America is a nation prone to forgetting. We’d prefer not to dwell on the difficult and controversial past, when the American Dream dangles glittering on the future horizon. We privilege only particular stories for remembering, and we retell them in ways that leave out many things, in order that the Dream may continue to seem possible. Yet, despite our best efforts to look forward, the things we’ve forgotten persist. Every now and then, someone diligent excavates them from the shadows, and we are given the opportunity to see something difficult and real about America. If we do not look away, we may make real progress toward realizing the things about America we’ve been promised. We may even have a chance to make art.
In south downtown Seattle, in the shadow of the sports stadiums and skyscraper bank offices, there is an old brick building tucked at the junction of Airport Way and the Interstate 90 on-ramp. Vacant for the past seven years, its rooms have a fine layer of dust, and the hallways are thick with ghosts, some dating back as far as the 1930s. For nearly eighty years, this building has been known as the United States Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service.
This past weekend, music and voices echoed through the halls of the building. Dancers were warming up in old offices, and artists were hanging their work on the walls. Seattle’s old INS building has a new name, and forgotten stories are being invited into the light. Welcome to INSCAPE: “Seattle’s former INS building redefined by Culture, Arts, Preservation, and Engagement.” INSCAPE’s mission? To
[pay] respect to the history of the former INS Building and the people who made that history, the incredible structure and its bipolar spirit, the triumphs of those who became citizens and the tribulations of those who did not, the joys and sorrows that manifested the unique nature of this edifice. INSCAPE creates a forum for possibilities; a collaboration with artists and artisans, creative individuals and organizations, the neighborhood and the city, to build a mutually supportive alliance that engages the Greater Seattle community in the experience of art and the celebration of culture. INSCAPE reinvigorates the building and the neighborhood, bringing new life to the district with a renewed spirit created by the investment of the entire community in culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.
INSCAPE will host 125 tenants in nearly eighty-thousand square feet of space, making it “the largest arts and culture enclave in Seattle.” The name demonstrates the founders’ commitment to remembering what the building was. It also speaks to their desire to look forward, generating collaboration and community via interdisciplinary artistic expression. They define INSCAPE in three ways:
noun: the essential, distinctive, and revelatory quality of a person, place, or object; the distinctive, dynamic design that constitutes individual identity, especially as expressed in artistic work.
verb: to bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.
building: a collaboration of creative people and organizations, brought together by a vision of artistic and cultural expression in all disciplines, to form a community that expresses its essential nature through culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.
On October 16 and 17, INSCAPE threw wide the windows and let the fresh air of a sunny October weekend flood in to the old INS building for “Passages,” an open house dedicated to inviting the public to help explore the “past history and future possibility of the building.”
My husband and I visited INSCAPE on Sunday. As residents of South Seattle, we regularly utilize Airport Way to get into the city, but neither of us could picture the building we’d seen on the INSCAPE website. As my husband drove, I looked up the address on his phone. “Its right next to the stadiums,” I told him. “On Airport Way? Really?” he asked, eyebrows raised. Once we found it, we were both a little shocked we’d never noticed it before. Its redbrown roof is visible from the freeway, and up close, the former INS building is no podunk anonymous office building. Its a formidable four-story structure spanning the better part of a block, replete with dozens of artistic flourishes popular in 1930s American architecture. We stood on the sidewalk staring up at the neoclassical marble columns and Art Deco sunbursts over the arched windows and wondered how we’d missed it in all our years in the city. We’ve lived here for over ten years between us, members of our families have called Seattle home for decades, and not one of us had ever walked through the doors of 815 Airport Way.
This is how it goes with government buildings for those of us privileged enough to never have to set foot in them. They’re just part of the landscape. Not so for those like artist and filmmaker Ladan Yalzadeh, who emigrated to the United States from Iran with her father as a teenager in 1986. One of the visionaries behind INSCAPE, Yalzadeh was herself processed in the building in 1995, and she spent the weekend giving guided tours. She led our group out of the lobby to stand on the sidewalk for the beginning of the tour. After pointing out some of the architectural elements of the building, she gestured down the sidewalk, and urged us to imagine hundreds of people lined up out front. “Rain, shine, snow, whatever. All year round, all hoping to make it inside. If you were lucky enough to make it to the door, you were greeted by a very unfriendly guard, and things generally went downhill from there.”
We followed her inside, where we were confronted by the dangling black silhouette letters of an installation by artist Katy Krantz, paying homage to the dozens of nationalities that made their way through the INS building’s bureaucratic corridors.
The letters danced and quivered in the draft from the open door, casting flickering shadows on the brick walls. The installation created a vivid and unsettling presence, a fitting invocation of the thousands of stories that played out here, remembered only by those who lived them. Sometimes the American Dream turns out great. Sometimes it gets you deported. Carrying my infant son through the letters, I felt painfully aware of my privilege.
As we began to walk the halls, we paused at printed squares on the floors, designed by artist Christian French, (also the main curator for the “Passages,”) to resemble spaces in a board game.
Turns out, getting in on the American Dream isn’t quite as simple as showing up and working hard. In recent years, immigration-reform advocates have been fond of saying they welcome immigrants who are willing to follow the rules and come here legally. The problem is, we keep changing the rules. We’ve been changing them for over a hundred and thirty years, and pretty much every country of origin has taken its turn on the thumbs down list at one point or another.
If the number of Americans who straightfacedly assert their family tree dates back to the Mayflower is accurate, then that pilgrim vessel had the passenger capacity of a fleet of Boeing Dreamliners. Despite the intensely American desire to have gotten Here First, most of us came much later, and received varying degrees of welcome when we did. Many of the ethnic groups that seem “uniquely American” today were much less popular in previous generations. Irish, Jewish, or Italian in your family tree? In the late 1900s, you wouldn’t have been considered white. Germans found themselves pretty unpopular roundabout WWI (and WWII didn’t help matters much) and Mexicans have been imported (ever heard of the Bracero program?) and exported by the US government at will depending on our need for cheap labor. The truth is, America has always been a nation of immigrants, and xenophobic immigration policies have come and gone as regularly as the tides. Unless your family has access to education, funds, and happens to arrive at the right time (read: your country of origin is in favor at the moment), the American dream of “legal” status is about as elusive as the one where you land in the White House.
Ladan spent her fair share of time waiting in lines, but as she gratefully acknowledged, she came here with the advantages of having already gained legal access. She showed us Room 121, where she was processed for citizenship back in 1995. She remembered how unsettling it was, even though she’d done everything by the book. As part of her naturalization interview, she was asked to declare whether or not she was a Communist, and if she had AIDS. A Canadian man on our tour added that as part of his green card interview several years ago, he was asked to declare whether or not he was a homosexual. After demonstrating her English proficiency by writing “I love America” on a scrap of paper, Ladan was approved for U.S. citizenship.
As we made our way through the building, art installations and Ladan’s tour began to fill the empty hallways and offices with a narrative of history and personal experience. We were guided through the “Oriental” women’s dormitory and the “Detainee Booking” area, the tiny barber shop and the infirmary and childrens’ dormitories. An artist had strung muslin sheets from the ceiling to recreate bunkbeds in what was once the “Chinese boy’s Dormitory;” through the windows, sun poured in, and the sports stadiums were visible nearby. The pile of bars that previously flanked the dormitory windows were visible in the old exercise yard. While its been almost a century since the wave of Chinese immigration that gave this room its name, young immigrants from other countries were confined here in the last decade. I wondered if they were cognizant of the fact that American citizens were eating hot dogs at baseball games only a stones throw away.
Artist's recreation of the Chinese boys' dormitory
Grates that previously barred the windows
When we visited the exercise courtyard, we spotted something that may well have inspired Krantz’s installation on the main floor: the names and home countries of dozens of detainees, marked on the walls in black letters. The ink? Sun-melted tar, scraped from the corners of the courtyard by detainees on warm days. Looking at the pile of bars, I couldn’t help but wonder if calling them detainees was just a semantic nicety. Here, thousands of people who came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their children were held prisoner, until such time as the complex bureaucracy deemed them admissable or shipped them back where they came from. Granted, some who attempt to come to America have dark pasts, or commit criminal acts while in this country, making their deportation seem legitimate. Others lived here for years, raised children born as American citizens, paid taxes, went to church and worked two or three jobs at once to make ends meet, trying for years to attain citizenship, only to be deported after decades to a country their children knew only by way of stories. The vast majority of people who spent time in the old INS building were no different from my great-grandparents, or yours. They came here—and continue to come here—looking for their shot at the American dream.
The visiting area. Looks an awful lot like a prison.
The final stop on our tour was the basement of the building. Here, the degree to which we have criminalized immigration was painfully clear.
Ladan Yalzadeh (in blue and white shirt) explains how detainees were told to follow the yellow line, much like in a prison, for processing.
The room behind the door held solitary confinement cells.
Before passing through the door, immigrants were ordered to place their hands on the prints for patdowns. I couldn't help but think of the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..."
The interior of a solitary confinement cell.
Our tour ended in the basement. The group broke up and scattered to wander the art spaces in the rest of the building. We stared at the dusty cell for a while before we climbed the stairs back into the daylight. On the first floor, we visited the studios of artist Alica Tormey, whose mixed media paintings glowed in the warm sunlight flooding through the southfacing windows. Dancers from the Manifold Motion group were giving previews of a performance they’ll be putting on throughout the month of November, dedicated to dance interpretations of moss and dirt and mold. On the third floor, a wacky game of “apocalyptic miniature golf” was underway.
In inviting us in, the creators of INSCAPE are asking Seattle to see both the art and the walls behind it. This INS building may have been decommissioned, but there are others like it all over the country, and the stories that take place behind their walls have been in the shadows for too long. The folks behind INSCAPE aren’t out to change US immigration policy or throw open the borders. They’re here to promote art, to “bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.” Sounds like a recipe for America.
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If you’re interested in visiting INSCAPE, getting involved, or leasing a space, contact Sam Farrazaino at 206.257.3022 or www.inscapearts.org. If you or anyone you know has a story about the old INS building, contact Ladan Yalzadeh.