Art, activism and Vanishing Seattle

Cynthia Brothers

Cynthia Brothers uses photography and political organizing to fight displacement. (Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brothers)

Cynthia Brothers reflects on the politics of art and the art of politics

by George Howland Jr, Contributing Writer

Cynthia Brothers, 36, is an artist and an activist.

The main outlet for her art is Vanishing Seattle, a social media feed of photographs that documents what is being lost as redevelopment tears through the city. Since Vanishing Seattle started two years ago, it has attracted an extraordinary 25,000 followers combined from Instagram and Facebook.

Her main activist project is being part of the Chinatown International District Coalition (CID Coalition), aka Humbows Not Hotels. The CID Coalition is a collective that is fighting to stop the unique Asian American Seattle neighborhood being stripped of its inhabitants and its cultural identity. The CID Coalition is just one year old and has around 15-20 core members, but its community meetings have drawn over 100 people.

In December, I interviewed Brothers about both projects—their significance, their relationship to one another and what the future holds for them. Brothers has a dynamic, articulate understanding of what is happening to Seattle’s communities of color during the Amazon boom. While Brothers is modest about her own achievements, she is clearly a grassroots leader and artistic spark plug in the fight against displacement and gentrification.

George Howland (GH): Please talk about the relationship between Vanishing Seattle and the CID Coalition.

Cynthia Brothers (CB): They are related in a lot of ways. I use a very similar lens with both Vanishing Seattle and CID Coalition—i.e. anti-displacement. With Vanishing Seattle, I am approaching it with a documentation, arts and storytelling perspective. The CID Coalition is doing anti-displacement organizing. There are a lot of similar themes.

GH: How did Vanishing Seattle start?

CB: My very first post was about the closure of Inay’s Asian Pacific Cuisine, a Filipino restaurant on Beacon Hill. One of my friends, Atasha Manila, is a drag performer. Every Friday night she’d do this epic 3-hour, one-woman drag show. You had this really awesome cross section of the Filipino, Asian American, Beacon Hill and queer communities. The rent was going up and that was one of the factors that led to the restaurant closing. It was a space that was really special to me and so many other people. I took and posted a short video of Atasha Manila. It was very emotional and heart felt. It was very uniquely Seattle. This is what we are losing. I wanted to capture it and share it. Vanishing Seattle went from there.

I didn’t have a grand plan or vision when I started. I didn’t expect so many people would respond to it. That it would resonate with so many folks. That I would get so many followers.

Combined between Facebook and Instagram I have a little over 25,000 followers. 10,000 on Instagram and 15,000 on Facebook. I try not to think about that too much!

GH: What’s your goal with Vanishing Seattle?

CB: The broad goals are to bring more awareness to these issues, to have more conversation, to encourage community building. It can be overwhelming and discouraging, but I hope that people feel motivated, empowered to get engaged. Whether that is making art, organizing or becoming more involved in the local political process.

GH: Is it hard difficult for you personally to document all this loss?

CB: There is definitely a lot of emotional labor involved. A lot of the places are meaningful to me. I almost wish that I didn’t feel compelled to do this. Sometimes there is collective sharing and storytelling, which I really like. People say, ‘I met my partner here’ or ‘We always used to celebrate birthdays here.’ That’s really cool when it feels like a communal forum. I’d rather have that than have these places go silently, quietly into the night.

I sometimes get comments like ‘Get over it. This is progress.’ Or that this is justified because we just need more [housing] supply. As if supply is this magic bullet. People can be pretty naïve and entitled about who benefits and who wins and who loses. Whose needs are more important to be catered to than other folks.

Chinatown/International District: a cultural touchstone and a vulnerable community of poor Asian American renters

In the 1970s, Brother’s mother was the first in her family to emigrate from Hong Kong to Seattle. In the 1980s, her aunts, uncles and grandparents followed. The CID has played, and continues to play, a central role in the life of the family. Brothers says, the CID “is a through line throughout my whole life.”

In January 2016, Brothers learned about the proposed construction of a 14-story Marriott Hotel in the heart of the CID.

As reported by Outside City Hall’s Cliff Cawthon, “Brothers wrote a piece in the Seattle Globalist about the rapid pace of development in the neighborhood and how it might lead to displacement. The CID is home to 5,000 residents. While Seattle’s overall median income has shot up to $80,000, the CID’s average median income is only $40,000. Twenty-five percent of the neighborhood lives below the poverty line. According to the city, ‘95% of the area population are renters.

Over 1600 units of market-rate residences and hotel rooms are in some stage of development in the neighborhood—including some fully completed projects. Members of the Coalition are concerned that these developments will erase much of the neighborhood’s cultural character and affordability. Many CID residents may have to move out of the neighborhood and be cut off from longstanding support networks.”

As a result of Brother’s Globalist article, concerned community members started contacting her. Eventually, they formed the CID Coalition.

The CID Coalition is a collective. Brothers doesn’t speak for the whole group, but only herself.

GH: What’s at stake if Chinatown/International District loses its current identity?

CB: The CID has always been a cultural home—whether it was accessing services or buying groceries. It’s where you come on the weekends or get your food or be with your people. It’s very unique. It’s one of the only communities in the continental U.S. where you have Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese and African American communities established and living together. That history is really unique and special. It’s a connection that so many people have even though they might not be living or working there anymore.  It’s a cultural connection.

GH: Why did the CID Coalition call for a moratorium on development in the neighborhood?

CB: The word moratorium sounds a little scary and politically toxic. But the idea is not to be anti-development, because we’re not. It’s about development without displacement. It’s not to be obstructionist. It would be a way to put a pause on the fast-moving train of all this market-rate development that’s not serving us. All the development that doesn’t have affordability built into it. It’s not serving the community. [A moratorium] could provide space for the community to come up with their own solutions. If you are caught up in fighting all these individual developments that are threatening to displace or change the culture of the neighborhood, that could take up all of your capacity. [A moratorium] is a way to put a pause on it and be proactive. Find out what the community needs and have that define what is happening in terms of development. [Now] the people with all the power and the money and the privilege are determining what’s going to happen in the neighborhood.

GH: How do you respond to the criticism that a moratorium is a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) approach to the problem?

CB: To throw the word NIMBY around in this very oversimplified way, in a way that’s so polarizing, it’s really problematic. [Especially] when it’s being lobbed against communities of color. I don’t like those terms—NIMBY and YIMBY [Yes In My Backyard]. What do they even mean? What are you saying yes to? What are you saying no to? It’s serving a very well thought out and well-funded agenda. It has come to the point for me where it’s so meaningless. People like to throw the words around a lot without diving deeper or seeing what the real issues are or seeing where there might be common ground. I try to stay away from those terms altogether because I don’t think they are useful.

Something we’re very savvy about in this city is convincing people that we’re really progressive. Look a little bit closer. It’s really messed up what we are doing. My worry is that we have so many folks who are being displaced that there are less and less people to fight and hold the city accountable.

I don’t want Seattle to be like San Francisco. I fricking hate it when people say, “World-class city, world-class city!!” What does that mean? You want to be like Manhattan or San Francisco? I used to live in Manhattan. There were some really ugly, awful things. It was hugely inequitable. I had a hard time stomaching a lot of it. Is that our goal? To turn into San Francisco or New York? Really? Just say you want to be a playground for the rich, that’s what you mean when you say, ‘World-class city.’ You need artists, you need the working class, you need diversity to be a real, world-class city.

GH: What is your alternative to market-rate development?

CB: For us, it’s really: ‘What does community ownership of land look like?’ What does getting out of the speculative market look like? Things like land trusts and coops. Can the city resource the community to organize, develop and implement the community’s own solutions?

Members of our coalition who are from San Francisco’s Chinatown—they don’t want to see the same thing happen in Seattle. We don’t want the CID to go the way of the Chinatown in D.C. You can have design guidelines, you can have requirements that the signs be in Chinese or some of the materials have Asian character, but if you don’t have any Asian people working there, living there or receiving services there, then it’s cultural tourism. It’s like a Disneyland. There is a lot that goes deeper than design. Is there still equity here? Is it still a place where immigrants can come and build community and put down roots? And not just rich immigrants—all income levels.

GH: How are you hoping to realize the goal of community ownership of land? Will you be spending time at city hall, building relationships with Mayor Jenny Durkan and the city council?

CB: We don’t think the rules or the structure of city hall and city council is what is going to be the answer. We are trying to be more expansive and visionary than just how can we have better allies on city council.

We do want to put pressure where we can. It’s really about community organizing and building solidarity with other allies and other neighborhoods that are facing similar issues: the Central District, Beacon Hill. How can we keep moving forward together to have a broader movement that’s calling for more systemic change and not just relying on what the city is telling us we can or can’t do? Don’t let them set the framework for what is possible and what’s not.

It’s the long and hard work of community organizing. It’s the messiness and the beauty of organizing and coalition building.

At the end of the day, if it turns out that the odds are too stacked against us; that there’s nothing to be done; that nothing changes; at least, we didn’t go quietly.

Questions, tips, comments:

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Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He has never even been to a Huskies’ football game with the Coalition’s John Fox.

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About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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