In five seasons of his award-winning Seattle Growth Podcast, Jeff Shulman has explored Seattle’s ongoing transformation and examined its repercussions on transportation, real estate, emergency services, healthcare, small business, music, arts, culture, professional sports and homelessness—nearly every facet of life in the Emerald City.
His feature-length documentary film, On the Brink, tells the story of Seattle’s Central District, the once-vibrant heart and soul of the city’s African American community that has been brought to the verge of vanishing by gentrification.
In the film, long-time residents, business owners and community leaders tell the story of a community’s struggle to hold on to the place they have called home for generations.
“The story of the Central District is the story of one of the funnest, most amazing, colorful places,” says Carl Livingston, a professor of political science at Seattle Central College, in the trailer. “Unfortunately, it’s losing a lot of its color.”
Lost in transformation
It was a (relative) newcomer’s curiosity that sparked the Seattle Growth Podcast three years ago. Shulman had moved to Seattle when he joined the Foster School in 2006, and originally resided in South Lake Union, then a rather sleepy industrial district that would become the epicenter of Amazon and Seattle’s unbridled economic boom.
Shulman’s online interview series won him a 2018 CASE Gold Award for best higher education podcast. It also turned him into an expert observer of changing Seattle, regularly fielding questions from the national media on Amazon’s HQ2, Microsoft’s planned expansion, the future of Nordstrom, Seattle’s campaign to develop an NBA-ready sports arena, its homelessness crisis and the hotly debated business head tax that was passed and quickly repealed.
But one theme of the series really stuck with him: displacement. What jewels of Seattle’s rich past were being forced out or forgotten as it raced toward its bustling future?
“I was inspired by conversations I had for the Seattle Growth Podcast,” Shulman says. “Guests shared a part of Seattle’s history that I had never heard and that is in danger of being lost.”
Primary among a growing litany of endangered Seattle is the Central District, which was once the largest enclave of African American life in the Pacific Northwest.
The CD has historical significance as “one of the most amazing incubators of American culture,” in the words of Livingston. We’re talking Ray Charles, Ernestine Anderson, Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Sir Mix-a-Lot, for starters.
“More than that,” Shulman adds, “I came to learn of a deep connection the residents held with the neighborhood and with each other. The Central District draws parallels to communities around the country and is a story that needs to be told.”
Keeping hope alive
So, the marketing professor decided to do just that—in the form of a documentary film.
To produce On the Brink, he partnered with Steven Fong, an up-and-coming local filmmaker who recently graduated from the UW. The story they crafted interlaced revealing conversations with Central District stalwarts met through the podcast and neighborhood business owners—whose enterprises are vital to a healthy community (many have been supported by the Foster School’s Consulting and Business Development Center).
Shulman collaborated with Grammy- and Oscar-nominated music producer Kyle Townsend to curate music from Central District artists that would bring the story of the neighborhood to life. From classic grooves by Robbie Hill’s Family Affair to inspirational modern hip-hop by Xola, generations of music were combined with interviews and archival images to bring viewers on an emotional journey through Seattle’s history.
If the documentary tells a cautionary tale of a once-thriving community whose social fabric is being torn apart by rampant change, it’s also a story of profound hope.
“On the Brink tells a universal story of a struggle to hold on to a sense of community in the face of change,” Shulman says. “It also tells the story of individuals from that community who are determined to play a role in defining its future, and finding hope in a time of despair.”
Shulman plans to announce the world premiere of On the Brink soon.