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Historic district
Arianne Wing and Steve Banister stand below a banner proclaiming the China Alley as a national historic site. (Gary Feinstein/The Sentinel)

A local campaign to save Hanford's historic China Alley - a living symbol of the area's rich cultural legacy - now has national attention.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named the time-weathered, rustically charming Kings County landmark to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group annually issues a highly publicized list to help save historic buildings or landscapes it considers national treasures in dire straits. Although the list doesn't mean newfound funding, it is a proven tool for galvanizing support and fundraising efforts.

Since 1988, the list has identified more than 200 at-risk historic sites, and only a handful has been lost, according to the trust.

China Alley is "one of California's best examples of rural Chinatowns," said Stephanie Meeks, the trust's president. In a statement, Meek called the area a "valued centerpiece of Hanford's multi-ethnic, predominantly Latino, Downtown East neighborhood."

"This richly diverse collection of buildings is a rare and tangible reminder of a great American story, one that deserves remembering and celebrating," Meeks added.

Local preservationists as well as representatives of the trust were set to gather at the alley today to celebrate the prestigious recognition. By Monday, a temporary banner stating "This Place Matters" had been placed on the side of a China Alley building, signaling attention. It was to be replaced by a banner announcing its national status Tuesday night.

Nestled inconspicuously in the eastern edge of downtown, historic buildings from the 1880s still line China Alley, bordered by Seventh, Visalia, White and Green streets - a scene that evokes images of a long-lost era. Time seems to stand still in this tiny alley, a remnant of what was once a bustling community.

But time hasn't stopped. Time is in fact running out for some of its buildings, providing urgency to the trust's recognition of the place. Today, most of the historic buildings, including the famed Imperial Dynasty restaurant and the L.T. Sue herbalist building, sit vacant, suffering from rain damage and years of deterioration.

The Sue building, for example, has been on the verge of collapse for years. In 2007, the Taoist Temple Preservation Society acquired the building from the Wing family to save the structure, but preserving the building is no easy task.

"We took nine tons of avian residue out of there," said Arianne Wing, president of the society.

Steve Banister, downtown advocate, added, "We were able to put a roof on it, but the roof is not water-tight and only keeps out pigeons. So during the rain, we were going down to the alley every day to make sure that it's not melting away. We're happy that the rainy season's over because that's when we think the building could collapse."

The community has helped, and the society has managed to scrape together enough money to pay for structure stabilization. But the group still has a long way to go in securing funds to fully restore the building.

China Alley was nominated for the endangered list by the society, a nonprofit organization. This was their second attempt to win recognition; their earlier try in 2008 failed. The society maintains the restored Taoist Temple and a museum and gives tours of the building once a month. The annual Moon Festival is their major fundraiser.

The society hopes the recognition provides a much-needed boost to their longstanding vision of bringing the area to its former glory.

"We're just looking forward to new doors opening in a number of ways," Banister said. "We don't have many concrete ideas of exactly what it's going to bring, but we know it's going to bring something."

The designation comes at a challenging time for China Alley - the ongoing recession, dwindling donations and the threat of reduced state redevelopment funding, which supports the revitalization of the historic district.

Wing said the trust will help her group by facilitating the resurrection of a city historic preservation commission. Meanwhile, she hopes the national recognition will help push the fundraising campaign as well increase heritage tourism and stimulate local and regional support.

Preservation of China Alley also has a deeply personal meaning to Wing, a member of a third-generation family corporation, which has helped keep the Alley intact for more than a century.

"Since these buildings can't speak for themselves, I need to speak up - they want to stay the same. I don't think they want a new façade, to be torn down or become a vacant lot," Wing said. "Someday, I won't be alive, and I won't be able to chain myself to the building, if someone wanted to tear it down. So I want to make sure that the future generations can continue to enjoy the living legacy of the alley."

The reporter can be reached at 583-2429.

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