As Michael Brown passes by Larry's Barber Shop on Fifth Avenue, a man approaches from behind. He holds a plastic grocery bag in one hand and a bottle of soda in the other. He's talking to himself, or to whoever's listening.
"I'm God and the Devil, man. God and the Devil." he says.
Brown turns around.
"I don't know about the Devil," Brown says. "But you got God."
Brown, CEO of the nonprofit Spokane Eastside Reunion Association, then enters the tutoring and recreational center next door that he's opened for kids in East Central. On the outside it's painted in vibrant blue, on the inside it looks like a home — one with plenty of activities for teenagers.
In East Central, more than one-third of all people have an income below the poverty line, and 40 percent of families have household incomes less than $35,000.
Giving kids a place to hang out is just one way Brown is trying to give back to the community and revitalize East Central. On the other side of the barber shop, in a building painted with the same blue, he'll soon open a soul food restaurant, where he'll hire teens and help them build a future. He runs a basketball camp at nearby Underhill Park, where for just $200, kids are provided shoes, socks and daily meals for a nine-week camp that runs four days a week.
Brown has called the East Central neighborhood home for 56 years. He wants to make sure kids don't get involved in gangs, and that they get an education and jobs when they're older.
"I just wanna give back. I'm on a mandate from Christ," he says. "I'm trying to keep them from going through things I went through as a kid."
Matt West, youth program director at East Central Community Center, says there are multiple programs, including Brown's, in the neighborhood to keep kids off the streets. In fact, he says that's why the community center was founded in the first place.
"When you ask the children what they want to be when they grow up, you get these answers like police officer, lawyer, judge, parole officer," he says. "The professions they know are from the legal system."
Today, the goal is more than getting things back to normal for kids in East Central.
"It's not only getting them to go to school, but to inspire them, to get them to motivate themselves and go forward," West says.
CLEANING UP SHOP
In 1978, when Chris Venne moved to East Central — by the Ben Burr Trail on what's considered the neighborhood's southern edge — he was mainly thinking that it was a place to get an inexpensive house in reasonably nice neighborhood.
These days, he thinks aspiring homeowners might have the same thought.
Venne, with the East Central Community Organization, frequents local businesses in the South Perry neighborhood. On this summer day, he drinks an iced tea at the Shop, a coffee shop that he says spurred the development of this revived part of East Central.
It used to be an automotive shop, but it went out of business about a decade ago. Someone turned it into a coffee shop around the same time the city renovated the streetscape. Investors came in, businesses opened, and South Perry transformed.
"Things happened really slowly at the beginning, but then built up momentum," he says. "And then you got something."
For better and for worse, East Central has always been at the mercy of a new highway.
In 1913, when East Sprague was made part of Sunset Highway, businesses took off and the neighborhood thrived. But in the 1950s, construction of Interstate 90 began. The freeway ripped the East Central neighborhood in half, displacing residents, and businesses along Sprague had to shut down due to the lack of traffic.
Now, with the North Spokane Corridor under construction, residents are trying to make sure something similar doesn't happen. Valena Arguello, chair of the East Central Neighborhood Council, says the neighborhood is making sure its voice will be heard this time on the notoriously slow-moving project.
"I remember as a kid, my friend's houses being bought up on the freeway," Arguello says. "Now there are these big, horrible fields that do nothing and make everyone sad. I remember thinking, 'What are we doing? Why are we doing nothing?'"
The battle now is for exits that will come off the freeway and into the East Central neighborhood. This time, East Central residents want to make certain they are not forgotten, especially at a time when they feel on the verge of revitalization.
"I think we see this neighborhood as being right on the cusp of coming into greatness," Arguello says.
IT GETS BETTER
Jim Hanley hasn't seen this much hope in East Central in six decades. He was a kid when the freeway tore through the neighborhood and knows how it affected businesses.
"I was just a little guy then, but I can remember how when the freeway came it really impacted traffic here," he says. "That really changed the neighborhood."
Though some businesses shut down, others remain. The Checkerboard Bar on Sprague has been there since the 1930s. Sonnenberg's Meat Market, just down the street, has been around since 1891.
Hanley's own family opened up ACME TV in 1945. Today, Hanley owns the Tin Roof furniture store, now an attraction in its own right on Sprague. Like many others, he's sick of the reputation the neighborhood has — the high crime, the prostitution. He points out that the crime rates are higher in other parts of Spokane. As for the prostitution, he says that's no longer much of an issue either.
Though Hanley would be proud to live in East Central either way, he's looking ahead to the future. In part, that's because the city is in the process of a "Targeted Investment" into East Sprague, which will kick $50 million into public infrastructure and housing rehabilitation.
"This is an exciting time for the neighborhood," he says. "You're gonna see a lot of changes in the next 10 years as the city develops." ♦
Established: Late 1880s
Boundaries: (north) Trent Avenue; (south) 14th Avenue; (east) Havana Street; (west) Division Street
Population: 19,814, according to Spokane Regional Health District
Landmarks: Sonnenberg's Market & Deli, Sperry Flour Mill, Liberty Park, Underhill Park, The Shop