There's a room in Seattle's Central District that's between lives.
It used to be a strip-mall Subway. But until next June, when a private developer will tear it down, it's a makeshift audio/visual studio where anybody with a story to tell about the neighborhood can come in and record it, have a portrait made, and see a local artist sketching a planned mural. The project is called Shelf Life, by Seattle filmmaker Jill Freidberg, and every Sunday, Chieko Phillips and Leilani Lewis hang out there to welcome people and help record interviews (shelflifestories.com).
"Maybe the humanness is the impact, even for the people who aren't participating," Phillips said. "Just know something good is happening. Because to do nothing almost seems like giving up or giving in."
Shelf Life is named to evoke the Red Apple grocery store, one place in this formerly Black-majority area that hasn't fancified even as the houses around it have become more expensive and the population whiter.
In late September, the Commercial Affordability Advisory Committee that Mayor Ed Murray formed in 2015 made a recommendation. Seattle should begin a Legacy Business Preservation program to identify and support small businesses that are culturally significant to the city's heritage. The Red Apple, which will soon be redeveloped, would have been a perfect candidate, Freidberg believes. Maybe the stories that emerge in Shelf Life can be an example as the legacy program develops. Maybe the imminent death of the Red Apple can help other places survive.
To do this work, artists often have to step into partnerships with the agents of the very changes they wish weren't happening.
"Frankly, it's been tricky," artist DK Pan told me. "This whole thing has been tricky."
Pan is part of a different art project in Seattle that exists only because one old neighborhood is being destroyed to make a new one.
This time, the contested ground is Yesler Terrace, the first racially integrated public housing in the United States and in recent decades also a safe landing place for immigrants from East Africa, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Like the mostly abandoned mall of the Red Apple, Yesler Terrace is not what it used to be, and not yet what it will become.
It is a construction zone crawling with cranes and CATs turning the multiracial public housing zone into a public-private, mixed-income environment. There's a mobile home on the site marked "YAMS." That stands for Yesler Arts Mobile Studio. Inside, there's a bathroom, a little kitchen, places to sleep.
"I don't think that what's happening is actively sinister, but it's the grand sinisterism of real-estate speculation and capital," Pan said. The sponsor of YAMS is Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), the nonprofit developer that owns and manages Yesler Terrace. SHA sold pieces of land to for-profit developers and is using the money to build more low-income housing. The culture the residents built is disappearing, and the one to come is a question mark.
Pan said he's simply unsure whether SHA's redevelopment of the site is the savviest possible choice given the economic and political climate, or one compromise too far.
"There's a deliberate effort to get this mix to happen in a healthy way," said Mark Hinshaw, the SHA program developer who came up with the idea of bringing in artists. So far, the SHA, on a $678,000, three-year grant Hinshaw wrote—out of the blue—from the Kresge Foundation, has commissioned four artists, Pan, Charles Parriott, George Lee, and Pat Graney.
"You don't just build the physical stuff and expect it to work—the mix of incomes, the mix of races," said Hinshaw. "That's why Pruitt-Igoe [a housing project in Saint Louis] and places like that didn't work. There wasn't much effort put into the social side of it."
Hinshaw and the experienced arts administrator he hired, Jen Song, formerly associate director of education at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York—chose the artists well. Sculptor Parrish is an elder of Yesler Terrace. Lee is a Seattle up-and-comer. Pat Graney choreographs high art and is praised for it nationwide, but for 20 years she's also run the Prison Project, teaching dance to incarcerated women and girls across the state of Washington. Pan is an organizer capable of creating art anywhere—in the streets, in abandoned properties, at tsunami stations along the West Coast.
Yesler Terrace, so named for the old neighborhood's individual yards for every home, is now being rebranded as just "Yesler." Pan sees part of his work as combating total erasure.
Every day he finds a place to record a two-minute video that he edits down to 10 seconds each night. He will string the footage together at the end of one year. That will form an approximately hour-long impressionist portrait of the process of change.
On the day I visit, it's excessively windy and the camera is precarious on its tripod. Pan selected a location where he could capture the passing train and cars at the corner of Yesler and Broadway, against the still backdrop of a billboard on the construction fencing. It featured a slender, sophisticated woman of light brown skin, laughing, her multiracial identity deployed as a marketing tool. The apartments are called Batik, a word referring to the colorful dyed fabrics from Indonesia. Batik's slogan is "Home in Harmony."
On this day, Pan has a meeting with the Yesler Community Center's director. Pan's asking to set up a free formal portrait booth during the center's nontraditional Thanksgiving dinner. He and the director tour around looking for a good spot, passing and greeting the older folks and women with children in the sitting areas.
Pan's footage will probably play at the center, but he hopes new residents will see it, too. That will require the buy-in of the private developers—and will only be meaningful if the footage can be more than vicarious history.
The walls of the community center are lined with photographs from a youth documentary program also supported by SHA. The photographs by teenage residents pointedly protest or grieve the destruction of the old neighborhood. To her photograph of a pile of trash, one young woman added the caption "This is what they think of us." Pan says another Seattle artist he knows had to stop documenting Yesler because it felt too hopeless. (Canh Nguyen was that artist; he grew up in Yesler Terrace and confirmed this with me.)
As an immigrant but someone who never lived at Yesler Terrace, Pan is an outsider/insider. To him, the buildings may have needed renovation but the environment didn't. That's the same conclusion of other, thoughtful recent works of art and film, notably the terrific 2015 feature film Hagereseb, directed by Stranger Genius Award winner Zia Mohajerjasbi, and featuring local actors, many Yesler Terrace residents. (You can watch it free online.)
"They were happy," Pan said. "Does my role as a citizen trump my role in this contract? I hope."
Artists will not be able to reverse gentrification, loss, and displacement—or the promised deportation of millions of immigrants. But when a new normal is bearing down on a place, art can become a call to stay and look as long as we possibly can, so that nobody, later, can get away with telling us nothing was ever there.