Mud slinging at Kingdome groundbreaking was community catalyst

Nov 1, 2017, 8:03 AM | Updated: 10:14 am

When the official groundbreaking for the old Seattle stadium called The Kingdome took place 45 years ago this week, the ceremonies were interrupted by flying mud – and it left a long-lasting mark on the community.

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The Kingdome was funded by one of the “Forward Thrust” ballot initiatives in February 1968, and it was approved during the same election when voters first infamously rejected a commuter rail system here.

The stadium, which paved the way for the Seahawks and the Mariners, could have been built in South Park, and it was almost built at Seattle Center where the Gates Foundation is now located. Because of a lawsuit and a public vote, the site ultimately recommended by a state commission was 36 acres of Burlington Northern railroad property next to King Street Station, and just a few blocks from the International District.

From the time the King Street Station site was first recommended in January 1971, a group of young Asian American activists worried that the historically ethnic neighborhood would be adversely affected by the stadium. They believed that these concerns were being ignored by elected officials, and so they decided to make their voices heard.

The inspiration for the demonstration at the groundbreaking came from Frank Irigon.

“My wife and I were driving up from California and we were near Fife … and I had the radio on and I heard a news story that they were going to have a groundbreaking at the Kingdome site,” Irigon said from his home on the Eastside earlier this week.

Organizing a protest pre-Internet

Irigon grew up in Tacoma. In 1972 he was a student at the University of Washington. In the pre-Internet era, it took a real effort to organize a demonstration and to get the word out on short notice.

“I posted a note on the Asian Student Coalition office [on the UW campus], and Al Sugiyama, who later became the first [Asian American Seattle] school board member, as well as its president, saw that note,” Irigon said.

“[Al] called me up and said, ‘Frank, you’re gonna be at the Kingdome, you’re gonna protest at the site? Who’s gonna be with you?’” Irigon said, telling Sugiyama, only half-jokingly, “‘Well, since you called, it’ll be you, me and my wife.’”

With Sugiyama’s help, about 50 Asian American students were recruited to join in the demonstration, which was held midday on a cloudy and damp — and muddy — Seattle day.

Tension and mudslinging

“We actually disrupted the groundbreaking ceremonies,” Irigon said, describing an event attended by elected officials, business leaders, the news media as well as investors and former sports stars vying to secure the NFL franchise that would ultimately become the stadium’s first tenant: the Seahawks.

“There was Hugh McElhenny,” Irigon said. “He made a remark that if he was given a football he could run right through us because he was a fullback or a halfback with the UW Huskies. So we started screaming at him, ‘We dare you to try running through us.’”

“And then there was Liem Tuai,” Irigon said. “He was on the City Council at that time. We started yelling at him. Next thing we knew, somebody picked up a mudball and started throwing it at the plaque they were going to dedicate, and then mud started flying all over the place.”

King County was the lead agency on the stadium project, and they had released a study that spring that said there would be little or no impact on the International District, which was often just called “Chinatown” in those years. And since the stadium was a King County project, the ranking politician on hand was the King County Executive; in 1972, that meant Republican future Governor John Spellman.

“[Spellman] was there, we saw him,” Irigon said. “In fact, a King County Police Officer asked me if we could stop the crowd – the protesters – from going up the stairs [to the stage]. And so I blocked the stairs and told the protesters, the people that were with me, to stop right where they were at and turn around and go back.”

Amidst all the tumult, according to an article written by Greg Heberlein for The Seattle Times, Executive Spellman told the crowd, “For every small group who have opposed the stadium, there are hundreds of thousands who will attend when it is completed.”

And despite the flying mud, Heberlein wrote, Executive Spellman was able to implant a gold home plate in the turf, though a symbolic football that was supposed to be kicked through ceremonial uprights never got off the ground, and the ceremonial first pitch was scrubbed.

To hear Frank Irigon tell it, the demonstrators and police didn’t exactly clash, but the situation did get pretty tense. Before it could get completely out of hand, Irigon, Sugiyama and the other demonstrators went back to the International District, cutting through King Street Station, and getting away from the police who had followed them from the site of the event.

Stadium benefits

And ultimately, of course, the showdown at the “domed stadium” (the Kingdome name wouldn’t be officially chosen until 1975) didn’t stop the facility from being built there, but Frank Irigon says that disrupting the groundbreaking did result in some positive outcomes.

A few weeks after the protest, Frank Irigon and others marched on the Seattle offices of HUD — the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development — to demand low-income housing in the International District. And, a meeting was arranged with County Executive Spellman not long after to share a list of demands, including asking for a community health center in the International District, and to add an Asian American to the hiring committee for the Kingdome director. Both of these requests were eventually granted by Spellman.

“He very much wanted to listen to us,” Irigon said, describing John Spellman as “a very Dan Evans type of Republican, very moderate. In fact, if you were to take a look at him [today] he’d probably be called a Democrat … he was a very good person because he gave us what we wanted.”

Should the long-gone Kingdome – demolished in 2000 to make way for what’s now CenturyLink Field – get some of the credit for what Frank Irigon and his fellow demonstrators were able to accomplish in and around the International District?

“Oh yeah, I mean it was a catalyst. We were able to organize the march on HUD and demand low-income housing,” Irigon said. “It was a catalyst. It galvanized the Asian community, showing that we can do things if we wanted to.”

Irigon also says that Asian American activists in the Seattle area in the early 1970s organized themselves differently than in other cities, creating a movement involving many different ethnicities.

“This is what made our movement here pan-Asian. Al [Sugiyama] was Japanese American. We had a Korean American. I mean, this was the first pan-Asian movement here,” Irigon said. “You go to LA or other places, they’re all [separated into] discrete organizations – Japanese here, Chinese here.”

Irigon says this was because the various individual ethnic communities here were small in number, and then many of future activists attended the same handful of high schools and colleges.

“So they were able to mix and mingle with one another,” Irigon said.

A new threat

While the International District survived the Kingdome and now co-exists alongside CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field, Frank Irigon is still active and engaged in the community. He says the neighborhood is threatened once again by gentrification and Seattle’s booming real estate market, as well as “transit-oriented development” that’s changing the density, look, feel and character of so much of the city these days.

“The whole area’s under siege,” Irigon said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

And though he’s still an activist, Frank Irigon has mellowed somewhat with age. It’s hard to imagine him throwing mud at anyone in the foreseeable future.

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