by Amanda Ong
The former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) Building in the CID has lived many lives: It was built in 1932 to detain and deport Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act era. It held Japanese American men before they were sent to local incarceration camps during World War II. It deported thousands of immigrants and refugees throughout the 20th century, and naturalized others. And after it was vacated as an INS building in 2004, it lived again as the home of Inscape Arts. With over 125 tenants, Inscape offers the largest working arts and creative space in Seattle.
Last year, the building was put on the market. Tenants fear a sale would mean vacating the building, depending on the vision of a potential buyer. Inscape may be born again, but this time in a different commercial or residential space, stripped of its historical significance. The work Inscape has done to intentionally bring new life to the historic building while honoring its past would be threatened, and its partnership with the Wing Luke Museum — which has helped develop collaborations with Inscape artists that shed light on the building’s immigration history — could hang in the balance.
Though the building’s status on the National Register of Historic Places would limit substantial changes to its facade, the large parking lot adjacent to the building could be redeveloped as a commercial or residential space. And the decision to redevelop the building risks the loss of the largest enclave of artist studios in Seattle, and the erasure of the 91 years of the building’s haunting history as an immigrant detention and processing center.
“If you look at the real estate listing, it basically is just describing [Inscape] as a development opportunity,” Kirsten Mohan, a photographer, tenant of the building, and member of the leadership team of Friends of Inscape said in an interview with the Emerald. “It doesn’t say that it’s art studios. It just says that there are short-term tenants for immediate cash flow. It’s definitely being marketed as a developable property.”
Friends of Inscape is a grassroots nonprofit organization started by Inscape tenants in reaction to the news of the building’s potential sale in March 2021. Seeing possibilities for the building as an art space, it hopes to acknowledge how the history of the building brings people together just as the artist community brings it together. As rents rise across Seattle, it recognizes that this affects both communities of artists and immigrants.
“I come to this from an arts administrator background and [know] how difficult it is to find affordable space,” Dan Hudson, another member of Friends of Inscape’s leadership team and the executive director of the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, said in an interview with the Emerald. “Where would people go? People are already leaving Seattle in droves, artists and creatives that just can’t, can’t live here anymore … the total volume of space and number of studios [at INS] is unparalleled in King County and in Seattle.”
Hudson says the building has some State and federal protections. Since the building is located within the International Special Review District (ISRD), one of Seattle’s eight historical districts, any changes to the building would have to be approved by the ISRD board and the director of the Department of Neighborhoods. Furthermore, the existing protections are architectural and would not protect other historical elements in the building. “We’re hoping to secure some additional protections for the building and some additional status,” Hudson said. The team recently received a grant from 4Culture to pursue landmark status.
Many of the unprotected historical facets of the former INS building are highlighted through a permanent installation by the Wing Luke Museum, which includes signage throughout the building noting locations like detention cells and swearing-in rooms. A control panel at the entrance has been repurposed to play former detainees’ stories; a stark line in the basement features labels that explain how some detainees would be asked to line up there and be disciplined. These parts of the building would remain unprotected should it be redeveloped.
“[The installation] is in line with what the museum does — being able to take things and then reimagine them in a different way, or give them a different role,” said Ðoan Diane Hoang Dy, senior tour manager at the Wing Luke Museum. “Opening [the building] up as artists’ studios gives new life, new bodies, and new stories to come through and come out of the space.”
Though not a part of its main site, the Wing Luke Museum features Inscape in many of its tours. This April and May, Inscape will be a stop along its Redlining Heritage Trail Tour, a project with the National Park Service and the Northwest African American Museum. The tour will go through parts of Pioneer Square, the CID, and First Hill for a larger overview of the communities that have been displaced through Seattle.
For many tenants of Inscape, visiting the building is moving and emotional, and the Wing Luke’s signage shares intimate experiences of going through the immigration and refugee system within those walls. Exterior courtyards display the names of detainees written with melted tar on the brick walls, some as recent as 2001. These courtyard walls are also unprotected from potential developments.
“It’s incredibly powerful to see that those pieces of history are still intact,” Mohan said. “It becomes even more powerful to realize that could be lost if the building doesn’t stay within the protection of community space that can actually honor that.”
The real estate company listing the building did not respond to a request for comment. The building was purchased in 2008 by real estate developer Rolf Hogger, who originally intended the building to be developed into offices but shifted gears in the face of the financial recession. The building couldn’t compete with cheap office spaces Downtown, and became Inscape.
“This building is actively being positioned as a way to make money,” Hudson said. “It’s misaligned with the work of most arts and cultural workers, it’s misaligned with [the building] as a place for descendants of people who were processed through the building to come and interact with the space if they so choose.”
Tara Tamaribuchi, another Inscape tenant and member of Friends of Inscape’s leadership team, speaks to the personal resonances of working with the powerful backdrop of the building’s history. Tamaribuchi is half-Chinese, and her friends include immigrants and children of immigrants. “As I’m speaking, I’m sitting in a section that was a detention area where people slept,” Tamaribuchi said. “And I wonder if any young Chinese boys were in these cells, or if I have friends whose parents were detained here.”
Losing this piece of Seattle’s history feels like an erasure to many who have experiences in the former INS building, and of its share in regional immigration history. “It’s just a powerful place,” Dy said. “The way that folks are so ingrained about knowing about Ellis Island … this is Ellis Island for us in Seattle.”
Tamaribuchi says Friends of Inscape hopes not just to reclaim the INS building, but also to expand its programming more inclusively. It has already taken steps to create collaborations and partnerships with other community groups around issues of displacement, and it has begun a casual “artist in residence” program that focuses on immigrant and BIPOC artists.
Since launching a fundraising effort last year, Friends of Inscape has raised about $69,000 to help expand the organization’s programming and support for artists.
“When we envision a new future for the building, we really want to carve out some spaces in the building for community groups to use, to come up with a very equitable rent structure which also actively includes Artists of Color and artists from immigrant and refugee groups,” Hudson said. “We want this to be a very public and community-driven effort to preserve and create the best version of this building in a way that it has a chance to truly have a second life.”
For immigrant and BIPOC communities in the CID, rising rents also place immense value on what Inscape provides as a cultural space. “Especially in the Chinatown-International District, we’re seeing gentrification happening very rapidly,” Dy said. “Being able to preserve the historical spaces in the neighborhood, having different places that we can access and share those stories, is a big deal.”
Tamaribuchi puts it best: The INS building is the whole history of immigration in Seattle. It was a starting point for many communities, and now is a place where art and history thrive together. Seattle’s histories are there, and erasing those stories would forever destroy part of the city’s collective identity.
“It would be devastating not to have that space anymore to share those stories,” Dy said. Immigration isn’t just one group of ethnic people that is affected. It’s all of us. … This is all of our collective history, documented or undocumented. This is all of our history that we have to know, regardless of your ancestry.”
Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this article said the INS building does not have City or County protections, but the building is located within the International Special Review District (ISRD), one of Seattle’s eight historical districts, so any changes to the building would have to be approved by the ISRD board and the director of the Department of Neighborhoods. The article was updated on 4/8/2022 to correct the error.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: When the former INS building was put on sale, Inscape — the largest working arts and creative space in Seattle — was faced with starting over elsewhere, but this time as a commercial or residential space, stripped of its historical significance. (Photo: Kirsten Mohan Photography)
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