By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
With recent news of the closure of the Belltown Community Center, could that put the International District/Chinatown Community Center at risk, too?
According to an October 2018 Seattle Times article, the International District/Chinatown Community Center, located at 719 8th Avenue South, is among the least used community centers in Seattle.
Despite only having 78,474 visitors in 2017, city employees and frequent visitors believe that the community center is still a very important place for community members to gather and use.
Built in 2014, the International District/Chinatown Community Center is open every day, except Sundays, and currently offers 65 registerable or drop-in programs each quarter.
Amy Xu lives in the same building above the center. She and her family have lived there for over 14 years. For the past five years, she has worked in the center as a recreation attendant.
She and her two sons, aged 10 and 15, are frequent visitors.
“The community center benefits my family a lot. Both sons are on piano scholarships and they come almost every day,” she said.
Her sons take piano and lion dance lessons, and they play basketball in the gym and table tennis in the main conference room. In the summertime, Xu’s sons often take advantage of the free lunch and Natural Club program, where teachers bring new activities for kids.
Xu mentioned that a huge challenge for the community center is when homeless guests use the restrooms for extended periods of time.
“For this area, there are so many people who use the facilities and they love it. People always come in smiling, which also makes me smile. I love my job because we have a lot of customers and they let me feel like the work is smooth,” she said.
ID/Chinatown Community Center is here to stay
Samuel Assefa, Director of Office of Planning and Community Development for the City of Seattle, wrote in an email that he’s not aware of or envision any scenario in which the ID/Chinatown Community Center could be at risk of closing.
He wrote that there is a fundamental difference between the Belltown and ID community centers. Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) owns the ID Community Center as a condominium, while it leases the space at the Belltown Community Center. That lease is coming to an end and SPR has decided not to renew it. The funding source for both centers came from a ballot measure a few years ago. That ballot measure designated the ID Community Center to be part of SCIDpda’s Village Square 2 development.
The center was originally intended to be a collection of multi-purpose rooms similar to Belltown’s, but the Chinatown/International District community wanted it to be a full purpose center and raised the additional funds to include amenities such as the gymnasium on the second floor, he said.
Changes in programming
Up until 2017, the community center was a limited use site open for 32 hours a week. After the Seattle City Council passed a vote to give additional 23 public hours, the center’s programs have been busting at the seams, Brenna Clausen, recreation center coordinator, said.
Clausen, who oversees the daily operations, explained that the community center is very unique and operates differently than other centers due to the majority of programs being drop-ins. Clientele committing to 8-week courses is difficult, but allowing them to drop in provides more flexible opportunities to recreate a lot more, she said.
Clausen understands why people may be concerned about the center being at risk for closing, but she doesn’t believe it’s an issue with regards to budget as it has been communicated from the superintendent.
She explained that the Belltown Community Center didn’t have a gym and robust programming, but the ID/Chinatown Community Center has a lot of programming and gym and room rentals that bring in revenue.
“We started seeing a new wave of customers coming in. Volleyball has attracted a larger crowd from Capitol Hill that never came before. Eliminating the drop-in fees has provided a lot more access for people,” Clausen said.
A lot of seniors and youth of Asian descent frequent the community center.
For a nominal drop-in fee, folks can play table tennis also. Clausen said that the center’s table tennis equipment is very high quality and attracts several nationally-ranked players.
The center also offers many drop-in programs, including badminton, pickleball, yoga, and line dancing. The gym is available to teens several times a week. The center also partners with several agencies to offer special programs and events, including a monthly community kitchen where community members get together once a month to cook and eat a meal together.
Other activities that the center offers includes ballet, gymnastics, Chinese dance, kung fu, tai chi, and senior games.
“For a site that doesn’t operate large programs like childcare, we have a good amount of visitors coming through the doors,” she said of the center’s unique services.
Benefits to the community
Clausen said that piano lessons are the most popular program for the center and there are currently about 50 kids on the waitlist, with about 70 students taking classes now.
These scholarships allow people to attend programs, such as piano and art lessons. Both programs have waitlists.
“Parents really value fine arts, which is part of the reason that it’s a big deal for us. Parents will do whatever it takes to allow their children to take these classes,” she explained.
Clausen said that the center’s biggest challenge is securing scholarship funding for programs. They’re operating on different funding sources for scholarships right now and when city budget comes out, they’re never sure how much is allocated for scholarships. As the center expands programs, it’s important that the programs are still affordable.
The first place public schools make cuts in their funding is the arts, so the fact that students can come to a community center and have access and opportunities to take these art classes is a huge deal, Clausen said.
The need to bolster community center programming
Community member Jessica Chow believes the center is at risk for closing or being repurposed.
“It sounds like Parks and Rec folks are bolstering activities to keep it open and to garner more attention,” she said.
Karen Sakata is of a similar mindset due to a lot of new construction in the area that takes away the spirit and essence of the neighborhood.
“A lot of resources and things are being moved or closed and the new tall buildings being built takes the sunlight away from the neighborhood. It won’t feel as much as a community,” Sakata said.
“The center feels at risk especially in this neighborhood, but any space that has ever been designated for community is always worth fighting for,” Chow said.
Chow hopes to see Seattle’s Parks and Recreation department bolster its programming and activate the space to bring more attention to the center.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.