Betty Lau was in junior high school in the early 1960s when her community in Seattle’s Chinatown International District lost the neighborhood church. Developers bought the land just outside Chinese Baptist Church at 10th Avenue and King Street to build what would become Interstate 5.
“I-5 construction was about the only thing the church elders talked about every Sunday for many weeks,” said Lau, co-founder of Transit Equity for All advocacy group.
The church eventually moved to a rented space in Beacon Hill and fundraised for years to buy a permanent property there. Lau did not return to the congregation because of the long bus ride required to get to Chinese Baptist’s new location.
“A part of my life ended,” she said.
Local memories like Lau’s are at the center of “Nobody Lives Here,” a new exhibit at Wing Luke Museum that explores Seattle infrastructure projects’ lasting community impacts, including how I-5 construction tore through the heart of Chinatown International District in the 1960s.
The exhibit debuted on April 7 amid ongoing concerns over Sound Transit’s proposals to build a second light-rail station in or near the Chinatown International District, which would connect West Seattle to downtown and Ballard. Construction is expected to start in 2026 with an estimated completion date between 2037 and 2039. Neighborhood residents and advocates remain divided on whether a potential decade of station construction would add to the long history of local people and businesses being displaced.
“The choice of where to put freeways and transit options has always asked people who aren’t being served by these projects to be the ones to bear the burden,” said Tessa Hulls, the exhibit’s lead artist. “These decisions that were made in the 1960s have very measurable and enduring impacts on the communities that still live close to these freeways today.”
“Nobody Lives Here,” which is on display through March 2024, includes a collection of photos, newspaper clippings and maps and gives visitors a broader scope of the social history and timeline behind Seattle’s infrastructure projects like R.H. Thomson Expressway, Bay Freeway and Interstate 90.
Hulls’ love of historical research inspired her to further examine the effects of urban planning, urban renewal in the 1960s and the interstate system. The neighborhood focus on the Chinatown International District quickly became a gateway to investigating how the city’s landscape was reshaped over time.
“What does this mean for the broader pattern of what’s happened here?” Hulls said. “That’s basically the thread that I started chasing … so much of it has come to be about Seattle infrastructure and 150 years of what’s been built and why,” adding that the topography of Seattle “did not occur naturally and was deliberately crafted to the detriment of the people who are already occupying that land.”
Through the exhibit, museumgoers can get a clearer picture of what the Chinatown International District looked like before and after the freeway’s completion. As visitors step into the exhibit, they will see present-day photos showing the homeless encampments underneath I-5, historical images of businesses that once thrived in the neighborhood and an interactive mural through which viewers are provided flashlights to locate hidden gems in the community, including a ball and bat at Art Louie’s Hab’s Sporting Goods and a fish bowl at Gong’s Aquarium Shop.
Despite these challenges, the Chinatown International District persevered. Today, the neighborhood is a known hub for Asian American restaurants, culture and organizations such as the Vietnamese American nonprofit Helping Link and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service Food Bank.
Plans for another light-rail station and possible impacts
Sound Transit officials are proposing the new light-rail station, which would connect West Seattle and downtown to Ballard, be built outside of the neighborhood, or on Fourth Avenue near the existing Chinatown International District station. Neighborhood residents and business owners have already pushed Sound Transit to scrap transit options near the Historic Chinatown Gate landmark at Fifth Avenue South and South King Street. Years of construction would likely ravage the small businesses that rely on foot traffic, they said.
“There was a lot of community protest that arose around that,” Hulls said of the transit project. “Generally, these infrastructure projects are put in places where there’s the least ability to protect communities and to rally any political opposition.”
Chinatown International District is especially vulnerable, Hulls said, given the high rates of older adults, non-English speakers and residents living below the poverty level when compared to other areas in the city.
“There really is very little recourse for those demographics to be able to actively participate in conversations about these decisions that are really going to impact them,” Hulls said.
Some of these fears resurfaced last fall when some members of the Chinatown International District community rallied against the expansion of a homeless shelter near the area, citing that they were once again being shut out of the process.
The fight against displacement hits close to home for Hulls, who has an art studio in the neighborhood and has been pushed out of previous spaces in the past due to rising costs.
“When prices go up, artists get kicked out and you need new space,” she said. “It’s kind of that same story. So I feel like there is a level in which this is personal.”
As of this spring, Sound Transit board members and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell favored a station “North of CID,” which transit advocates oppose because it would complicate transfers, create long travel times and worsen accessibility issues among senior populations.
Brien Chow, Transit Equity for All co-founder and outreach chair for the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, said the city’s most recent proposal for a station “North of CID” ignites concerns that officials do not listen to community members.
“It’s done from the top up,” Chow said. “They don’t ask us what we want. They just tell us what you’re going to get.”
In light of the recent decision, neighborhood residents and advocates worry that light-rail construction close to the Chinatown International District will repeat the harm of the past. For some advocates, the freeway is a reminder of the policies that agencies try to force on CID’s community.
“Many families lost their homes, their businesses, every single one of these losses adds to the minimization of our cultural space,” said Tanya Woo, a community advocate for the Chinatown International District and Seattle City Council candidate for District 2. “What was once whole is now split, agencies refuse to take responsibility for the land I-5 is on, there is constant environmental and noise pollution.”
A spokesperson for Sound Transit said the agency wants to continue engaging with the community about the placement of the new light-rail station. The board’s final decision for the project is expected after the release of the final environmental impact statement late this year.
“We hear you and hope you will continue to engage with us. While decisions like this are never easy, community feedback has truly been integral to shaping this project,” a Sound Transit spokesperson said. “The Sound Transit Board identified the North of CID and South of CID stations as part of the preferred alternative for the Ballard Link Extension project. This indicates the Board’s preference at this time, but is not the final decision.”
Woo, who sat in on early planning sessions for the “Nobody Lives Here” exhibit and public meetings for the light-rail station, said Wing Luke’s new display offers lessons from the neighborhood’s past.
“We don’t know where we are going until we have learned the stories of our past, of who we are and use this knowledge to build a better future,” Woo said. “We want to avoid some parts of history from repeating itself.”
The exhibit will be on display at Wing Luke Museum until March 2024.
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