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Red Apple, at heart of Black Seattle, likely to close, making way for Vulcan

The Red Apple in the Central District doesn’t look like much when you drive by – maybe just another grocery store in an old strip mall.

But it’s at the heart of the Central Area, and the African-American community that once dominated this neighborhood.

Now Vulcan, billionaire Paul Allen’s real estate firm, has plans for the spot, but they may not include the Red Apple.

Edward Winston used to work at a bakery up the street from the Red Apple. Now, he drives here to shop – from Tukwila.

Winston said many people are loyal to this store.

“Great people work here,” he said. “We have a good rapport with all of them. Because that’s the type of people that we have working here. And that’s beautiful.”

Michael Moss, store director of the Promenade Red Apple, has worked there for 25 years. As he walked around the store, customers waved to him.

Red Apple is a local chain, with stores in Washington and a couple in Oregon. It gives its managers a lot of discretion over what they stock in each store.

“We carry pig ears year round, pig tails, pig feet – any part of the pig you can eat,” said Moss.

Customer Bama Chester chimed in: “Red Apple got everything. Safeway, QFC – ain’t none of them got what Red Apple got.”

Like chicken skin.

“You think, ‘Chicken skin? I don’t understand,’” Moss said, “but you think about it, a lot of people like the skin of the chicken and they don’t really want the whole chicken.”

That’s how they set up the store 25 years ago, and how they’ve kept it since.

“We didn’t really get caught up in the gentrification of the neighborhood,” Moss said. “We want everybody to be able to buy what they want, but we don’t want to exclude that one customer.”

Those customers are upset.

Patsy Tyler said she loves shopping at the Red Apple.

“I don’t know why you let Paul Allen buy you all out,” she said. “He could have done something else with that money.”

At Vulcan, Ada Healey, said the company prides itself on listening to the community. Healey oversees Vulcan’s real estate strategies. But Healey, looking at the property with a bird’s eye view, said she “sees a lot of parking lots.”

Vulcan has a pitch for this neighborhood: This place could be so much more. There could be up to a thousand people living here, enjoying each other’s company on busy sidewalks.

“I mean, real estate is all about people,” Healey said. “Creating a great place for people is gonna create a great real estate project. I think one of the keys in thinking about this 23rd and Jackson project is that the tide is gonna lift all ships.”

Lois Martin is a long-time business owner in the Central District. She said the neighborhood is dominated by small, scrappy businesses, most of them owned by African-Americans.

“When I first heard that they were buying it, that was a big concern for me,” Martin said. “That it was going to totally change the face of our neighborhood.”

The neighborhood has become increasingly white as real estate values skyrocketed, but minority-owned businesses have hung on.

Martin runs Community Day Center for Children, a few blocks from the Red Apple. Her mom started the business in 1963.

The daycare has stayed in the same spot, but the kids have changed over the years. They used to be mostly Black – now they represent all races and colors.

“This is what made me become involved in the community work,” Martin said. “I’m thinking about my students and the kind of Seattle I want them to live in.”

Martin and other neighborhood activists pushed Vulcan to think about the retail spaces at 23rd and Jackson in a new way.

Developers usually want big tenants that can fill a lot of space, because it makes leasing that space simple.

But Martin said that way of doing business excludes small businesses.

“It has to be someplace affordable, so that they can profit, so they can grow,” she said.

Martin's group pushed Vulcan to create smaller retail spaces for community businesses – that way, people in the CD could benefit from the buzz of new tenants.

“If we don’t make those spaces available in these new developments,” Martin said, “then we’re going to lose an important part of the fabric of our community.”

Vulcan listened.

They’re going to line Jackson Street with spaces for small, even tiny, businesses.

It’s one of the many gestures Vulcan has made to the community. Others include some affordable housing, a meeting space for the community, and African-inspired ornamentation. Those accommodations have built goodwill.

But Martin hasn’t been completely won over.

Vulcan hasn’t promised to bring the Red Apple back, which has her concerned.

“I just think about some of the cashiers,” she said. “My son is 25. They watched him grow up.”

And so, she has this question for Vulcan: “Are you really open to hearing the voice of the community? Or is it lip service?”

Back at the Red Apple, Michael Moss is philosophical about being displaced.

“Well, honestly, we’ve had conversations with the ownership and you know, no one’s at fault,” he said. “Paul Allen’s a businessman, and he saw an opportunity.”

A new development has to get higher rents, to pay its own costs.

Moss says Red Apple probably can’t pay those rents. And it wouldn’t be wise to try. "We don't want to end up having to be here for a year and then go out of business," said Moss.

And so, it seems likely the grocer will leave sometime in the next year. The employees would move to another store, about a mile south.

Closer to where so many of their customers have already moved.

As part of our Region of Boom project, we’ll be following the path of gentrification from the Central District into south Seattle.

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