Historian Awarded Fellowship to Study Evolution of Seattle’s Urban Landscape

Megan Asaka will complete research on the impact of migrant workers on the city’s built environment

Megan Asaka

Megan Asaka

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A University of California, Riverside historian has been awarded a Dumbarton Oaks Mellon Fellowship in Urban Landscape Studies by Harvard University to study the historical presence of migrant workers in the physical landscape of early Seattle.

Megan Asaka, who joined the UCR Department of History in 2014, will spend fall 2016 at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to complete research for her book manuscript, “The Unsettled City: Migration, Race, and the Making of Seattle’s Urban Landscape.” The fellowship, approximately $30,000, will allow Asaka to conduct research at Dumbarton Oaks and in Seattle.

“The Unsettled City” examines the early period of Seattle’s urban formation, from the mid-19th century to just before World War II.

“Seattle’s urban workforce consisted overwhelmingly of migratory and transient populations who labored in the seasonal economy of the Pacific Northwest that revolved around the extraction and processing of natural resources,” Asaka explained. “Though these Native American, African American, and Asian migrant workers figured centrally in the rise of Seattle as a modern metropolis, their role in building the city has largely been forgotten.”

This was not an accident, but rather the result of specific laws, policies, and practices that allowed for their inclusion as laborers but not as full citizens or participants in urban society, she said.

“City officials, elites, and reformers continually depicted these workers and the spaces they inhabited as undesirable, troublesome, and impediments to urban progress, thus laying the foundation for their displacement and removal. Today, the physical landscape bears little evidence of their historical presence in the city, an erasure that has been reproduced in scholarly literature and contemporary memory,” Asaka added.

Seattle had one of the largest populations of transient workers of any urban area in the U.S. in 1920, according to federal government estimates.

“Workers passed through Seattle on their way to and from the camps, canneries, and forests on the outskirts of the city, giving rise to a landscape shaped by the constant movement of people,” Asaka explained. “Historians have underestimated the impact of mobile populations in shaping urban regions because of an archival bias that tends to favor those who are stationary.”

Asaka used a diverse array of sources, including maps, census data, newspaper accounts, building plans from engineering and fire department records, photographs, and oral histories to chart the routes seasonal workers travelled and the places they stayed along the way, including agricultural camps, bunkhouses, lodging houses, shantytowns, and slums.

“These sites became subject to surveillance, policing, and, eventually, demolition,” the historian said. “The book ends in 1941 with the destruction of a multiracial slum district on the outskirts of downtown to make way for a housing community serving middle-class white families.”

Dumbarton Oaks, affiliated with the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is one of the few institutions in the world with a program devoted to garden and landscape studies that targets at both humanities scholars and landscape practitioners. The Mellon Fellowships are intended to build constructive dialogue between both groups about the history and future of urban landscapes.

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Megan Asaka
E-mail: megan.asaka@ucr.edu

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