July 2002: Chinatown International District
By Heather MacIntosh

The Chinatown International District, known generally as "the ID," lies adjacent to Pioneer Square and downtown Seattle. Preservation advocacy in the International District has been inextricably bound to the advocacy of Asian American rights in the face of substantial development projects that have lapped at the edges of the district since the 1940s. The list of threats to the district reads like a Top-Ten of public projects, and includes the construction of I-5 and the stadiums (the King Dome, and later, Safeco Field and the football stadium among others). Pressures on the district have, however, fueled a well-organized and successful advocacy and development framework that serves to protect what remains of Seattle's most ethnically diverse neighborhood.

A Community Divided, yet Protected

The construction of I-5 divided Seattle neighborhoods that had long been historically connected. The Interstate cut the Eastlake and Cascade neighborhoods away from Capitol Hill, but the construction reinforced the perceived edge of these communities, not their centers. I-5 removed businesses, homes, and churches, and divided the older portion of the International District from the region east of I-5, along Jackson Street.

The controversy surrounding the planned demolition of neighborhood blocks sparked Seattle's first neighborhood advocacy group, the Jackson Street Community Council.

The district's special qualities, however, such as its distinctively Asian architectural elements, groceries, signage, and population helped make the area one of Seattle's first historic districts. Just a few years after I-5 cut through the neighborhood, the City of Seattle established the International Special Review District in the district's core. This protective measure came about, in large part, because of the threat posed by the Kingdome's construction (see below). The Seattle Chinatown National Register Historic District lies within the Special Review district, and testifies to the national significance of the neighborhood.

Even before historic preservation entered mainstream consciousness, the neighborhood was officially recognized as unique and diverse. In 1951, Seattle Mayor William Devin called the neighborhood "International Center," which officially identified the neighborhood as a locus of ethnic integration. This designation bothered some Chinese residents, for the name seemed to blur the significance of the Chinese population whose settlement and business success formed the district's historic core.

The International District business community formed Inter*im, the International District Improvement Association, in 1969 to address, comprehensively, the many issues facing the neighborhood. Bob Santos, who in 1972 led Inter*im, mentored a generation of activists who now lead neighborhood advocacy groups.

"Hum Bows not Hot Dogs"

Many Seattleites are aware of the controversies surrounding the funding and construction of Safeco Field, but few probably remember the controversy surrounding the construction of the King Dome. The planning and public debate around the King Dome lasted almost as long as that building stood (the idea of the stadium for national league play began in the late 1950s, while the stadium was completed in 1976).

Some young activist's objections to the Kingdome were not subtle. In November of 1972, after mayor John Spellman kicked a ceremonial football between goal posts, one event crasher lofted a well-aimed mud ball that hit the executive in the face. The next day's headline was too easy to pass up: "Mudslinging Incident at Stadium Site." Bob Santos, along with other activists, conducted non-violent protests by carrying signs. The community's objections received press, but did not ultimately alter the construction of the Kingdome. Like many advocacy efforts, the process of fighting led to better cohesiveness and activism. Santos recently penned an autobiography "Hum Bows not Hot Dogs," (a hum bow is a Chinese bun filled with barbeque pork.) in which he reflects on activism and development in the district. In this, he states, "being an activist is very exciting and adventurous because you're making change and affecting something very positive within your followers, and you hope that they will do the same. That's what I want to instill in our students - this feeling of power each person can have." For more on this, visit Bob Santos' website.

Affordable Housing in the ID

Like many neighborhoods near downtown Seattle, the International District has been historically affordable. Its many older brick hotel and apartment buildings attest to this past. The district's housing has been threatened by a series of pressures over the past half century. The Yesler Terrace housing complex, which pioneered government-assisted low-income housing, was built on the site of less dense affordable housing once part of the International District.

The Ozark Ordinance, passed in the early 1970s, resulted in the demolition of historic housing and the closure of half the housing available in the neighborhood. The Ozark Ordinance, crafted in response to a deadly fire that killed 21 residents in a downtown, required that all housing without sprinkler systems would have to install sprinklers or close. Many had to opt for the latter, due to the costs and lack of aid programs that might have subsidized the upgrades.

In response to these depressing trends, Inter*im helped create the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority. PDAs (like Historic Seattle) are able to take advantage of low interest loans and federal grants and tax incentives, as well as package partnership agreements that serve to revitalized flagging neighborhoods.

Examples of affordable housing projects developed by the SCID PDA include the Bush Hotel, New Central Apartments and Jackson Apartments. The City of Seattle's Office of Housing is now administering a program designed to create more affordable housing in the International District and Pioneer Square. This program was in the works before the Nisqually Quake, and has helped many property owners transition from red-tagged vacancy to full rehabilitation and use as affordable housing.

New Threats

The International District has tenaciously held onto its historic and cultural roots in spite of ongoing development pressure. The growth of the stadium complexes, the expanding Union Station complex, and transportation developments associated with Sound Transit and light rail are a few pressures that continue to vex property owners and activists alike. Some property owners feel that peripheral developments have driven property values up too quickly. Visitors attending sporting events at the two stadiums clog streets and parking spaces, and contribute little to the local economy in return (a problem Pioneer Square also faces).

One of the silver linings of the Safeco stadium development was the creation of the South Downtown Foundation www.southdowntown.org, which distributes grants for the preservation and revitalization of Pioneer Square, the International District, and the SODO/Duwamish neighborhoods. The Foundation was funded by stadium community mitigation funds.

The International District may be seeing a gradual renaissance, thanks to the earthquake relief funds and growing concern for affordable urban housing. The community, with its neighborhood organizations, critical activism, and popular Wing Luke Museum, has done a great job of holding onto its unique past while looking toward the future.

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