Seattle’s Chinatown International District is no stranger to making lemonade out of lemons, as one community leader described it.

Born out of the legacy of redlining, racial exclusion and incarceration, the district has forged itself through struggle into a rich and beautiful haven for the multitude of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities that call Seattle home.

But protecting the neighborhood against encroachment, gentrification and erasure has been a generations-long project.

The latest chapter involves an effort by Sound Transit to site a second light-rail station in the neighborhood.

After months of community protest and advocacy, on July 28, the Sound Transit board deferred its decision on the Chinatown International District (CID) station, which was initially conceived as a major transit hub for the system. The decision keeps five options under study for months, plus it adds an important new one. It is now possible that no new station will be built in the neighborhood.

The most destructive option for the neighborhood — building on Fifth Avenue — would displace a number of beloved businesses and require the Chinatown Gate to be wrapped up for years for its protection. Dust and noise would impact residents, many of whom are low-income immigrants, and create what some community leaders called a “stark wasteland” in the community. The median household income in the Chinatown ID is about half that of the rest of the city and the neighborhood is mostly people of color. 


The slightly less destructive path would be on Fourth Avenue, but even that option would create havoc for about 10 years by redirecting traffic through the neighborhood and constructing a massive staging area there. Advocates fear displacement of businesses and residents would inevitably follow.  

A Sound Transit spokesperson said the project went through years of feedback and community consultations to arrive at the current set of options, and the agency will be continuing that process going forward. They wrote, “Sound Transit is committed to meaningfully engaging communities along the project corridor in project development and centering communities of color and low-income and other vulnerable populations throughout the public involvement process.” 

It’s not just the one station and the negative neighborhood impacts that worry community members — it’s the cumulative effect of massive project after project and fight after fight to protect the unique culture and history of this small but significant slice of the city. On top of the infrastructure and stadium projects, the initial hit of anti-Asian American COVID fears, anti-Asian American violence and then the economic pain from the pandemic have only caused more hardship. 

But remember the lemonade? There’s a bittersweet silver lining emerging from this latest battle. 

Across generational and ethnic lines, the community has united in its opposition to this latest threat. Wing Luke Museum Executive Director Joël Barraquiel Tan describes what has emerged as a “terrible beauty.”

“This is an exciting kind of moment,” Barraquiel Tan said, “an occasion that is bringing back together the CID advocates, champions and protectors.”


Barraquiel Tan likened what he has seen recently in the Chinatown ID to his experience in Hawaii: “We love our kūpuna, we love our elders, we look to them for guidance, for context. And then we also lift up our next generations and everyone in between to have a role in protecting and advancing the village.”

Christina Shimizu, co-executive director of Puget Sound Sage, has seen the same thing. 

Shimizu said the advocacy to stop Sound Transit from building in the neighborhood has united young people and nonprofits and advocacy groups that aren’t always on the same side of an issue. 

“All seem to be coming together to uniformly denounce the transit station because of the impact that it would have,” Shimizu said.

“We all know that the neighborhood is really special, and that it’s more than a neighborhood,” Shimizu said. “It’s more than just the pieces that make it whole. It’s our culture. It’s our family connections. It’s our generational ties. And all of us are rallying together to ensure that it will have a future.”

Puget Sound Sage supports public transit generally and supports a location for the station outside of the Chinatown ID that does not make the neighborhood “collateral damage” from the project, the organization wrote in a letter to the Sound Transit board. 


To be clear, while seeing the community come together has been heartening, the work comes at a cost, Barraquiel Tan said. 

Fighting projects like the Sound Transit station ”takes energy we could be putting back into the things to bring the CID, the museum, all of the businesses up,” Barraquiel Tan said. “But right now we’re using that energy just to kind of stave off more attacks. And it feels really overwhelming. And it’s almost like, ‘Please, someone give us a break?’”

Uncle Bob Santos, the unofficial mayor of the Chinatown International District until his passing in 2016, wrote about the neighborhood’s decades of struggle to survive in his 2002 book, “Hum Bows, Not Hot Dogs,” named after the rallying cry for the anti-stadium effort in the early 1970s.

His words are just as true today.

“Despite all of the tremendous threats to the survival of the International District, there is a resilience within the community to overcome the obstacles put in our path toward the goal of community revitalization,” Santos wrote. “I’m convinced that our hard fought struggles prove that the International District can and will survive.”