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Visitors to this weekend’s Dragon Fest in the Chinatown International District might notice glints of change throughout the neighborhood.

Hip new shops have opened and once seedy public spaces now attract lunchtime visitors, playing kids and impromptu games of chess. Graffiti has been painted over and trash-filled alleys are kept clean enough to host outdoor art shows.

Nine security cameras record street activities around the neighborhood, with two more cameras soon to be installed. Calls to 911 have dropped noticeably.

That’s not to say all is perfect in this historic part of Seattle — some storefronts remain vacant, panhandlers still ask for spare change and thefts continue to be a problem.

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But over the past three years a broad collection of businesses, city departments and community groups that have not always shared the same agenda have teamed up to transform the Chinatown ID into a safer and more inviting place.

The neighborhood is a successful example of how a community can coalesce and win city funding, said Andres Mantilla, a manager in the Seattle Office of Economic Development.

“They’ve done a really good job of organizing all the interest groups and putting it together in a strategy.”

More police foot patrols in crime hot spots and footage from private security cameras have helped push out suspicious activity and solve crimes, said Sgt. Paul Gracy, who leads the West Precinct’s Community Police Team.

Police have also increased outreach efforts to break down language and culture barriers and build trust with residents.

“We’ve been having more meetings with them and trying to get to know them,” Gracy said, and the closer relationship has yielded results.

Neighborhood safer, residents say

On a recent afternoon, buskers serenaded Hing Hay Park with a soprano saxophone and Chinese violin, while two girls tested out a pingpong table.

Real Change vendor Jihad Salaam said he loves seeing children at play instead of drug dealers in the park, even though a 12-year-old recently beat him at a game of chess.

“I haven’t picked up chess since!” Salaam said.

A security camera watches the park from across the street — an important piece of the revitalization. From 2010 to 2012 a community group called the Seniors in Action Foundation raised $100,000 and installed nine cameras throughout the center of the neighborhood, and in June raised another $35,000
to add two more.

At a meeting three years ago, community members identified where the cameras should go up by putting dots on a wall map, signifying areas they knew attracted drug dealers and vagrants.

Now, two community groups monitor the camera footage over the Internet using access codes and provide it to police when break-ins or vandalism occur. Lighting has been installed in the park and alleys to discourage crime after dark.

Sitting at a table in Hing Hay Park, longtime Chinatown ID residents Chan-ye Lamb and Huang Yue said the neighborhood feels safer now. Nora Chan of Seniors in Action translated from Cantonese.

Chan led fundraising efforts for the cameras by organizing dinners and encouraging private donations. “We’re really happy to see it’s made some changes,” she said.

Statistically, crime is down across the city and the West Precinct, so it’s hard to pinpoint how much of the improvement is because of the cameras or increased policing.

In the Chinatown ID, calls to 911 have dropped around 9 percent since the cameras were installed in September, compared to the same period the previous year, according to Seattle police records.

Overall, crime is down around 6 percent in the neighborhood from September 2012 to March 2013, when the most recent statistics are available, compared to the same period before the cameras were installed.

“The crime doesn’t necessarily go away,” Gracy said. “But if we can just manage it better so people feel safe and we have a better presence, then we can keep it under control.”

Boosting public services

The neighborhood didn’t get nicer on its own — its cleaner, brighter, more vibrant feel has been carefully planned, funded and carried out.

Community groups have come together to envision the neighborhood before, but the current effort started in 2010, sparked by an initiative by the mayor’s office to boost safety and business in the city’s core areas.

In the Chinatown ID about a hundred people representing property owners, businesses, family associations and community organizations came together at a meeting to strategize the future of the neighborhood.

Since then more than $1 million has been spent on economic revitalization here, including corporate donations from Bank of America, the
MetLife Foundation and others that have kicked in tens of thousands of dollars.

Two groups have been at the head: the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA) and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda).

The money has helped boost public services, like a community block watch and neighborhood marketing, and spruce up spaces across the neighborhood — from restoring the historic alleys and renovating the International Children’s Park to painting the columns under Interstate 5, and creating Chinese and Japanese street signs, which were unveiled at Dragon Fest this weekend.

“I think there’s a lot to celebrate,” Blakeney

The shops that have recently taken root are different from the Asian restaurants that surround them. A scarf shop, hip-hop studio and pizza parlor have recently opened.

One recent afternoon, the newly arrived Seattle Pinball Museum on Maynard Avenue South clacked and pinged with customers at almost every machine. Two doors down, Eastern Cafe opened in late May, serving pastries, gelato and espresso.

Owner I-miun Liu, who also runs a bubble-tea shop in the Chinatown ID, wanted to attract new customers to the neighborhood.

“We don’t have to compete in dim sum or barbecue,” he said.

“Tough little neighborhood”

Yet for all the optimism, 16 percent of the storefronts remained empty in January, according to the SCIDpda.

While the vacancy rate in the Chinatown ID and Little Saigon has slowly improved in the past four years, it has not recovered to pre-recession levels, according to research by real-estate firm Kidder Mathews.

Certain corners of the neighborhood still attract panhandlers, drunks and drug dealers.

The security cameras have helped make the streets safer, but shady activity has migrated to un-monitored areas, said Ocean City Restaurant owner Christina Xu.

Last Christmas, burglars broke into the restaurant, shattering the glass windows and doors. One of the new security cameras will be installed on her building, at Sixth Avenue South and South Weller Street.

Business owners also say they’ve been hurt by construction of a streetcar line connecting downtown to Capitol Hill, and longer paid-parking hours, which were scaled back in March.

South Jackson Street, which runs in front of a boutique named Momo, has been gutted down the middle as part of the streetcar construction. Inside the boutique, owner Lei Ann Shiramizu teared up when she talked about the neighborhood.

“We’re still not where we could or should be,” she said.

Still, Shiramizu noted the area should draw more visitors once the streetcar and a hill climb on 10th Avenue South connect it to other areas. But the neighborhood is also being transformed by something bigger: pride in its own unique history and character, she said.

“It’s a tough little neighborhood that thinks it can.”

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch: 206-464-3145 or

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