More to Chinatown International District than good restaurants

Yes, there are still the good Asian restaurants, the friendly mom-and-pop stores and cool knick-knacks for sale in Seattle's historic Chinatown International District.

But there are also new apartments and condos, and a community with residents who love living in one of the city's most ethnically rich neighborhoods.

"This is as close to being in Tokyo as you can get here [in Seattle]," said Dan McKelvey, who works at Microsoft and who moved to the ID for its convenience to downtown and the freeways. It also reminded him of the five years he lived in Japan.

"It's a really cool cultural feel in the area," said McKelvey, 30. And because he lives in an apartment complex above the Uwajimaya supermarket, he has easy access to his favorite Japanese sticky rice.

McKelvey said he often pitches the neighborhood to his co-workers.

"It's a five-minute walk to Pioneer Square. It's 10 minutes to the [Central] library. It's right on I-90, and you can catch a ballgame two blocks away," he said. "I can drive or take the bus. And I've got a great view."

The view from the street is just as interesting. The community includes the Chinatown core, as well as Nihonmachi (or Japantown) on South Main Street, north of South King Street. And just past the freeway heading up the hill toward 12th Avenue South is the area known as Little Saigon for the many Vietnamese shops and stores there.

The city's first Asian immigrants — mostly Chinese, Japanese and Filipino — settled nearby in the late 1800s. They were mainly men who worked at canneries, on the railroad and in logging. They couldn't bring over wives or families because federal exclusion laws against Chinese immigrants.

The current neighborhood was resettled after the Great Seattle Fire in 1889. Many of the current structures were built as hotels in the early 1900s to serve the busy train stations and also to house Asian workers.

In 1942, most of the neighborhood's Japanese-American residents were sent to internment camps in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia moved in after the Vietnam War.

Those working to improve the neighborhood have to overcome the way the district has traditionally been viewed by outsiders.

"The perception is that this area is known as a great place to get food, since the restaurants are open until the wee hours of the morning," said Tim Wang, executive director of the nonprofit Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.

"But there's a lot developing in the community ... there's a lot of potential opportunities that not only includes housing, but a lot of other retail and amenities."

Sue Taoka, executive director of the neighborhood's Preservation and Development Authority said that despite the area's renown, few realize housing is abundant.

"It's one of the best-kept secrets," she said. "People don't realize there is housing, and good housing, here."

The neighborhood agency develops projects that foster neighborhood renewal and owns nine neighborhood properties offering more than 400 affordable-housing units to residents.

From her office, Taoka has also witnessed growth of several market-rate housing projects. She said a complex at Seventh Avenue South and South Lane Street recently converted to condominiums and was sold out within a few months.

The changing demographics mean a growing number of professionals is seeing it as a convenient and trendy place to live, said Wang. But with the economic revitalization, he also worries the smaller stores might be displaced.

Taoka has worked in the International District since 1980, save for a break to work for the city of Seattle. But she missed the spirit and the energy of the neighborhood.

"I missed walking down the street and seeing people I knew that were working hard to take care of this community," she said. "There is a sense of comfort and home. And I missed really good rice."

Long known for its ethnic shops, Seattle's Chinatown International District also has solid housing development. (JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Chinatown International District

Population: 3,314 (2006 est.)

School district: Seattle Public Schools

Distance from downtown Seattle: mile

Places of interest: Uwajimaya, 600 Fifth Ave. S., one of the largest Asian grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest and a tourist destination; Wing Luke Asian Museum, 407 Seventh Ave. S.; Hing Hay Park, 423 Maynard Ave. S., the so-called "Park for Pleasurable Gatherings."

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf