Seattle's Chinatown before the Jackson Street regrade.
Seattle's Chinatown before the Jackson Street regrade.

One hundred years ago, in late 1909, Seattle city officials celebrated the completion of the regrade of Jackson Street. After two years of excavation, some 85 feet was chopped off the steep street, setting the stage for new development and settlement of the southern portion of what we now call the Chinatown/International District and, arguably the District’s birth. It is remarkable how the District has re-invented its Asian American character and preserve it over this 100-year period.

The Jackson Street Regrade paved the way for development in the District

The Jackson Street Regrade, one of 62 in the city, was undertaken to make it easier for farmers and others in the Rainier Valley to get to the downtown area and easier for those in the south part of town to get to Lake Washington. The greatest cut was 85 feet at Ninth Avenue and Jackson Street. The grade of Jackson Street was reduced from 15 to 5 degrees, and the street was widened from 66 to 96 feet.

Shortly after the Jackson Street Regrade began, the city decided to regrade the Dearborn slope and to replace it with a bridge to connect Beacon Hill and Jackson Street. The entire Jackson and Dearborn Regrade projects were a gigantic undertaking that covered 56 city blocks, extending all the way to First and Lander where Starbucks headquarters is now and took until 1914 to complete.

Chinatown shifts from lower Washington Street to King Street

The original Chinese settlement in Seattle began in the 1870s and was centered on lower Washington Street, in what we now call Pioneer Square. That area became increasingly congested with the tremendous growth in the city in the late 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. After completion of the Jackson Street Regrade, the Chinese began shifting their businesses from that area to King Street. The first Chinese building constructed in the King Street core were the Hip Sing Tong building on the northwest corner of Eight and King Street and two huge buildings on the south side. A Chinese group, the Kong Yick Investment Company headed by Goon Dip, was established for the sole purpose of constructing the latter two buildings. Shares were sold to Chinese throughout the Northwest to finance the construction of the buildings. The Wa Chong and Quong Tuck Companies immediately moved to the Kong Yick Buildings. Also setting up shop there were the Yuen Long Company, Wah Young Company, and Yick Fung Company, an importer/exporter and agent for the Blue Funnel steamship line. These were the first Chinese businesses on King Street. One of the Kong Yick Buildings later housed the Gee How Oak Tin Family Association and Chong Wah Benevolent Association, and the elaborate King Fur Café, where the Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-Sen once had a fundraiser. The following year, 1911, Goon Dip built the Milwaukee Hotel, an elegant structure on Seventh and King Street. The top floor of the hotel was his family’s residence. That same year, the Eastern Hotel Building was constructed on Maynard between King and Weller Streets, supposedly for the Wa Chong Company. In 1916, the Bing Kung Tong constructed a building on King Street across from the Kong Yick Buildings and, in 1920, the Chew Lin Association built the Republic Hotel building on Seventh Avenue between Jackson and King Streets. By 1925, King Street had become the core of the new Chinatown. The old Chinatown on Washington Street had withered away to little more than a bunch of lottery and gambling houses.

The Heydays of the 1920s

The Roaring 20s were the heydays of the District and clearly the District’s best years. While the Chinese continued to shift from the lower Washington Street area and Nihonmachi continued to expand along Jackson Street, a Filipino presence in the District emerged. King Street and its adjacent streets were clearly the commercial core of the Filipino community then as they established hotels, businesses, labor and employment agencies, and fraternal organizations to meet the need of its immigrant and migrant population. In addition, a number of Black establishments, including a number of night clubs, appeared in the 1920s.The diverse population of the District hit its peak of about 4000 in the 1920s and business flourished. But the onset of the Depression, the subsequent incarceration of Japanese during WWII, and the increasing blight and stagnant economy of the area sent the District on a downward trend well into the 1970s.

A Long Road to Recovery

A concerted effort to rejuvenate the area began in the late 1940s with the emergence of the Jackson Street Community Council, a diversified group comprised from representatives of the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Black and White groups that comprised an area that extended to 23rd and Jackson Street. As the first community action/urban renewal group of its kind in the state, it achieve limited success, notably single-family housing programs. In 1952, Mayor Devin proclaimed the district the “International Center” in reference to the prevalence of non-white and Asian immigrant population in the area.

The District Re-Invents Itself

A great infusion of public funds to improve the streets, lighting, housing and social services in the District helped spark a turn-around in the District. Coupled with the dramatic arrival to the region of Asian immigrants, whose population doubled for three consecutive decades, the area underwent a significant rehabilitation. The increased demand for Asian goods and services, along with public and private investment over the last decades has resulted in a healthy revival of the District. Along with the emergence of “Little Saigon,” the area around 12th and Jackson Street, the District has been able to re-invent itself and preserve its Asian American character. Today, however, it no longer serves as the primary settlement area for Asian immigrants. Instead, it is much more a regional center for Asian goods, services, and culture.

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