December 2, 2022

Origin Stories | Visit Seattle


Steve Sneed, director of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in 1993 courtesy of MOHAI/Seattle Post Intelligencer Collection

Like the United States in general, shaped by the wide variety of cultures that have reached its shores over the decades, Seattle has an identity shaped by the many people who call it home. Freedom-seeking Americans and those with a pioneering spirit found relatively good opportunities in the Washington Territory. Black Americans found leadership roles here, and in 1886 the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington (1522 14th Ave) was established – it still operates on Capitol Hill.

Likewise, Jewish pioneers, also already rooted in the Northwest (in 1875 Seattle elected the Jew Bailey Gatzert as mayor), came from Europe and the Ottoman Empire to work in haberdashery, retail and the fish trade. Black and Jewish communities mark the Central District as the location of their origin stories in Seattle. The Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (104 17th Ave S) is housed in a former Byzantine-style synagogue built by Scottish Jewish architect B. Marcus Priteca.

An exhibit at Wing Luke Musuem with yellow and white paper hanging from the ceiling by ropes.

The Wing Luke Museum Amy Vaughn

The Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s put this Pacific Northwest upstart town on the map, and by the early 1900s immigrants came from far and wide to try a new life. This era saw the development of the Chinatown-International District, populated by people from China, Japan, the Philippines and other countries. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the neighborhood retains its multi-ethnic makeup, as well as much of the older architecture, including brick buildings like the Panama Hotel (605 S Main St) that still function after more 110 years old. Enter the hotel’s tea room to peek into the basement, where local Japanese residents stored their belongings while internment during World War II.

a child stretching to look into a bakery display full of fresh breads.

Larsens Bakery Jen Dalley

In 1910, Northerners were the largest ethnic group in Washington State. For these immigrants, the Northwest reminded them of home, with its majestic mountains and majestic trees. Today, Norse heritage is most closely associated with the Ballard neighborhood, where early residents worked as factory workers, fishermen, and boat builders. Attend an event at Sons of Norway’s Leif Erikson Lodge (2245 NW 57th St), treat yourself to a flaky Kringle pastry at Larsens (8000 24th Ave NW), or munch on fresh pickled herring or Scandinavian sweets at Scandinavian Specialties (6719 15th Ave NW).

Today, people of Hispanic or Latino descent make up the largest immigrant group in the state. Following World War II and the decades that followed, many families, originally from countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, settled in the region in search of economic opportunities and to escape political turmoil. Many have settled in the South Park neighborhood, where you can find authentic Mexican cuisine and, in Cesar Chavez Park (700 S Cloverdale St), the granite sculptures of famed artist Jess Bautista Moroles. On Beacon Hill, El Centro de la Raza (2524 16th Ave) offers social services, classes and events, and offers immigrants support and protection.