Seattle’s first Chinatown emerged in the 1880s to the east of the Lava Beds as the city’s Red Light District, supplying labor for industries harvesting natural resources of the region. This ended with the notorious Seattle Riot of 1886, which resulted in the expulsion of nearly all the city’s Chinese immigrants from Seattle to San Francisco. The neighborhood was gradually rebuilt by newcomers from China, Japan and the Philippines, who established a distinct and dynamic presence in Seattle.
Like many before me, my first exposure to Seattle’s International District (“the ID”) was through food. The search for authentic cuisine has enticed residents of other neighborhoods to the ID for decades. Sure, there are exotic pharmacies and pet shops, but for me, food was the original draw and became the sole stop on my subsequent visits.
Artists have long identified underutilized spaces in places such as the ID. From these pioneers often come tangible improvements and increased neighborhood viability, as with the restaurant FOOD, which launched in SoHo in 1971. Artist Gordon Matta Clark and friends created a neighborhood hub for exchanging ideas over meals; we are starting to see similar gatherings in the ID today.
The presence of contemporary art in the ID entered my awareness in 2001 while exploring the neighborhood with three artist friends after a sushi dinner at Maneki. A recently opened café in the base of the historic Panama Hotel on Main Street caught our attention. Jan Johnson, the owner of the café and the building, invited us to wander upstairs inside the hotel—a magical, intact view into the past.
We peeked into the check-in window at the top of the long entry stair and noticed a hundred small artifacts – art, photos of places, fashion images – pinned on the wall behind the counter. Toward the top was a postcard mailer: a painting of a smiling young couple wearing nothing but cowboy boots and hats. Joseph Park, who stood next to me, was the artist. It was the first time in 10 years in Seattle that I saw a part of my world within the ID.
The following year, another friend, Yuki Nakamura, hosted a show called LAVA, which featured 37 Seattle artists inside the former Pacific Fish Factory, which had been converted to studio spaces and renamed Noodleworks. That opening was followed by a visit to see work by Alex Schweder, whose studio was tucked into a mostly condemned building across the street from Vulcan Development’s headquarters. It was a great space—airy and tall. Alex’s brightly colored scratch-and-sniff wallpaper served as a lovely foil to the building’s weathered interior.
The amount of change taking place in the ID at the storefront level over the past two years is impressive. The International District is now home to contemporary art galleries, a custom furniture store, a designer clothing store, a new tattoo parlor, frame shop, architects’ offices and even a pizza joint. That said, the real story of the ID happens above. Dozens of artists currently work in the neighborhood in fully sanctioned spaces intended specifically for them. Noodleworks remains strong and has been joined by significant presences at the former Immigration and Naturalization Building on Seattle Boulevard South and the HT Kubota Building on Main Street.
The latter is an undertaking by Jaq Chartier and Dirk Park, who created the Aqua Art Miami venue at Art Basel Miami Beach. A couple of years ago, Chartier and Park subleased space in a building on 14th Avenue and Jackson Street as artist studios. They recently employed a similar approach on Main Street, this time also contacting colleagues and business owners who they thought might benefit from relocating to the ID. The result is a transformed artistic community at the historic center of Japantown.
Similarly, the American Hotel Building's conversion to a 294-bed hostel has noticeably impacted the neighborhood, bringing a steady flow of global visitors who contribute to the already international feel. Long-time owners are also taking part in neighborhood transformations by renovating several key historic buildings, including the Alps Hotel the Hong Kong Apartments and Hotel Milwaukee. These apartment buildings now house a diverse resident base, including several of my co-workers. Over a decade after closing their Belltown location – and a year after searching for new space – World Pizza reopened in the Hotel Milwaukee specifically because of the neighborhood’s vitality.
The world is being transformed – including the ID – generating mixtures of influences and cultures unrivaled in the history of civilization. If the majority of classic brasseries in Paris will soon be owned by ethnic Chinese, as opposed to the traditional Frenchmen from the Auvergne Region, then the thought of satisfying a pizza craving in the International District of Seattle may not be such an odd condition after all.