A small alcove in the Yesler Terrace Community Center became a television studio on Aug. 6 when teens and volunteers with tripods, video cameras, headphones, microphones and cords crowded into the area.
One teen pinned a small microphone onto the lapel of 80-year-old Martin Reyes, who sat on a cushioned bench next to a sunny window that looked out on Yesler Way.
“Check one, two,” he said, testing the microphones.
Someone held a sheet of paper in front of the camera, testing for white-balance.
Another thrust a few fingers in the air, counting down three, two, one, and then pointing at Reyes.
Wearing a full-body flight suit and a baseball hat embroidered with the image of a dream catcher and the words “Native Pride,” Reyes described growing up in the public housing complex in the 1930s and ’40s. His childhood home is visible from the Yesler Terrace apartment where he now lives.
“Back in the 1940s, Yesler Terrace was exactly what it is now,” Reyes told the students as they filmed.
A few things have changed. Sound Transit is building an electric streetcar to run through the neighborhood, but when Reyes was born at Harborview Medical Center, there were streetcars too — pulled by horses, he added.
By the time the teenagers who interviewed Reyes are his age, Yesler Terrace may be all but unrecognizable. The public housing complex is about to undergo an unprecedented overhaul. The two-story complexes with small yards for each unit will be demolished, and the Seattle Housing Authority (sha) will sell the land to private developers, who will build several high-rises; public housing will be mixed in with market-rate apartments. sha is working with the Seattle City Council to rezone the neighborhood in order to make this redevelopment possible.
Residents worry the redevelopment will gentrify the region and fracture the existing community. sha has been working for years to assuage these concerns.
For the past six weeks, 13 students have researched the issue, conducting
and filming interviews with sha officials, city leaders, residents and activists. They also attended a public hearing on the issue.
What they learned made them skeptical about Yesler Terrace’s future. Most of the teens agree the existing buildings need to be replaced, but at the same time, they’ve added up the cost of doing so. Reyes won’t have a flower garden in his back yard anymore. He won’t have any of the same neighbors, some of whom he’s known for decades.
“I love the atmosphere here,” said Delina Haile, 15, who lives nearby, in the Central District. “It’s really nice. With the redevelopment here, it will all change. All they [residents] built here, the gardens and the relationships to each other, will be destroyed.”
What started as a simple activity program to keep teens busy over the summertime became an exercise in local politics in the hands of Seattle University photography professor Claire Garoutte.
Along with lessons in digital photography, videography and editing, Garoutte infused the class with lessons on community, leadership and civic engagement.
By choosing Yesler Terrace as the students’ subject, Garoutte presented them with a sprawling and timely topic that hit close to home. Most of the students live in Yesler Terrace, while others live in other low-income housing developments around Seattle.
The 13 students are the first of what Garoutte hopes will become a 15- to 20-year project of students documenting the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace. They examined the history of the 60-year-old structures, looked at the plan for the neighborhood and learned how it affects residents.
Their work will be displayed at the Northwest African American Museum and Seattle University.
The students found no shortage of opinions. They met with seniors who have lived most of their lives in the neighborhood and who look forward to new housing but mourn the passing of their longtime home.
They met large immigrant families who have lived in the neighborhood since they first entered the country and fear that the redevelopment will scatter them across Seattle.
They interviewed public housing advocates and protesters, including Babylonia Aivaz, who staged a mock wedding to marry the Yesler Terrace complex to protest what she calls the destruction of community-centered buildings for corporate interests.
They also met sha officials and Seattle City Council President Sally Clark, who are working to redevelop the property and who say that residents are guaranteed a place at Yesler Terrace after construction is complete.
In the midst of this reporting, the teens got a whiff of the controversy that’s been simmering for years. Some residents maintain that sha displaced residents who lived in Rainier Vista, High Point and New Holly. Families left those neighborhoods and were not able to return.
Students heard a narrative of mistrust among public housing residents, and it guided their reporting. They tried to reconcile the assurances sha had made with the distrust that was so palpable among those they interviewed.
In the small housing office, surrounded by students, cameras and microphones, Rayshawn Blackwell asked Fitsum Abraha, a former resident and sha’s property manager at Yesler Terrace, “Do you know why residents distrust sha?”
Abraha’s answer matched what sha has been saying to Yesler Terrace residents all along.
“We know people are excited, we know some are afraid, we know some want to stay in the community,” he said.
The reply was lacking. Some students still wanted a definitive answer to whether the redevelopment was good or bad.
One of them turned to su Prof. Garoutte and asked her if she trusts sha.
“I’m a documentarian,” Garoutte replied, “I think the most important thing before I have any opinion is to learn about it.”