Beacon Hill, Our Story

Kevin Minh Allen May 5, 2010 Comments Off on Beacon Hill, Our Story

A view of downtown Seattle from Jose P. Rizal Park on Beacon Hill. Photo credit: Kevin Minh Allen.

When you drive across the 12th Avenue South Bridge toward the Beacon Hill neighborhood, the unmistakable orangey-hued Pacific Medical Center building looms ahead. You can either go with the flow and veer left onto Golf Drive South to go straight to the heart of this long, daikon-shaped district, or you can get into the right-hand lane and veer right. This will take you up a steep grade to where Dr. Jose P. Rizal Park is located.

Besides offering an unbeatable panoramic view of Seattle’s downtown skyscrapers and two stadiums, you will certainly come across the commanding bust of Rizal that stands at the south end of the park. The park’s namesake honors this prominent Philippine national historical figure. The park was established to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of Philippine independence from Spanish rule. It is just one of many testaments to the Asian American influence on the Beacon Hill neighborhood over the past five decades.

The Beacon Hill area has gone through several name changes ever since European settlers inhabited the area. Needless to say, the Duwamish tribe called it “Greenish-Yellow Spine”, owing to the trees and foliage that dominated the land. Later, in the 1850s, the area was referred to as Holgate and Hanford Hill, named after the two settlers John Holgate and Edward Hanford. Finally, a Union Army veteran and manager of the New England Northwestern Investment Company named M. Harwood Young moved from the Beacon Hill district in Boston, Mass., to Seattle and the area was renamed “Beacon Hill” after his hometown.

Bust of Jose P. Rizal. Photo credit: Kevin Minh Allen.

Beacon Hill has long been known as a favored area for skilled trades people and working-class families to live and play. Interestingly, the Seattle Japanese Language School, first established as Kokugo Gakko in 1902, used to hold annual family picnics at Jefferson Park in the years before the United States entered World War II. These picnics would attract hundreds of people of Japanese descent. However, after the mass internment of people of Japanese ancestry was implemented during the war, any substantial presence of people of Asian descent disappeared from the area for the next couple decades.

In the mid-1950s and 1960s, once the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, the Asian American community entered the struggle for equal housing opportunities in Seattle. Restrictive covenants virtually barred non-White Seattle residents from buying houses or owning property. But when Wing Luke was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1963, he was instrumental in supporting and pushing through the “fair housing ordinance”, initiated by the local NAACP chapter in late 1961 and supported by the Seattle Human Rights Commission in 1963.

Ron Chew, former executive director of The Wing Luke Asian Museum and resident of Beacon Hill, recalls being told of “a lot of families who couldn’t buy certain homes. If they heard that it was for sale, and once the owner saw that it was an Asian family, they just wouldn’t sell.”

Centerpiece of the triptych at Jose P. Rizal Park. A triptych is a work of art separated into 3 pieces – together they tell a larger story, but individually they are their own story. Photo credit: Kevin Minh Allen.

Unbeknownst to many Seattlites, is that Wing Luke voted against the bill twice when it came up for a vote because according to the Seattle Municipal Archives webpage, the bill was “stripped of the emergency clause. … Taking the emergency clause out meant the bill sent to Full Council for a final vote would be an open housing ordinance subject to be overturn by referendum instead of becoming law.” Thus, Wing Luke wanted to ensure that there would be no strings attached to the bill and everyone in the city, regardless of ethnicity or race, would legally be able to live where they so chose. Unfortunately, Wing Luke would die in a plane crash in 1965, three years before the “fair housing ordinance” was passed unanimously by the city council, which included the emergency clause.

Doug Chin, author of “Seattle’s International District: The Making of a Pan-Asian American Community (International Examiner Press)”, recounted how passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 liberalized U.S. immigration policies and paved the way for people from Asia to emigrate to the U.S. in significant numbers. The Asian American population in the ID/Chinatown district grew substantially in subsequent years and with the passage of the “fair housing ordinance” by the Seattle City Council in 1968, many people of Asian descent moved out of the ID/Chinatown enclave and into the nearby Beacon Hill neighborhood where they could now buy and own a house.

Chin added, “[A] good number of new Chinese and Filipino [families] settled in BH (Beacon Hill) because it was affordable and socially/culturally compatible.  In addition, racial strife in the 1960s in the Central District also influenced the movement of AA (Asian Americans) from that area to BH.”

After the wars in Southeast Asia ended in 1975, another significant wave of Asian immigration continued, carrying many political and economic refugees to Seattle. Eventually, they began populating Beacon Hill to begin new lives in this already culturally and racially diverse neighborhood.

Ron Chew’s boyhood exemplifies the neighborhood’s historic diversity.

“I’ve been on Beacon Hill for most of my life. I think my family moved there around 1960 and we lived at 20th and College, which was a real intersection of cultures. There were a number of Chinese families, Japanese American families, African American families and Filipino. We ended up playing together and growing up together.”

One could certainly view the proud visage of Dr. Jose P. Rizal planted in the public park at the tip of Beacon Hill as a beacon. It remains an illuminating example of not only Asian Americans’ presence in the area, but also a testament to their resounding survival and success.

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