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Saturday, February 9, 2013 - Page updated at 03:30 p.m.
Editorial: First Hill streetcar construction bulldozing its way through Chinatown-ID
Gong hei fat choy. Chuc mung nam moi.
In other words, happy lunar new year.
Sunday marks a new beginning and the end of a celebration spent dining, exchanging gifts, repaying debts and cleaning house.
That was impossible to do in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, where the flow of qi has been blocked by First Hill streetcar construction. South Jackson Street and 12th Avenue South, the hub of Little Saigon, was closed Jan. 26-27 and Feb. 2-3. Car traffic on Jackson was stopped every five minutes.
The Lunar New Year is not a one-day holiday. It’s a weeks-long festival, the Asian equivalent of the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Families prepare ritual foods and shop ahead of time. Ethnic grocers order expensive goods to sell in the weeks leading up to the new year.
It’s hard to imagine the city shutting down traffic at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street on the second and third weekends in December. But that’s what it did to the Chinatown-ID. Customers sat in traffic, or more likely, drove to Bellevue and Kent to buy glutinous rice cakes, candied fruit and red envelopes.
Businesses pleaded with the city to suspend construction for the weekends before the holiday. The city said no.
The Seattle Department of Transportation had planned in advance to suspend construction for the holiday itself, but not for prior weekends. It would have cost $250,000 per weekend to suspend construction at the last minute.
That sounds like a planning mistake made by someone who shows up for a lion dance, but knows nothing of a business cycle that supports a fragile neighborhood.
It adds insult to the city’s decision to build a streetcar-line spur on Eighth Avenue South. The spur will cut through an intersection that thousands of uninsured patients, including many elderly people, cross to get to the International Community Health Services clinic. Despite extensive city outreach, it was somehow overlooked.
The finished streetcar may ultimately help the area, but right now, the noodle shops and roast-duck delis are clinging by their fingernails to a barely-there economic recovery.
King County’s decision to end the free-ride bus zone had already knocked the wind out of the lunch business.
This neighborhood historically has been the first sacrificed and the last consulted about large public projects, including the construction of Interstate 5 and the Kingdome. When alerted to the historical pattern, the answer from Mayor Mike McGinn’s office was: We didn’t know that.
The city is giving $185,000 to Chinatown-ID neighborhood programs. Graffiti removal is helpful, but it cannot make up for sales lost from unsold $3 banh mi sandwiches, which are only profitable after hundreds are sold.
It might be instructive to go learn the history of the neighborhood at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, which will celebrate its federal designation by the National Park System on Sunday at 11 a.m.
There will be lion dances nearby.
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