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Originally published August 24, 2011 at 7:53 PM | Page modified August 25, 2011 at 8:02 PM

Cameras sought to fight crime, protect vulnerable in Chinatown ID

In Seattle's International District, community leaders want to install a network of surveillance cameras to help solve crime. Many neighborhood residents are elderly and the majority speak little or no English, making them more vulnerable to crime.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

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It's a neighborhood where traditions run deep, where residents still walk to the grocery, the pharmacy and the beauty shop on the corner.

In Seattle's Chinatown International District (ID) — one of the city's oldest neighborhoods — nearly 70 percent of residents are foreign born, many are elderly and about two-thirds are considered linguistically isolated because they speak little or no English.

While that dynamic makes this immigrant neighborhood a haven for them, some worry it may also make them more vulnerable to crime.

"Drug trafficking, prostitution, panhandling ... homeless people demanding food — we see it all down here," said Nora Chan, who has a condo in the Chinatown ID and is president of Seniors in Action Foundation, a 600-member organization that advocates for the neighborhood's elderly.

But because of the language barrier, Chan said, some residents are reluctant to report crime. "For some of these seniors, their apartments are their prison." Hundreds are expected to participate in an anti-crime rally this Sunday to draw attention to the neighborhood's problems. Scheduled for noon at Hing Hay Park, 423 Maynard Ave. S, the rally will be followed by a fundraiser at 6 p.m. at House of Hong Restaurant, 409 Eighth Avenue South.

Money raised at the dinner will be added to funds from the city and state, as well as money from private donors, to purchase a network of surveillance cameras to be installed around the neighborhood.

The cameras could be useful in helping police identify those committing a crime in the neighborhood. In fact, one test camera in the area already has helped authorities capture and prosecute a suspect involved in drug dealing, Chan said.

Chinatown ID ranks fourth among city neighborhoods in the number of violent crimes in the past year, as well as over the past six months, Seattle Police records show.

Chan said three of her organization's members were assaulted walking through the parking lot along King Street. In one incident, an elderly woman was thrown to the ground after her purse was stolen.

"This neighborhood is an important part of this city's history and we want to improve it," she said. "We obviously can't ask the government to do everything for us. It's time for us to unify the whole community and fight back."

Over 55

Between 2000 and 2010, Chinatown ID grew 20 percent to more than 2,500 residents. Nearly two-thirds are Asian or Asian-Americans — mostly Chinese — up from just over half the population 10 years ago. The percentage of those over 55 also increased.

Don Blakeney, director of the Business Improvement Area for Chinatown-International District, said the neighborhood is seeing a revitalization, of sorts, with some new businesses moving in.

There are plans, for example, to double the size of Hing Hay Park, and streetcar stops are planned along Jackson Street as part of the new First Hill Streetcar line, funded by Sound Transit, which opens in 2013.

In addition, over the past decade, 750 new subsidized and market-rate housing units have gone up in Chinatown ID. Before 2003, the neighborhood had not seen any new family housing in over 50 years, said Joyce Pisnanont, a manager with the neighborhood Public Development Authority.

The new housing has drawn families — many of them non-Asian immigrants, Pisnanont said. And, "we've also seen a growing number of young professionals."

Culture

Chan said community leaders want to make the neighborhood safe for everyone — not just those who visit the shops, restaurants and museum here, but also those who have built their lives in this place that remains the center of Asian life in the Seattle area.

"Many people just want to stay here, keep their culture," Chan said. "Many of them speak only Mandarin, Cantonese ... They shop Uwajimaya, they eat at the Chinese restaurants. They bank here. And on weekends, their kids and grandkids come to visit them here."

Many are from a culture where they don't believe calling the police will make much of a difference, Blakeney noted.

Chan said she took many of the group's members to 911 dispatch offices to train them on how to contact law enforcement for help.

"They feel if they call police they'll ask so many questions they are not able to respond to," she said.

Many of the neighborhood groups work closely with Seattle police to address neighborhood crime concerns. Officers on bikes patrol the neighborhood along with regular patrols.

The neighborhood also has a solid block-watch program, Pisnanont said, pointing out that 75 percent of its participants are seniors.

Sean Whitcomb, spokesman for the Seattle Police Department, said Chinatown ID, like Belltown, draws a broad mix of people — from transients and those with drug and alcohol problems to people seeking entertainment.

Surveillance cameras are a useful tool in solving crime, and detectives, whether they are investigating a robbery or a hit and run, are always canvassing for them.

"We applaud the community for taking the initiative to strengthen their community and make it more safe," Whitcomb said. "It sends a solid message to people who commit crime in the area."

Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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