What Seattle is losing in Yesler Terrace redevelopment

Natnael Moges and Eyobe Alemu play two boys living in the Yesler Terrace housing project in the 1990's in the short film "Hagereseb" screening at Harvard Exit on Saturday at 11am.
Natnael Moges and Eyobe Alemu play two boys living in the Yesler Terrace housing project in the 1990’s in the short film “Hagereseb” screening at Harvard Exit on Saturday at 11am.

As Seattle says goodbye to the Yesler Terrace that it has known since 1941, SIFF presents two short films — “Even The Walls and “Hagreseb” — about the housing project in Voices of Yesler Terrace.

The controversy over the gentrification of the country’s first mixed-race housing project (and Seattle’s last large public housing development) has produced countless articles and interviews discussing the ethics of the relocation and redevelopment, along with broader discussion of the changing face of Seattle.

What was once an enclave for poor families of all races and ethnicities will be transformed into a mixed-use and mixed-income urban center. Developers will use the income from converting a large portion of the prime real estate into high-priced condominiums to refurbish and expand low-income housing in Yesler Terrace.

During construction, the current residents of Yesler Terrace have been moved to different neighborhoods, with promises that they can move back when construction is complete.

What has been largely missing in these discussions of Yesler Terrace are the voices of the people who have called the housing project home — the people who have made it a community. The people most affected by these changes are the people most likely to be relegated to an obligatory soundbite at the end of an article.

In two very different ways, these films give voice to those current and former residents: “Even The Walls” is a sober little documentary about the emotions of Yesler Terrace residents as their neighborhood is torn down. The film keeps the camera almost exclusively on residents as they reminisce about life in the project.

Residents show clear love of a neighborhood often maligned by outsiders as “ghetto” and “dangerous.” It is obvious that the community of Yesler Terrace is close-knit, and the residents’ doubts that these relationships will be able to survive the forced separation of the redevelopment are voiced repeatedly. For many of the people profiled, Yesler Terrace has been their only home. These are their families being torn down along with the walls.

“Even the Walls” is a very short film, and it does leave out important details that viewers unfamiliar with the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace should know. Left out is the fact that there will be more affordable housing units than there are currently when the redevelopment is over, and all current residents have been promised a place in the new community, although they must move elsewhere during the renovations.

The film also doesn’t really discuss the change to the economic structure of Yesler Terrace that the redevelopment will bring, where the majority of new residents will be high income, even with the additional affordable housing units. The fear, sadness, and uncertainty of Yesler Terrace residents profiled would have stood and probably would have made even more sense if these details had been more clearly laid out.

The details of how this redevelopment has been carried out says a lot about how we value our poor communities. Administrators and developers behind the Yesler Terrace redevelopment have repeatedly commented on how economically integrating the project will be beneficial to the poor Yesler Terrace residents. But the value of the location that Yesler Terrace sits on, developer comments on their plans to turn Yesler Terrace into the next Amazonified South Lake Union, and the fact that the high-priced units will be segregated from the low-income units make those claims seem disingenuous.

The second film “Hagereseb,” is the story of 10-year-old Abai’s search through Yesler Terrace for batteries for his keyboard to play with his older brother before he is sent back to Eretria indefinitely. This is a quiet film with Abai’s sullen, youthful sadness juxtaposed against the loudly loving and exasperated scolding of East African mothers.

“Hagereseb” is an engrossing window into the lives of the children of Yesler Terrace — navigating childhood play, widespread poverty, the cultural differences of their parents’ generation, and the hopelessness that threatens to engulf many young men of color. This film doesn’t reach too far, and doesn’t draw conclusions for us. It simply gives us a look at the humanity of these boys.

Hagereseb reminded me of time I spent as a kid in family housing at the converted Sand Point military base. The myriad of languages yelled out by mothers who truly parent as a village, the comradery of kids too poor to be able to do anything but play outside with each other, waiting in line for payphones, counting pennies for candy (when I was a kid it was Now & Laters), the fear of getting older as you watch teenage siblings swallowed up by anger and hopelessness — it all felt familiar and true. It was a picture of my poor childhood that I’d tried and failed many times to describe to friends who hadn’t lived it.

It’s a childhood that I both missed and was glad to have escaped. I have never known a community as close as what I experienced there. As “Even The Walls” tells us that Yesler Terrace residents will miss their community, “Hagerseb” shows us why.

“Hagereseb” and “Even the Walls” are screening together as part of SIFF’s “Faces of Yesler Terrace” on Saturday, May 23rd at 11a.m. at Harvard Exit.

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