By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the 1970s, in the area now known as the International District, there was a small bit of land owned by Dennis Su in the middle of the dense urban area, surrounded by brick buildings filled with residents and local businesses.
Su, of course, could have developed his 0.2 acres differently, said author Vera Ing, who grew up in Seattle’s Chinatown — but community leaders at the time thought the area needed to be a park, specifically a park for children.
As a young girl, Liana Woo lived with her brother and parents in South Seattle. On weekends, they’d make the trek up to Chinatown, sometimes with Woo’s grandparents. They’d spend hours eating dim sum and grocery shopping.
But perhaps Woo’s favorite part of those excursions was playing with her brother and friends in the International Children’s Park.
“When you’re a kid, you use your imagination,” said Woo. “The park had a dragon. It was a magical place. It was a place that we only went to on the weekend, so it was more like a ritual. … When I think of Chinatown, I think of my family, food, and my grandmother, who is no longer with us, so the park evokes those cherished and special memories with her and my family together.”
The International Children’s Park (ICP) was developed in the late 1970s and built in 1981. It is a small park, at about 0.2 acres, and is located in the Chinatown area of the International District at 700 S. Lane St.
When Woo played in it as a child, the park had a rock mountain to climb on, a bridge, a slide, a merry-go-round, a pavilion, and a ying-yang symbol in the grass. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the park, or even of Chinatown, is the bronze dragon statue, used as play equipment, created by artist Gerald Tsutakawa.
The park’s construction in the late 1970s and early 1980s was helmed by architect Joey Ing (Vera Ing’s husband) and contained the work of landscape architect Thomas Berger. It is one of three parks in the district — the others being Hing Hay Park and Kobe Terrace Park — and the only one that is identified by the City of Seattle as a park primarily for children to use.
“Then, it was felt that because there were children in the [International] District, there needed to be a playground that the kids can go to,” said Joey Ing. “This little pocket park helped fulfill that need over the years.” For his work, Ing was awarded an environment award from King County in the early 1980s.
Though it initially filled its role as an inviting open space in a dense urban area, over the years, the park suffered from disuse due to safety issues, poor visibility into the park, and lack of flexibility for programming.
“As an adult, I moved to Chinatown six years ago,” said Woo. “I moved into the condo across the street from the park. I noticed that there are lots of children and families around, people who weren’t using the park as much as they could be, partly because of public safety issues — transients. People would find unsafe things in the park.”
Thus, the park underwent a face-lift.
“I got together with some of the other organizations and residents in the area and we decided to start the renovation process, to improve the park. And that was five years ago, early 2007,” said Woo.
“The same people that were involved in the beginning were consulted, and we all applaud the next generation, the next effort,” said Ing. “Like everything else, nothing should be considered permanent. Things of this nature need to be upgraded. After all, it’s been 30-something years.”
Friends of the International Children’s Park (FICP), cochaired by Woo, worked with Seattle Parks and Recreation to complete the design development for the new park.
FICP is a group of individuals and organizations committed to the improvement of the ICP. It was first started in the summer of 2007 with a grant to begin community outreach and planning for the redevelopment of the park. Since then, it has been aided through a design studio with students from a UW landscape architecture studio, further grants from the City of Seattle, and meetings with community stakeholders.
The new park’s landscape architect was Karen Kiest, and its artist was Stuart Nakamura. The renovation was completed at the end of February. The park held its grand re-opening celebration on March 3. The renovation was funded by many community sponsors, notably the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), which is the other co-chair of FICP, and through many public funds and grants.
The new park retains a lot of the original elements, such as the rockery. Woo said the pathway is a stretched out ying-yang, meant to be a nod to the original. Tsutakawa’s dragon statue, of course, is still a prominent feature in the park. The layout of the park has been reconfigured, so that the park is more of an open space, to improve on its public safety issues. Now, residents, passersby, and police officers can walk by the park’s entry way and see into it. The park is also now more accessible to those with physical disabilities.
As for the future, Ing has these hopes.
“First, I hope there are always enough friends to keep the park clean and neat. Two, I hope it does not become a home for the derelict — who sleep there and leave their bottles — then it loses its purpose. It should be a safe place for kids to use, whether it’s in the earlier evening or during the daytime. I also hope that it will interest people, that it will be a park that they’ve never seen anywhere else.”
“It’s very inter-generational, because of who the area’s visitors are,” said Woo. “There are a lot of grandparents in the neighborhood who take their kids to the park because a lot of them are caregivers. They just spend a lot of time with the family there.”
“The way I look at it,” added Ing. “It’s not different from the Wing Luke Museum. It’s located in the district, but it’s also for outsiders, to learn from, to learn about Asian culture. … I think if parents come here to go shopping, kids can run over there and have a great time.” (end)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.