A space for placemaking: Andrea Caupain on the Central District as a place of change
[Headnote: This is the first article in a series of conversations with Central District community members. This is part of the larger effort to challenge narratives of displacement and focus on the strength, resilience, and advocacy that occurs in communities that are impacted by gentrification.]
Upon reflecting on where to buy a home, Andrea Caupain and her husband looked into the Central District (CD), a neighborhood of Seattle, but couldn’t find anything that fit their needs and budget. She said that their house in South Seattle is becoming a home, but they often find themselves returning to the CD.
“When I look at the territorial view of Seattle and the way it’s shifting with the development, there’s still a familiar sense with the people, type of services, [and] activities,” Caupain said. “It’s the strong sense of connection I have with the community.”
Caupain is the current CEO for Byrd Barr Place, an organization that not only provides direct services to people living in poverty like energy assistance but also works with the government to change systems and policies. The building is physically positioned in between a hospital and church, which reflects its role as a central place for rest and support.
“We want to be relevant to everyone in this community who needs us, or people who want to volunteer, donate, or be civically engaged,” Caupain said. “We’ve expanded our view of what service to the community looks like.”
Working at Byrd Barr Place for 16 years means that Caupain is often in the CD for work, but it’s not the only reason she’s drawn to the area. Caupain has fond memories of visiting the Central District, even when she was living and attending high school in Kent.
“I always had grandparents and aunts that lived in the CD and drew us here, so I would have sleepovers with my friends show grandparents had homes here,” Caupain said. “… It was a social gathering place for me.
The CD as a central place for the Black community’s lives and imagination. Caupain remembers coming to the salon to her hair done, something was part of her routine and identity. It also made her feel connected to generations of Central District residents.
“The elders were there. You would pick up on a conversation you had before. There was banter of the way the older women provided their wisdom to the younger women. Even the babies in the salon got to be in proximity of that,” Caupain said. “It created this awesome thread of connectivity across generations that I don’t see at hair salons anymore.”
Now, a lot of those small businesses like hair salons and restaurants have been priced out of their buildings and forced to move. This shift has also meant that people open up their homes as gathering spaces.
“My hair salon is no longer out here. She’s doing hair in her kitchen now. My brother’s barber is in Renton. There are specific places that people would come here for services that are no longer her,” Caupain said. “I see them being directly affected by gentrification. Their landlords raised their rents and they couldn’t afford it. they just have to move and hope their clients move with them.”
Even more than that, some churches have split their presence between the Central District and parts of South Seattle. Caupain said that some level of community exists online, but there aren’t as many central places for meeting. When reflecting on the Central District and how it has changed, Caupain remembers that it used to compromise of single-family homes. Now, townhouses are being built on every corner. Even recently, a nearby church sold their parking lot to house eight new townhouses. Caupain has been reflecting on how new residents will interact with the new residents in these buildings, and the question of who will benefit and be burdened by this.
Amid all of these changes, Caupain said that Byrd Barr Place rents out its space on evenings and weekends.
“We get the value of placemaking, not just through highlighting the work of the organization, but also having a physical space,” Caupain said. “Being able to fortify the space so people can continue to be here and be a source of physical support, safety, and stability. That’s what a physical sense of space provides.”
Caupain believes that placemaking also comes with ownership. As a member of the Africatown board, Byrd Barr Place has been supporting Africatown build capacity to ultimately own the Liberty Bank Building. This reflects the idea that the best way for business to control their situation amid changing rent prices is to have control over their space.
“We want Black ownership of that property, specifically the three businesses down below … It’s part of helping their businesses thrive and think about long-term sustainability,” Caupain said. ‘We want to replicate that model in Africatown Plaza, especially with the businesses to exist there.”
Holding property developers and tech companies responsible
Caupain invited developers to think about how their work impacted people and communities, rather than reducing their mental model of the project to focus on the end product.
“I think the developer [of those new townhouses] would have a better sense of understanding if he lived here. He lives in Vashon Island, so he gets to develop and leave. If this community was part of the fabric of your life, you would get it,” Caupain said. “Because they’re somewhat removed and see it as a project that goes on their balance sheet, they’re able to separate their emotions.”
For Caupain, one potential way to increase awareness of developers is to bring them in to meet community members who use Byrd Barr Place.
“We like to bring people here, especially when programs are open, so they can put a face to the services we provide and hear directly from clients,” Caupain said. “I’ve seen it make a difference, provided that people make the time to listen.”
Developers are not the only people who have a role to play in changing the landscape of the CD. The CD’s proximity to a range of tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon has contributed to rising rent prices and the changing demographic. Although it has brought innovative technology to the area, it’s only in service of a specific demographic. Caupain said that she’s drawn to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s concept of “democratizing technology,” but she hasn’t seen this concept lived out yet. For example, Caupain explained that the process fo applying for energy assistance can take up to three weeks and requires an in-person meeting for a person to bring in their documents. She envisions that technology could streamline this process so it could exist online, which would reduce the time burden, especially for people who work multiple jobs and cannot come into Byrd Barr Place during open hours.
“In a society where we are so technologically advanced, we can’t find people who can help us. We know it’s possible, but we don’t have people on staff or resources,” Caupain said.
Funding is one way that tech companies can support communities like the Central District, but it’s not the only avenue for support. Instead of just writing checks, Caupain envisions that tech companies could provide mentorship for growth management to organizations like Byrd Barr, but also use their resources to fulfill their responsibility to serve vulnerable communities.
“Many of us are struggling to keep our business alive and our clients safe,” Caupain said. “…We’re struggling hard and money is not enough. We need the knowledge.”
The future of the Central District
As for the continued growth of the Central District, she hopes that is inclusive space where people feel connected. Thankfully, she has seen moments of that.
“There are people that when they learn about who we are what we do, they’ll stop by and drop off a bag of groceries on the way back from the grocery store,” Caupain said. “They’ll say, ‘I know you have a food bank and I bought an extra bag of groceries.’ There is [a sense of] connection in a different way, but there’s still a sense of isolation.”
For Byrd Barr Place, Caupain hopes to see the continued growth of their services in a way that’s community-oriented.
“I’d like to see use the program as an incubator to serve people and share what we learn with our partner organizations.”
Thanks for reading! If you have questions or want to learn more about this project, you can reach out to me at aansari@uw.