The Radical Roots Of Yesler Terrace

Nov 16, 2012

Yesler Terrace is Seattle's oldest public housing project. It was revolutionary when it was completed in 1940. In the near future, though, it will be completely demolished.

In its place will sprout a series of high rise towers with a limited number of low-income housing units alongside up to 4,000 market-rate private housing units, offices, retail and commercial spaces. The ultimate goal, says the Seattle Housing Authority, is to create a sustainable, healthy, mixed-income neighborhood.

It's a radical plan, controversial, and every bit as transformational as that which gave rise to Yesler Terrace in 1940.

Jesse Epstein (left) examining slum housing.
Jesse Epstein (left) examining slum housing.

A Quiet Revolutionary

Yesler Terrace came into being thanks to a lucky confluence of national politics, local need and individual vision. The national influence took the shape of the Federal Housing Authority, established in 1937 with a mandate to supervise slum clearance across a nation still struggling under the weight of the Great Depression.

The local need was evident in the substandard housing revealed in the report written by Seattle's newly minted Housing Authority in 1940. At the time of its publication, it found upwards of one in four families in Seattle living in housing that was unsanitary or unsafe.

And the individual vision? That was the gift of the first executive director of the Housing Authority of the city of Seattle, Jesse Epstein.

Jesse Epstein hailed from Montana, a political scientist who studied constitutional and administrative law at the University of Washington in the 1930s. But he wasn't purely an academic; he was a self-confessed liberal who wanted his work to have traction in the outside world. As he began working for the Washington State Research Council, he was engaged in keeping cities abreast of the opportunities arising from the New Deal. When the Federal Housing Authority came into being in 1937, Epstein was ideally placed to make the most of it. He sensed an opportunity was at hand: to use hard facts and objective research to shape public policy and directly improve the lives of the Seattle's poorest residents.

Tom Phillips was a youngster when he first met Jesse Epstein, and they stayed close friends until Epstein's death in 1989. “Jess was my mentor,” he says. A man fascinated by the world, engaged in civic life and an ardent liberal. So for him, slum housing was a problem government action could help solve.

I asked Tom Phillips how Jesse Epstein managed to actually make it happen in Seattle, a city not known for fleet-footed decision making. 

“He had a plan and he was a very friendly guy,” says Phillips. “And a very personable guy with really good social skills. And so I'm not sure if he wore it on his sleeve, what his plan was, but he did have friends and they were willing to be supportive of what he was doing — even though it was very controversial, what he was doing.”

Acor family in a crowded apartment, Seattle circa 1940.
Acor family in a crowded apartment, Seattle circa 1940.
Credit MOHAI

The Thin End Of The Wedge

“I think the unease was not unlike the unease about Obamacare today,” Quintard Taylor told me. He's the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt professor of history at the University of Washington. “That public housing was new, it was considered radical, it was considered different. In some circles it was considered communistic. There were those who said the federal government has no business being involved in the housing business. And there were concerns I think — major concerns — about where this path would lead. That there would probably be federal involvement in other areas. And so there was a significant minority — and I want to emphasize minority — there was a significant minority that didn't like the idea of public housing.”

Epstein was tireless in his advocacy of public housing, though, meeting the doubters wherever and whenever the opportunity arose, cajoling and charming and reassuring them that public housing wasn't backdoor Bolshevism. At the same time, he knew he had to move fast: the federal government had money available, but it was already being disbursed across the country. If Seattle was to benefit from it, the city had to get a move on.

Enter the mayor of Seattle at the time, Mayor Langlie. Described by historian Roger Sale as “a progressive downtown Republican,” Langlie was a sympathetic ally for Epstein as he lobbied the city to create a Housing Authority — a body that would apply for federal money, and spend it once they got it.

Buildings to be demolished for the Yesler Terrace housing project, Seattle 1939.
Buildings to be demolished for the Yesler Terrace housing project, Seattle 1939.
Credit MOHAI

On April 20 1938, the council passed a resolution articulating the hope that “an expression of intention by the city of Seattle will lead to an earmarking of funds for Seattle.” Basically, “We promise we'll form a housing authority. Can we please have some money before it all runs out?”

The reply came back a week later from the US Housing Authority: “We shall be glad to give you such assistance as we can in order to accelerate your low-rent housing and slum clearance program.”

The assistance took the form of $3 million.

The Housing Authority of the city of Seattle came into being through a somewhat labyrinthine process and initially was sheltered under the eaves of the city. It was kind of semi-detached, with Jesse Epstein as the first executive director. His task now was to go about spending that $3 million on a public housing community unlike almost any other in the country: a community that would be racially integrated. 

“We have an opportunity to prove that Negroes and whites can live side by side in harmony”

To those who were feeling queasy about government involvement in the housing business, Jesse Epstein's ambitious vision would pile anxiety upon anxiety. Says Quintard Taylor, “There were those who said, if public housing is going to be integrated then that may lead to the integration of residential neighborhoods and schools and the like. And of course that was problematic for a lot of people in Seattle and across the nation.” 

According to Irene Burns Miller who worked at the Housing Authority and captured the genesis of Yesler Terrace in her book “Profanity Hill,” Epstein said in a staff meeting in 1940: "We have an opportunity to prove that Negroes and whites can live side by side in harmony … but it's going to require skill and patience to make it work."

A staff member, Ray Adams, then asked Epstein "Will you set up a quota to keep Yesler Terrace from becoming a ghetto?" "Let's avoid the ugly word 'quota,' Ray," Epstein replied. "But we must limit the number of Negroes if we are to achieve integration. Keep in mind that we are determined on that. Coloreds and whites will live side by side; this in itself is revolutionary."

Yesler Terrace Housing Project 1941.
Yesler Terrace Housing Project 1941.
Credit MOHAI

Ugly word or not, the quota for families of color was 20 percent. At the same time, though, there were other housing projects built by the Housing Authority that weren't integrated because the surrounding communities were resolutely white. And so, you get the feeling that Jesse Epstein thought of Yesler Terrace as a small beginning, and that maybe this part of Seattle was fertile ground for it because it was already more diverse than other parts of town, with Fillipino, Chinese, Japanese, African-American and Native Americans all living here.

“Yesler Terrace was a grand experiment”

In a council meeting a few weeks back, I was talking to a current resident of Yesler Terrace. I was telling her I'm doing a radio story and she said, “Oh, so you're here to write the epitaph?” Which got me thinking about how you would measure the success of Epstein's project. As a community, going by the testimonies of people who've lived there over the years, Yesler Terrace has really worked. But what about its place in Seattle's racial history?

It was a worthy effort, it was a grand experiment, and one wishes that the results had turned out differently, that Yesler Terrace would have been a model for integration in Seattle. But the facts are that ultimately Seattle didn't really integrate its housing until the late 1960s, early 1970s, which was 30 years after Yesler Terrace was initially integrated. And by the 1960s, I'm not so sure Yesler Terrace itself remained integrated.
— Quintard Taylor

The population of Yesler Terrace now is incredibly diverse. But the people there face many of the same problems the first tenants of Yesler Terrace faced: making ends meet, finding work, and getting access to educational opportunities. The kinds of difficulties Jesse Epstein believed could be alleviated by projects like Yesler Terrace. As he said on a radio broadcast on KIRO in 1940:

Our job of education is only half finished if we do not give a guarantee of wholesome living to go with mental training ... Public housing, providing low rents for low-income families, has at last arrived. It is up to future generations to see that it stays.

In the next story of our series, relocation in 1940, and relocation in 2012.

Footage of slum clearance and construction of Yesler Terrace, produced by Seattle's Housing Authority in 1949 (no audio):

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.