Could Seattle’s 'Africatown' be the next Motown?

09/07/2014 | By David Harris

This post originally appeared on

[caption id="attachment_18722" align="aligncenter" width="553"]2006 MOTOWN MUSEUM (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)[/caption]

As a millennial that grew up in Detroit, its hard for me to imagine a time before Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, or Michael Jackson.

Berry Gordy’s frustration with pop culture pushed him to create one of the most successful African­-American owned and operated businesses in the U.S. He envisioned a world where the music he wrote didn’t just live on the local radio stations but would ride to the top of the pop charts. With an $800 loan from his family, Gordy founded Motown Records.

[caption id="attachment_18744" align="aligncenter" width="670"]HackTheCD_IMG_6934_1000x667 Photo: Domonique Meeks[/caption]

As I look at the recent tech diversity workforce reports, I see data that reflects the current dominant tech culture. To be Black and be a part of the tech ecosystem means that you might have gone to a college or university where you were amongst the 3% who were Computer Science majors according to the Computer Research Association. Recent research also shows that weak ties in your social network might be more diverse than that of your White counterparts, and pattern matching by VC’s could prohibit you from getting funding for your new startup company.

[caption id="attachment_18723" align="aligncenter" width="670"]img_4639_1000x667 Photo: Zithri Saleem[/caption]

On January 12, 1959 in Detroit, after writing songs for other record labels, Berry Gordy must have at some point asked himself, “How might we create a place where African Americans can create pop hits and own their publishing?” Today, I ask the question, “How might we create fertile ground for the African American community in Seattle to grow with the city's current tech boom?”

Motown was a place-based solution that provided training for songwriters, focus group events for performers to hone their sound, and physical space in the form of Hitsville, USA on West Grand Boulevard. Thanks to support from community leaders, engaged citizens, Startup Seattle,, and companies like Google, the Central District, an historically African American neighborhood, has “Hack the CD”. It is a collective of self determined social innovators reliant on the community for sustainable and equitable growth in the Central Area of Seattle, also known as Africatown.

[caption id="attachment_18724" align="aligncenter" width="670"]img_4665_1000x667 Photo: Zithri Saleem[/caption]

On August 25th - 29th, Hack the CD partnered with Coding Dojo to put on a Youth Coding Bootcamp at the C.A.Y.A (Central Area Youth Association). Over 30 African American students (10 - 15 years old) learned how to use HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, while making their own games like Pacman and Streetfighter.

[caption id="attachment_18746" align="aligncenter" width="670"]HackTheCD_p1110098_1000x750 Photo: David Harris[/caption]

The students also had a pitch workshop from public speaking professional, Toyia Taylor of Ten of the students received a Coding Dojo Junior Green Belt which shows their exceptional level of mastery.

Games are usually a big hit with kids. In May, two Middle Schoolers took first place at the University of Washington Startup Weekend with their game that teaches kids to code. It is important that this generation learn to be creators and not just consumers of technology. Nielsen’s Diverse Intelligence Insights show that 73% of Whites and 67% of Hispanics believe Blacks influence mainstream culture.

[caption id="attachment_18725" align="aligncenter" width="670"]img_4263_1000x667 Photo: Zithri Saleem[/caption]

As the Central District community of thinkers, hackers, and makers grows, they’ll need events to apply their knowledge and skills. Hack the CD is organizing the Central District Startup Weekend hackathon event on September 26 - 28. During this weekend, Garfield High School will open its doors to a 54 hour entrepreneurial jam session with software developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and creatives young and old. No high school or college degree will be necessary to pitch an idea, form a team, and build a venture. There will be coaches covering a wide range of fields from community organizing to growth hacking. They’ll have an after party following the demo of the new products, in honor of the local pioneers that came before, like Manuel Lopes, Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix.

“Imagine a place where people of one community share resources. Imagine life without competition and instead replaced with collaboration. Imagine a collective society. Imagine our very own Central District possessing these qualities; building each other up instead of dragging one another down. Wouldn’t that be some place? Who wouldn’t yearn to live in that world?”

- Addisalem Gebremedhin and Solomon Welderfael via Central District News

[caption id="attachment_18726" align="aligncenter" width="670"]img_4800_1000x667 Photo: Zithri Saleem[/caption]

What if there are more coding bootcamps and hackathons in our neighborhood? What if the young coders built apps for local businesses? It gives me goosebumps when I close my eyes and imagine what an “Africatown Innovation District” could look like in just the next five years if the teams that start businesses at the Central District Startup Weekend continue to collaborate.

An Innovation District is what the Brookings Institute defines as a synergistic relationship between people of a community, anchor businesses and the built environment that facilitates idea generation, but also spurs productive, inclusive and sustainable economic development.

[caption id="attachment_18727" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Publicity photo of Motown records founder Berry Gordy posing outside "Hitsville USA" in Detroit Motown records founder Berry Gordy poses outside "Hitsville USA" circa 1960 (Reuters)[/caption]

Just like Motown had Hitsville, Africatown will need physical space that not only incubates social innovation but communicates collaboration. In her book, “Weaving a Tapestry of Resistance,” Sharon Sutton, the first African American woman in the United States to be promoted to full professor of architecture, says that the physical environment can be understood as a system of three-dimensional, hieroglyphic symbols - a text that conveys information about the social, political, economic, and cultural relations of a society. What will our environment read?