Visitors to the C/ID on Main Street in front of Prole Drift gallery.
Visitors to the C/ID on Main Street in front of Prole Drift gallery.

There’s an arts movement happening in the International District.

Artists, galleries and arts businesses are finding a place to call home in the historic and cultural richness of the neighborhood. With vacant spaces and a slumping economy hitting the neighborhood particularly hard the last few years, some say the shift is a welcome infusion. But, some community members say dialogue must start soon to preserve the authenticity of the area while appreciating this influx of arts business.

Along Main Street near Sixth Avenue in the International District’s Japantown, a crowd gathered outside the grand opening of a new art gallery. It’s called Prole Drift. According to the gallery owner Dirk Park, “Prole” is short for the Latin word “proletarius”, which means “working class”.

“I think of artists as workers and industrious. They do things not for financial gains, but the love of making something,” said Park. “They give the world a unique perspective of what they see.”

Seattle artist Amanda Manitach attended the grand opening on September 1st that drew about 200 people. While Manitach appreciates the art that ranged from a painting to a rectangular rainbow kite light structure that hung from the ceiling, she respects Dirk’s business timing. She said, “This is a very adventurous thing for him to do in this economy.”

That’s one of the reasons the ID became an attraction for Park and his wife, Jaq Chartier, who leased the entire second floor of a building last summer for artists’ workspace. With the renovation of the 619 building on Western Avenue in Pioneer Square underway, the project is forcing more than 100 artists to find new homes. Chartier said, “Artists tend to go where the rents are affordable.”

Fair rent also drew Marsha McCroskey to relocate her custom-framing business, Artform, to Japantown. McCroskey learned about the available space through Park’s recommendation. After window-shopping for a new place for several months, McCroskey understood why Park set up shop there. “It’s so pleasant up here. The pedestrian traffic is really nice. The trees are nice.”

Dirk Park of Prole Drift. Photo credits: Maureen Francisco.
Dirk Park of Prole Drift. Photo credits: Maureen Francisco.

After moving Artform in February, McCroskey hasn’t done any advertising since then. She said, wherever she moves, her customers tend to follow her through word of mouth, which means more people in the ID. So far, McCroskey said, feedback from her customers has been positive because of the easier accessibility to parking right in front of her store.

The Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation Development Authority (SCIDpda) IDEA space is a catalyst for businesses in the ID. Its manager, Joyce Pisnanont, said there are certainly more artists or art businesses calling ID their home. For one, the nearby former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) building has turned into a space for artists.

Pisnanont said, “You’ve got artists who are saying, ‘I like to be able to remain in downtown. I really like the proximity. I don’t want to have to move too far of where I was previously.’”

With more artists in the neighborhood, there’s no doubt the character of the ID changes, too. Chartier said, “There are more Caucasians checking the neighborhood out.” A Caucasian business owner herself, Chartier also said, “We are able to appreciate the cultural things that Japantown and the ID, in general, has to offer.”

In fact, Chartier said she and her husband got involved in Nihonmachi Nites, a summer-long event on the second Saturday of each month from July to September. The evening celebrates the restaurants and businesses found in Japantown, and attendees have an opportunity to watch a film with a Japanese theme.

Activities like this, Chartier said, make the ID stand out. “It’s not like every other neighborhood. It’s not all homogenized. It’s very historic. It’s very culturally diverse, rich and interesting. That tends to be something that attracts artists.”

As more artists express interest in the ID, Pisnanont said conversations need to start right now about preserving the authenticity of the neighborhood while keeping artists happy.

Pisnanont asks, “How is the district changing at this current time given the increasing number of artists coming into the district? What happens when the economy recovers? What needs to be done to make sure artists can afford to stay in the ID?”

Because in the end, artists and ID leaders agree, people who move into the district and contribute to the fabric of the neighborhood are a good thing for everyone. And, art galleries, such as Prole Drift offer a venue for people to enjoy Japantown even more.

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