Murakami Sisters

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

ArtPlace: How will the work you’ve begun be sustained after your ArtPlace grant?

Cassie Chinn: At our last Community Advisory Committee meeting, members met our recently selected artist/designer team, Rumi Koshino and Yuko Kunugi who will soon begin site work to transform the Garden into an accessible public space. Committee member Lawrence Matsuda emphasized a phased approach to the Garden project. We are carefully outlining our work plan with an eye towards physical and programmatic elements that we can accomplish now, and those that we might incorporate in the future.

The Garden will become a new stop on our neighborhood tours, bringing visitors to the space on an ongoing basis. Our project is just one part of a greater movement to promote and build a sustainable Japantown, which is really a community-wide effort. In 2004, Paul Murakami (owner of the Jackson Building, located adjacent to the Garden) worked with business owners John and Binko Chiong-Bisbee to open KOBO at Higo, honoring and reactivating the historic Higo Variety Store with a gallery that features art, design and contemporary fine crafts by Japanese and Northwest artists. MOMO, a gift and clothing boutique that refers to itself as a “happy ‘hapa shop’ blending Asian and European influences,” soon followed. In 2012, we partnered with KOBO at Higo to create new permanent displays at the store, a traveling exhibit and book to share the story of the store and its previous owners, the Murakami family, and attract new customers. Before World War II, Japantown was thriving and active – but the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war decimated the community. The Murakami family was forced to leave their business and home but returned afterwards to rebuild Japantown. In some sense, our project carries on the work they started nearly 70 years ago.

AP: Have new options for sustainability emerged during the grant period?

CC: Community members are excited to integrate the Higo Garden into the neighborhood’s 3rd annual summer outreach event, Nihonmachi Nights. The neighborhood recently got city funding for a street signage project to include translated street signs reflective of the district’s history and heritage. And next year, the neighborhood will become part of a clear alley initiative (in the alley adjacent to the Garden) to remove dumpsters and improve safety and beautification of the area.

AP: How has this work affected the work you will do beyond the grant period?

CC: The Garden project grew out of our long-term relationships with property owners, businesses and community members in Japantown, recognizing dire needs and working together on this incredible, amazing opportunity.

We’ve still got a long way to go. At its height, Seattle’s Japanese American community numbered over 7,000 with Japantown as its core and was an impressive economic force in Seattle. In 1940, Japanese comprised just 2 percent of the population in Seattle, yet they operated 50 greenhouses (63 percent of the city total), 206 hotels and 56 apartments (63 percent of the total), 225 restaurants (45 percent), 90 dry cleaning shops (23 percent), and 140 groceries (17 percent). After the World War II incarceration, Japantown dramatically reduced in size but the remaining buildings, merchants and residents coupled with the newer tenants offer a chance of renewal. With this in mind, we will continue to work to reclaim our culture and history, and in the process help revitalize this incredible place.

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