By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Under a smattering of clouds, as a hint of summer invested the Chinatown-International District (CID), an announcement was made on May 9 that brings the salvation of the embattled neighborhood that much closer to reality.
Thanks to the nomination of the CID by three community advocacy groups, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated the CID one of the 11 most endangered places in the country.
Each of the three community groups—the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, and Transit Equity for All (TEA)—had a slightly different, but overlapping, agenda in seeking the nomination.
But the results are already clear. The designation has renewed community unity after a long and divisive struggle with Sound Transit (ST) over the placement of a new transit hub.
The designation has also ratcheted up media attention onto the efforts of advocates to obtain dialogue with authorities, such as Mayor Bruce Harrell, about direct investment in the CID.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a national nonprofit, was founded by an act of Congress in 1949 to lead preservation of endangered places considered valuable to the nation’s cultural heritage.
According to Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a phone interview following the news conference announcing the designation, the primary benefit is the national attention obtained.
Media attention and galvanizing support “sometimes results in local funding,” she said.
For local advocates, the attention has already paid off.
Betty Lau, co-founder of TEA, said more national attention will occur later this month by NBC Universal, which is focusing on the plight of multiple Chinatowns.
“This alliance helps raise the profile of the community,” she said.
It brings more leverage in attempts to reach Harrell and others for a dialogue about community investment, she said in an interview after the press conference.
Uniting behind a single cause
Obtaining the designation is also something that everyone in the community supports, said Huy Pham, preservation program director with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
Through the long months of the ST community engagement process, the entire community initially supported a single position—which was to oppose construction on Fifth Avenue, in the heart of the fragile district, which was already facing multiple stressors, not to mention over a century of historic harms.
But by the end of the process, the community was bitterly divided over different placement options, with Harrell ultimately announcing an option outside the CID, on behalf of the ST board, which had the downside of bypassing the community with more convenient transfers and direct access to the airport and other locales.
With the designation of the CID as a nationally recognized vulnerable site, the entire community could, once again, draw behind a single cause, said Pham.
In his speech, he mentioned the more than two dozen community organizations representing the thousands of community members supporting the designation.
In reading off many of the organizations, friends that were once foes during the long-drawn ST battle, once again united behind a single cause.
Pham and others called for direct investment from ST, which has not yet released a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for its proposed alternative stations.
“We continue to urge ST and our civic leaders to carefully consider how each proposed transit alternative has adverse impacts on the community’s residents, businesses, visitors, historic and cultural resources and traditions, and ultimately the collective livelihood of the neighborhood for generations to come,” said Pham.
A history of community action
The designation was also a culmination of sorts to the long history of protests and civil action starting in the early part of the 20th century, continuing through rallies against the Kingdome in the 1970s, and freeing hundreds of community voices to protest against the county’s plan to build a massive new homeless shelter last year, which would have been the 19th in the area, representing an over concentration of such shelters near the CID.
All three representatives of the organizations that had applied for the nomination referred to this history of collective action.
“This time is different, we are showing up—at board meetings, council hearings, information sessions, open houses, and public comment opportunities,” said Lau in her remarks.
A historic moment
Finally, the designation acknowledged the representational value of the CID as a celebration of the diversity of greater Seattle, said Joël Barraquiel Tan, executive director of the Wing Luke Museum.
The designation “will change the course of history and break the cycle” of historic harms endured by the community, he said in his remarks.
The CID, with the help of the national endorsement and recognition, will remain “a safe and vibrant place for learning, healing, and joy,” he said.
Preservation for evolution
Critics of the preservation efforts enacted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation say that such preservation could have the effect of discouraging necessary modernization, such as retrofitting or installing solar panels.
But Malone-France said that the designation has no impact whatsoever on the regulatory process.
“Being on the most endangered list doesn’t dictate how buildings are preserved,” she said. “Preservation is a tool for helping the community to evolve.”
The need for community-centered development is “one of the key items we wanted to highlight,” she said, in contrast to development imposed by outside forces.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated two Chinatowns on its list, the other being Philadelphia.
“We have seen how historic Chinatowns around the country have fought—and continue to fight—large scale development projects that demand Chinatowns and other communities of color accept disproportionate harm in the name of progress for all,” said Malone-France in her remarks.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.