Seattle’s Chinatown International District (CID) has been named to The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2023 list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places, a coalition of organizations and community stakeholders announced May 9 during a press conference at Hing Hay Park. It is the first time a Washington state site has made the list since it was started in 1988.
“These places and the stories they tell illuminate the challenges and complexities that have always been a part of what it means to be American,” said Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation during the press conference. “They are treasures for our entire country that we cannot lose. To lose any one of them diminishes our shared history.”
The conference was held jointly by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Transit Equity for All, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The announcement follows months of controversy in the CID over Sound Transit’s proposed light rail expansion options in the neighborhood and the impact it could have on the CID’s local residents and businesses, transportation access, and cultural integrity.
The Sound Transit board voted 15-1 on March 23 to endorse building two light rail stations to the north and south of the CID. The vote — which divided neighborhood stakeholders — took place months after the transit agency deferred its recommendation in response to community concerns. The renewed attention on the CID prompted the Washington State Trust for Historic Preservation to first list the CID as endangered at the state level before escalating the listing to the National Trust’s endangered places list, which provides a much larger platform.
“Any of the nine [Sound Transit] options that are between the three main corridors of north, Fourth, and Fifth, there are ratios of disruption, displacement, gentrification, as well as redevelopment opportunities and access to transit. Wherever you’re moving the scales, it needs to be made up in the other aspects,” said Huy Pham, Preservation Programs Director at the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, to the International Examiner.
“If there’s more disruption, is there also better transit access? If there’s less disruption, are we also losing those transit opportunities?”
The CID is the only area in the continental United States where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans, and Vietnamese settled together. The area is known for its unique combination of historic architecture, multilingual and multigenerational residents and businesses, and heritage celebrations, shared traditions, and cultural vitality. Today, the neighborhood and its surrounding communities face constant pressure from major infrastructure and other projects.
Joël Barraquiel Tan, Executive Director at the Wing Luke Museum, described ongoing threats to the CID as “long repeating patterns,” naming disaster gentrification, increased racially motivated hate crimes, unjust community development projects, and systemic neglect as primary culprits.
Throughout the 20th century, the CID was impacted by construction of city streets, parking lots, two major sports stadiums, and Interstate 5, which bisected the neighborhood and destroyed longtime churches, homes, and businesses. In 1973, after CID advocates rallied, the International Special Review District Board (ISRD) was established by Ordinance (SMC 23.66.302) to promote and preserve the cultural, economic, and historical traits of the CID. The neighborhood was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
“This time is different. We are showing up at board meetings, council hearings, information sessions and public comment opportunities,” said Betty Lau, Co-Founder of Transit Equity for All. “From a petition and letter writing campaign turned in by thousands, to a donated website translation, social media, and news coverage, plus a lot of creative thinking.”
This year, the National Trust received a record number of nominations in the program’s 36-year history, so selection was competitive. Solidifying the list down to 11 took nearly a year and involved extensive community engagement, Malone-France told the IE after the conference. The final list includes two Chinatowns, the other in Philadelphia.
“We do it by talking to people and talking to partners all over this country, really narrowing it based on where the listing can make the greatest impact, the greatest difference, by amplifying not just the story of the place, but the stories of the people who are fighting so hard for it,” she said.
Malone-France added that the National Trust prioritized places facing clear and urgent threats and those with dedicated advocates fighting for preservation-based solutions. “The Chinatown International District checks every single one of those boxes,” she said.
Sound Transit will select final locations for its light rail routes after one last Environmental Impact Statement is released in early 2024. Members of some 28 local organizations, including the Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS), the CID Coalition, and Puget Sound Sage, attended the May 9 press conference, representing thousands of Asian Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Americans and community supporters with a vested interest in what is happening in the district, Pham said.
Barraquiel Tan called for Sound Transit and other public agencies to make “nothing less than bold investments” to ensure the survival of the neighborhood. “Chinatown International District is not a problem to solve, but a treasure to cherish and perpetuate into the future,” they said. “In this time of a culture war, pandemic, and climate change, this treasure of a neighborhood can function as a safe and vibrant place for healing, learning, and joy with sufficient support.”
The CID’s endangered places list designation does not come with funding or compel local government to act. The hope is that it will bring local, regional, and national attention to the neighborhood’s current struggles with Sound Transit and other external forces. The recognition also spotlights possible solutions and emphasizes the cultural and socioeconomic significance of ethnic enclaves like the CID.
Malone-France hopes local officials will pay attention in bringing funding to these historic places, galvanizing public support for what community advocates are fighting against, especially in communities of color disproportionately affected by “progress.”
“As you saw in today’s announcement, we didn’t really talk about buildings or physical features or monuments,” said Pham. “We talked about living history, living heritage that is maintained through placemaking and placekeeping.”
“Putting this campaign, this call to action on a national platform really puts a magnifying glass on Sound Transit, City of Seattle, and King County to ensure that they’re going to do the right thing,” Pham added. “We have a lot of eyes on this.”
Chetanya Robinson contributed reporting.