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History of the International District

(From the "Walking Tour of the International District in Seattle" written by the Wing Luke Asian Museum, with added text by the City of Seattle.)

Seattle's International District, a neighborhood nestled south of downtown, is the cultural hub of the Asian American community and home of the city's Chinatown. It rose not far from the waterfront, on reclaimed tide flats.

During a gigantic city re-grading project, completed in 1910, this muddy wasteland was filled in with earth, buildings were erected and the International District was born.

It is the only area in the continental United States where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans and Vietnamese settled together and built one neighborhood.

In the beginning, sojourners from Asia -- mostly single men -- came by steamship and rail into the new port city, seeking refuge from poverty and war. They crowded into hotels, storefronts and employment halls which emerged near the railroad station and waterfront.

These men came when the city was young, and worked in the gambling places, laundries, hotels, restaurants, shops and canneries. They lived frugally, finding comfort in familiar surroundings, shrouded from the harsh discrimination outside. Later, when the laws permitted, they brought wives and relatives to make permanent their stake here.

First, the Chinese built Chinatown, anchored along King Street. a gathering point, marketplace and home for laborers from the villages. An earlier Chinatown located near Second Avenue and South Washington Street, had been pushed aside by a major street extension in the 1920s.

The Japanese developed a NihoMachi or Japantown near Main Street, just north of the new Chinatown. The Japanese businesses -- restaurants, bathhouses, laundries, dry goods stores and markets -- vanished when their owners were herded off to internment camps during World War II. The Filipinos, the third Asian group to arrive, found their way into area hotels, seeking connections for work in the canneries. Some operated cafes, pool halls, barbershops and other small businesses. African Americans also settled in the area, establishing diners, groceries, taverns, tailor shops and nightclubs. For many years, Seattle's after-hours jazz scene thrived on Jackson Street.

After immigration quotas opened up in 1965, new Chinese arrivals, including families, began to repopulate area hotels. But the decision to build the Kingdome on the western edge of the District, coupled with the construction of the Interstate 5 freeway, created a threat to the area's survival. By the early 1970s, over half of the area's deteriorating hotels had shut down, and many longtime businesses had moved out of the area. During this time, young Chinese, Japanese and Filipino student activists, rallying under the banner of Asian American unity, led a fight to reclaim the area. They lobbied for low-income housing, set up bilingual social service programs, and formed a public corporation to preserve and renovate historic buildings.

In 1973 the International Special Review District and Board were established by Ordinance (SMC 23.66.302) to promote, preserve and perpetuate the cultural, economic, historical, and otherwise beneficial qualities of the area, particularly the features derived from its Asian heritage.

College-educated Asian American professionals --lawyers, accountants, doctors, dentists and social workers --set up offices in the former haunts of their parents and grandparents.

With public funds, hotels and streets were refurbished, new senior apartments were erected, and community-based service centers were established. In the 1980s, refugees from Vietnam opened restaurants, markets, and clothing and jewelry stores. Many set up shop in old buildings and newly constructed malls near 12th Avenue and South Jackson Street, forming a Little Saigon neighborhood. Others opened in storefronts in the core of the International District. With the expansion of business activity, the eastern boundary of the District moved beyond the freeway.

Continuing waves of immigrants from all over Asia have helped keep the District alive along with the individuals and organizations that have historically been committed to the neighborhood's welfare. Seattle's building boom of the 1990s has not left the District untouched. The decade brought significant change to the physical development of the neighborhood. The Kingdome was demolished to make way for two new stadia. The area near Union Station has been developed for office and commercial uses. Large scale development projects (institutional, housing, retail, and mixed-use) have occurred throughout the District. Several buildings have been rehabilitated and put back into productive use, providing low-income housing.

Even with the new growth and changes, the District remains as one of the few ethnic neighborhoods in Seattle. An old community --bustling with history and culture -continues to survive into the next generation.

Historic Districts

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