Seattle Center, seen from the air
The skyline of Seattle, with Seattle Center in the foreground. Seattle Center was the site of the Century 21 Exposition in 1962; in the decades since, it has become a permanent tourist attraction and entertainment hub. (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Beyond the tow­er­ing ever­greens and glim­mer­ing waters that encap­su­late King Coun­ty rests a mosa­ic of cul­tures and his­to­ries – lives that have con­verged here from around the world, weav­ing the fab­ric of a region in con­stant evo­lu­tion. A serendip­i­tous dis­cus­sion with a refugee opened my eyes to the rich cul­tur­al diver­si­ty and rapid evo­lu­tion of this region over three hun­dred years.

King Coun­ty is a place that encom­pass­es not just land but the sto­ries of diverse lives that have shaped its past and con­tin­ue to shape its present and future. Nes­tled in the heart of Wash­ing­ton state, King Coun­ty holds with­in its bound­aries the bustling metrop­o­lis of Seat­tle, a city known not only for the icon­ic Space Nee­dle but also for its role as a melt­ing pot of cul­tures, ideas, and histories.

Imag­ine a coun­ty span­ning about 2,100 square miles, home to the most pop­u­lous city in the state, where more than two hun­dred lan­guages echo in the air, cre­at­ing a har­mo­nious sym­pho­ny of human expres­sion. This is Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Coun­ty, where glob­al­iza­tion has woven its threads into the very fab­ric of its being, con­nect­ing it to the world in ways unimag­in­able just a few decades ago.

But King County’s sto­ry is not just about its present.

It reach­es back to times when native cul­tures thrived in the area, speak­ing var­i­ous dialects of Lushoot­seed and embody­ing a rich cul­tur­al web.

It extends to the first Euro­pean set­tlers who arrived in the 1850s, mark­ing the begin­ning of a trans­for­ma­tion that would shape the course of its history.

As I delved deep­er, I uncov­ered the chal­lenges and tri­umphs that this coun­ty had expe­ri­enced over the years. From the waves of immi­grants drawn by the promise of a bet­ter life, to the strug­gle against dis­crim­i­na­to­ry laws that sought to divide, to the flour­ish­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism that defines the region today – every step has left an indeli­ble mark on King County’s identity.

In this arti­cle I will look at recent his­to­ry, explor­ing the inter­sec­tions of cul­tures, the resilience of com­mu­ni­ties, and the con­tin­u­ous evo­lu­tion of a place that stands as a tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of diver­si­ty. King Coun­ty is not just a geo­graph­i­cal enti­ty; it’s a liv­ing embod­i­ment of the human spirit’s unyield­ing quest for under­stand­ing, growth, and uni­ty in the face of change.

The first Euro­pean set­tlers came to the area in the 1850s soon after Great Britain ced­ed the region to the Unit­ed States in 1846. Trade with Asia start­ed in 1882 as ships start­ed sail­ing back and forth between King Coun­ty and Asia.

With that trade came the first group of Chi­nese immi­grants to the region who found jobs work­ing on the rail­road and oth­er parts of the local economy.

As rail­roads start­ed con­nect­ing the Pacif­ic North­west to the rest of the Unit­ed States in the 1890s, Rus­sians, Greeks, Serbs, Sikhs and Fil­ipinos moved into the region as well and the region recov­ered from an eco­nom­ic depres­sion brought on by the end of the gold rush. Many of these immi­grants were not eli­gi­ble for Unit­ed States cit­i­zen­ship and con­se­quent­ly were sub­ject to land laws that were enact­ed when Wash­ing­ton Ter­ri­to­ry became a state, which pro­hib­it­ed “aliens who were inel­i­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship” (main­ly Chi­nese and Japan­ese) from own­ing land.

As the econ­o­my of the region suf­fered, the Asian pop­u­la­tion in Seat­tle and Taco­ma became the tar­get of vio­lence. Fur­ther laws such as the Chi­nese Exclu­sion Act of 1882 were enact­ed to bar Chi­nese immigrants.

First gen­er­a­tion Japan­ese farm­ers had come into the region in the 1920s and devel­oped milk and straw­ber­ry pro­duc­tion on leased farms.

The Japan­ese fared a lit­tle bet­ter than the Chi­nese because of the inter­ven­tions from the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment offi­cials and Japan’s sta­tus as a ris­ing power.

By 1910 there were 70,000 Japan­ese immi­grants in Washington.

How­ev­er, the sit­u­a­tion for immi­grants wors­ened soon after World War I, as impe­r­i­al Japan began expand­ing its sphere of influ­ence. A new law was passed which dis­al­lowed even leas­ing of land by non-cit­i­zens.

From World War II till the 1960s, African-Amer­i­cans moved into Pacif­ic North­west in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers and soon became the largest minor­i­ty in Seat­tle, over­tak­ing Asian-Amer­i­cans (Chi­nese, Japan­ese and Fil­ipinos). How­ev­er, like the rest of the nation, African-Amer­i­cans faced discrimination.

These atti­tudes and asso­ci­at­ed laws that pro­mot­ed seg­re­ga­tion con­tin­ued to per­sist in Wash­ing­ton State till the 1960s when the alien land law was final­ly repealed after two unsuc­cess­ful attempts between 1960 and 1966.

The repeal of these laws and chang­ing atti­tudes of peo­ple in the region along with an influx of immi­grants shaped how cities and com­mu­ni­ties in King Coun­ty have been pop­u­lat­ed over the last six­ty years.

With the Cen­tu­ry 21 Expo­si­tion, also known as the Seat­tle World’s Fair, the city drew world­wide atten­tion. The largest Japan­ese fair mar­ket store in the Pacif­ic North­west start­ed in the region in the 1960s soon after the fair.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton (UW) also decid­ed to increase its racial diver­si­ty and hired Samuel Kel­ly, a retired army colonel, as its vice pres­i­dent of minor­i­ty affairs. The uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion approved the con­struc­tion of a cul­tur­al cen­ter which opened in 1972. The Eth­nic Cul­tur­al Cen­ter (ECC) housed events by Chi­nese, Indi­an, Chi­cano, Viet­namese and Cam­bo­di­an immi­grants and indige­nous peoples.

It became a home away from home for the immi­grant stu­dent pop­u­la­tion from across the world, home to a col­lec­tion of incred­i­ble murals.

In 1965, the updat­ed Immi­gra­tion and Nation­al­i­ty Act removed the coun­try of ori­gin based annu­al quo­ta that was estab­lished by the Luce-Celler Act.

This change allowed many edu­cat­ed and skilled immi­grants from Asian coun­tries to migrate to the Unit­ed States. Some of these immi­grants came to King Coun­ty, sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­tribut­ing to the diver­si­ty of the region.

By 1970, King County’s pop­u­la­tion had increased 26% in the pre­vi­ous decade, reach­ing 1,182,311. Whites still account­ed for 93% of coun­ty res­i­dents, fol­lowed by 40,597 African Amer­i­cans, 29,141 Asian Amer­i­cans, 7,391 Native Amer­i­cans and 3283 peo­ple of His­pan­ic her­itage. Oppres­sive land laws were repealed and while racial­ly dis­crim­i­na­to­ry covenants were still present in land deeds, their enforce­ment dwin­dled as years passed.

In 1996, King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Gary Locke became the Ever­green State’s chief exec­u­tive. Wash­ing­ton became the first Low­er Forty-Eight state to elect an Asian-Amer­i­can can­di­date as its gov­er­nor.

Between 1970 and 2023, the pop­u­la­tion in the region dou­bled from 1.15 mil­lion to 2.27 mil­lion. Pop­u­la­tion diver­si­ty also increased, with the Asian com­mu­ni­ty grow­ing (it saw twen­ty-fold growth) and the His­pan­ic / Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty grow­ing (it saw sev­en­ty-five fold growth). In the 1970s, most Asian immi­grants came in as refugees from Viet­nam, Laos and Cam­bo­dia, while the 1980s saw migra­tion from Chi­na, Korea, India, and Pacif­ic Island nations.

By 1980, two-thirds of the state’s Asian Amer­i­cans were for­eign born as opposed to two-thirds being Amer­i­can born. 1980 was the last year that more Seat­tleites were born in Wash­ing­ton than in the oth­er forty-nine states.

The street trade along Jack­son Street was replaced by shops and restau­rants of Hieu Saigon, Seattle’s new Lit­tle Saigon. The 1980s saw a flood of refugees from Viet­namese boat peo­ple and their Hmong, Mien, and Khmer coun­ter­parts, to East Africa, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, the for­mer Sovi­et Union, Bhutan and Myanmar.

This influx enriched local cul­ture (and din­ing), invig­o­rat­ed ail­ing neigh­bor­hoods, and chal­lenged schools and social services.

The over­all pop­u­la­tion of King Coun­ty increased from around 1.5 mil­lion res­i­dents in 1990 to over 2.26 mil­lion by 2018, growth of over 50%, while the rest of the Unit­ed States grew by only 32%. Cities such as Ren­ton and Kent grew by 153% and 244% respec­tive­ly. Between 2010 to 2020, Seattle’s pop­u­la­tion grew by 21% while King Coun­ty grew by 16%. This was the first time in over a cen­tu­ry that the city grew more than the sub­urbs!

While Boe­ing was one of the biggest employ­ers in Seat­tle pri­or to the 1970s, new employ­ers start­ed appear­ing in King Coun­ty start­ing the 1980s, the most influ­en­tial of which was Microsoft. As it grew, Microsoft attract­ed tal­ent from around the world, dri­ving sec­ondary jobs, and char­i­ties. The region became an even big­ger tech­nol­o­gy hub with the rise of ecom­merce pow­er­house Amazon.

Much of the increase in King County’s pop­u­la­tion has been due to an influx of for­eign-born res­i­dents. The per­cent of for­eign born res­i­dents of King Coun­ty rose from 15.4% to 23.5% between 2000 and 2018.

Of the pop­u­la­tion increase in King Coun­ty from 2000 to 2018, 52% of the growth came from for­eign born res­i­dents while the per­cent­age con­tri­bu­tion of for­eign born res­i­dents to the growth of res­i­dents for the over­all Unit­ed States was 32%, indi­cat­ing that more for­eign born res­i­dents moved to King Coun­ty. Greater than half of the for­eign born res­i­dents in King Coun­ty came from Asian coun­tries (Chi­na, Tai­wan, Hong Kong and India) fol­lowed by Mexico.

With this influx of for­eign born res­i­dents, the lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty of the region also blos­somed. Near­ly 600,000 res­i­dents of King coun­ty speak a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish at home. Seat­tle Pub­lic Schools cur­rent­ly serves near­ly 7,000 Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers across one hun­dred and six­ty-two lan­guages spo­ken at home.

Accord­ing to fed­er­al data, Seattle’s 98118 zip code is home to speak­ers of sev­en­ty-eight lan­guages, more than any oth­er zip code in the Unit­ed States. And Kent is cur­rent­ly ranked as the sixth most diverse city in the Unit­ed States.

Groups of immi­grants often chose to con­gre­gate togeth­er after mov­ing to King Coun­ty. In 1970, most non-white pop­u­la­tion was cen­tered around south Down­town Seat­tle. As years passed, the Asian pop­u­la­tion shift­ed in con­cen­tra­tion across the lake into New­port, Belle­vue and Red­mond while the His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion moved fur­ther south into Ren­ton, Kent and Auburn. Many in Seat­tle’s Black com­mu­ni­ty also moved to South King Coun­ty as the years passed.

Set­tle­ment pat­terns shaped by eth­nic­i­ty and lan­guage are appar­ent in neigh­bor­hoods like Bal­lard, West Seat­tle, and SoDo.

King Coun­ty has cre­at­ed lan­guage access poli­cies to become more accom­mo­dat­ing to peo­ple with lim­it­ed Eng­lish proficiency.

The coun­ty has cat­e­go­rized lan­guages into three tiers. Span­ish is con­sid­ered a Tier 1 lan­guage and the coun­ty man­dates that all doc­u­ments be trans­lat­ed into Span­ish and made avail­able by default to the res­i­dents of the county.

Tier 2 lan­guages (Viet­namese, Russ­ian, Soma­li, Chi­nese, Kore­an, Ukrain­ian, Amhar­ic and Pun­jabi) are ones where the gov­ern­ment “rec­om­mends” trans­la­tion and Tier 3 are ones for which trans­la­tion ser­vices are “encour­aged”.

These clas­si­fi­ca­tions are based on the num­ber of peo­ple who lever­age trans­la­tion ser­vices as they use pub­lic ser­vices.

Look­ing ahead, pro­jec­tions show Asian and His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tions increas­ing over the next two decades while the non-His­pan­ic White pop­u­la­tion plateaus.

King County’s eth­no­lin­guis­tic make­up will con­tin­ue to shift but the over­all pic­ture promis­es to become even rich­er, as new immi­grants arrive, bring­ing their cul­tures with them. The sto­ries embod­ied in each lan­guage will inter­sect, shap­ing the county’s future as they have its past and present.

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