Rich History of the Central District

June 26, 2023

Rich History of the Central District

by Carey Christie

Devin Naar, Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies at the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, led an immersive Interdisciplinary Honors seminar: “Seattle’s ‘Color Line’ and Mediterranean Imprints on the Pacific Northwest.” Experiential learning is an important component of Interdisciplinary Honors studies and I was excited to tag along on a class field trip to learn more about the Central District neighborhood this spring.

Professor Naar is a vital force in the movement to celebrate the rich Ladino language, history and present-day community of Sephardic Jews a population expelled from the Iberian Peninsula that resettled in the Eastern Mediterranean region) and to shed light on how this group has shaped Seattle history and continues to influence our “mainstream” culture. Naar’s scholarship is also a form of activism, born from a passion to own and explore his own Sephardic heritage. He’s led the charge on multiple projects that reveal and amplify the rich language, historical impact, and cultural nuances of Sephardic communities. His spring quarter Honors course explored Sephardic encounters with U.S. immigration and naturalization policies, their establishment of new communities, their civic engagement in the city, and ways their presence contributed to defining the boundaries between who is “white” and who is not.


Photo of Howard Droker and Devin Naar
“Is this thing on?” Howard Droker and Devin Naar preparing to start the tour.

Seattle is a particularly rich site for this heritage, home to the third largest Sephardic Jewish population in the country. In the 1960s, the Sephardic Jewish community relocated to the Seward Park area, but the Central District (AKA the CD) was its original Seattle home; they built bakeries, a butcher shop and synagogues there.

Which is why, on a sunny afternoon in May, Naar and his associates—Howard Droker and Cynthia Flash Hemphill (both UW alumni)—led students through the Central District, visiting sites whose history and evolution make visible stories that are often overlooked. Each stop was an opportunity to consider the history and present moment of ethnic, religious and economic tensions, housing restrictions, questions around white flight, gentrification, cultural preservation and resilience.

The tour was a wonderful blending of sites visited in virtual walking tours that highlight Black and Jewish history in Seattle’s Central District. I encourage you to click here to find links and more info on both. You’ll miss Howard’s keen perspective, Hemphill’s quiet commentary on family dynamics, Naar’s off-the-cuff contextualization, and interactions with special guests who spoke with our group along the way.


Photo of Pastor Kenny Isabell speaking with students and special guests on the steps of the Tolliver Temple.
May, 2023: Pastor Kenny Isabell greets students and special guests on the steps of the Tolliver Temple.

Interactions with guest speakers were the most memorable part of the tour, according to several students. Vic and Regina Amira met us at the former Sephardic Bikur Holim synagogue where they were married in December of 1952, overcoming family objections to cultural differences between members of their microcosm. As the population of the Central District shifted, the synagogue subsequently became Tolliver Temple, an important Black church led by Pastor Kenny Isabell. Pastor Isabell was surprised and delighted to find our group on his doorstep and spent a few moments chatting with students. He cited our visit at a public hearing as evidence of the significance of the site. Tolliver Temple was officially recognized as a protected historical landmark at that hearing, just a week after our visit.

photo of guest speakers at the Tolliver Temple.
Best friends for life: Regina and Vic Amira at the steps of Tolliver Temple with Devin Naar and Cynthia Flash Hemphill.

The Amiras were fascinating speakers and we could have listened to their reflections all day. Regina Amira, who was born on the Island of Rhodes to parents from the Ottoman Empire, fled to Morocco to escape the Nazis, and later served as the secretary of Garfield High School for 30 years. Vic Amira lived across from the synagogue where his uncle Sam Azose and another community member, Bension Maimon, served as the religious leaders, but were not rabbis. He courted Amira carefully, patiently, earnestly. Their stories about meeting one another, growing up in the neighborhood, navigating change and continuing to love, were “so beautiful and unexpected,” said Fatema Metwally (pursuing Interdisciplinary Honors in business at the UW). Seeing the pages from their wedding album and imagining their early lives was a rare and unexpected treat.

A few blocks up from Tolliver Temple, Black Heritage Society president, Stephanie Johnson-Toliver met our group in front of Douglas Truth Library, which serves as a public-access touchstone where many residents check their email, print documents, learn and congregate.

Photo of students listening to Johnson-Toliver from the steps of Douglas Truth library.
Stephanie Johnson-Toliver meets with UW students on Central District walking tour — recorded by Mike Davis from KUOW. Fatema Metwally (quoted above) sits in the front, wearing a striped shirt.

As Johnson-Toliver (whose family has built their lives for more than 150 years in the Central District) spoke about the history, present, and possible future of the neighborhood, life carried on around us. A city bus screeched to a halt and car drivers (somewhat impatiently) veered around it. A school bus stopped and children waved from the windows. Library patrons came and went clutching piles of books and DVDs. A small group pushing a stroller along the sidewalk gawked but never slowed. We gazed across Yesler towards the site of a soon-to-be-renovated community center as a firetruck (lights on, alarms off) shot out of the station on the opposite corner.

Seattle’s Central District is a vibrant home for people of many heritages, faiths, identities. People who have, sometimes for multiple generations, been living, fighting, building families, building businesses, making music, making homes in a place that defies a single identity. The Central District feels like a living place. It breathes and stretches. It remembers.