By SIDNEY SULLIVAN May 16, 2015
Seattle police forces barricade weekend traffic from entering the Ave.
Not for street riots, protests and violence. But instead for the University District StreetFair.
The U District StreetFair, sponsored by the Greater University Chamber of Commerce, welcomed approximately 300 participating artists and vendors, and nearly 50,000 visitors circulated throughout University Way Northeast. This weekend marked the fair’s 46th consecutive year of operation, and according to the fair’s official website it is the longest running fair of its kind throughout America. Since the fair’s launch in 1970, it continued to serve the community by encouraging longstanding unity and harmony.
Initially, the U District StreetFair came to life under Andy Shiga, a Japanese American merchant and peace activist, in order to combat the local social unrest of the 1960s. During this point in history, there was a great divide between the local community, students and merchants. Hence, Shiga’s end goal was to mend this rift through a community-building festival that honored live music and the arts.
When asked about the historical turmoil, Toshimo Shiga, widow of Mr. Shiga and current president of Shiga’s Imports, said, “We had a problem with street people. Stores were closed, shops were dirty and windows were broken. Poor business. My husband believed in peace. So he made peace.”
By 1970, Shiga accomplished that with the assistance of Safeco executive Ron Denchfield and the University District Chamber of Commerce. The committee hosted the first University District StreetFair that year on May 23 and 24. As a result, students and locals developed a better relationship with local merchants; hence, the riots ceased. Community divisions were healed, and peace was restored locally.
At the street fair today, there is a broad mixture of food vendors, craftsmen tables and live performances. The street performer Captain Flash (a.k.a. Captain Drift) stages an interactive theatre piece called “Save the Unicorn.” The concept of the interactive show is that an audience member controls Captain Flash, as if he is a character within a video game. In fact, four controllers, which are handcrafted from recyclables, are provided in order to direct Captain Flash during his performance. Furthermore, upon winning the theatre modeled video game, Captain Flash congratulates the participating audience member with an additional performance, as he uses a flute to play an extra end song called “Snowflake.”
“Actual interaction sets my act apart from other people,” claims Captain Flash. “But what they [audience] don’t know is that they’re not playing me. I’m playing them.”
Unquestionably, the street fair continues to provide visitors with a multi-cultural experience. Music acts ranged from jazz combos, rock and roll bands, reggae artists, African marimba ensembles and traditional Korean culture performances. And the variety of food trucks were equally as diverse: Central and South American, Asian, European, African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern.
“The fair’s mission statement is purposefully kept broad,” attributes FIUTS Board of Trustees President Michelle Primely-Benton. “So the fair attracts a broad range of vendors and entertainment, while it brings the community closer and definitely inspires unity. It is a center for diversity.”
The StreetFair ensures that Shiga’s intent to bring forth and highlight numerous types of artists, musicians, booths and vendors remains valued. Hence, Primely-Benton thinks that the StreetFair helps uphold the peace of the community.
The fair is crucial to the U District locals, and sustaining community is a must. Especially this year, as current events, such as riots in Baltimore, spark parallels to Seattle’s darker past.
Speaking on this issue, Hua Nguyen, the assistant manager of Shiga’s Imports, notes that street fairs could perhaps help communities like Baltimore’s. “People like fairs and community events. [Our] preserved fair puts out a strong message that this is what really matters. Artists will change, and merchants will change. But values of community, peace and family –– those are the things that just won’t change!”