Track 4: Diversity, Population Change, and Gentrification in the Preservation Dialogue
The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1883, was the first Federal law to prohibit members of a specific ethnicity from immigrating to the United States. The lingering effects of this iniquitous national policy and law are still felt, though the leftover stories from the exclusion years are gradually fading away. The relatively few Chinese-Americans that lived in the United States during the late 19th century through the mid-20th century were able to become entrepreneurs, foster community, and grow families that have ultimately defined a portrait of America. While these stories are clearly evident in larger population centers such as San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, Chinese-American presence in small towns has not been well preserved.
The tangible evidence of Chinese Americans on smaller communities has gradually faded or become obliterated over time. We are often left with oral histories and perhaps a ghost sign at best. Historic preservation identifies and preserves connections to our past, but efforts to restore and rehabilitate historic buildings oftentimes have unintended consequences and erode or completely eviscerate what's left. The built legacy of Chinese Americans was not high style and typically ad hoc in nature, making identification of these types of resources difficult.
In Winslow, Arizona, a non-descript concrete block structure stands vacant after being operated as a grocery store by Chinese immigrants for nearly a century. The property is not overtly connected to its Chinese proprietors, and it in no way conveys a standard definition of historic integrity. However, as one of the sole structures attributed to a Chinese immigrant, this place matters as much as any other in Winslow's long history. It is a portrait of realizing the American dream despite surviving in a country that was constantly finding ways to ethnically exclude its owners.
In Ellensburg, Washington, a developer erased a prominent Chinese American restaurateur's architect-designed 1930s facade renovations on an 1880s commercial block downtown in favor of "restoring" the building to its original condition for personal aesthetic reasons. This Chinese immigrant was able to buy the building in which his business was located, and pay for an architect to design a significant mid-century modern facelift, the combination of which is nearly unheard of in small towns. What is thought to be the last vestige of Ellensburg's Chinatown is now vanished.
In Olympia, Washington, a developer has purchased a property with the intent to erect a parking garage. The extant building is the only structure remaining downtown that served what was once a thriving Chinese American community. The City literally chased the Chinese out, and burned all of their buildings to the ground, with one exception. The history is still being written on this one, as its fate rests in the balance.