The Twilight of Yesler Terrace
The End of the Ghetto That Wasn't
Photos by Kelly O
Five years before Joe Wood died on Mount Rainier, I took him for a walk around Yesler Terrace, Seattle's oldest housing project. It was 1994, and Wood, a 28-year-old black American editor and critic, was working on a story about Seattle for a new magazine founded by Quincy Jones called Vibe. Coming from New York City, Wood wanted to see if Seattle had anything like the ghettos back East.
Because I had spent some years of my childhood in Washington, DC, I knew what he was expecting to see when, shortly after dusk, I took him down to the 206's ghetto: broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs, junkies with baseball bats, dealers occupying every available shadow, abandoned buildings, crumbling buildings, and dark buildings. What Wood saw instead were unremarkable two-story town houses with no graffiti on their walls, fenced backyards, gardens in those yards, and even flowers in some of those gardens. The flowers boggled him to no end. "People growing flowers in the ghetto? If people got time to do that, then this is not a ghetto."
Wood had never seen a housing project that looked tolerable, one that functioned like a normal neighborhood. In fact, the absence of danger and the calmness of the streets seemed to upset him; it was as if someone was playing a trick on him. He kept looking this way and that, hoping the illusion would be shattered and reality restored by a barrage of bullets fired from the windows of a passing gang-packed automobile. But nothing of the sort happened. It was not an illusion. This was the projects. This was for real. But how was it even possible? Wood kept asking. How could Seattle, a city of more than half a million people, many of whom were black and poor, not have a slum? Could it be that the white people here were nicer, more generous, less racist? Or had the message from the rest of white America never reached them: White people are supposed to treat people of color badly? I could not offer Wood a satisfactory answer—the history of race relations in this city is simple in some ways and complicated in others.
But one thing was for sure: Yesler Terrace was one of the few housing projects in the United States that came close to fulfilling its initial utopian promise. The people who dreamed it up in the late 1930s were white and progressive. These men and women and the organization they established, the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), not only believed in an idea (affordable housing should be available to all citizens) that was seen by many as communistic (and in a sense it was), their proposal that Yesler Terrace be the first racially integrated housing project in the country was downright un-American. But their utopian dream of blacks and whites living in harmony was eventually funded by New Deal dollars, designed by a team of architects that included Victor Steinbrueck, and built in stages during World War II (1941 to 1943) on a 43-acre area that was once, according to the federal government, Seattle's worst slum—it had no less than 18 houses of prostitution.
That's one side of the story, but there's another far less rosy side that receives little to no attention in the press. SHA did not raze a slum; it displaced a thriving Japanese American community. Trevor Griffey makes this point in his excellent essay "Preserving Yesler Terrace":
The existence of a prosperous Japanese community on the future site of Yesler Terrace contradicted SHA descriptions of the neighborhood as a total slum filled only with prostitution and poverty... Of the 359 families living in the south end of First Hill, 127 were Japanese. Yesler Terrace's construction not only displaced these families, it also displaced a number of significant Japanese institutions: three churches, four grocery stores, and four hotels. Japanese internment soon overshadowed this story...
Indeed, the racist displacement of a whole community cleared the ground for Seattle's racial utopia. (SHA also offered housing only to married American citizens, and it gave preference to Americans in the defense industry.)
These days, many Yesler Terrace residents—around 1,200 total—speak English as a second language and come from Southeast Asia and East Africa. According to Real Change, nearly 40 percent of the residents are Asian American, 38 percent black African and black American, 11 percent white American, and 3 percent Native American. "Immigrants to the US represent a significant population in Yesler Terrace," states SHA in a Yesler Terrace Background Report from 2008. "Around 30% of residents were eligible non-US citizens in 2008, which is more than three times the proportion of non-citizens in Seattle's total population... African Americans/Africans and Asian Americans/Asians usually comprise more than 80% of the population in Yesler Terrace during any given year." In short, Yesler Terrace has become a global village of poor and working-class families who have developed a strong sense of community.
Why did Seattle's most ambitious housing project not suffer the fate of the ones in Chicago, New York City, and St. Louis? It might have had something to do with the city's youth—Seattle did not have the deep history of racial tension and violence of the older cities. Or something to do with the fact that Seattle's black population was never huge, and so never posed a real or imagined threat to white confidence—and as a consequence, the divide between the two groups was not entirely unbridgeable. Or maybe it was the architecture, which was modeled on human-scale worker homes in Sweden and not the modernist towers that were seen by many as inhuman, cold, and imposing. Whatever the answer might be—and that answer is probably some accident of history—Yesler Terrace never imploded into an underworld of crime and decay.
If a rapper ever boasted about coming straight out of the tough streets of the Yesler Terrace projects, he might get some respect in other cities, but he'd get only laughter and derision from those in the know, those in the 206. Yesler Terrace is no Cabrini-Green.
While walking with Joe Wood down Yesler Way that night in 1994, we came upon a vision that caught us completely by surprise. This vision was all the more impressive because it was framed by the only lit window in the unit. We were on the sidewalk. There was no traffic on the street. The projects were quiet. The smell of various foods from around the world filled the air. The towers of downtown rose just behind the massif of the hospital. The lights of one tower went out floor by floor. The sky was clear, the stars bright, the moon almost full—and framed in the ground-floor window in front of us, we saw a black man working on a sculpture. He did not see us or sense us. All of his attention was focused on the transference of the idea in his head to the stone, focused on transforming something hard into something angelic. He chipped and chipped and chipped. Wood could only say "Wow." He thought he had seen everything—these projects had flowers!—but this vision was from another dimension: Here, in the heart of the projects, a black man was not selling drugs, not drowning his sorrows in booze, not dealing with oppressive cops, but spending the night making a sculpture.
Thirteen years after Wood disappeared on Mount Rainier (he went to the volcano to look at birds and never came back), and 17 years after he declared in Vibe that Seattle did not have a black community because it didn't have a ghetto, I met with Zia Mohajerjasbi to discuss his film project, Hagereseb, about Yesler Terrace, the oldest housing project in the city.
The winter day was mostly sunny, and Mohajerjasbi wore a tight-fitting black peacoat and held a paper cup of steaming coffee. Overhead, we heard the beat of a helicopter approaching the helipad on the hospital. And up and down the street, massive machines and meaty men were making a path for the First Hill Streetcar.
After the tracks for the streetcar are completed, the next big thing to happen around here will be phase one of a $300 million redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, organized by the same people who transformed South Lake Union into a paradise for market-oriented bioscience and e-commerce, Vulcan. Phase one will demolish the 100 units that face the Northshore Hawaiian BBQ restaurant and drive-in espresso trailer that currently occupy the ruins of a gas station, and it will also create a hill climb between Little Saigon and Yesler Terrace. Phase two will demolish 174 more units and establish a park that will have a view of the volcano that is Mount Rainier. The next phases will see the construction of 12 towers—one for a hotel, two for office space, and the rest for apartments, 3,000 in all, to be sold at market rates. In this new Hong Kong–like density, the seven-story buildings allocated for the poor will be in the shadow of these magnificent towers.
Our plan that sunny but cold day was for Mohajerjasbi to show me the course for the opening scene from Hagereseb—a movie that he has been working on since 2009, the year he won the Stranger Genius Award for film. (He was selected based on a series of music videos he made for Blue Scholars and other local hiphop artists—I still regard his video for Macklemore's "The Town" as one of city's highest cinematic achievements.) "I don't want this film to be about the politics," he said to me as we crossed the street and walked up Broadway. "I know all about the new development, and I agree it's going to ruin a great neighborhood. You know, the people here are from all over the world, they speak lots of different languages and live pretty well together. I have visited several homes, and every time I'm struck by how well people get along. Everyone knows everyone. But I don't want my film to be about the destruction of all that. I want it to be about childhood."
As we crossed the street, we passed a tree decorated with little paper orbs of different colors (bright red, bright orange, bright yellow). We also passed a small group of East African women wearing long billowing dresses and hijabs. Just before we reached the Japanese Baptist Church, he stopped and showed me the point at which the film would begin.
"You know, I wish I could film in the winter, because the light is very slanted and the sun low... it would be so beautiful. And that is what I want to capture—the beauty and pureness of childhood. There won't be many words or dialogue, but faces, colors, textures," Mohajerjasbi said as we walked through the maze of units, fences, playgrounds, and big trees, picturing the flowing images of a Steadicam. "The movie's story is based on someone who lived here as a child, Futsum Tsegai, and that's really what this place is about: children."
As we turned this way and that—Yesler Terrace is compact—I began to notice three types of yards: ones that contained nothing but grass, ones that contained gardens of vegetables, and ones packed with heavily used toys. Yesler Terrace is a city of children. They are everywhere. They are playing on swings, climbing trees, walking to and from the community center, coming in and out of units, running after each other, yelling at each other, laughing at each other. According to the SHA report, nearly 40 percent of the residents in Yesler Terrace are children—more than double the percentage for the city as a whole, 16 percent.
The way the middle class raises children is not the same as the way the poor and working class do. If you go to any neighborhood in North Seattle, what you will find in the streets is just cars. This is not the case in neighborhoods in South Seattle that have not been gentrified. Here, streets are packed with kids. They ride their bicycles, jump rope, throw balls on the streets, which is why fast drivers in the hood are a nightmare—they think streets are just for their cars. In poor neighborhoods, the raising of children has to be shared with the public; it can't be the private and formal affair that it is for the middle classes. Those who move into Vulcan's market-rate apartments will not need the streets or neighbors to help raise their children.
January 2013 saw two art exhibits in Seattle about the twilight of Yesler Terrace. One was at 4Culture and the other at the Frye Art Museum. The former was a part of the Yesler Terrace Summer Youth Media Program; the latter was a part of the exhibition Moment Magnitude. The former was about images, the latter about sounds. Both involved the primary citizens of Yesler Terrace: young people. And both were like the movie that Mohajerjasbi is developing, in that they were not directly political but about moments, moods, things that are now caught in a vanishing world. These art projects were in a sense ghostly, as they were already about the past. The future is not in these color ink-jet prints (the hobbyhorses in the backyard), the movie tests (black boys running in the winter light), and sound installation (a woman maintaining her little African garden), but instead in the spectacular redevelopment visualization animation on the SHA website.
Produced by Parsons Brinckerhoff, a massive Manhattan-based engineering firm, the video opens high above the bay and, like some great bird, sweeps swiftly over cargo ships, the cranes of Harbor Island, the stadiums, Vulcan's headquarters, slows when approaching the streets and slim towers of the new utopia, and stops once across the street from the community center and the park with a view of the volcano. Altogether, the video shows only one playground, lots of adults on the sidewalks, and four or so ghosts of Yesler Terrace—women in long dresses and hijabs.
"I often wonder when the discourse of decay and disrepair began at SHA," Tad Hirsch said to me as we listened to the sounds rising out of the little boxes of the installation Intangible Effects (No. 1) he organized for Moment Magnitude. Hirsch, an assistant professor at University of Washington's School of Art, recently moved to Seattle from Portland, and so is new to the local political and community issues. "There had to be a time when SHA and city council members began talking about Yesler Terrace in a very specific way, because there really isn't a good reason to displace all of these people. They were doing just fine. There wasn't a serious crime problem. Their children were safe and in a great location. To justify the redevelopment, SHA had to create and amplify a discourse about the condition of the buildings." As he spoke, I listened to the different sounds of Intangible Effects—a helicopter approaching the helipad, the buzz of a broken streetlight, a woman playing the flute at Harborview, and, to my amazement, a person chipping a mass of alabaster into a sculpture. This was the man I saw that night with Joe Wood. He still lives in Yesler Terrace; he still makes art by the window. His name is Charles Parrish. He is soon to be relocated.
The morning I visited Charles Parrish's apartment, Yesler Terrace was in a fog that made its doomed town houses even more ghostly. The buildings seemed to float in a land of fallen clouds, and their very materiality may have remained in doubt if I hadn't entered Parrish's one-bedroom apartment, which was made heavy and hard by the smell of stones and metal tools. He lives on the ground floor, and his living room had a large table that supported several bold white, pink, gold, and rust colored busts. I sat on the couch. He sat on a chair. I wore a raincoat. He had gray hair and wore a white sweater. The wall in front of me was covered with drawings and the floor by a black tarp. A small kitchen was behind him. He always thought, silent for a moment, before giving an answer. "I moved in 1986 and have lived here ever since," he explained. Parrish is not loquacious and states things very plainly. "Yeah, sad about tearing it down, I'm sorry about that. But things can't stay the same forever. Things change. I have to find a new livable place to do my artwork."
Parrish also has a studio at the James and Janie Washington Foundation and has made something of a name for himself in the city with exhibits at a number of galleries. "I was always going to make art, but Yesler Terrace really helped me out," he explained. Though faced with leaving, in a year, a community that has supported him as an artist for a quarter of a century, Parrish didn't sound bitter. "My family has got a piece of land back home in Virginia. If everything falls apart here, I'll know where to go."
Behind me was a curtainless window that faced a fenced yard and the thickening fog. Looking out of this window was a bust that had a prominent nose. It was not like the one he was working on when Wood and I saw him in the window 19 years ago, but it seemed stern and cold. Was it representing the current mood of the residents of Yesler Terrace? Face the facts, face the uncertain future with the understanding that this is how it has always been and always will be? The rich always get their way and the poor don't? I asked Parrish if the bust was of somebody, and he answered, "Yes, it's Lawrence Welk."