In 2015, Seattle residents Benjamin Hunter, Rodney Herald and Tarik Abdullah co-founded Black and Tan Hall with a clear vision to foster an artistic hub where community members of the gentrifying South End neighborhood would have a safe, affordable and inclusive place to gather. On top of that, they envisioned a venue under community ownership.
In the ensuing five years, a growing collective of artists and community members came on to invest funding, sweat equity or both in a vacant historic theater. This December, the collective — now a total of 33 community partners — received city funding to buy the building outright. By the end of 2021, they hope, Black and Tan Hall will open as the community hub they originally envisioned.
“We’ve put a lot of sweat and dreaming into the 5608 property,” says Black and Tan partner Joe Seamons, referring to the venue’s address at 5608 Rainier Avenue South. “I’m excited about walking into our building and there’s a whole slew of programs — an after school program, followed by a dinner theater event with food cooked by local chefs, and after that there’s a proper dance, and then there’s a late-night hour,” he adds. “All those things we can make happen in a single night.”
The 1920s theater at 5608 Rainier Avenue South was shuttered for years before the Black and Tan team — taking its name from a colloquialism used for integrated nightclubs operating during racial segregation — zeroed in on it. In 2016 they signed a lease that left renovation work up to them: “It was a fairly rundown 100-year-old building that we stripped down to bare walls, redid part of the floor, installed electrical that would be up to code,” recalls Seamons.
From the beginning this was envisioned as a cooperative investment business made up of neighbors contributing funds, sweat equity, their own expertise and community connections. Investment partners pay $2,500 and commit to 52 hours of labor. “The thing that I liked was that if you didn’t have $2,500, you can just do labor to become a fully-vested partner,” explains community organizer Karen Toering, who became a partner in late 2016 and is now Black and Tan Hall’s general manager. “I signed up because I believe in the vision — as an organizer I understand what it means to build a container where people can be who they are.”
The cooperative grew to include local musicians, artists, and people connected to for-profit and nonprofit organizations within a mile of the venue. “We try to emphasize to our partners that ‘you are our eyes and ears on the ground, you are out there in the community doing the work,’” says Seamons. “Our model allows us to collect that first-hand feedback.”
The Black and Tan partnership calls this “an anti-gentrification model that combats displacement, keeps dollars hyper local, and sustains good jobs.” The space, they decided, would include a restaurant that served local food, a gathering space responsive to community need, and an arts collective displaying artwork and performance art.
By 2019, the partners invested over 10,000 renovation hours — but ongoing safety issues with the building kept it empty. Black and Tan Hall instead hosted concerts and pop-up brunches around the city. They also launched a Good Jobs Fellowship program to support a cohort of youth who work alongside the partners to operate the cultural programming. The fellowship is now on its third cohort.
Crucially, the partners established and maintained deep ties with Seattle city officials. In 2019 co-founder Hunter joined the city’s Build Art Space Equitably program. “Not enough people understand what’s going on at the intersection of cultural development and commercial real estate development, so we started this learning cohort that’s a deep dive into different aspects of this intersection,” explains Matthew Richter, the cultural space liaison for the city. Black and Tan Hall received technical support as tenants with an eye toward eventual ownership of the venue.
Black and Tan Hall partners in 2018 (Photo courtesy Black and Tan Hall)
That year Black and Tan Hall also received funding from the city’s Equitable Development Initiative for capacity building. Through that program they honed their business model, now structured as a limited liability company. Deciding to be for-profit was the result of intense conversation among the partners. “We’re taking from inequitable [for-profit] models to become an equitable one,” as Seamons puts it.
Funding from the Equitable Development Initiative prompted another tough discussion. “It was like this shift, because now we were stewarding public money,” Toering says. The Black and Tan partners were increasingly disagreeing with the venue’s owner about who was responsible for necessary building investments. “It was this conversation about what it meant to be good stewards of public money that made us break our lease and go: No, we cannot dress up someone else’s building,” she says.
With support from the city, Black and Tan partners broke their lease at 5608 Rainier Avenue South and began searching for new venues. But “[t]here just wasn’t an equivalent space,” says Seamons. “Emotionally, we didn’t really want to part with the building.”
Last summer, Black and Tan partners presented a business proposal to the Equitable Development Initiative to come back to 5608 Rainier Avenue, but as owners, not renters. The Office of Planning and Community Development, which coordinates the equitable development initiative, $1.2 million for Black and Tan Hall.
By mid-December, the purchase was finalized. This year will be dedicated to finally bringing the venue up to code. Much is still in flux — Seamons notes the business structure may evolve, with a priority of remaining transparent to the community. “It’s about explaining what we’re developing and why we’re developing it,” he says. “In places where the LLC doesn’t serve us, we’ll advocate for a change to how LLCs are treated or create an additional entity to allow the building and business to be in the hands of the community.”
Toering adds that the Equitable Development Initiative funding comes with a built-in community benefits agreement. “It’s going to look like free and low-cost rental space, classes, whatever the community wants to do,” she says.
Once open, the goal is to bring on paid staff while partners continue to contribute as part of their investment. Instead of laying down flooring or installing sprinklers, they’ll be picking up bartending shifts, helping with accounting or taking on other operational roles. “We want a partnership where everybody gets to do the work they’re passionate about,” Seamons says.
It’s not lost on the Black and Tan partners that the late 2021 opening date might align with some ability to safely gather following COVID-19. “It is so fun to see people imagining what they will be able to do in this space,” says Toering. “As long as we can keep people dreaming about what they want to do, and we’re executing on that dream, I think we’ll be on the right side of the city.”