Much of Yesler Terrace, the nation’s first racially integrated public-housing project, has been razed and awaits new buildings. Some worry about what will be lost in the transformation to mixed-income housing.

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It’s surprising to see the ease with which steel jaws and claws rip apart the two-story wooden apartments of Seattle’s Yesler Terrace, the nation’s first racially integrated public-housing project.

One swipe knocks down outer walls, exposing bedrooms where refugees, immigrants, seniors, disabled people and just plain poor folks slept for more than 70 years. The next heavy-metal bite reduces the whole household to rubble.

“You don’t think the building is that weak. When you’re in it you’re protected from rain, hail, sleet and snow. It feels indestructible when you grow tall in it, when you grow a family in it,” said Selemun Welderfael, 27, who spent most of his life in Yesler, with his mother and brother, after they fled war-torn Sudan.

The 30 acres of the old Yesler Terrace, on First Hill just below Harborview Medical Center, look very different from a few years ago. The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) has bulldozed more than half of Yesler’s 561 World War II-era apartments to make way for a mixed-income community of 5,000 new units with market-rate apartments outnumbering subsidized ones.

As signs of the new emerge — streetcar tracks now run through the community on their way to Capitol Hill — much of the old Yesler is razed and fallow. It awaits a $200 million investment by Vulcan, Paul Allen’s development firm, in new private buildings and phased building of new subsidized housing.

Change tastes bittersweet for some residents. They know the old buildings were timeworn. They believe SHA is trying to do the right thing. But they wonder if their sense of community will be lost with the addition of thousands of new market-rate apartments a short walk from downtown, with views of Mount Rainier and Elliott Bay.

Marty Reyes, 83, saw Yesler Terrace built while a boy growing up in what is now Little Saigon. “I learned boxing, football, basketball and how to dance at Yesler,” he said. “I met my first love at Yesler.”

Reyes can literally feel the change. His furniture vibrates from heavy equipment working just outside the apartment he’s lived in for 34 years.

Still, he’s got a small backyard where he has loved to sit, watching squirrels and sparrows, listening to ballgames on the radio. Those fenced yards around Yesler sprouted vegetables that neighbors shared. They gave kids a place to play. “They ain’t got that at the new buildings,” he said.

Like Welderfael, he isn’t sure whether the new mixed-income community will blend smoothly. “It all depends on what happens when one person puts their hand out,” Reyes said.

“If we build together that’s fine,” Welderfael said of the newcomers. “But you can’t try to take over and say this is yours. You can’t do Columbus.”

Hope VI

Yesler is not SHA’s first mixed-income project. Because of declining federal funds and a shift in philosophy, housing agencies around the country have tried to disperse pockets of poverty by reinventing projects with an infusion of middle-class residents. These are called Hope VI projects, after a federal program that provides some funding for them.

SHA has turned its largest properties — Holly Park, Rainier Vista and High Point — into what it considers successful communities in which new subsidized housing is partially underwritten by selling property to private developers.

Those projects have won awards while improving affordable housing, contributing taxes and making environmental upgrades, said SHA spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin.

But not all of the old residents made their way back to those communities after they were displaced by construction. Some moved into other SHA properties, some used housing vouchers to rent in private buildings, some moved far away.

Research on Hope VI projects is mixed. Some studies hail it as a success for breaking up the concentration of poverty. Others suggest it most benefits middle-class tenants and private developers.

Lynne Manzo, an associate professor at the University of Washington, has studied Hope VI projects in the Pacific Northwest, similar to Yesler in size.

In an article published last year, Manzo said the connections low-income tenants feel toward communities like Yesler Terrace are not romanticized. Their communities were not problem-free, residents said in interviews, but they didn’t see them as problem communities.

A 2005 journal article by Rachel Garshick Kleit focused on relationships in Seattle’s award-winning New Holly. Kleit, an Ohio State University professor, found that language and family differences, along with other disparities, implied that the worlds of low-income and middle-class residents in Hope VI projects “do not overlap greatly.”

Right to return

Every tenant at Yesler is guaranteed the right to return.

So far 291 units have been demolished — and 46 buildings in all. The remaining old apartments sit on the perimeter.

“We’re the last of the buffalo,” Reyes said.

Of the displaced Yesler households, 66 stayed on-site — including Welderfael’s mother — by transferring to vacant apartments; 58 moved into new replacement housing, with most of those going into the 103-unit Kebero Court, which opened in June.

A colorful six-story building on Yesler’s eastern edge, Kebero’s apartments feature new appliances and amenities, including a common room for storing children’s bikes. Ground-floor apartments even have small gated yards.

“I like my apartment because it’s brand-new. Everything inside my house is brand-new,” said Saroeun Chuon, a refugee from Cambodia who lost her family to war.

Raven Terrace, a six-story SHA building near the center of Yesler, is almost completed. Some of its apartments offer views many Seattleites would envy.

Although most tenants in the new Yesler won’t have individual yards, there is a P-Patch with 28 garden plots, and SHA plans more. “The commitment for gardening space ultimately is at least one acre total,” Coughlin said.

Of the displaced who haven’t stayed at Yesler, 105 households moved into other SHA properties and 24 used rent vouchers to move into non-SHA buildings.

Households facing displacement in the next round of demolition were given at least 18-months’ notice, Coughlin said. The authority gives each household information detailing tenants’ rights during relocation and the availability of moving assistance.

Vulcan plans

The new urbanists have yet to arrive.

Vulcan, which bought three parcels from SHA for $22 million, expects to start construction on its first building — seven stories, with 194 apartments and ground-floor retail — next year. SHA is marketing other Yesler parcels to developers.

On the three parcels, Vulcan plans 650 housing units in all.

Vulcan’s top development official, Ada Healey, told the Puget Sound Business Journal that Yesler had “great bones” and would look “kind of like South Lake Union” in 10 years.

Healey later said she meant the two neighborhoods share similarities — streetcars, major medical institutions, transportation access and visibility.

But they are quite different in size, zoning and property ownership, she said. Also, South Lake Union has been dominated by office space while Yesler is much more residential.

Healey said Vulcan wants to embrace the diversity of Yesler, where Caucasians accounted for 12 percent of the population before demolition started and the average annual income was $14,000.

Rents will be controlled in about 20 percent of each building’s units so they are affordable to tenants making about $20 per hour. Vulcan will get a 12-year property-tax break from the city in return and will control rents for 20 years in an agreement with SHA, Healey said.

Vulcan also plans to create a community kitchen in its first building, she said, in hopes of offering another gathering place for the Yesler community.

Reason for hope

Fitsum Abraha, SHA’s senior property manager at Yesler, grew up there and appreciates its welcoming community.

“While the structures are new, that doesn’t mean the connections or feel of community will disappear. I think people will re-create what they miss,” Abraha said.

Will it be harder if they’re surrounded by affluent white people?

Abraha, 33, sees reason for hope.

SHA held a block party when Kebero opened, and reached out to neighbors. Some Harborview doctors living at new apartments next door came with baked goodies, Abraha said.

In his experience that kind of mingling can be helpful. When he attended Nathan Hale High School in North Seattle he was invited to a classmate’s middle-class home. “It exposed me to things I didn’t see at Yesler,” he said. “His aspirations rubbed off on me. Now you won’t have to go all the way to Nathan Hale. It’s the person across the street from you.”

Welderfael, a systems-support analyst at a downtown law firm, now lives in Tukwila. He didn’t feel poor growing up in Yesler, he said, even if his mother was making minimum wage.

He’s worried about losing places where he met with young and old, Vietnamese and East African, places that were at the heart of every friendship he made, he said.

“When that physical place is diminished or gone,” he said, “it thins out those memories.”

Yesler was the kind of place, he said, “where you more than waved hello to your neighbors, you said, ‘Hey, that smells good, what are you cooking?’