Arte Noir founder Vivian Phillips greets Cassandra Mitchel during a soft opening for the Arte Noir and Gallery Onyx shared space at Midtown Center, September 14, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Cascadia in Action: Arte Noir & Black Spacification

by Yogi Uriah

This piece was originally published in Cascadia Spoke, a community publication dedicated to raising awareness of the Cascadia movement and bioregionalism.

The Cascadian independence movement is rooted in strong philosophical concepts, addressing failures or abuses from our world’s current nation state affiliations. Bioregionalism amends failing structures specific to a designated space’s political frameworks, lack of cultural inclusivity, and environmental policies.

However, it must be considered how the so-called common man, woman and “noman” can make basic changes to their day to day existence to promote a more equitable society. It’s reasonable to suggest the likelihood of low bandwidth for activism and political engagement for those whose proverbial plates are filled with fulfilling their basic needs.

This article looks to address recent innovations that are ethical, sustainable, and local to the Cascadian bioregion, with a specific intention of suggesting solutions that are accessible regardless of class, race, or gender identity.

In Seattle, the city where I live, the historically black neighborhood called the Central District has undergone a substantial amount of development within the past three years. In the heart of the neighborhood, at the corner of 23rd and Union Street, sits Washington state’s most profitable cannabis retailer, Uncle Ike’s. Directly across the street, Midtown Square provides an “urban village” style mixed use property, with residential offerings and excellent retail establishments. Beautiful murals celebrating iconic black performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Langston Hughes adorn the surrounding walls, and local eateries like Raised Doughnuts have found impressive new homes.

White flight describes the migration of middle class white people to the suburbs. In the 1970s, more than 73 percent of the Central District’s residents were Black. Redlining forced non-white communities into specific areas within Seattle, controlling where they lived and worked through a series of systematic oppression, such as discriminatory bank loans and financing, and the writing into deeds that houses could only be sold to white families. Today, it’s fewer than 18 percent. The white population has climbed to nearly 60 percent.

Although I could see the reasoning behind adding what would have been a flagship pharmacy to the area, Arte Noir nonprofit founder Vivian Phillips had brighter ideas. Arte Noir exists to uplift black art, black artists, and black culture. Their mission is to create space, stability, opportunity, and training to serve the needs of the displaced Black creative community with permanent locations. In collaboration with Seattle’s Office of Community and Sustainable Development, Ms. Phillips was able to acquire use of this space for Gallery Onyx at Midtown Square, Arte Noir’s first gallery. Vivian used the terminology, reparative economic opportunities to explain her goals for the space. Gallery Onyx, an extension of Onyx Fine Arts Collective, showcases the artworks of artists of African descent from our Cascadian communities. Her nonprofit has created an environment that will allow black ownership of the building this coming Spring, so this particular gallery won’t be in danger of becoming a drugstore anytime soon.

On September 17, the inaugural exhibit titled Truth B Told II seemed like the most appropriate name for anything associated with Arte Noir. Ms. Phillips explained the purpose of using the additional “e” at the spelling of art, to allude to the francophone spelling of most Pan-African artists who are involved in her galleries. The nonprofit’s name literally translates to “black art,” and she hopes spaces like this will not only attract black artists and those who appreciate art, but the concept of blackness itself having a home.

Bioregionalism means creating new definitions and ways of operating, whether it already exists or not. So—why not fix this and create a new word?

Black Spacification: “The intentional attempt to make spaces ethically owned and operated by black people, with sustainable ownership, with local products or goods.”

With white people now flocking into traditionally black and minority owned neighborhoods throughout Cascadia, however, there isn’t terminology to suggest a community’s intention to attract black residents back to a space that was once the only neighborhood they could reside in. Making these spaces most attractive to those who will resonate with the images strictly from a cultural lens seems to be a good start.

Yogi Uriah is an activist, organizer, and vice president of the Department of Bioregion board of directors.

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