More than just Uwajimaya

International District's identity changes with new arrivals, but sense of community still the same

More than just Uwajimaya

More than just Uwajimaya

Bordering Pioneer Square and the SODO district, right next to Interstate 5, is Seattle’s best-known international enclave. Stretching from Yesler Way down to South Dearborn Street, the International District is home to more than just Uwajimaya and restaurants.

The “I.D.,” as it’s often called, is also about the Smithsonian-affiliated Wing Luke Museum, tea at the historic Panama Hotel, the upcoming Lunar New Year celebration (on Jan. 28; or affordable housing and services offered in more than 50 languages. 

The destination neighborhood is working to become a residential mecca, as well. Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), said she loves the area, with its historical buildings and the stories they tell. She said her organization has worked to promote growth, while maintaining the international legacy that created the area.

“This is a little, gritty neighborhood, to be honest,” Winkler-Chin said, referring to the resilience of its residents and business owners. “Those businesses that are a little bit more urban are the ones we’re looking for. This neighborhood being gentrified and losing the diversity that makes it special is a long-term, overarching concern. We work really hard to stay true to the roots of the community.”

The ID of today

The International District remains one of the few areas in America where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans, Vietnamese, Koreans and Cambodians have settled together in one neighborhood, making it truly diverse. Brightly painted dragons climb streetlights, mom-and-pop stores line the streets, colorful restaurants serve dim sum in the day and lavish banquets in the evening and newcomers like World Pizza and Starbucks cater to a cultural cross-pollination that respects tradition but heralds growth.

The area itself has major destination draws, such as the Asian specialty supermarket Uwajimaya and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, whose exhibits tell the stories of immigrants who helped to build Seattle. 

The historic structures of the area still stand tall, from the Panama Hotel, built in 1910, which houses the only remaining Japanese bathhouse left in the United States, to newer pieces of history like the Chinatown Gate, with its red archway adorned with golden dragons and upturned eaves.

Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), said the neighborhood is governed by a number of different organizations, including SCIDpda and the CIDBIA.

“SCIDpda does a lot of work in the neighborhood. They own a lot of buildings and manage a lot of others,” he explained. “So there’s organizations like those that have a real strong hand in what happens in the neighborhood. CIDBIA is the business improvement organization, so it was created as a nonprofit by the property owners with taxes on themselves, so that money goes back to the nonprofit to do what the neighborhood wants for the area.”

Blakeney added that other buildings are owned by shareholders, families and businesses in the area, and that all these members of the community work together to run the International District: “We’ve all been working really closely with the other organizations, community stakeholders, property owners and business owners, to come in and look at certain lines of business like marketing, business attraction, sanitation, public safety, and really look at advocating around a cohesive message on those lines.”

Paul Mar, director of real estate development for SCIDpda, said that, today, the International District is home to approximately 15,000 residents of primarily Chinese, Japanese and Filipino decent.

“I think that most of the people kind of coexist, but they tend more to gravitate among their own, in terms of ethnicity,” he said. “There isn’t any rivalries or anything — it’s just because they’re immigrants, and English is not their first language so they tend to speak their native language, and that’s how they congregate together.”

Winkler-Chin said that part of the draw to the neighborhood, even in a down economy, is the affordable housing and access to transit.

“We are a gateway neighborhood,” she said. “Even though the economy may not be great, we actually provide an entry point for a lot of new immigrants — primarily Asian but others as well — because our housing is close to downtown Seattle and we have a lot of transportation going through here. We’ve got affordable housing here and a lot of services in this area that are provided primarily in other languages.”

Services provided include the International Community Health Services (ICHS) clinic, which saw 15,000 patients at its International District and Holly Park locations in 2010. Brad Wong, marketing communications specialist at ICHS, said that the agency serves many elderly patients who live in the International District.

“Each year, we help people in about 50 languages and dialects. We’re a community health center, and we serve anyone who needs help: immigrants, uninsured and the underinsured.”

Blakeney added that a majority of the ID population is over age 65, making services like those of ICHS and the International District Community Center in high demand: “The community center is well-used. There is a ton of other resources in the neighborhood, as well. It’s quite a unique support structure here.”

Safety — though not a major concern to community members like Blakeney, who said the area is very safe — does appear to be a perceived issue in the International District.

“This area is very safe,” Blakeney said. “I’ve lived in New York City, and I’ve traveled quite a bit, and this is not a dangerous area. I think there is a perception of safety issues, like if you see someone standing on the sidewalk drinking a beer — that can change the way you feel about a neighborhood, and there is some of that going on.”

Mar pointed out that while illegal activity is present in the area, community members are working closely with police to remove the problems. He also added that population growth would be his weapon of choice to combat the issue.

“What we need to do is have more people moving in, so you have more eyes and ears on the street,” Mar said. “I think that, now, especially in the winter months, when it gets dark, people tend not to go outside. There have been incidences of illegal activity in that neighborhood, and we’re working with the Seattle Police Department and other organizations to curtail that.”

The history of the ID

The International District in Seattle stretches back to the 1880s. It first emerged on the outskirts of Pioneer Square, when Chinese workers recruited by the local railroad, coal mines and fisheries settled there. 

According to the CIDBIA, the Chinese were initially welcomed and admired but eventually became targets of resentment by local whites during the economic

recession of the mid-1880s.

After discriminatory laws were passed, 300 Chinese immigrants were forced from the area in 1886. The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 further hindered the community, forcing the Chinese to resettle farther east. 

As Washington continued to grow, more Asian immigrants — most notably the Japanese — began to arrive. By the late 1930s, a new Chinatown had been established along Yesler Way.

“There is a really complicated and interesting history down here,” Blakeney said. “This neighborhood is over a hundred years old, and it’s really the product of Seattle’s growth. A lot of the labor that came to Seattle to build the city was Chinese, so that started Seattle’s first ethnic neighborhood.”

The International District has undergone many changes, from primary ethnicities, to the types of businesses it operates. Blakeney said that new populations have come in over the years, and that major changes like World War II and Japanese internment also changed the dynamics of the area.

“The Filipino population got to be a major stakeholder, as did the African-American community,” Blakeney said. “They all had a lot of businesses down here, but with changing economics and changing times, those businesses have moved on, and the property owners have remained mostly Chinese.”

After the Vietnam War, Seattle saw a major influx of Vietnamese immigrants settling in the International District area, which gave birth to Little Saigon, currently located east of the freeway. 

“You’ll notice, when you go to the two neighborhoods, they look quite different because [the Vietnamese] came over in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was much more of a car culture and more of a strip-mall look, with one-story buildings and shopping centers,” he said. “In Chinatown, you still see the old-style, Pioneer Square brick buildings that were built to the street curb and have housing above, which was the style at the turn of the century.”

In 1975, the City of Seattle decided that the history of the International District was too valuable to lose and formed the SCIDpda, a municipal corporation that works with other businesses, property owners and stakeholders in the International District to accomplish public-purpose activities, but remains a separate entity from the city. 

Many of the historic buildings have been declared landmarks, further helping to ensure the survival of the International District.

Challenges and the future

Community members say that the challenges that face the ID are wrapped up in the struggle to avoid gentrification of the neighborhood, while keeping the ethnic businesses thriving. 

Winkler-Chin said that her organization is thrilled about the growth of the area, but she worries about the long-term effects on current businesses.

“A really big concern is losing the diversity that makes this neighborhood special,” she said. “Development may be down now, but we’re in a cycle, and it’s going to come back up. How do you maintain what’s special about this place during that development?”

Mar agreed, but he added that without growth in younger populations and market-rate housing, the ID will not survive. 

“I think the biggest challenge — though we’re making headway — is to get a younger population there. We’re trying to get families and young kids so that we can have a truly well-rounded community.”

Blakeney added that keeping the neighborhood truly international and authentic means getting more people into the area without ruining the diversity. 

“All development’s great, but if our businesses can’t survive through the other side and enjoy the benefits of it, we’ll be in trouble,” he said. “So that’s part of what we’re up to with other organizations is trying to figure out how we support the neighborhood businesses while all this change is happening.”

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