From Profanity Hill To Yesler Terrace

Jan 13, 2013

Demolition in 1940
Demolition of house in 1940.
Credit Courtesy MOHAI

Rumor has it that somewhere in a forgotten corner of a basement somewhere in Seattle there's a decaying 3-D model of a brand new Yesler Terrace. It was dreamed up in the late 1960s but, like the R H Thomson Expressway or the parking lot that was planned for where the Pike Place Market still stands, it never made it out of the world of imagination and onto the grid of the real world.

In 2013, after six years of planning, it appears another vision of a brand new development will take root where Yesler Terrace now stands. It's not the first transformation this patch of ground has seen though. This is the story of two places that occupy that ground -- one in the present and one in the past.

Yesler Terrace And 'Profanity Hill'

The first place is Yesler Terrace in the here and now, though in its current form is destined to soon become part of the 'there and then.' Seattle's first public housing project, Yesler Terrace is also its most renowned: the first racially integrated housing in the city of Seattle, hemmed in along its western edge by the gaping roar of I-5and revolutionary when it was first built in the early 1940s.

Seattle's first public housing project, Yesler Terrace, is also its most renowned: the first racially integrated housing in the city of Seattle, hemmed in along its western edge by the gaping roar of I-5 and was revolutionary when it was first built in the early 1940s.

The second place is Profanity Hill: the one-time seat of the King County Courthouse and a hill so steep it supposedly had attorneys and judges cursing left and right by the time they reached the top. Profanity Hill, where once upon a time the elite of Seattle built their mansions, and streetcars rattled and banged their way up from downtown. Today, the streetcars are long gone and knots of traffic navigate between construction zones, cordoned off with bright orange barriers as workers lay rails for -- a streetcar.

In the late 1930s, Yesler Terrace is but a gleam in the eye of its founding father Jesse Epstein, first executive director of the Housing Authority of the city of Seattle. Profanity Hill, on the other hand, is a real neighborhood of brothels, laundries, decaying timber homes, boarding houses and apartment buildings.

Irene Burns Miller
A group from Seattle's Housing Authority inspects derelict buildings. Irene Burns Miller is on the far right.
Credit Courtesy MOHAI

Taking A Walk Along 'Tap-Tap Lane'

On her first day at work, Irene Burns Miller walks along a street she nicknames "Tap-Tap Lane." It's 1940 and she's a newly appointed relocation supervisor -- the only one -- for Seattle's newly minted Housing Authority. She's introducing herself to the neighborhood she's about to help dismantle. It's a makeshift patchwork of boarding houses, ramshackle timber homes, laundries and brothels. As the prostitutes along Irene's path that first day vie for the attention of potential customers, they 'tap tap' their rings against the window panes and greet her appearance with volleys of f-bombs.

Getting to know the people on Profanity Hill is Irene Burns Miller's first task; getting them to move is her second. Writing about her experiences 35 years later for a book titled "Profanity Hill," she remembers Buffalo Bill, the gangly janitor who worked in her makeshift office on Washington Street, who replies to her claims that she's here to help the poor in the neighborhood with, "Like hell you are...We ain't buyin' that stuff about puttin' up housing for the poor...The rich will take over and build fancy places at top rents."

Profanity Hill cover
Irene Burns Miller's 'Profanity Hill.'
Credit KUOW scan/Dominic Black

There's Ann Whipple who runs one of the 15 or so brothels on the Hill under the protective wing of Papa, the head of the city's vice squad. "The 'Gimme Gang' we call it," says Ann, "Only time he shuts us down is when he doesn't get his cut." And Mrs. Hiriota, one of the many Japanese Americans living on the Hill, who wrongly accuses Irene Burns Miller of turning off her water supply to get her to move out more quickly.

Bob Santos grew up in this community. In 1940, he's a young boy living on the corner of 9th and Spruce with his aunt and uncle in a one-bedroom apartment. "Yeah, I was pretty young," he remembers. "But the idea even at that time of everyone packing up their belongings in boxes -- you know, you look up and down the street and saw boxes full of clothing and kitchen utensils and all that -- up and down the street, where moving vans would be coming in to pick up the items to move them other buildings, other apartments outside the neighborhood. And so I just remembered as a kid running up and down the street peaking into the boxes."

Yesler Terrace
Yesler Terrace's community garden.
Credit KUOW photo/Dominic Black

'They want to tear down Yesler.' 

Today, Fadumo Isaq runs a small child-care business from her home in Yesler Terrace. She's Somali, and has lived here since she moved from Ethiopia in 1999. She's uneasy. "We are so worried," she tells me as we sit in her living room. "Maybe we stay here, in the morning they say, 'Get out, get out.' Who knows? So we are so worried. We like our community for real. This community is a mix of people from different countries. We speak 26 languages here. Every year we cook different culture's food and celebrate, although we don't understand which other language. But we're culturally like a family. And kids born here - we have my grandchild born here - is 21 now. My oldest sister's kid. One is 21, 20, 18, 15, nine; They all say, 'It's our home. Where we go? We don't want to go to another new community.'"

"There's more anger on this hill than we anticipated," Irene Burns Miller tells her boss in 1940. Thirty-day eviction notices were part of the problem, served on all of the people living on the site where Yesler Terrace would be built. When Buffalo Bill confronts Irene about these she replies, "I'm sorry about that Bill, it's a federal regulation. But we will grant exemptions as necessary." It's clear there's a power dynamic at work: the Housing Authority has a plan, and Irene's job is to make it happen.

"Where in the hell will you find housing for our folk here?" asks Bill, hitting the nail on the head, because the vacancy rate in Seattle at that point was 0.1 percent. In other words, for the folks moving off the Hill, there was a tiny amount of rental property to go around. Irene Burns Miller notes in an archive interview recorded in 1974 that she had no staff apart from herself, and no budget to help with relocation costs. "And so there was I would think at that time an uneasiness about the neighbors in that community on Yesler Hill about the future," remembers Bob Santos. "Their idea of being forced out of their homes was pretty traumatic at that time. Even as a little kid I could sense that."

Fatumo Isaq would tend to agree: "You move for new place, you don't know nobody. It's too hard. If I don't cook, I go to my friend's house and eat, you know. In my country we don't call, 'Oh, I am your guest today.' No. We go, I go, knock the door and eat. So if they split us, it's too hard."

Unlike in 1940, today the Seattle Housing Authority has agreed to pay all the relocation costs for people moving out of Yesler Terrace during its redevelopment, and they guarantee a right of return to anyone who relocates because of the development. They're given a certificate to that effect. And yet, some residents remain unconvinced. That community feeling that Fadumo Isaq talks about is hard to preserve on a piece of paper, and if she or her neighbors do eventually return to the same part of the city, it'll be to a very different place.

'Farewell Farewell To Profanity Hill'

Yesler Terrace ad
An advertisement for the new homes for rent at Yesler Terrace.
Credit Courtesy MOHAI

By the end of 1940, the last of the families are gone from Profanity Hill. Irene Burns Miller ends her book with an account of a neighborhood party on South Jackson Street. Louis Armstrong's band performs, most of the characters we've met in the course of the book make an appearance, and the whole thing has a raucously valedictory feel. As the party nears its end, the band plays "When The Saints Go Marching In" and everyone joins in an improvised song, "Farewell Farewell to Profanity Hill." It's a neighborhood singing its way out of existence.

As the sun rises over the Cascades Irene Burns Miller looks admiringly on the first new Yesler Terrace building. She has the scent of freshly cut lumber in her nose, and she's excited to think of the happiness the new houses will bring to what she calls 'needy families.' There's no doubt in her mind about the righteousness of her work, despite the fears of the folks she's spent the last six months working with. Those fears are essentially the same fears as people in Yesler Terrace have today.

People don't want to become characters in a story told 70 years from now about the neighborhood and the people who once lived there, who have long since gone.

Visit part one of this series, "The Radical Roots of Yesler Terrace."

WEB EXTRAS:

Irene Burns Miller's 1941 report about the relocation process for residents.

For cartography fans, maps of the area before it was Yesler Terrace: a 1912 Baist Map from historian Paul Dorpat's website (plate 4 is the area where Yesler Terrace would eventually be built) and Sanborn Maps, accessible via the Seattle Public Library website ('Seattle 1905 - Mar. 1951...Sheet 18' shows Yesler Terrace in great detail). 

Thanks to Amir J Sheikh for help with these resources.

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.