Research, words, and photos by Seattle runner, Julia Reade.
In September of 2016 and December of 2017, two of Seattle’s most widely consumed journalism sources featured stories of the infamous Red Line. During this same time period, NPR covered the inherently discriminatory practice of redlining more broadly, detailing its racist incarnations in the U.S.’s most densely populated cities. Yet, despite a surge of media coverage, many Seattle residents and folks not well-versed its history remain unfamiliar with the deeply racist practices and policies that left North Seattle neighborhoods majority white and wealthy and those to the south of the Ship Canal generally non-white and hovering at or below the poverty line. Practices legally separating white and non-white residents into distinct neighborhoods first took the form of exclusionary language in deeds and racially restrictive covenants. Language, like that written into early 20th century deeds for properties in Queen Anne, banned non-Aryan residents from occupying land.
“No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property.”
“This property shall not be resold, leased, rented, or occupied except to or by persons of the Aryan race.”
This overt, legal segregation fueled discriminatory lending practices in 1936, resulting in the quite literal redlining of the city’s maps, delineating the so-called “hazardous” neighborhoods. Once deemed hazardous, much of Seattle’s Central District and thus most of Seattle’s non-white residents, could not obtain bank loans or fell victim to sky-high interest rates. In 1959, Civil Rights activist launched the Seattle Open Housing Campaign. But it took almost ten years and momentum spurred by the death of Martin Luther King Jr. for City Council to pass an ordinance that forbade this practice and set the foundation for even broader equal housing legislation to come. Nevertheless, redlining continued well into the ‘70s.
Seattle is once again undergoing a massive shift in neighborhood demographics. Once home to 70% of the city’s black population, the Central District has been transformed–”whitewashed”– by gentrification and in the name of progress. Black home and business owners, with deep roots in the community, fight to keep their homes amidst rapidly rising property values and developers’ insatiable appetite to meet the housing demands of more affluent buyers. Consequently, a history, a culture, a community are being erased, displaced and demolished to make way for concrete cubes, apartments, white-owned pot shops, and hipster joints. With them is disappearing the visible reminder of Seattle’s history of legal racial segregation.
This past February Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry offered walkers and cyclists the chance to walk or ride the Red Line. Spearheaded by Seattle resident Merlin Rainwater, the family-friendly walk and ride highlighted “the lingering physical impacts of redlining in our city.” Building on Merlin’s efforts to preserve and make palpable segregated Seattle, I tediously mapped a running version using a high-resolution copy of the 1936 redlining map. Thankfully, many of the streets still exist both in name and location, which aided my quest to map a route nearly identical to the original red line.
Mapping the route–memorializing the Red Line in a way that commands engagement with its racist history–was my impetus for undertaking this project. Breaking the 11-mile route in halves, I set off on foot with two goals: one, test the feasibility of the route, and, two, observe.
But observe what? I know this city like the back of my hand, so I can visualize the path of the red line without running it. Unable to answer this question, I decided to let the experience define my “data collection.” While running, I found myself drawn to the juxtaposition of original structures and new construction not just architecturally but as symbolic of forced cultural assimilation inherent in “whitewashing.” I took pictures of street signs, commerce, and industry. I traced the layers of Seattle’s history in the stratification of its infrastructure: a base of red brick, a layer of concrete, a top coat of asphalt. The absence of POC-owned business the further south I ran, historic homes slated for demolition, the thick traffic–I’d only ever experienced these hallmarks of “progress” in isolation. Strung together as a series of stops along the red line, though, they weighed on me. How they came to be, their impermanence, the cultural erasure committed through their eradication.
Between the massive elevation gain and heavy significance of the route, I left my runs of the red line exhausted and sore. Yet, these emotions seemed fitting, for they induced discomfort.
When confronting manifestations of racism and white supremacy, feeling uncomfortable keeps at bay the complacency cultivated by a state of comfort. Running Seattle’s red line hurts; it empties the lungs of oxygen, recruits those sleepy, hill-charging muscles, and negates the commonly held belief that gentrification within the boundaries of the red line honors the pre-existing communities.
This route and the activity of running it are a lasting reminder of Seattle’s racist history, lest it be construed as a purely progressive city. I encourage you to get uncomfortable, and #runtheredline. Use this 11-Mile Red Line Route created with the FASTZach app to explore Seattle’s history.