Kristin O'Donnell loves meetings. "Absolutely my hobby. I do enjoy meetings," she tells me over a cup of tea in the Panama Hotel. Meetings, she says, offer a way to affect change in her community. And besides, she likes to put on a show. "To a large extent community organizing is theater; it works just often enough that I'm hooked."
So hooked is she, that O'Donnell goes to Housing Authority commissioner briefing meetings when Yesler Terrace is on the agenda; she goes to Residents Action Council meetings; she goes to Yesler Terrace Citizen Review Committee meetings; and she was a regular contributor as Yesler Terrace came up for discussion at meetings of Seattle City Council.
When she introduced herself at one of the last of those City Council meetings about Yesler Terrace, you could hear how O'Donnell felt about the future of the place she's lived in for the past 40 years. It wasn't her words, so much, but rather her breathing. Her tone. A mixture of resignation, perseverance, stoicism and maybe even a hint of defiance in her voice. And the almost merging of her own name with that of the place she loves.
"Kristin O'Donnell, Yesler Terrace. And I've been here before and so you know I don't think this is a really great idea. You're replacing a community that was designed to be a really good place for people to live, and a real neighborhood, with something that very probably will not be."
O'Donnell's emotions that day were born of years of involvement as a community organizer in Yesler Terrace - involvement that dates back to the day she first moved in to the development. It's a date she remembers precisely: November 1, 1973. "I had a small child and a recent divorce, and I thought I would be there for a little while, but recurrent disability kept recurring. And so it was a wonderful safety net for those periods when I couldn't work, and it's a good place to be now I've reached retirement age."
That first week, O'Donnell and her friend, Carol, wandered along to the Yesler Terrace community council for the first time, to find it mostly populated by women over the age of 60. Despite their initial alarm at the influx of youngsters, the elders eventually made room for them. Forty years on, O'Donnell is facilitator for the community council's 15-person leadership team.
A forum, a notice board, a brains trust
On the third Tuesday of each month, O'Donnell walks the 50 yards or so from her house to the Jesse Epstein Building on Spruce Street for the regular community council meeting. I walked with her, and she talked me through what the council is about. "Three things," says O'Donnell. It's a forum for complaints, it's a notice board and it's a sort of brains trust where solutions to residents' problems are discussed and argued over.
With 26 language spoken across the Yesler community, being in one of these community council gatherings is like being plunged into a very deep, bracing linguistic sea. Each main language group has their own space in the room where they sit, and someone who translates for them.
Tonight, in Vietnamese, Somali, Tigrinya and Amharic, there's spirited discussion with a representative of the City Attorney's Office over disorder allegedly coming from hookah bars on 12th Avenue; there are updates on issues affecting residents' day-to-day living; and there's consternation at the inconvenience of having a substantial section of Yesler Way closed to traffic both ways while the new tracks are laid for the First Hill streetcar. After the airing of grievances, O'Donnell takes on the task of organizing a group to approach the transportation committee of the City Council.
"A stopping place while you get it together"
Forty years in Yesler Terrace was never part of O'Donnell's plan for her life. "Essentially for most people, and I would have thought it would be for me, Yesler Terrace is a stopping place while you get it together. That didn't happen to me because I have have chronic depression that segues into major depression, and major depression is essentially unemployable for a period of time.
"It gets better — one thing you got to remember when you're in the depths of it, clenching your teeth and pulling your blankets up over your head. It gets better. Eventually it gets better. Darn it, it will get better sometime," says O'Donnell. "The unfortunate thing is, like a cold, it gets better, but like a cold, it does happen again. And so I've spent some of my life absolutely in the depths, and all of my life since I can remember sort of waiting for it to come back. And public housing has been a wonderful safety net that's kept me under a roof and off the streets."
Those early days in Yesler Terrace were reassuring. Turns out "the projects" weren't as scary as people had made out. It was diverse, and a good place to raise a child, says O'Donnell. Come the 1980s and the crack epidemic, though, and Yesler Terrace became more troubled.
"There was a period there when there were gunshots every night, absolutely every night, and drug dealing on the major corners out there," says O'Donnell. "What we did in the neighborhood is we started the periodic Saturday night card and Trivial Pursuit parties at the corner of Broadway and Yesler, on an irregular schedule — when the weather was good and we felt like it. We'd pull our tables out there and bring our games and play until midnight and let the police, and yes, the press, know what we were doing. And that eventually got the neighborhood patrolled. It certainly did not eliminate drug dealing in Seattle or the Central Area but it made our corner a less attractive place to do it."
Nothing new under the sun
I ask O'Donnell when she first heard of Housing Authority plans the transform Yesler Terrace. "Oh my, I have a lovely, lovely answer for that one. It was probably about a week after I moved in
when one of my neighbors who was active in the community council then and a great, great person — Betty Lyons was her name — said to me, 'This is view property, and they are going to sell it and build high-rises.'"
That was in 1973. Come 2013 and Betty Lyons' prediction is coming true. The Seattle Housing Authority's latest redevelopment plan is a done deal. Already there are U-Haul trucks to be seen squeezing down the narrow streets of the Terrace. And at the community council meeting there's to be an update on relocation for residents.
It doesn't happen, though, for no clear reason, until I ask O'Donnell. It turns out the guest from the Housing Authority wasn't able to make it. So the meeting drifts to a close with the awarding of door prizes. Quickly, the committee room in the Jesse Epstein building empties, but for O'Donnell, sitting at the end of a long white plastic table, planning the agenda for next month's meeting.
If you simply gotta do this
Speaking in front of the Seattle City Council in August last year, Kristin O'Donnell tacitly acknowledged that the planned changes to Yesler Terrace were, by that point, a done deal. Her emphasis was shifting from opposing them to making them as painless as possible. "If you simply gotta do this," she told the City Council, "we must not lose any of the housing that people who are most in need, can most afford."
I had the feeling when listening to her that O'Donnell wasn't just speaking to the Seattle City Council and the Seattle Housing Authority, though. She was speaking to people in the rest of Seattle, people who don't live in Yesler Terrace. People who will be watching the process of upheaval there from a safe distance.
"What if the community council wasn't here?" I ask her. "Well, the community councils at the other three family communities — High Point, New Holly and Rainier Vista — are not there any more. It is absolutely my intention, should I be around to do it, that the Yesler Terrace community council is going to be there to greet whoever else moves in."
Funding for this story was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the KUOW Board of Directors and Listener Subscribers.