Karen Sakata at the entrance of Bush Garden • Carmen Hom

As a child, Karen Sakata remembers playing in the tiny rooms inside Bush Garden restaurant and bar, there for big extended family gatherings for Mother’s Day, a fundraiser, or after a funeral or wedding. In high school, Sakata earned her first paycheck at Bush Garden clearing tables. In college, she worked in the kitchen, and after a seven-year stint in Japan, she joined a taiko drumming group that met at Bush Garden in the evenings, alongside regulars who ate, drank, sang karaoke, and had a good time together.

Sakata became the co-owner of the business in 1997 along with her husband. In 2021, with the pandemic raging, Sakata’s husband wanting to retire from the business, and the building slated for demolition and redevelopment, Bush Garden closed its doors.

Now, Sakata is preparing for Bush Garden’s long-awaited reopening in spring 2024 in the ground floor of Uncle Bob’s Place, a low-income housing project developed by InterIm Community Development Association. The new building is named after the legendary activist and community leader Uncle Bob Santos, who was so much a regular at Bush Garden that a cardboard image of him graced the stage.

How do you bring back an iconic, beloved institution in a totally new, different space? “Part of it is kind of a big unknown for me, because the world has changed post COVID,” Sakata said. “How people feel and think about work, or neighborhoods, and all that stuff seems like it has changed quite a bit.”

“The part that I want to make sure stays is having a sense of community that’s open to people from all walks of life, and all different backgrounds, and that we can share and care about a neighborhood,” she added.

Bush Garden was founded by the late Roy Seko after he returned from incarceration in Minidoka concentration camp, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, during WWII. In the 1960s, it was an exclusive, lavish restaurant frequented by celebrities, politicians and business people. 

It always served as a gathering space for the Japanese American community following WWII incarceration, and over the decades, it was an informal meeting space for the likes of activists and politicians.

Bush Garden was also the first place in Washington state and the nation to offer English-language karaoke.

The historic, 1910-era building containing Bush Garden was purchased by real estate developer Vibrant Cities in 2016. The plan is to demolish it and build a project called Jasmine.

James Wong, CEO of Vibrant Cities, offered to keep Bush Garden in the new building when he purchased it. But the logistics and cost of moving out and then moving back proved unfeasible, Sakata said, and she felt that a market-rate, high-rise building was not in line with Bush Garden’s ethos. 

Jasmine, like similar new developments in the CID, has been controversial. Throughout design review for the project, members of the activist group Humbows Not Hotels, or the CID Coalition, and others showed up to public meetings of the International Special Review District (ISRD) to attest to the historic significance of Bush Garden, and protest the height, design, and likely pricing of Jasmine. 

Many in the neighborhood – including InterIm CDA, which built Uncle Bob’s Place – worry that an increase in tall, market-rate projects like Jasmine in the neighborhood will contribute to displacement and gentrification. 

When reviewing new constructions in the CID, the ISRD Board considers Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation, which encourage preserving character-defining features of historic buildings when possible.

Vibrant Cities has maintained, based on reports from structural engineers it commissioned, that the 1910-era building is structurally unsafe and cannot be retrofitted or preserved. In spring 2022, a report from Swenson Say Faget (SSF) Structural Engineering, commissioned by Historic Seattle, disputed this claim, asserting that the building could be saved, based on analysis of previous ISRD briefings, reports commissioned by Vibrant Cities, including seismic assessments and rehabilitation recommendations. Vibrant Cities criticized the report as faulty because it was not based on viewing the interior of the building, which Vibrant Cities denied access to.

Sakata shares the CID Coalition’s concerns, and joined the group as a member and advocate. Growing up, her family and relatives managed Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels, including the American Hotel, the Bush Hotel, and Hotel Stevens in Pioneer Square. Her grandparents were some of the first people to sell produce in Pike Place Market.

“I guess that’s why I feel so strongly about the CID and the Bush Garden building,” she said. “What makes Seattle Seattle is having these old places that kind of tell the story, and they’re filled with the energy people can feel when you walk through it.” 

While the new Bush Garden cannot exactly replicate the embodied spirit of the old space, Sakata said, its new interiors will feature some decor from the old space. The fact that the space is smaller, has light from windows, and is below housing, will give it a very different feel, but she hopes it will hold the same vibrancy and serve as a cultural home and gathering space for all.

“It really is like starting from scratch in so many ways,” Sakata said. “But the kind of place I want it to be is clear in my head. How that will look over time, I don’t know.” Ultimately, the people who come to Bush Garden will be the ones who create its new ethos, Sakata said. “I’m excited about where we can go. Our goal is to number one, get it open and kind of re-establish in the neighborhood.” 

For Sakata, the future of Bush Garden is a microcosm of the Chinatown International District, and the whole city of Seattle.

“There’s so much economic pressure to make the neighborhood change, but I just don’t want us to lose who we are as a community, who we are as a city, you know, those unique things that make Seattle special,” she said. “I still hope that it will continue to be a place where people from all backgrounds can go to and feel comfortable in.”

Bush Garden is seeking donations through Go Fund Me to help pay for the costs of securing, renovating, and outfitting the new restaurant. You can learn more here.

Bush Garden is also gathering stories, photos and memories of Bush Garden throughout the decades. You can share these on Bush Garden’s website.

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