The Garfield Super Block: Celebrating the Central District’s Historic Communities with Art and Storytelling
By Emi Okikawa
When Robert Stephens returned home from the Vietnam War at just 21 years old, his elders were ready with his next assignment.
“My elders, they didn’t ask me—they told me, you’re going to be on that board and that committee.”
Sitting on a park bench outside the Garfield Community Center, he smiles. “Some 51 years later, I’m still doing this thing that my elders told me I had to do.”
Over the years, Stephens has been a tireless advocate for community projects, sitting on committees and assuming various leadership roles. And he has become a clarion voice for equitable development. His latest project is the Garfield Super Block, a renovation project promised by the city more than 15 years ago.
Genesis of the Super Block Project
In 2003, Seattle Public Schools had plans to renovate Garfield High School and build the new Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center. But during the planning process, they found that there wasn’t enough land for the requisite number of parking stalls. Seeking a path forward, they approached the community to seek a variance—a way to override the parking limitation and continue construction.
In response, Stephens took the existing Neighborhood Plan, which was built on Central District community input, and put together what came to be known as the Garfield Super Block Master Plan. As a condition of approving the variance, the plan called for major improvements and amenities—including improved park facilities and a Legacy and Promise Promenade.
The plan was approved by the ordinance variation committee, which included representatives from the community, the parks department, and Seattle Public Schools. But after completion of the school renovation and the performing arts center, the Super Block Plan was abandoned.
Stephens never forgot, however; he continued to advocate for a healthy and vibrant built environment in the heart of the Central District. In 2019, 14 years after the Super Block Plan was approved, the project gained new traction when it received a grant from the city’s Office of Economic Development. Shortly afterward, architects Stephanie Ingram and Sharon Khosla and other volunteers joined Stephens on his crusade to see the project come to fruition.
The team, which has since grown to nine members, decided to use the grant money to hire a landscape architect to update and expand the scope of the proposed renovation. They have a simple goal: to hold the city accountable for completing the Garfield Super Block Project.
Legacy and Promise
When asked what part of the project they’re most excited to see come to life, the answer from team members is resounding and unanimous: the Legacy and Promise Promenade.
The planned promenade is a trail loop that will be adorned with eight commissioned art pieces from local artists and will connect the Horace Mann building, which houses Nova High School, with the Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center. It will anchor and celebrate the historic communities of the Central District: Duwamish, Jewish, African American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Italian.
The team is working to put together a paid advisory committee that will oversee the art plan and the vision for the promenade, with one or two representatives from each community.
“We want it done right,” says Khosla. “And we want it done thoughtfully.”
All the commissioned artists will work together to create a piece for the entrance to the park, which will symbolize the collaboration and friendship among the communities and the bonds they have created through culture, arts, and food.
As changes ripple through the Central District, the theme of “legacy and promise” underlines the importance of historical memory during a period of rapid gentrification.
“We don’t really have the money and the power to stop them from tearing down everything,” Stephens says. “But we do have the power to keep footprints in the community…. I believe art is the history of one’s culture.”
“There’s a lot of new people moving to this neighborhood,” Ingram adds. “People should know how important this space is and how important it is to defend the community space here.”
Community Values and Voices
All nine members of the team live in or near the Central District and have strong ties to the community. They have unfailingly met every Tuesday since 2019 to discuss strategic planning and apply for grants. This past summer, they held virtual events and meetings, sometimes with more than 200 participants, to ensure that they were accurately reflecting the community’s values and voices.
Thanks to these efforts, city council members Kshama Sawant and Dan Strauss added $500,000 in funding for the project to the city’s supplemental budget. The comment form garnered 700 signatures in five days, which speaks to the strong community support. The earmarked funding will go toward design and engineering, putting the project on a path to being “shovel ready” in 2022.
As with many communities of color, the Central District was subject to the racist practice of redlining, which led to residents of color being denied mortgages because the neighborhood was deemed as “risky” for investments. This led to a generational wealth gap that still exists today. The consequences, compounded by public underfunding and neglect, can be seen in the lack of access to green spaces in the Central District.
Green spaces provide many physical and mental health benefits, bring down crime, and combat the urban “heat island” effect in the summer months, which disproportionately affects communities of color. Preserving these green spaces is an environmental justice priority.
Parks also build and sustain community life. The Garfield Super Block area is known to neighborhood residents as “Little City Hall.” From games at the baseball field to the annual Martin Luther King Jr. March and Celebration and, more recently, COVID testing and vaccination events, it is a hub of community life and the heart and soul of the Central District.
“This is where everybody came…because basically, all the other parks in the city, Black folks couldn’t go to. So, we built our own,” says Stephens. “We want to leave a piece of that history here and to leave a legacy for our kids and grandkids [so they] can be proud of their community. There’s a spirit here that makes them feel wanted, like they’ll always have a space.”