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Acknowledging AAPI Heritage Month

Published on May 29, 2021

Black and white aerial of International District, Seattle, Washington, 1969.
Aerial of International District, Seattle, Washington, 1969. Image Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives CC A 2.0

Originally written by Adela Mu, Masters of Urban Planning Candidate ’22.

Note: This was written with a UDP and Seattle audience in mind. It represents only the partial perspective of the author, not that of any other person in UDP or UDP as a whole. There is far too much to say on this topic than any person is willing to read off of a website, so I have tried to be judicious with what to include. That means only a few things can be highlighted. I recognize that the two stories I chose lean heavily on the Asian perspective, which is where my own experience lies. Hopefully readers will be willing to click on the many links and resources listed here and to keep learning beyond the small sliver of filtered history presented here.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month falls in May for two reasons: the first Japanese immigrant arrived in the U.S. in May 1843, and the First Transcontinental Railroad, built largely by Chinese laborers, was completed in May 1869.

In the U.S., where racial relations often center on the Black-White binary, Asians (5.7% of the population) have often been ‘the invisible race,’ particularly in regions where they make up even smaller proportions of the population. Meanwhile, Pacific Islanders (0.2% of the population) are barely recognized in the continental U.S. American consciousness.

While data disaggregation for different ethnic groups is crucial to exposing the vast disparities between them, the two groups share common stories of forced assimilation and cultural erasure in the U.S. context, as do people of other problematically constructed ethno-racial groups and of the Indian Nations.

Although surges in physical and verbal assaults in the COVID-19 era (anti-Asian hate crimes surged 145% in 2020, even as overall hate crimes dropped by 6%) and the Atlanta spa shootings have brought slogans and hashtags such as #stopasianhate and #stopAAPIhate to national attention, the brief coverage in mainstream media barely scratches the surface of the long histories of discrimination, devaluation, and dismissal of Asians and Pacific Islanders in this country. Furthermore, the hyperfocus on physically violent incidents ignores the very real trauma caused by verbal assault and “microaggressions” (a misleading term because their cumulative effects are very much not micro), which have been part of the ethno-racial minority experience before and since the founding of this country.

The first Asian immigrants to Seattle were Chinese laborers who worked in lumber, fishing, and railroad construction in the 1860s, and their settlement created the first Chinatown in the city. The CID in its current location was built in early 1900, after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed the original Chinatown neighborhood along the coastline. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited immigration and deported hundreds of Chinese men, Japanese immigrants became the largest minority in the area because they were not subject to immigration quotas and were allowed to bring family with them. Nihonmachi (or Japantown) developed along the existing Chinatown, and a vibrant business district was born. The arrival of Filipino farm and cannery workers in the 1920s and 30s added Filipino Town (also Manilatown) to the neighborhood, and Little Saigon was established east of the CID with the arrival of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and other Southeast Asian immigrants.

During WWII, as people of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps, their homes and businesses were cleared out, and the vacancies were taken over by public housing projects and parking lots. From the 1950s to 70s, construction of the I-5 highway and the Kingdome Stadium, urban renewal efforts, and strip malls further disrupted the neighborhood and increased traffic and parking demand. Although businesses in the area welcomed potential customers, they were reluctant to shift to a largely drive-by clientele that did not care about the people behind the counters. The city’s updates in building and fire codes also resulted in the closure and demolition of many older buildings.

In recent years, gentrification and speculative development makes it extremely difficult to build and preserve low-income housing in CID. As community members would say, displacement is a cumulative process: no one development destroys the community, but the neighborhood disintegrates piece-by-piece as longtime community members and businesses are pushed to leave.

Continue reading at Urban Design & Planning, College of Built Environments.

Originally written by Adela Mu, for Urban Design & Planning, College of Built Environments.
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