Garfield High School outside of KOBO at Higo during Nihonmachi tour.

Garfield High School outside of KOBO at Higo during Nihonmachi tour.

ArtPlace spoke with Cassie Chinn, Deputy Executive Director, and Beth Takekawa, Executive Director of The Wing, about the Higo Garden project, reactivating a hidden, historic outdoor space in Seattle’s Nihonmachi (Japantown).

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your efforts? How did you get burned, or how did you prevail?

CC and BT: The biggest risk is likely the siting of the Higo Garden project adjacent to a new city streetcar line. The community worked with the city to locate streetcar stops in the neighborhood, as a way to prevent the more efficient transportation between large urban hubs from reducing business for the smaller neighborhoods in between. We learned from the experiences of the recent light rail construction that fully or partially destroyed buildings in its Rainier Valley route, of which 30% were Vietnamese businesses. Many of these businesses were unable to survive the construction period, with multiple sales and turnovers to new owners. However the light rail project created a $50M mitigation fund to aid the affected businesses. In the case of the streetcar project, there is no mitigation fund, and the city is hoping the shorter construction period will allow the neighborhoods to survive. In the midst of streetcar line construction now, the Higo Garden’s neighborhood has reported a 30% loss of revenue, with sales down 99% on days when crews are directly in front of their small, mostly family-run businesses.

An added negative is discovery of a sinkhole developing at the east end of the Garden’s block, due to streetcar construction. The Higo Garden project itself is an attempt by the community to come together and create an authentic and inspiring draw to attract people to patronize the area, rather than transit through or avoid. It is utilizing the existing effectiveness of The Wing’s daily neighborhood walking tour program to develop an activated garden spot, rather than simply an improved physical space.

Do you have any indication of the potential for containing this risk?

CC and BT: We recently experienced an amazing opportunity, a pilot project of sorts, to experiment with the potential for neighborhood tours to the Higo Garden. Due to the dedication of a high school librarian and teachers from a local high school, in a single day the entire freshman class numbering 400 toured Nihonmachi, visiting merchants and parks including Kobo at Higo, the Panama Hotel and Kobe Terrace, while completing a booklet of activities associated with the area’s history and culture. Walking many blocks from their school in the rain (of course), the students were surprisingly engaged and posed their own questions. It was a special opportunity to create hundreds of new ambassadors for the neighborhood, who now likely know more about Nihonmachi than their parents, another plus! A tour conducted in the midst of streetcar construction, though it is too early to say how the community will ultimately fare through this time, we gained lessons from this special tour and now envision offering a future construction-free package for large tour groups.

Garfield High School outside of KOBO at Higo during Nihonmachi tour.

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