, and interrupting narratives of erasure in Seattle's Central District.

Origins of the Central District

Photo by Jill Freidberg

Photo by Jill Freidberg

Hayward Evans grew up in Seattle, was a director of the Central Area Motivation Program, and has been a community organizer for most of his life. 

Hayward Evans

The Central Area came into being because of, they called him Big Bill Gross, William Gross. William Gross owned one of the hotels downtown. He was a black guy. Haircuts, restaurants, the whole nine yards. Well, there was a black influx of workers, because they were living in Roslyn, doing coal mining. A lot of black folks starting moving downtown. Well, people downtown got a little upset. So old man Yesler talked to William Gross, who was the leading business man at the time, in the African American community, and he basically gave, or sold very cheaply, all the property around 23rd and Madison, that whole area. And so he asked the blacks to move there. This was when you would look at First Hill and it was all trees! So they sort of moved us to the outskirts, if you will, the outskirts of what they considered the city, which is old Seattle, downtown. 

And that’s why the black people ended up congregating there. And then, in order for you to get a loan, there were certain requirements, i.e. I will not loan you money to buy - even though you might qualify - I will not loan you money to buy a house over in this area. You wanna buy a house? Well yeah, here’s your catchment area. And back then the Prince Hall Masons were very, very powerful here in the Central Area. Because of the Masons, they had internal lending within that organization, and they had a couple little clubhouses, their own little nightclubs. And at these nightclubs and gambling establishments, they had lending opportunities. So everything was really forced upon them to work together as a community and a collective. But the Prince Hall Masons were extremely, extremely powerful, and that was the primary lending institution.