By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
For over a century, mainstream society has encroached on Asians and their land, say community leaders from the Chinatown-International District (CID). Now, it wants to take the rest of it, they say.
Bettie Luke and others last week denounced Sound Transit (ST)’s plans to build through the CID and keep the area occupied with noise, pollution, traffic, and business blockages for a decade. This is yet another invasion in a long series of assaults upon their community.
“ENOUGH! Do not inflict another land-grabbing and exploitive encroachment on our neighborhood!” she wrote in an open letter to the Sound Transit Board of Directors and the Seattle City Council.
The letter, copied to other leaders of the Asian American community, evoked a strong response and elicited similar outrage over what leaders said was institutional racism that had been enshrined in the entire history of their experience in the region. ST’s plans to rip up and choke off the CID, they said, is the culmination of those efforts. As a result, Luke wrote, “The most sane and humane choice is NO transit plans in the CID.”
Luke said she had made a previous recommendation that she now wanted to amend.
“I initially thought ST’s Fourth Avenue option would work, but after much thought and research, I oppose any kind of encroachment on the CID,” she wrote. (See the full letter).
A century of encroachments
The harms inflicted on the Asian community stretch over its entire history, yet today, it constitutes “the last remaining ethnic neighborhood,” Luke wrote.
“Any Transit plans in the CID would be exceedingly damaging to this historic neighborhood. Past years of intrusive encroachment into the CID have shared a common undercurrent of racial disregard for our people, resulting in loss of land use and increased safety issues.”
Luke is the sister of the late Wing Luke, who was assistant attorney general for the state of Washington and later became the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council. Recalling memories of her childhood in a Chinatown that no longer exists due to transportation projects of the time, Bettie Luke listed the cataclysmic encroachments that the Asian American community has had to endure.
“The Second Avenue access road was cut through to gain quicker access from downtown to the train station. That road helped dismantle the old Chinatown neighborhood. We lost our location. Chinatown then moved southeast about a half-mile and built in the current blocks—the CID, which is now affected by the new transit plans,” she wrote.
The next encroachment was the construction of the interstate freeway which bisected the neighborhood and brought about choking fogs of exhaust from the freeway and other traffic.
“We lost CID land when construction of I-5 cut through the eastern half of the CID, destroying blocks of businesses and housing and bringing heavy, never-ending car fume pollution. Air quality was intensely impacted for residents, workers, and visitors in the CID. This heavy and harmful encroachment currently continues non-stop day and night,” she wrote.
The third assault was the construction of the Kingdome in the 1970s.
“We lost CID land when the Kingdome was built. This stadium dismantled a swath of affordable housing for Asian elders and brought constant sport event traffic to the CID,” she wrote. “With the additional stadiums built, encroachment of traffic and air pollution enormously increased. These two stadiums do not bring people to eat and shop in the CID. Instead, the CID is used as a parking lot!”
The result, she added, is that the CID suffers as stadium-goers use up parking spaces needed for business.
“Additional loss to CID businesses results because folks who are not sports fans, but want to eat or shop in the CID, skipping the trip because they cannot find parking,” she wrote.
What followed were the construction of rail lines and the establishment of bus stops on every corner of the northeast side of the neighborhood.
A further loss to the CID was that Eighth Avenue South became a one-way street, meaning it could no longer be used as an entry street into the district.
And then the city built the Navigation Center in the CID—swamping the neighborhood with people experiencing homelessness.
“With no notice, no neighborhood input, it became housing for the homeless who face greater obstacles, such as mental health and addiction,” wrote Luke. “This risky imposition sounds like institutional racism to me.”
“Immediately, safety issues became an increasing and continuing problem to the elders, community organizations, businesses, and visitors wanting to eat and shop in the CID,” she wrote.
Finally, the northeast corner of the CID, 12th Avenue and South Jackson Street, has had a bus stop built on “every one of the four corners.”
“Day and night, buses crisscross in all directions, bringing more constant pollution, gas fumes, safety and walking issues as an unending encroachment,” she wrote.
Connie So, president of OCA Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle and a teaching professor in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, on reading Luke’s letter added several events that served to magnify the understanding of the harm done to Asians in this region, while describing ST’s nod to the district’s culture as specious.
“ST describes the CID as a ‘hub of cultural importance for Seattle and its Asian American communities,’ but does not acknowledge the historical, systematic displacement and gentrification of the neighborhood by local government agencies,” she wrote.
So mentioned an 1886 riot that attacked and looted the homes of Chinese living here and forced them from the city.
She also referred to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II in concentration camps. Their imprisonment was often used as a pretext by white supremacists to justify grabbing their lands.
Sound Transit: the latest predator against people of color?
Luke said the CID was singled out because it was a community of color.
“These proposed CID encroachments would not be planned in the downtown district or Pioneer Square—that would destroy so many buildings and businesses. These encroachments would not happen to a white neighborhood!” she wrote.
So said that ST treats white neighborhoods differently than those of color.
“There is a history of ST’s differential treatment between Black, Indigenous, and communities of color versus predominantly white neighborhoods. For example, when the Roosevelt community pushed and advocated for a below ground alternative, ST acquiesced. In contrast, South Seattle communities were not offered an alternative that addressed their concerns around retail and residential displacement, traffic congestions, and public safety. ST’s history of ignoring the concerns of communities of color continues to be seen in proposed segments for the CID regional station,” she wrote.
Luke emphasized that the current CID was for many years the only place Asians could live. Real estate brokers and neighborhood associations from the beginning of the 20th century found ways to write into their contracts that land in other parts of the city could not be sold to people of color, and in some cases, Jews.
Even when U.S. Supreme Court rulings overturned such “restrictive covenants” as illegal, brokers and communities found ways to enforce them, such as threatening violence against the children of families of color if they moved into a white neighborhood. Real estate agents were also threatened with being blackballed if they sold houses to Blacks, Asians, or Jews.
“It is interesting to note that in the early days, restrictive covenants, red lining, and discriminatory practices restricted Asians to the CID, as the only place we could live. After all the years we have embraced the CID as our home base and center of culture, we now are faced with new threats of outside interests wanting to take away our land and impact our community,” wrote Luke.
Of the current options laid out by ST for the CID, Luke said both the Fourth and Fifth Avenue options would destroy as many as 21 CID businesses and engender the loss of jobs, residents, and patrons.
“The prolonged 10-year construction would create constant obstacles to restaurants, shops, businesses, events, and organizations,” she wrote. “The CID cannot survive and thrive under these conditions.”
“Systemic racism bulls##t”
Luke furthermore decried what she said was lip service given to a “Race and Equity Tool Kit” by ST.
“I found no evidence that it was actually used,” she wrote. “It is an act of systemic racism if the Race and Equity Tool Kit was not actively, honestly, and realistically applied.”
If it had been used, “it would have concluded that the transit plans would be a catastrophe for the CID.”
Al Young, the first Chinese American to become a nationally-recognized drag racing champion, as well as a lifetime educator, joined Luke in denouncing proposed routes of construction.
“This systemic racism bulls##t has to be called out,” he wrote. Both routes “are unacceptable.”
Young suggested running the construction through Pioneer Square, “a ‘historic neighborhood’ that is neither truly historic nor a neighborhood. What story does it really tell? And who really lives there?”
As for the CID, he said, it is “an American chronicle of tenacity, perseverance, and community.”
Others compared the threat to the CID as a possible foreshadow of what has already happened to the Black community.
“This reminds me of what happened to Seattle’s Central Area, a historically Black community that was a safe haven to Black Americans that were instrumental in building this country. It was always okay to build freeways and infrastructure in already vulnerable and marginalized and poorer communities. We all lose when we as a society don’t honor and respect our diverse communities. Are we going to continue this colonial legacy in the name of ‘progress?’” wrote community member Irmtraut Brielmaier.
Losing the CID would be as disastrous for the region as the loss of the Pike Place Market would have been decades ago, when development wanted to crush the tourist attraction and community advocacy saved it.
“I implore each of you to make the bold and necessary decisions to retain and protect a vulnerable and diverse community as valuable as the Pike Place Market,” wrote Jean Chen, a retired Boeing continuous quality improvement consultant. “This would cement Seattle’s continuous reputation of supporting families and assisting local businesses to thrive.”
ST, contacted the day before press time, had not responded by press time.
However, according to Betty Lau, co-founder of Transit Equity for All (TEA), the city of Seattle has informed ST it needs to pause for six to nine months.
Lau also provided the community with action steps members could take:
Stay up to date by viewing the TEA website: https://transitequityforall.org/
Make a two-minute public comment (half a typed page) at the June 23 Sound Transit Board meeting (https://www.soundtransit.org/get-to-know-us/news-events/calendar/board-directors-meeting-2022-06-23)
The board of ST is spread out over the region. Find friends, relatives, or colleagues to contact their representatives in: Everett (Mayor Cassie Franklin: firstname.lastname@example.org), Auburn (Mayor Nancy Backus: email@example.com), University Place (Kent Keel, ST Chair and UP City Council member: firstname.lastname@example.org), Renton (City Council member Ed Prince: email@example.com), Lynnwood (Mayor Christine Frizzell: firstname.lastname@example.org), Tacoma (City Councilmember Pos. 8 Kristina Walker: Kristina.email@example.com), Kenmore (Mayor David Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org), and Fife (Mayor Kim Roscoe: email@example.com).
Also contact Snohomish Executive Dave Somers: firstname.lastname@example.org and Pierce County Bruce Dammeir: https://www.piercecountywa.gov/FormCenter/Executive-20/Executive-Contact-Us-176.
Pick up SAVE the CID posters from the Chong Wa office for taping up in shop windows. Contact TEA for pick-up times.
Anyone may contact Sound Transit Board Member and Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar: https://wsdot.wa.gov/about/contacts/send-us-your-feedback
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.