During the first half of the 20th century, the Interstate highway now known simply as I-5 did not exist in Seattle. But as I-5 was constructed through the city, countless blocks of Seattle residents were displaced, most notably in the Chinatown International District (CID) area. At that time, photos, oral history, and construction documents filled the archives, and now, artist and historian Tessa Hulls is spotlighting the people affected by the displacement in a new exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum.
This exhibit, entitled Nobody Lives Here is installed in the front left hallway, just past the ticket desk. Subtitled The People in the Path of Progress, to emphasize the many people who did, in fact, live there, the long wall is filled with black-and-white photographs of various buildings and blocks in the CID – many of which no longer exist. Interspersed with these photographs are text boxes, quoting individuals, their pictures rendered in comic-style black-and-white illustration, who commented publicly during or after the 1960’s construction.
Supplementing this two-pronged approach are two small TV monitors showing contemporary footage, as well as a large map of the CID over which the viewer can place a portable glass frame to see the dozen blocks that were destroyed in favor of the I-5 freeway. In addition, on a nearby table, two three-ring notebooks are available for attendees to peruse, with a tabbed section for each of almost twenty specific sites that were affected, sites including the Tacoma Hotel, the gas station at 8th and Jackson, and Gong’s Aquarium.
Nobody Lives Here can be viewed for the next year in Wing Luke’s New Dialogues Initiative Gallery, and the display ties localized histories to the nationwide racism embedded in U.S. land use policies for centuries. “When looking at the present, it’s very easy to forget that the environments and circumstances we assume have always been there are in fact the results of long chains of decisions,” Hulls said. “My goal as an artist is always to illuminate how we got to the present, drawing out the patterns contained within the past.”
Initially, the I-5 displacement exploration was intended to be a projection on the actual freeway, but that proved untenable. “I had the idea originally to find out what was torn down when the freeway was built, and make it visible somehow,” said Mikala Woodward, Senior Exhibit Developer at the Wing Luke Museum. “I was pursuing it as an outside project, but then brought it to the museum to see if people might be interested in turning it into an exhibit.”
The Wing Luke exhibit review process considers ideas from both community members and staff. “We do it once a year,” Woodward said. “People really liked the idea, and the proposal was selected.”
Next, Woodward assembled a Community Advisory Committee to develop the idea into an exhibit. “It was amazing to see how the idea evolved through that process,” she said. “They really wanted to draw attention to the many layers of displacement that have affected this location, and tie those historic displacements to the experiences of the people who are living there now, in tents, getting ‘swept’ periodically, as well as to the current conversations around ST3 and the station they want to locate in the neighborhood.”
Hulls was invited by Woodward to help create this exhibit. “At the time, the working title was Ghost Houses Under I-5, and it was focusing on the literal geographic location affected by the freeway,” Hulls recounted. “The Wing did an amazing job of researching the history of this portion of the neighborhood, but when I was brought on board over a year ago, I approached my research from a slightly different vantage point.”
Woodward was thrilled that Hulls accepted the role. “She attended the CAC meetings as the group was shaping the direction of the exhibit, and then she kind of took the content and ran with it to bring it to fruition,” Woodward said of Hulls. “She and I were very much on the same page about what we wanted the show to include and look like, which was great, and we worked very closely to make it happen.”
Much of Hulls’s creative work is in the realm of comics, but that allows her to approach important topics in an accessible way. “Everything about how I turned out as both a human being and an artist can be traced back to Calvin and Hobbes,” she recounted. “The complex subtext of Watterson’s work went entirely over my head as a kid and I thought it was just a strip about a boy and his tiger.”
But she kept reading this comic into adulthood. “He used that strip as a way to explore his most existential struggles,” Hulls shared, “and Watterson taught me that you can explore heavy things in very funny ways.”
In her investigations, Hulls ties the creation of I-5 to other displacements, including site selection for the Kingdome, the community effort to stop the R.H. Thomson Expressway, efforts to address homelessness, and the future placement of the Sound Transit light rail station, and she repeatedly finds instances of systemic racism. “I started looking at the broader history of the Interstate system and read a bunch of academic books about freeways, and that was the point at which the show expanded in scope and became less geographically tethered,” she relayed. “That could have easily been a challenge, but Mikala and the staff of the Wing were incredibly supportive of allowing the direction to shift.”
This collaboration allowed the team to fully flesh out the exhibit’s details. “There is an interactive storymap in the gallery that provides stories and images for 25 locations that were affected by the freeway construction,” Woodward elaborated. “It is something you can also access on your phone, so it can be like a self-guided walking tour.”
Hulls’s projects include a wide range of media such as painting, speaking, illustration, and performance, which helped her conceptualize how to present the I-5 material. “I allow individual projects to dictate the medium that best serves them,” she explained. “Honestly, my creative process is a semi-feral animal and I’ve learned to trust it without questioning it too deeply, so I’m often as surprised as the next person by the form a project takes.”
The Wing Luke exhibit reflects this flexibility. “In this case of this show, I want viewers to look at who is always asked to pay the price of progress,” Hulls said, “and to bring the full arc of that context to mind in the conversations currently happening around ST3 and future development projects.”
So far, Woodward has been pleased by the feedback to the exhibit. “The press coverage has been great,” she said. “Every article seems to be half about the exhibit and half about what is going on in the neighborhood now, which is exactly the kind of relevance we were going for.”
This reinforces how embedded the Wing Luke Museum is in its neighborhood. “I have learned, again, as I do every time I work on an exhibit here, just how powerful the community process is,” Woodward said. “When people are invited to share their own stories on their own terms, you gain a really different perspective from the outsider expert view of things.”
Patterns of exclusion arose again and again. “I was very moved in particular by the resonance between the stories of Japanese Americans who were forced to sell all their belongings and leave for incarceration camps during WWII, and the stories of unhoused people being ‘swept’ from their homes under the freeway,” Woodward said. “It also resonated with the experiences of Indigenous and Chinese residents in the early days of Seattle.”
These commonalities highlighted both oppression and strength. “The pattern of ‘you wouldn’t let us live anywhere else, so we lived here, but then you came and drove us out of here too’ was really painful to see,” Woodward shared. “And then the pattern of people picking up the pieces, coming back together, and rebuilding a community in whatever way they could, was very moving to me as well.”
The museum is now considering expanding the exhibit beyond its own walls. “We’re thinking about trying to do some kind of temporary thing in the parking lot under the freeway, during the CID Block Party this summer,” Woodward said, “but there are no actual plans yet.”
Going forward, Hulls also plans on continuing to delve further into the historical record while fostering her art. “My longevity and productivity are the result of taking deliberate seasons off to be silently in the wilderness,” she said. “I used to work seasonally as a cook in Alaska and I built in seasons where I could step away from the constant hustle of being an artist, and I’m trying to build some version of that back into my life moving forward.”
Interwoven with these restorative periods, Hulls has, for seven years, been working on a graphic memoir, Feeding Ghosts, forthcoming in March of 2024 from MCD Books. “Feeding Ghosts is what transformed my creative practice and turned me into an artist who channels the historical record,” Hulls said. “My grandmother, Sun Yi, was a journalist in Shanghai when the Communists gained power in 1949.”
Sun Yi, Hulls reports, ultimately fled the country for Hong Kong and wrote a bestselling memoir that was deeply critical of the Communist party. “Growing up, I had no idea that my grandmother’s life story was tied to major inflection points in Chinese history,” she remembered. “Spending the better part of a decade chasing her past made me think deeply about the ways in which an artist is accountable to history, and that has expanded into every part of my life.”
Hulls is now looking forward to publication. “I’m in final copy edits now and am beyond burned out,” she said. “I’m looking forward to taking a long break to recover before going on my book tour next year!”
Nobody Lives Here runs through March 17, 2024, at Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, 719 South King Street, Seattle.