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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 28, 2014 at 8:11 PM

Not as techie as we think: Hacking growth in the Central District

David Harris wants to see the Central District tap into the energy of the tech sector to grow.

David Harris wants to see the Central District tap into the energy of the tech sector to grow. (STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

We like to say Seattle is a tech-fueled entrepreneurial city.

David Harris wants to make that true in one of the places it’s not.

“I’m really excited about this,” he said, stopping on the sidewalk near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Jackson Street in the Central District.

He had walked us past the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute and the Douglass-Truth Library, with the Seattle Vocational Institute a couple blocks ahead.

But it was things that weren’t there — yet — that interested him most. He pointed out one underused building. Could it be a business incubator and maker space?

That’s the kind of thing I’d expect to see in South Lake Union, Fremont and Pioneer Square, but never here, a diverse, historic neighborhood the city’s tech scene ignores and I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t been to in ages.

Harris, 30, is no land developer, public official or millionaire. The former Microsoft engineer leads entrepreneurial education at the Technology Access Foundation, which works with underserved populations, and has owned his condo here — near the neighborhood’s eclectic heart at 23rd and Jackson — since 2007.

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This month, his idea to host an entrepreneurial hackathon in the Central District took top prize in a contest put on by Seattle news organization Crosscut to channel the city’s tech boom to easily overlooked corners of the city. That got him a free business consultation with Grow50 (a consortium to help entrepreneurs), six months at Pioneer Square co-working space Impact Hub and even a pledge of support from tech investor and recent Seattle transplant Michael Arrington.

But it’s his conviction that things have to change that makes Harris the bridge builder the neighborhood needs.

Harris grew up in Detroit. That tends to raise eyebrows in Seattle, the nation’s fifth-whitest and second-most-gentrifying city. When he moved to the area straight out of college to take the job with Microsoft, the contrasts were stark.

“In Detroit, I could go one month without seeing someone not black. Coming here, it was the total opposite,” he said. “It’s my first job, and it really hits you: This is what life is like.”

Under pressure to demonstrate a commitment to diversity amid calls for equity in Silicon Valley, Google and Facebook made news this spring when they revealed, for the first time, the diversity of their employees.

At both world-defining companies, 2 percent are black.

Just 2.

(It’s 3.4 percent at Microsoft.)

Changing things, Harris knows, starts with education. It starts with grass roots collaboration. And it starts with active, energized spaces — right where communities grow.

South Lake Union is this city’s best study in the power of putting good things together. Amazon.com here, startups there, incubators, coffee shops and public transportation everywhere, and one of the most stagnant neighborhoods in the city has become the heartbeat of its lucrative tech boom.

But not everyone can work in South Lake Union. Not everyone can live in South Lake Union.

Not everyone who wants to tap the energy of Seattle’s anchor industry should have to.

It took Harris a few months of living in Redmond to realize he’d be happier in the Central District. Twenty-five percent black and bustling with hubs for its many cultures, it felt more like home.

This spring, a friend of his from Detroit got a job offer from Amazon he wasn’t sure about. Could he thrive in such a white-dominated industry at the heart of such a white-dominated city?

It’s questions like these that keep the world’s most exciting enterprises from representing the people whose lives they transform.

Fixing that will take work, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

Maybe in the Central District. Maybe with David Harris.

At the Starbucks on 23rd and Jackson, Harris told me about Clayton Pitre Sr., the Congressional Gold Medal-winning World War II veteran of the renowned Montford Point Marines. Pitre cooks Harris dinner and tells him stories about old Seattle while Harris troubleshoots his email, his new iPhone, or something else giving him trouble.

Before we left, Harris said hi to Leilani Lewis, an acquaintance who works at the Northwest African American Museum. Two minutes out the door, he greeted another familiar face, architect David Harmon.

It was clear Harris had put down roots in one rich community.

Now to see what bridges he can help build to another.

To learn more about Harris’ Central District hackathon project, visit hackthecd.org.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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