The historic Chinatown Gate in the Chinatown-International District

Seattle CID Is One of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places

by Ronnie Estoque

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) is a privately funded nonprofit organization that focuses on preserving America’s historic sites and stories. Katherine Malone-France is the chief preservation officer at the NTHP. 

“The process for being listed on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2023 began last October when the National Trust for Historic Preservation put out a public call for submissions,” Malone-France said. “Seattle’s CID is the first 11 Most Endangered listing in Washington State in the program’s 36-year history.” The NTHP supports neighborhoods such as the Seattle CID through their new America’s Chinatowns initiative.  

The Seattle Chinatown-International District was nominated for the list by a coalition of three local organizations: the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation (WTHP), the Wing Luke Museum (WLM), and Transit Equity for All (TEA). Huy Pham, preservation programs director at the WTHP, described the collaboration process. 

“One really keen element of surprise and positive outcome that we’ve seen already was using that as a moment to bring the over two dozen community organizations, especially of Asian American backgrounds and experiences, to unify under a similar or under the same cause: That we all care about the Chinatown-International District, we want to mitigate and prevent displacement and disruption,” Pham said. “At the same time, we want transit access, we want bold investment. And we want meaningful and consistent community engagement from Sound Transit.” 

Earlier this year, the Emerald reported on the various Sound Transit options for the West Seattle and Ballard Link Extensions (WSBLE) and the perspectives of various community members. In March, Sound Transit announced that it had identified the north and south station as preferred alternatives, and that a final decision on the project timeline will not occur until an environmental review is completed and a final environmental impact statement is published.

“We wanted to empower the neighborhood to show that they are immensely invaluable to Seattle, King County, our state, and even our nation as a cultural hub, a neighborhood where Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, African American, and Vietnamese people have all congregated together at one point and one of the last remaining neighborhoods of that kind,” Pham said. 

Betty Lau first learned about Sound Transit’s desire to expand the Link light rail in 2018, and immediately contacted Brien Chow and Paul Wu to help organize community members around the issue by forming TEA. Brien’s mother, the late King County Councilmember Ruby Chow, had encouraged Lau to run for a position on the International Special Review District (ISRD) board in the late 1980s. Lau was elected to the position and served for a total of two years. 

“And one of the guidelines was anything new in the district has to have Asian design characteristics, or signage must include Asian characters or languages. And I didn’t see any of that,” Lau said. “When I questioned it, the review board staff told me, ‘Well, you got on the board too late, all the decisions have already been made, the only thing you can do is go along, get along, or abstain, or whatever you decide to do.’” 

According to Lau, she could not impact the Metro tunnel project while serving on the ISRD Board, which at the time was slated to become the first light rail effort in Seattle. 

“I did learn that there was supposed to be a community benefit for putting in that Metro tunnel. The community benefit was that the staging area, which was just to the south, would be converted to community use. One of the ideas was to create a food court on the ground level for starter immigrant and refugee businesses with affordable housing up above,” Lau said.

“After the tunnel was put in, and I was off the board, that community benefit was lost in a backroom deal. The land was sold to a private developer instead of being given back to the community. So fast forward to 2018 when I heard Sound Transit was coming back around again. I remember that experience, and I wanted to be sure that we got the community benefit.” 

Earlier this spring, the Wing Luke Museum’s “Nobody Lives Here” exhibit highlighted the stories of those who were displaced from the I-5 freeway development in the 1960s. The exhibit utilized historic photos, oral histories, and archival research to show that land use policy was utilized to erase historical spaces where AA&NH/PI communities found refuge following immigration to the U.S. 

Pham also described how empowering and productive it was to work alongside elders in the community that have had to rally together when infrastructure projects came through the neighborhood in the 1980s.  

“We deserve a say in what happens to our neighborhood,” said Pham, “following [community elders’] lead, but combining that with, you know, young professionals like myself, or even Gen Z, who’s more savvy on social media, Instagram, and TikTok, and elevating that campaign, and informing and spreading information across all different channels.”

Ronnie Estoque is a South Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. You can keep up with his work by checking out his website.

📸 Featured Image: The historic Chinatown Gate heralding the Chinatown International District. (Photo: Jaidev Vella)

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