TheChinatown/International Districtonce housed thousands of working people in hundreds of small rooms in residential hotels. These single room occupancy or SRO hotels were viable and affordable housing options for almost 100 years. But starting the 1970’s new ordinances forced the shuttering of many of these hotels. If you look up from your wandering in the International District today, you will see many of the windows in the uppers floors boarded up.
With the booming Seattle economy, these buildings are now being rehabbed, but the rents are usually market rate, unless the developer is a non-profit. So going forward, the working poor, in dire need of affordable housing, won’t find many options in a neighborhood they once dominated.
Marie Wong, Seattle University associate professorin theInstitute of Public Service and the Asian Studies Program and Public Affairs, studies Pan-Asian districts across America. She is worried about the future of Seattle’s International District. She has documented the history of these SRO’sin the district in her new book, “Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels.”
We toured the district to get a feel for its past, present and future.
It’s a nice long walk and wander. I’ve broken it into two episodes, both around an hour each.
If you want to jump around, here is an annotated list of listening spots to land on along the way.
00:00 Meeting on the street, talking about writing, journalism and the noisy streets.
9:32 We started our tour at the 100 year plus Kong Yick Buildings, flagship buildings of the final, historic Chinatown District.
9:52 The first core of Chinatown was at First and Yesler and why it moved into its current location.
13:00 Developing a Chinatown that won’t move and becomes the conscious execution of Chinese America communities are constructed in Seattle.
14:00 The building of the first SRO’s by the Chinese Free Masons.
15:48 The recessed balconies reveal that Chinese associations built and occupied the buildings. The traces of histories in the buildings.
17:36 The histories of the East and West Kong Yick Buildings and Corporation.
20:26 Can the small businesses housed in Kong Yick as well as other former SRO’s survive?
24:21 The Ozark Hotel Ordinances and how they changed Seattle housing.
27:16 In the 2000’s a renovation for these buildings began- most at market rate
29:00 Restoring these buildings costs between 24-26 million. Developers either partner with community non-profits or charge market rates.
30:20 What was a typical SRO building and room. 350 different SRO’s in downtown Seattle area.
33:15 John Okada, author of “No-No-Boy grew up in Japantown.”
33:42 Wong feels blessed to have met so many people who grew up in the district.
34:35 The district is changing as city’s 1970’s and 2014 housing ordinances reclassify buildings forcing more closures and changing the district with even more impact than even the WW2 incarcerations.
39:06 SRO’s seen by elites as substandard historically and still today even as they are seen as good housing options in some cities. But Wong feels the city council has regulated the city out of affordable options. The money spent and taxes assessed have to filter back into the community.
45:02 Residential Hotel buildings were zero lot lines. Look up to differentiate one building, and its history, from the next. Compare the New Pacific and the Panama hotel.
46:00 We gaze at boarded up buildings. Is the district losing its identity?
47:30 The district entices developer who see the opportunity for higher rents next to the booming downtown core.
50:00 Imagine the district in the 1900’s. It was a boom time for construction of unique SRO’s, like the Milwaukee Hotel, redeveloped by James Koh. Now SRO’s style is persona non grata in many neighborhoods.
55:00 There are light-wells inside most of these half block sized buildings.
56:00 The businesses in the Milwaukee Hotel are emblematic of the new ID.
57:28 Bob Santos, hero of the district.
59:00 Will older Asian-American districts disappear? Will new districts arise?