Yesler Terrace: once a jewel in Seattle's crown

The housing project, now slated for replacement, was the proud accomplishment of Jesse Epstein, who taught the city valuable lessons about urban planning, architecture, and integration.

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The site is terrific, close to the city and with sweeping views.

The housing project, now slated for replacement, was the proud accomplishment of Jesse Epstein, who taught the city valuable lessons about urban planning, architecture, and integration.

Yesler Terrace, Seattle's first public housing project, will sometime soon be torn down, and gradually replaced by a much bigger, more ambitous conglomeration of housing, office and commercial space, and park.  Anyone walking through the area now, south of Yesler, 9th to 11th Avenues, would say, "It's about time."  It had a face lift some years ago, but that too has run its course.

So there's little visible evidence that this was once a jewel in whatever Seattle uses for a crown, and none that this was one man's dream made possible by federal money, lots of local people more reluctant than eager, and driven by the dreamer into reality.

Jesse Epstein, like many of his time, was excited by the prospect of governmental action as a way of extricating the country from the Depression.  From his position at the Washington State Research Council, he saw the establishment of the National Housing Authority in 1937 as an opportunity for Seattle.  Arthur Langlie, the mayor, was lukewarm, but willing to let Epstein go ahead if he did the work.  Epstein, a lawyer, lobbied and got enabling legislation from the state and the City Council, and got himself made executive director of the new local housing authority.  The feds gave him $3 million to clear a slum and build low-cost housing on the land.

Seattle, a spread out city of houses, has never liked the idea that it might have slums. It has never needed to like the idea because it doesn't have large blighted areas — even Hooverville in the tideflats didn't take up much space and was seldom seen. On the western slope of First Hill and Capitol Hill were streets of abandoned houses and run-down apartments whose major business was prostitution.

Epstein chose the area between Yesler and Chinatown that no one could claim was worth keeping, but as he started pounding on the doors of architects and contractors, spreading the word to civic groups, he found many who were alarmed at "government going into competition with private enterprise."   Epstein, a small man, soft in speech,  looked more like what he said he was, a bureaucrat, than what he said he wasn't, a revolutionary.

The site was terrific, close to Harborview hospital, an elementary school, and shops; downtown nearby; industrial area reachable by streetcar; a fine 180 degree view to the south and west. Epstein divided  the architectural work up five ways.  It was a lucrative contract.  He could get some prestigous people.  He had a good sense of who could do what best. It took a little longer that way, but as it turned out, he needed time to round up his residents.

There was, to be sure, no shortage of people who satisfied the means test.  Epstein, though, was determined that Yesler Terrace would be racially integrated, which was almost unheard of in 1940.  NHA, and, later, FHA policy was to let local feeling decide.  He could easily get an equal number of whites, blacks, and Asians, but it was hard to get them to agree to integrate.  The blacks were particularly wary, and wanted a separate area to themselves, which they got, but not to the extent they wanted.  After everyone had moved in, there were spots of tension, but none that lasted long.

It looked good when it was completed, but even better later.  When I first saw it in 1970, it looked better than most privately developed complexes for middle-class folks.  The trees had grown up, the wood was weathered. It was kept remarkably tidy, lawns mowed, garbage out of sight, window boxes amd gardens here and there. Though the same materials and colors were used throughhout, the design diminished the sense of sameness that can demean each person from feeling like everyone else.  The topography on the slope allows for rows of differing lengths; the differing heights of the buildings and the use of lawns and streets all keep the eye busy.

I've no idea how long Epstein or anyone else thought it would last, but I doubt if anyone thought 70 years.  Any housing project for the poor will develop crime and drug problems if it's not monitored and funded carefully.  Yesler Terrace kept its head up longer than the other projects whose construction Epstein supervised during World War II because wartime shortages made it harder to get materials, and those located on the city's fringes seem alien from the surrounding urban ecology.

SHA has put more money for real renovation into Rainier Vista and Holly Park than for Yesler Terrace, and it probably was a good decision to take advantage of its great location and start all over again with something bigger.

Jesse Epstein developed a rare muscular disease that kept him in a wheelchair in his later years.  When I last spoke to him about Yesler Terrace and said it had "held up pretty well," he smiled, said it was probably just as well that he couldn't go see it. "I loved doing it.  Did you know I had a one room office and one secretary?" Seldom have the feds gotten so much for so relatively little.


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