The International District is the home of Seattle's Chinatown and a cultural and commercial center for the city's diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Now protected within a national and local historic district, many of its buildings date from the early 1900s, when the area was regraded as part of the development of the nearby railroad stations and train yards. The core of the neighborhood is bounded by Yesler Way on the north, Dearborn Avenue on the south, Interstate-5 on the east, and 5th Avenue S on the west.
Note: This tour is intended for personal use only and was prepared by HistoryLink for the City of Seattle Office of Economic Development, Tourist Division. Copyright 2001, City of Seattle. All references to contemporary businesses in this tour date from June 2001. They are cited for orientation and information purposes only and do not imply recommendation or endorsement by the City of Seattle or by HistoryLink.
Seattle's first Chinatown emerged on the eastern fringe of Pioneer Square in the 1880s as immigrant Chinese workers were recruited to help lay the area's first railroads, dig its coal mines, and can its salmon harvests. Initially welcomed and admired, the Chinese became the target of white resentment all along the West Coast during the economic recession of the mid-1880s. Discriminatory laws were passed to restrict immigration, and a mob of angry whites rioted and forcibly expelled some 300 Chinese residents from Seattle in February 1886. The Chinese community gradually rebounded but most of the original Chinatown was later leveled to build the 2nd Avenue Extension.
In the early 1900s, work began to fill the vast tide flats that extended south of Pioneer Square along the western slope of Beacon Hill to the mouth of the Duwamish River. The city's major railroads agreed to locate their Seattle passenger terminals and marshalling yards in the reclaimed area, and engineers went to work lowering the steep grades along and south of Jackson Street S for development of a new business district. Numerous hotels were built in this area to house railroad passengers and workers.
Thanks in large part to one businessman, Chinese consul Goon Dip, the area became the cradle for Seattle's second Chinatown. Other Asian immigrants soon followed, notably Japanese and Filipinos attracted by the area's inexpensive housing and storefronts for their own businesses and restaurants.
By the late 1930s, Chinatown was established as a distinct neighborhood along with the West Coast's second largest "Japan Town" on and around Yesler Way. Asian American truck farmers also spread through Rainier Valley and became major suppliers to the Pike Place Market and local grocery stores. These communities prospered in their de facto ghettoes despite the lingering racism of their white neighbors.
Relations soured after the Pearl Harbor attack, and few protested when thousands of Japanese Americans were rounded up in the spring of 1942 for "internment" at inland camps during World War II. Local Chinese Americans were compelled to wear badges declaring that they were not Japanese.
Large numbers of African Americans arrived in Seattle during World War II for military duty and defense work, and many occupied the former homes of interned Japanese American residents. Jackson Street bistros and dance halls soon became nationally famous for jazz, swing, and the blues.
The Japan Town never regained its former stature after the war, and the area's population further diversified as growing numbers of Filipinos passed through or settled in the area while working in Alaska's booming canneries. Such growing diversity led Seattle Mayor William Devin to promote a new name in 1951 for the neighborhood, the "International District," although this still rankles some Chinese community leaders.
The International District (and Chinatown especially) gained new clout in 1962 with the election of Wing Luke to the Seattle City Council, the highest post in the Continental U.S. yet achieved by a Chinese American. Although his life was cut short by a 1965 plane crash, Luke was a charismatic champion of human rights, historic preservation, and other progressive causes. He paved the way for many other local Asian American political leaders, including future Washington State Governor Gary Locke, the son of Chinese immigrants.
King County's decision to locate its new Kingdome stadium on the western edge of the International District created new challenges. The city approved a special review district to protect it from unwelcome development and established the King Street Historic District in the mid-1970s. A variety of programs were also launched to promote low-income housing, social services, and public improvements. These would prove important as the neighborhood and city absorbed new tides of immigration from the Pacific Islands and, following the end of the Vietnam War, from South East Asia.
The Kingdome has since been demolished and replaced by new stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks. Construction of a nearby terminal for the downtown transit tunnel and Waterfront Streetcar, restoration of Union Station, and new office, housing, and retail development along 5th Avenue S have helped to revitalize the International District economically without sacrificing its unique cultural amalgam of East and West, old and new, traditional and trend-setting.