50 years ago, two protests led to the resurrection of Seattle’s dying Chinatown. The demonstrations also sparked creation of the major social service agencies that still serve as a bedrock of support for immigrants, refugees, and people of color through the region.
Sadly, almost no one in Seattle, including many leaders in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, remember these events. We’ve forgotten our own history.
In 1968, King County voters approved bonds for a $40 million multipurpose stadium. Two years later, voters rejected the proposed Seattle Center site. In 1972, the County Council voted to build the massive concrete structure on South King Street, along the western edge of Chinatown.
Chinatown International District (CID) champions resisted. They pointed to the potential closure of five aging hotels which housed longtime elderly Filipino bachelors and Chinese immigrant families. Others charged that property values would skyrocket, pollution would increase, and that local patrons would be no longer be able to find parking.
For a full year, the community fought — in the courts and in the political arena — to halt the project. They didn’t succeed. But the story didn’t end there.
On Nov. 2, 1972, about 50 protesters — led by a canny organizer named Bob Santos — arrived at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kingdome. They came to disrupt the festivities. The demonstrators included a small contingent of feisty Filipino seniors from the recently-established International Drop-In Center (IDIC).
They carried signs which read, “Don’t Let the Dome Doom Chinatown,” “HUMBOWS Not HOT DOGS,” “Preserve the International District,” and “Chinatown is Not Only a Place to Eat. People Live There Too.” They grabbed bullhorns. They chanted “Down with the Dome!” The program was cut short after several young protesters hurled mud balls at officials.
The Kingdome protesters included Mayumi Tsutakawa, Mari Hayashi, Ruthann and Guy Kurose, Al and Dick Sugiyama, Eugene and Kathy Takagawa, Roy Flores, Ken Kubota, Y.K. Kuniyuki, Greg and David Della and their dad Narciso Della, Francisco and Felicita Irigon, Ken Wong, Angel Doniego, Annie Galarosa, Cissy Asis, Norma Asis, Peter and Norris Bacho and their parents Vincent and Remy Bacho, Nemesio and Silme Domingo, Michael Woo, and Sherrie Chinn.
On Nov. 14, many of the same demonstrators, their numbers swelled to 140, marched from Hing Hay Park to the downtown office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They told officials that the CID urgently needed 300 units of low-income housing. They pleaded for action.
The director of the Seattle office responded, “But we don’t have any money right now.”
After the Kingdome protest, the Asian Family Affair (AFA), which billed itself as the independent voice of student activists, ran a series of photos by Eugene and Kathy Tagawa and Ken Mar with the headline: “A Parking Lot is Not a Home.” After the Nov. 14 protest, an AFA cover asked: “HUD, is Chinatown Doomed?”
Mainstream media largely portrayed the demonstrations as the feckless efforts of fringe radicals trying to thwart the public will.
Seattle Times reporter Greg Heberlein, describing a celebratory party following the protest, wrote: “The breaking of bread among domed-stadium enthusiasts and media personnel vividly contrasted with the throwing of mud… Despite the disruption, spirits were high at the luncheon. In fact, barbs aimed at the demonstrators drew laughs.”
Behind the scenes, outside the notice of the Seattle Times and Seattle Post Intelligencer and TV news cameras, the organizers kept pushing.
Peter Bacho, a University of Washington law school student at the time, helped recruit plaintiffs, including his own parents and elderly CID residents like Chris Mensalvas, Sr., Sam Figueras and Matt Lagunilla, to be part a class action lawsuit. They argued that the State Environmental Policy Act had been violated. The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge on Sept. 15, 1972.
A half century later, Bacho explained: “I knew the poor conditions, and I knew the threat that the new stadium would pose for many of these elderly. Chinatown was the only home they knew, and I was determined to do my bit to allow them to live their lives there in peace.
I remember one public meeting in Pioneer Square where the director of the domed stadium project addressed an audience. I asked him, ‘Isn’t it true that the reason this site was chosen was because the residents were too poor and politically powerless to resist?’ I give him credit for this — he said, ‘Yes.’ I thought, ‘Game on.’”
On Feb. 3, 1975, several dozen demonstrators, representing themselves as the Committee for Corrective Action in the International District, marched to King County Executive John Spellman’s office to present a list of demands, including stadium construction jobs for Asians, 1,000 units of low-income housing, a stadium user tax to support community projects, a senior center, and a health clinic.
Julia Laranang, one of the attendees, recalled, “Although Spellman was not there, we made our issues clear. I recall the large drawing on the wall that showed the Kingdome with the exits from the I-5 freeway going over the CID. It showed hotels and new businesses where the current buildings were. We called this: ‘Urban renewal by people removal.’”
Doug Chin, another participant, noted that the occupation of the County Executive’s office did lead to a meeting with Spellman, in which he agreed to provide funds to start a health clinic in the CID.
The clinic opened on Nov. 3, 1975, in a one-room storefront at 416 Maynard Avenue South. Bob Santos, director of InterIm CDA until the late 1980s, helped find the clinic space. Bruce Miyahara became the clinic’s first director and Sister Heide Parreno, a young Catholic nun, worked as its first nurse practitioner.
“We took over the space, cleaned it up, hung blankets for exam area privacy and started the clinic,” Miyahara said.
Santos helped jumpstart many other CID programs, including community parking, mental health services, nutrition support, child care and historic redevelopment. As one of the self-described “Four Amigos,” he worked closely on social justice issues with Larry Gossett, director of the Central Area Motivation Program, Roberto Maestas, founding director of El Centro de la Raza, and Bernie Whitebear, director of Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.
Michael Woo, a United Construction Workers Association (UCWA) staff member, said he and his boss Tyree Scott joined the Kingdome fight to push for construction jobs. Scott, an electrician, formed UCWA in 1969 to fight the exclusion of Blacks and non-whites from the construction trades.
“We said to the County, ‘Either you’re not going to build the stadium here, or if you do, you’re going to give jobs to us.’ I remember when Steve Lock was hired. I said to him, ‘Hey, you were never much of a carpenter, but you got to put in a hell of a lot of seats in that Kingdome,’” described Woo.
From 1979 to 1983, a total of $11 million — $4 million from the City of Seattle, $2 million from the federal government, and $5 million from private sources — poured into the Chinatown International District under HUD’s Neighborhood Strategy Area Program.
The program helped restore seven historic buildings, including the Bush Hotel, which reopened in 1981 as a new community center and homebase for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority. The CID gained 283 new housing units and 47,000 square feet of new office space. The City also provided $1.7 million for lighting, sidewalks and the planting of trees. Alan Kurimura, legislative aide to City Council member George Benson, was a point person for these efforts.
A half century after the Kingdome and HUD demonstrations, some of the early activists are still involved in CID causes.
David Della, a consultant, is advising the 701 South Jackson Project, a mixed-use development, which will yield 118 affordable apartments. Groundbreaking was held on June 27. The vacant quarter-block, owned by the family of the late Barry Mar, once housed the Seventh Avenue Service Station, the neighborhood’s go-to auto shop. It closed in May 2015 after 69 years. Back in the day, David brought his bright red 1974 Plymouth Duster and his red Toyota Corolla Fastback there.
Several years ago, Bruce Miyahara returned to help ICHS raise money for a community kitchen in a new 25,000-square-foot senior care facility scheduled to open on North Beacon Hill in late 2025. The facility will house an “aging-in-place” program called PACE which stands for “Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly.”
Miyahara said, “In many ways, ICHS is coming full circle. The nursing project that Sister Heide started targeted elderly patients with a combination of clinic and home visit services. My personal interest in PACE is to attempt to build meal and nutrition programs that would support the baby boomers.”
Mayumi Tsutakawa, an early editor of the IE and founding board member of ICHS, is also helping the ICHS project. She created partnerships with artists — her brother Gerard Tsutakawa, Barbara Earl Thomas, Cecilia Alvarez, Dean Wong, Lawney Reyes and Michelle Kumata — to install pieces throughout the facility.
Early protestor Alison Alfonso, now Alison Pence, lives in Edmonds. At the time of the Kingdome protest, she was a student at Franklin High School.
“I was already volunteering at IDIC, spending time with the seniors,” she said. “I even helped make the IDIC sign. We cut out a piece of wood and painted it yellow. When I go down to Chinatown now, I feel very sad. Businesses are still boarded up and the crime is horrible. I’m in awe of how bad things have become. But that’s still home. We have to get our kids involved because we’re losing ground fast. I hope it gets better soon.”
Annie Galarosa grew up in the Central Area, the child of Filipino Catholics. She said her upbringing was “very much rooted in the black experience and culture of the community” and the language of “protest and activism.” She was drawn to the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., then later to Mao Tse-tung, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and Frantz Fanon.
Galarosa found her calling as a teacher and counselor at Seattle Central Community College, where she spent over 34 years. Now retired, she is heartened to see the children of her contemporaries becoming active in the CID. “Hope is eternal,” she said.
Bacho reflected: “It turned out well. We got housing and services for our elderly. For me, that was the bottom line.
Seattle is unique because the alliances were broad-based and multi-ethnic. In other cities like San Francisco, folks too often broke up into their own groups. The Four Amigos were a great example of multiethnic cooperation.
Our community here in Seattle is one that believes in and is used to winning. It has punched above its weight.”