The Shelf Life Community Story Project, originated in 2016 to record oral histories of current and former residents of Seattle's Central District, moves from temporary quarters in a shopping center into a permanent home -- Wa Na Wari -- on April 5, 2019. Located in an historically black but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood at 911 24th Avenue, Wa Na Wari is a house that has been converted into an art gallery, gathering space, and oral history studio. According to co-founder Jill Freidberg, "It will be a space that reimagines the home where black people can share their stories, map their childhood, reunite with old friends, and incubate art, all while holding space in a neighborhood that has tried to push them out."
Stories Worth Telling
In the summer of 2016, the Shelf Life project set up inside a former Subway sandwich shop in the Promenade 23 shopping center at 23rd Avenue South and South Jackson Street in Seattle's Central District. Founded by filmmaker Jill Freidberg to record oral histories of current and former neighborhood residents, Shelf Life was housed in a storefront next to the popular Red Apple market, a bicycle repair shop, and other small businesses. Many who lived, worked, or walked in the Central District during the 2000s and 2010s were fond of the Red Apple, its friendly staff, and opportunities to see and chat with friends and neighbors while shopping; residents sometimes referred to the Red Apple as a community center.
The stories Freidberg recorded went well beyond the Red Apple; people shared family sagas, memories of small business, hard work, political activism, and subsequent social change. They described social networks, church communities, black community festivals, and parades. Many sat for photographic portraits taken by Central District and South Seattle-based artists.
As Shelf Life grew in 2017 and 2018, Freidberg, along with artists Elisheba Johnson and Inye Wokoma, traveled with the project, setting up a "Living Room" installation at various King County community events and festivals. Visitors could sit on couches and chairs and use antique rotary phones, adapted for digital technology, to listen to stories told by longtime Central District residents. They could click through a reel of historic and contemporary photos with Viewmaster toys, or browse vintage photo albums filled with reproductions of Central District photographs from the 1930s onward. Visitors to the Shelf Life website could find streaming audio files, podcast episodes, photographs of participating storytellers, and transcripts of stories from the project. The project's wide-ranging goals were outlined on its website:
"The Shelf Life Community Story Project is recording oral histories with current and former residents of Seattle's Central District neighborhood. We believe community stories and neighborhood histories can change the way we think about community -- what it means to have it and what it means to lose it. We hope the stories we're recording can influence conversations about change and shift the way this city imagines its future. The stories we record are shared with the public through community celebrations and installations, social media, community radio, the Shelf Life podcast, pop-up projection events, the project website, and an interactive story map. Eventually, stories will be archived by the Seattle Public Library" (Shelf Life website).
Shelf Life was clear about its purpose and objectives. "During this period of rapid change, Seattle could learn a lot from the Central District's unique history; lessons that might even help us grow a city with room enough for everyone, a city where historic residents can feel safe, thrive, and stay in their communities ... Stories have the power to depolarize civic and individual conversations about gentrification ... When people are displaced, they experience isolation and vulnerability. Community stories reconnect people" (Shelf Life website).
The project's stated objectives were 1) to "interrupt the narratives of erasure that accompany the gentrification and displacement taking place in Seattle's Central District neighborhood," 2) to "amplify, preserve, and learn from the voices, experiences, and histories of Central District communities," and 3) to "contribute historical context to conversations about change in the Central District" (Shelf Life website).
Search for a Permanent Home
The project lost its temporary quarters when the Red Apple and surrounding shopping center were demolished in early 2018, but the possibility of an extended Shelf Life became a reality when the project found a nonprofit fiscal sponsor, the Northwest Film Forum, in 2018. The project's new home would be a converted house at 911 24th Avenue, about five blocks from the busy intersection of 23rd and Jackson.
On December 19, 2018, less than four months before Wa Na Wari's opening, Shelf Life collaborated with the Central District community to present an evening of stories, photographs, and community conversation in the heart of the neighborhood. A digital projector beamed images onto the side of the Greater Mount Baker Baptist Church at 24th and Jackson. In addition to historic Central District photographs, the show featured portraits of interviewees with text excerpts from their stories. Other slides featured poetry about the neighborhood. Audience members could walk across the street to enjoy treats and the "Living Room" pop-up at Two Big Blondes, a plus-size clothing consignment shop in a former grocery store.
On March 29, 2019, a week before Wa Na Wari was scheduled to open, Freidberg sent an email message to the Shelf Life community:
"We are excited and honored to announce Shelf Life's new collaboration with Wa Na Wari, a project that is reclaiming space for Black art, stories, and connection in Seattle's Central District neighborhood. Curated by artists Inye Wokoma, Elisheba Johnson, myself, and Rachel Kessler, Wa Na Wari is a Black-owned home that we are converting into an art gallery, gathering space, and oral history studio; a home for celebrating and building community. The house has been in Inye's family for four generations and will now become a permanent site for Black art and stories, in a neighborhood that has gone from 80 percent Black in the '70s to 14 percent Black today
"Wa Na Wari means 'our home' in the Kalabari language of Southern Nigeria, Inye's ethnic lineage through his father. It will be a space that reimagines the home where Black people can share their stories, map their childhood, reunite with old friends, and incubate art, all while holding space in a neighborhood that has tried to push them out. Shelf Life will host a permanent oral history studio in the space, recording and sharing Central District stories, as we've done for the past three years" (Freidberg email).
Wa Na Wari held its grand opening on April 5, 2019. The event featured art works by Howard Mitchell, Chi Moscou Jackson, Ariella Tai, and Unapologetic Artists and Creatives (UAC). Novelist and MacArthur Genius Award winner Charles Johnson was on the program schedule to discuss the film Booker, for which he and John Allman collaborated as screenwriters. Other featured guests included hip-hop artist Yirim Seck, and artist Rachel Kessler, scheduled to lead a Memory Mapping Workshop.
"When Seattle's Black community was centralized, spending time together was effortless," Wa Na Wari co-founder Wokoma wrote shortly before the grand opening. "This created an environment where cultural, artistic, social, economic and political innovation could thrive. Community building was a necessity and thus a way of life. We are creating that experience again, on a smaller scale" (Inyewokoma.com).