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Spark the Parks

Continuing a tradition of community engagement and resilience in the CID

Article by Misty Shock Rule

In the 1970s, Seattle’s Asian American community was fighting for its place in the city. Interstate 5 had sliced the Chinatown-International District (CID) in half. Community leader “Uncle Bob” Santos led protests opposing the construction of the Kingdome on the neighborhood’s east edge, with cries of “Humbows, Not Hot Dogs!” As Santos worked to strengthen the community’s place in the neighborhood, he heard from elders that they wanted a place to grow fruits and vegetables. He negotiated a lease for a 1.5-acre plot on a hillside in the CID that became the Danny Woo Community Garden.

Now celebrating its 45th year, the Danny Woo Community Garden is a symbol of the community’s resilience. With nearly 100 plots cultivated and cared for by the neighborhood’s elderly Asian immigrant residents, it’s also one of only four green and open spaces in the CID. In a city that dubs itself the “Emerald City,” the CID has the least amount of green and open space per capita.


Chris Liu of Spark the Parks at Danny Woo Community Garden

The CID is also one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with a median income of $33,495 compared to $65,277 citywide, according to a 2018 City of Seattle report. CID residents have higher rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and poor mental health. All can be linked to poverty, language barriers, and limited access to resources—as well as lack of green and open space.

Spark the Parks, a project funded by the Historic South Downtown Community Preservation & Development Authority, was created with these challenges in mind. With environmental justice at its core, it takes a holistic approach to the well-being of the community, from physical health to empowerment and self-determination. “We want to utilize green spaces to spark or inspire the next generation of youth leaders, invigorate community engagement, and provide resources to the community,” says Chris Liu, who manages the project.

The project was inspired by Liu’s work with nonprofits such as InterIm Community Development Association (CDA), which Santos founded and led for many years, and Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority and groups like the CID Coalition—all of them devoted to preserving the CID and advocating on behalf of its residents.

“Even though I wasn’t born and raised here, I immediately felt at home in the CID,” says Liu, who came to Seattle from Texas. “As a child of immigrants, I saw myself and my family reflected in this community. The aunties and the elders, youth of all ages, and restaurants serving up authentic Asian cuisine—it all felt very familiar and very welcoming.”

Young people at a Spark The Parks environmental justice lesson at the Danny Woo Community Garden.

Liu learned where the community needed more support, and that perspective is central to the project. “I want to make sure, with the work I do, that I run it by community organizations and people I trust here that have a pulse on what the community would want,” he says. “Groups like the CID Coalition and InterIm CDA have been doing this work for a long time now, and my goal with this project was just to build on that and see how I could make a contribution to the community.”

The work of Spark the Parks, which runs through September 1, 2020, spans the generations that make up the CID. Last summer, the project brought young people from the In My Backyard program, run by the National Park Service, to the Danny Woo Community Garden. The participants learned how elders maintain a connection to their heritage by cultivating crops from their homelands. They also used air-quality monitors to examine how lack of green space can affect health, comparing air quality in the garden, which sits above the neighborhood’s busy streets, to nearby Hing Hay Park in the heart of the CID.

For a lesson on place-based histories, Spark the Parks took 12 high school students from InterIm CDA’s Wilderness Inner-City Leadership Development (WILD) program to Bainbridge Island. They visited sites that hold the stories of Indigenous people, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans who lived there—attracted by the area’s natural resources and later subject to discrimination, exclusion, and incarceration—as well as ongoing efforts to preserve and restore those areas.

The city retrofitted the International District/Chinatown Community Center building last summer so it could offer respite from wildfire smoke. Spark the Parks expanded on that effort by bringing together neighborhood partners and environmental organizations to build air-filter fans and distribute them to community members for use in their homes. Many CID residents are elderly, lower income, living on their own and at increased risk of health problems.

With limitations on creating new green and open space in a city with skyrocketing land values, Spark the Parks is re-envisioning what a park is, expanding the definition beyond just grass and trees to encompass all outdoor spaces that are open to everyone. These are spaces where the spirit of openness and generosity allows groups to thrive, not only in terms of physical health but also community engagement and resilience.

Changes in zoning laws have opened up the CID to increased development. Market-rate housing will make the neighborhood more expensive to live in, putting the existing CID community at risk. Liu envisions a future where Spark the Parks can continue to use education, storytelling, and community building to mobilize green space to fight displacement, just like Santos did 45 years ago.

“I like to talk about the historical and cultural significance of this district—looking at what makes this district so unique in terms of its rich culture and robust story that has been preserved, and using that as a place-making mechanism,” Liu says. “It makes people want to fight for its preservation.”

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