by Madelyn Tanabe
Blinding sunlight streamed through my curtains as I opened up my computer and logged onto Zoom. Expecting a casual planning meeting for a racial justice club I run with a couple of friends, I got comfortable at my desk and made sure my cup of tea was within reach. Conversations about future plans quickly morphed into something deeper concerning current events in Seattle. The news in early 2021 was filled with stories of hate crimes, but my friends and I knew that anti-Asian oppression is more than just violence. As the now-setting sun cast shadows across my room, we discussed historic redlining, housing discrimination, language discrimination, and more. I drained my tea and my best friend mentioned connecting to mutual aid and local organizers for an upcoming meeting.
Immediately, a name popped into my head. I opened up Instagram to browse the CID Coalition’s page and see what they were up to. The CID Coalition, also known as Humbows Not Hotels (@humbows_not_hotels), was formed in 2017 as a direct response to hotel development in the Chinatown-International District (CID). They host community forums, connect with other local BIPOC-organizing groups throughout Seattle, and constantly protest new developments that would displace local businesses and residents in the CID. One of their recent campaigns was protesting the actions of KODA Condominiums, the first luxury high-rise building in the CID, completed in late 2020. After clicking through the posts and reading a few graphics, I ran a quick search to find the prices of the units being sold.
Prices for the new condos ranged from hundreds of thousands to $1.6 million for a two-bedroom condo. It was more money than I could possibly imagine.
Back in early 2020, before the pandemic reached the shores of the U.S., my family and I were attending a Sunday service at the Seattle Betsuin, just off Jackson on the eastern side of the neighborhood. Founded by Japanese immigrants practicing Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in 1901, the Betsuin is the oldest Buddhist temple in the Pacific Northwest. At this particular Sunday service, a board member stood in front of the assembled temple members and delivered some grim news: Due to earthquake safety codes, the Betsuin would have to be renovated in order to be kept standing. Renovations would cost $1.5 million dollars (now estimated to be $2 million due to the pandemic), roughly the same cost of a new condo in the KODA building a mile away.
The Betsuin’s halls and kitchens are filled with memories of generations upon generations of Dharma School kids playing hide and seek, aunties gossiping while frying noodles, and Boy Scouts grilling teriyaki chicken and musubi in the back lot. Children become parents, students become teachers, parents become grandparents, and generations go on to attend services at the Betsuin. The rich generational culture of the temple is undeniable, and this culture is what holds the Betsuin community together despite two pandemic years forced online.
The Betsuin holds many fundraisers throughout the year, but these normally cover our annual operating costs and not much more. The new required earthquake upgrades combined with the economic hardships of the pandemic mean the future of the temple is uncertain. To relocate and abandon a building and space that holds so much history and community value would be a huge loss to the CID and the Japanese American community. It strikes me as ironic that $1 million is worth such different things to these two organizations. To KODA, it’s merely a tiny fraction of their profits. To the Betsuin, it would be a chance to preserve our temple and its history for the younger generations to come.
The KODA developers hold no connections to the CID or the residents. They are a Taiwanese company, and KODA Condos is their first venture in the United States. While in development and construction, they constantly skirted around flimsy commitments for “community space,” retracting them completely after being called out by local organizers. According to the CID Coalition, the average annual income of the neighborhood is $35k. With parking stalls selling for up to $75k, KODA is quite simply not built to serve the needs of the community, nor are they interested in making any meaningful attempt to do so. Despite the fact that they have ample funds for community investment, they have continued to ignore the complaints of advocates, even going so far as to call the police on protesters in August 2019.
KODA is merely another warning sign of the larger movement of gentrification sweeping Seattle, with chain retailers and luxury homes taking over ethnic neighborhoods, effectively sending costs of living sky-high and forcing the original residents to relocate. Small businesses are shuttered, and the once vibrant diverse voices of community are starting to fade away.
Gentrification is not new in Seattle, with a long history of racial redlining and displacement. These trends of gentrification are not only luxury buildings like KODA, but also include “modern” market-rate housing that pushes out affordable housing developers and still has price points unattainable for many Seattle residents. First the Central District, then the CID and South Park, Georgetown, Colombia City, the list goes on and on.
In 2017 the City Council passed an upzone that allowed developers to start building up to 17 stories in the CID, an act that was widely opposed by residents and community advocates. And now more companies like KODA are able to “dream big.” They can “ask” (present plans) to demolish the iconic Bush Garden restaurant to build apartment buildings and outbid local nonprofits on real estate with over a century of history.
The CID is worth so much more than high rises and hotels. The community is worth so much more than the blind eye City Council is turning to predatory developers. At the very least, I hope that it’s worth more than the $1 million someone is going to pay for a KODA condo.
But what can we do as everyday human beings, feeling helpless in the face of capitalist greed? You can open up Instagram, just like I did, and learn about what the CID Coalition and other community organizers are doing. Whether it’s sending email campaigns to the City Council to repeal the upzone, participating in a community cleanup, or visiting the Wing Luke Museum to learn about the diverse cultures of the neighborhood, there is always somewhere you can speak up or lend a hand.
You can do a bit of research, find out which restaurants are family-owned and which are chains. The small businesses of the CID are a huge part of what makes the neighborhood so vibrant. For example, the ChuMinh Vegan Deli (@chuminhtofu on Instagram) off of Jackson Street has an ongoing free meal program and mutual aid network of volunteers who help distribute necessities to the community.
Mutual aid and community service are a huge part of advocating for the needs of the CID and its residents. Currently, culturally competent elder care and services for our houseless neighbors are in huge demand. Campaigns like the King County Equity Now Keiro Project aim to return buildings like Keiro Northwest, a facility that served as a care center with services for Pan-Asian elders, to community hands and adapt the facility to serve a wider range of people, which is currently providing immediate housing for people experiencing houselessness.
Most importantly, be aware of what is happening. Gentrification thrives in silence, and although the ethnic communities of Seattle have been more than vocal, we still need more voices to amplify this issue. In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, we strongly believe in compassion and nonviolence. Even if we aren’t able to get the $1 million, our temple has the resiliency and adaptability to survive. We must show everyone empathy and treat one another with kindness in these difficult times. This, I tell myself, is what keeps me from throwing stones at KODA’s (admittedly quite tempting) literal glass walls.
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Madelyn Tanabe is a Japanese American high school senior at The Center School. For her senior project, she’s taking a deep dive into the issues of gentrification in the Chinatown-International District. She wrote this opinion piece that explores her personal connections with the neighborhood and contrasts them to the trends of predatory development in the neighborhood.
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