Following the Womxn’s March in January, some business advocates in the Chinatown International District are calling for a temporary halt on large events in the neighborhood because of how the march affected local businesses.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 people filled the streets for the Womxn’s March on January 21. Starting at Judkins Park in the Central District and ending at Seattle Center, the route took the sea of marchers through Jackson Street, the main arterial cutting through the neighborhoods of Little Saigon, Chinatown, and Japantown in the International District. Organizers of the march didn’t foresee the consequences of this route.
The timing of the march was a rebuke to the inauguration of Donald Trump the day before. But likely unknown to most marchers, it also fell on the weekend before the Lunar New Year, the largest annual holiday celebrated in the neighborhood. For many businesses in the CID, the Saturday of the Womxn’s March was the biggest shopping day of the year—the equivalent of Black Friday.
With Jackson and King streets blocked off, and the streets and sidewalks filled with marchers, many customers and employees couldn’t get to the neighborhood to park or shop.
“Many businesses, especially grocery stores and restaurants in Little Saigon, were greatly affected as their loyal customers were unable to access the stores,” according to Jessa Timmer, executive director of Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), in an email to the International Examiner. “Many saw huge revenue drops that day in comparison to previous years.”
Viet Wah, a major Vietnamese grocery store in Little Saigon, was one of the businesses affected. “None of our inventory was moving because no one was able to get to our store to shop,” said Leeching Tran, Viet Wah vice president. “We lost about 60 percent of our sales that day compared to the typical Saturday before new year. Pretty major.”
It is usually Viet Wah’s biggest shopping day of the year, said Tran. To prepare for the Lunar New Year holiday, many of Viet Wah’s customers drive to the neighborhood to buy groceries, decorations for the home and gifts, from an inventory Viet Wah orders months in advance, Tran said. Because it’s the largest Vietnamese specialty grocery store in the western Washington area, customers come from as far as Bellingham and Olympia.
Saturdays are also the busiest days for Lam’s Seafood Market, especially the one before Lunar New Year, according to employee David Tran. But because of the march, business was slower than usual, and the market lost 50 percent of its sales. “It was just terrible,” Tran said. Employees of the market couldn’t get to work because of traffic, because the roads that would allow them to get to the parking lot were closed off.
Not all businesses in the neighborhood were hurt that day. Momo, a gift shop in Japantown on the corner of 6th and Jackson Street, had a business day twice as profitable as a normal Saturday, to the surprise of Momo co-founder Lei Ann Shiramizu. “We had people that didn’t know about us, discover us.”
As Shiramizu pointed out, Momo’s location might have helped; it was impossible for marchers to miss it. While Momo found some new customers, Shiramizu said the march probably discouraged some of the store’s regulars. “If I was a store that was relying on those usual customers, such as Viet Wah, I could understand why it would really make a difference to their business,” she said.
Kobo, a shop next to Momo, had a marginally slower business day, according to owner John Bisbee—but he said the negative impact was less than that of a football game.
It wasn’t just the impacts on business that upset some in the neighborhood, but the way the impacts were communicated—or not communicated.
The only contact Lam’s Seafood Market had with the march organizers, according to Tran, was when one of them came by the day before, and promised business would not be disrupted, and that the road would not be closed—neither of which turned out to be true.
Viet Wah’s Leeching Tran remembers two march organizers speaking at one of the monthly CID public safety meetings before the march, but she didn’t find it particularly helpful.
“It was more just them reporting information to us and not really listening to any of our concerns,” she said. “And at that point it was so close to the march that they were not going to change the route anyway.”
Timmer of the CIDBIA, which advocates for neighborhood businesses, said she only learned about the route four days before the march happened.
“The event organizers had not reached out prior to that point to ask if this would impact the neighborhood,” she wrote in an email to the International Examiner. “There were no materials for businesses or residents in the area, in language, until Thursday. Per the City of Seattle, the event organizers are supposed to do the outreach to the affected areas.”
Timmer added that while news of the march was shared widely on social media, it did not necessarily reach CID small business owners.
“Many of our small business owners are not online and don’t follow the social media channels on which the March was promoted. And again, a specific route was not mentioned, so businesses would not have been able to know if they would be affected or not. It is unfortunate, as I believe many of the business owners in this neighborhood fully supported the march,” said Timmer.
According to Quynh Pham, board chair of Friends of Little Saigon, several businesses in the Little Saigon neighborhood had similar experiences with organizers of the march, who they said only notified them a few days in advance, and promised there would be no impacts on King Street since the march would be going along Jackson Street.
Palmira Figueroa, one of the organizers of the march, said organizers were indeed unaware that the march would coincide with preparations for the Lunar New Year festival—that is, until some of them attended the neighborhood public safety meeting on Friday a week before the march.
She said the organizers didn’t choose the route themselves, but were helped by the City Special Events Office. According to Figueroa, organizers didn’t have much time to conduct outreach to the neighborhood because the city took so long to choose the route, only confirming it on January 12 (a week and two days before the march). Once the route was set, around 20 volunteers talked to businesses and handed out fliers in the Central District and International District. “That’s the outreach that we could organize by having a week to do it,” she said.
Joe Mirabella, communications director for the Seattle Office of Economic Development, confirms that the City Special Events Committee, which has representatives from multiple city departments, “chose the safest route” to accommodate a crowd of 50,000 people.
Around 50,000 signed up on to attend the march on Eventbrite and Facebook, so the organizers were expecting around 20,000 to show up, Figueroa said. They never imagined the number would be between five and 10 times that.
“There was just no way to anticipate that for us—or for the city even,” she said. As a result, the march disrupted the neighborhood for a few more hours than they anticipated.
This is one of several things Figueroa said she regrets about how the march went, even though organizers couldn’t have known attendance would be so high.
“They were difficult decisions to make,” Figueroa said. “We definitely knew we were going to impact some businesses … and we were feeling very responsible for that, and did as much as we could with outreach to minimize the impact.”
When asked how the City could have encouraged a different outcome, Mirabella wrote in an email to the International Examiner that while organizers of special events are required to do outreach, some are more experienced at this than others. “Every event is a learning opportunity. This was a significant and historic free speech event which we are studying closely for future planning.”
CIDBIA’s Timmer and Jamie Lee, IDEA Space manager for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation Development Authority (SCIDpda), are calling for a moratorium on large events in the neighborhood around traditional holidays unless they’re events organized by the neighborhood.
“Other business districts that are more western-oriented have similar moratoriums during the Christmas season,” Lee wrote in a statement. “We are asking for the same consideration during our major holiday season.”
A moratorium, however, might not be possible, Mirabella said. Because free speech events are protected by the First Amendment, the City has no power to control when they happen. “It is not the role of the City of Seattle to choose when people exercise their constitutional rights,” he wrote. “It is the City’s job to ensure their rights are protected and their safety is maintained.”
March organizer Figueroa said she wishes the organizers had pressured the City to choose the route earlier than it did.
“I felt we didn’t have enough time to really hear the community and I feel bad about that,” Figueroa said. “We could have had more community meetings trying to hear their voices and ask them what they needed for us to not impact them so much. … I will do that different next time.”
Several business owners and advocates in the CID emphasized that they’re not at odds with the march organizers, and supported the message of the march.
“The City has a large part in that in trying to connect our communities and neighborhoods when these types of things happen,” Pham said, “but I think a lot of it, we have to be able to reach out to one another.”