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Thursday, July 8, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How The Kingdome Spurred The Asian-American Community's Coming Of Age

Special To The Seattle Times

In 1972, activists of a then-fledgling Asian-American consciousness movement rallied against the groundbreaking for the Kingdome, seeing a threat to the International District. The cause united a community - and led to the creation of many social and health institutions in the ID and the gradual assimilation of onetime radicals into "the Establishment."

With the Kingdome's demise looming, and amid the excitement over new stadiums, it seemed a good time to look back at this piece of history.

We turned to Mayumi Tsutakawa - then a crusading student leader, now a respected civic leader (who, in a bit of an ironic twist, is on the panel to choose artworks for the new football stadium). She talks about then - and now.

For more than 23 years, residents, workers and businesses in the International District have had the giant concrete clamshell of the Kingdome as a neighbor - and now our neighbor is going away. The new families moving in, the football stadium and Safeco Field, will be brighter and fancier, but will they be better neighbors? Will the construction and traffic and crowds from these sports mega-centers be worse for the ID? Will the International District, a fragile, historic, multi-ethnic enclave, survive this onslaught?

Back in 1972, we worried about the district's survival with the coming of the Kingdome, and, as activists, ID residents and student radicals, demonstrated our concerns at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Kingdome on Nov. 2, 1972.

"Our goal was not to stop it," recalls Al Sugiyama, then a University of Washington student, today director of Center for Career Alternatives and a former Seattle School Board member. "Our goal was to disrupt the party, to show the press that we wanted our voices heard, that not everybody was happy about the Kingdome."

Who wanted to celebrate over the Kingdome, when in its shadow, the ID languished with deteriorating, unsafe low-income housing, few human services and little voice in neighborhood planning?

"Our concerns were displacement of residents and land speculation," points out Bob Santos who, as a longtime ID activist, was known as the unofficial "Mayor of the International District" and is now a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development regional official. "We thought for sure the rising cost of property would force the small businesses and low-income people out of the International District."

The day of the groundbreaking ceremony, King County's then-Executive John Spellman was to plant a new home plate on the Kingdome site and throw out the first pitch. But some of us had a different idea for the day's activities. As Spellman began to speak, 40 or so protesters shouted "Stop the Stadium" and some threw dirt clods in the direction of the podium. We waved our signs, announcing "Hum Bao, Not Hot Dogs" and "Preserve the International District." Spellman managed to wrestle through the crowd to plant the plate, but the first pitch was delayed until March of 1976 when the first Kingdome sporting events took place.

One young ID spokesman, Nemesio Domingo, now a King County employee, was arrested after the anti-Kingdome demonstration as we walked back to the ID. Harassed and taunted by police officers who followed us, he committed a "verbal and digital obscenity." The charges were dropped soon after.

Our protesting group was made up of Asian Americans, but also African Americans, Chicanos and others. Many students, like myself, were from the University of Washington Asian Student Coalition.

Like Asian-American student activists in San Francisco and Los Angeles, we were part of the Asian-American Movement, following in the footsteps of the civil-rights movement. Like our "black and brown brothers and sisters," we wanted to raise consciousness and identify with "Yellow Power," not hide from our ethnic roots. Rather than assimilating into the mainstream of American values and ignoring racial discrimination, we wanted to build our own community and fight injustices head-on.

We were passionately opposed to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ("Americans fighting people that looked like us"). As in other major cities, we moved from speaking out against the war to "recognizing the enemies at home" and saw that urban development could destroy our historic ethnic enclaves and the low-income housing needed for residents who lived there. In Seattle, the Kingdome posed the perfect visible target for our anger and fear of losing the International District.

Some other protesters represented a multiracial group concerned with fair hiring of workers of color on construction sites; other worker representatives were Asian-American members of national radical left-wing political groups.

But most inspiring for us young, mostly middle-class college students was the presence of our respected elders, the Manongs, or "uncles" in Filipino dialect. According to Mari Hayashi, now a manager at Blowfish restaurant, "I grew up on Capitol Hill, so the ID was kind of foreign to me, but the young Filipino activists like Silme Domingo (who later became a cannery-worker organizer and was murdered in the union's office) and Nemesio Domingo were very passionate about the needs of the elderly. I myself probably took part because I just wanted to get out of class."

The Manongs, whom we saw as long-suffering Asian men, were denied citizenship or marriage due to U.S. or Washington state laws, and had toiled for years in lumber, railroad or cannery jobs, systematically excluded from better jobs and housing. Some in poor health, the Manongs were pleased to show up and demonstrate with us young activists.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 14, 1972, a much larger group of about 140 youths and elderly marched to the offices of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, then located at Second Avenue and University Street. This time, march monitors ensured an orderly demonstration and signs proclaimed, "Don't Let the Dome Doom Chinatown." A few dozen demonstrators proceeded up to the offices of HUD officials and demanded funds for housing, only to be told that the city would have to make the ID a "priority" in its plans.

Since we couldn't stop the Kingdome construction, we formed the Concerned Asians and got the backing of the Governor's Asian American Advisory Council. One spokesman was Peter Bacho, then a law student and now University of Washington professor, who explains, "What all the moves were about . . . was to pressure local government to come up with assurances to make sure the neighborhood would stay stable. One of the results was enough political pressure to generate federal monies for elderly housing."

After many meetings, sympathetic city, county and state elected officials and staff members found ways to fund direly needed services in the ID. Bilingual social workers were hired to visit elderly to qualify them for meals programs and other social services. An outreach clinic of the Pioneer Square Clinic was established in the International District Improvement Association offices and later, with the assistance of UW medical students, became the International District Health Clinic. UW social-work professors and students began a counseling service that evolved into Asian Counseling and Referral Services. The ID Emergency Center provides on-the-spot first aid now.

The Seattle City Council wrestled with the need for softening the Kingdome's impact on its neighboring districts and "controlling development" and came up with the idea of Special Review Districts that would involve local business owners and residents in reviewing proposals for land and building development.

Today, the International District is more than just a place to eat hum baos instead of hot dogs. It continues to fulfill the century-old role of an intrinsically important ethnic center of languages, customs, foods, architecture, products, organizations and celebrations. It is a welcome area for Asian and Pacific Islander seniors and newcomers to America.

Looking back, many then-activists believe the Kingdome threat to the ID was a blessing in disguise: serving as catalyst for funding needed social services, and a political training ground.

As Peter Bacho says, the demonstrations resulted in "a realization by local politicos that the ID was important to Asian Americans, and that our votes were important to them; it helped a lot of folks mature politically." Bacho says the two new stadiums don't pose much threat to the ID, because "there seems to be so much new money and investment in the ID."

The ID is stronger now, with more economic investment and more political clout. But our new neighbors are also much heavier hitters. Watchdogs will always be needed to preserve low-income housing and guard against encroachment by development.

As a late 40-something looking back on my early 20-something days, I am proud of the work that we did on behalf of the community back in the '70s. I and my colleagues from the Kingdome demonstrations are ourselves somewhat Establishment figures now. Many of us work for government agencies and community and labor organizations, have held public office, teach in universities, or are at home raising children.

Now, it seems there was always "the community." But in reality, we helped to build that "community," and defined it as a conscious recognition of the likeness and mutual needs of people who share an ethnic identity.

I am satisfied and not surprised that, in the past year, I have come back to the ID, and now work at the Wing Luke Asian Museum. But I am perplexed that we are again contemplating how to "save the ID" because of the "threat of the stadium(s)." Is it deja vu, or denouement? A repeat of the plot or the end point?

We may not have to throw mud balls this time. But we will need to keep our eyes open and watch out for those curve balls in negotiations that affect our neighborhood, or we may be out of the game for good.

Mayumi Tsutakawa gives us this bio: "President of the UW's Asian Student Coalition in 1972; first full-time Asian female reporter for a major daily newspaper in the Northwest (at The Seattle Times, from 1976 to 1982); later executive director of the King County Arts Commission; now director of external relations for the Wing Luke Asian Museum. She is really old."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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