Routes of racism: Civic decision-making and highways at Wing Luke Museum

Apr 5, 2023, 8:59 AM | Updated: 10:24 am

Back in the 1950s, the rise of the American interstate highway system meant new and modern roadways connecting communities for high-speed travel and commerce. Of course, those big new highways often meant that big new corridors had to be cut through the heart of existing cities and neighborhoods, including Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

This topic, and much more, is the focus of an exhibit opening Friday, April 7, at the Wing Luke Museum.

The exhibit is called “Nobody Lives Here: The People in the Path of Progress.” The idea came from a woman named Mikala Woodward, who works at Wing Luke, and the premise is somewhat related to a project Woodward masterminded a few years ago: laying out the old pre-locks shoreline of Lake Washington using chalk, from a device made for marking lines on athletic fields.

That earlier project took something invisible – the old boundaries of the lake – and made them more tangible, if only until the next rainstorm. And that was part of Mikala Woodward’s idea this time, to recall what buildings once stood where Interstate 5 came through the Chinatown-International District (CID) about 60 years ago.

Standing under the freeway on King Street a few days ago, Woodward raised her voice over the roar of the traffic overhead to describe what used to be there.

“The Coast Hotel was here across the street,” Woodward said, referring to one of the few Seattle hotels available to Black people (and listed in the famous “Green Book.“)

“There was a western gear company that took up a bunch of that space, so they were manufacturing, light manufacturing,” Woodward continued. “And then on the other side of here, along Jackson, were several businesses. There was a sporting goods shop, an aquarium supply store, a dentist, and a flower shop. You know, like a low row of businesses.”

There’s no physical trace of any of those old buildings which, at one point, Woodward had imagined projecting images of onto the underside of the concrete freeway structure overhead. Some of those businesses probably moved before the buildings were demolished – but the new freeway cut the neighborhood in half and wiped out many square blocks of what had been a living, breathing community for decades.

The projection plan didn’t quite pan out, but the idea of recalling what once stood in the path of I-5 morphed into an exhibit.

A block or so west of the freeway back at the museum, Woodward’s collaborator on the project, Seattle artist and writer Tessa Hulls, told KIRO Newsradio that the exhibit title – “Nobody Lives Here” – comes from a line in a book called “Hum Bows Not Hot Dogs,” a memoir by CID denizen, the late “Uncle Bob” Santos.

In that part of the book, “he’s talking about the way in which city planners have always used the CID as a throwaway under the premise that nobody lives there,” Hulls said. “So that’s why we titled the show this . . . because we really want to say, like, ‘no, this has always been a residential neighborhood.’”

“It’s just not comprised of a demographic that is usually visible in the eyes of people who are making these decisions” about where to put civic infrastructure like freeways, Hull said, since the CID has been home for a century to Asian Americans. And the freeway wasn’t the first major blow to the community; the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans in 1942 wreaked major havoc on personal lives, businesses, and the fabric of the neighborhood.

One of the main messages of “Nobody Lives Here” is that when plans were being made back in the early and mid-1950s to build I-5 through Seattle, the system and culture were such that neighborhoods where minorities lived were often the easiest places to build freeways – which was true in many parts of the country, not just the Pacific Northwest.

Tessa Hulls says it wasn’t exactly malicious. Freeways and other civic projects were often called “urban renewal,” and in the 1950s, interstate highways were seen by many as welcome improvements to a haphazard collection of highways dating to the early 20th century. But, when it came to the neighborhoods involved, there wasn’t exactly a system in place to recognize the impacts or to then mitigate for those most negatively impacted.

“The inhabitants of these neighborhoods were very clear on what was going to happen,” Hulls said. “And with the freeway planners not necessarily being on the ground, there might be some grace to say that they didn’t fully anticipate just how bad the effects would be.”

“Some of the really interesting materials that we found when doing the research on this are there all these kind of utopian visions of what the freeway was going to be like,” Hulls continued. “And there’s this picture of these architecture students envisioning these beautiful parkways and all of these social services that could be clustered around these freeways.”

But that’s not how it turned out, Tessa Hulls says.

The freeway planners “really just didn’t fully anticipate how much the noise pollution and the atmospheric pollution was going to have an impact in terms of chronic health conditions and asthma and measurably lessened lifespans,” Hull said.

Back out standing under the freeway, both Hulls and Woodward are emphatic that the routing of I-5 through the middle of the Chinatown-International District 70 years ago was most definitely a form of racism.

“Yes, absolutely,” they both said.

Hulls explained how thinking on this particular aspect of interpreting the history of freeway construction has evolved in recent years.

“I think you’re seeing the acknowledgment of that in other communities at a federal level,” Hulls said. “[There was] a tweet from Pete Buttigieg saying, ‘We have to reckon with the fact that Philadelphia’s Chinatown was destroyed by a racist freeway.’ And there’s an acknowledgment of the fact that these were racist decisions, that maybe there’s a little more openness to framing it in those terms now.”

“Absolutely,” Hulls continued. “What happened with the interstate here was an example of racism.”

Both Woodward and Hulls clarified that it was systemic racism, not overt, malicious targeting. Still, the end result was pretty much the same: the Chinatown-International District was whacked in half, and people – and some immeasurable amount of community – were displaced.

“Nobody Lives Here” clearly takes a point of view and puts history to work in service to the decision-makers and the citizens of the present and the future. The exhibit looks beyond just I-5 and the 1950s to decisions made in very early Seattle that displaced people of color and the poor, and it keeps looking right up to the present: from site selection for the Kingdome, to the successful community effort to stop the R.H. Thomson Expressway, to the housing crisis and efforts to address homelessness, and even the future placement of the ST3 rail station.

Standing there on King Street in the noise and full shadow on an afternoon – where it was sunny just a few hundred yards away, away from the shadow of the interstate overhead – Tessa Hulls wove all the threads together.

“We’re standing in front of a chain link fence for an encampment [which] was just swept,” Hulls said. “It’s the same thing. These communities are forced to go to the land that no one else will inhabit, and it just happened again.”

“There aren’t any tents, we don’t see any of these people,” Hulls continued. “And it’s not like they don’t exist. They’ve just been driven elsewhere. And that root cause is what really, I think, we should be looking at.”

“And what I hope this show [will cause] viewers to consider is what is continuing to cause these displacements?” Hull said.

Along with posing these big questions, there’s also a cool interactive map using glow-in-the-dark paint which visitors can explore (using flashlights) to learn what buildings and businesses, and residences previously in certain spots. There are dozens of then-and-now photos and a model of a busy overhead freeway with blinking lights from cars backed up on top.

Tessa Hulls says it’s easy to step outside the museum and look under the freeway and witness the tents and see only a city in crisis. But, she says, there are good things happening, too.

“What you don’t see from that is the way in which mutual aid networks have really stepped in because this community feels like the city has basically given up on them and has no plan,” Hulls said.

“There is a lot of really, really beautiful community happening in this place that’s so easily dismissed,” Hulls said. “And I want people to really consider that. That’s what I was hoping.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Routes of racism: Civic decision-making and highways at Wing Luke Museum