A south Beacon Hill housing project was reborn as a social experiment that mixes classes, cultures and incomes. It's too soon to declare...

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It’s no accident that homes in Southeast Seattle’s NewHolly neighborhood have front porches.

It’s no accident that residents must leave those porches to pick up their mail.

And it’s no accident that yards are too small for kids to play in, but playgrounds and parks are placed throughout.

Almost everything about NewHolly is by design.

Built on a foundation of lofty goals, NewHolly is a bold and risky experiment to create an ideal urban community — a multicultural haven where middle-class homeowners and poor people in public housing can live on equal ground. Sales literature promotes it as a return to the days when neighbors swapped stories on the porch and greeted each other with friendly waves as their children played catch in the park.

A byproduct of the most dramatic and deliberate overhaul of blighted public housing in a half-century, this controversial try at social engineering is happening in cities across the U.S. Locally, it’s playing out in pockets of Southeast Seattle, West Seattle and White Center.

Information online

Seattle Housing Authority: www.seattlehousing.org

King County Housing Authority’s Greenbridge Web site: www.kcha.org/HOPEVI/index.html

Seattle Displacement Coalition:www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/

Rachel Garshick Kleit:
University of Washington professor’s publications on HOPE VI. evans.washington.edu/fac/Kleit

The test case is on south Beacon Hill, where the former Holly Park housing project has been reborn as NewHolly.

Holly Park’s 871 homes — look-alike duplexes and fourplexes that formed the closest thing Seattle had to a low-income ghetto — were bulldozed, beginning in the late 1990s.

Now almost fully occupied, NewHolly looks and feels like an unpretentious suburban subdivision — a tightly packed mix of 1,390 single-family houses, town homes and apartments.

About 40 percent are set aside as public-housing units for very poor people (earning no more than $23,350 a year for a family of four) while 30 percent have been sold or rented at market rate. The rest are slightly subsidized, targeted to buyers and renters earning less than average income.

From Holly Park to NewHolly

At a glance: Holly Park was the first Seattle housing project to be torn down and replaced with a mixed-income community, NewHolly, which spans 118 acres on south Beacon Hill. With gabled homes painted in a coordinated palette, it has the look and feel of an unassuming suburban subdivision — but with a central hub where services for immigrants and poor people are provided.

Timeline: Demolition of Holly Park began in 1997 with NewHolly now almost 100 percent occupied

Housing before redevelopment: 871 subsidized apartments for very low-income renters

Housing after: 1,390 new homes, including:

• 530 subsidized apartments for very low-income renters

• 338 subsidized apartments for lower-income families

• 100 subsidized homes for first-time and lower-income buyers

• 422 market-rate for-sale homes and apartment rentals

Source: Seattle Housing Authority

With a gridded road system that connects to outlying streets, NewHolly blends with its surroundings in ways that Holly Park, isolated by its serpentine roads, never did.

With poverty diffused, crime has gone down, as neighbors look out for one another instead of looking the other way.

Where Holly Park residents complained of mold inside their aging homes, NewHolly’s public-housing residents enjoy amenities such as carpeting, screened windows and washers and dryers.

But there are also challenges within NewHolly’s tree-lined streets.

About 20 different languages and cultures are represented, and residents are discovering that despite their best intentions, creating a harmonious community takes time and effort.

Language barriers, religious practices and cultural differences can make getting to know one another awkward and difficult. Since no one wants to commit a faux pas, the safest route often is to say or do nothing at all.

At a neighborhood potluck earlier this year intended to encourage NewHolly’s diverse residents to socialize, white homeowners were excited to sample curried meat dishes from Africa and a sticky rice dessert from the Pacific Islands. But after polite smiles, most settled at tables where the people around them looked an awful lot like themselves.

“It’s too early to judge if NewHolly is a success or failure,” said Rebecca Lane, who with her husband bought a house at NewHolly in 2001. “It may take a couple generations before we know whether we as a community can emerge beyond the layers of racism and income bias.”

Some residents are finding that barriers can be broken down most easily through graciousness and in small steps.

In keeping with her Muslim faith, Anaji Aman, a public-housing resident from East Africa, will shake the hand of another woman but not a man. But if a man she does not know extends his hand, she will shake it to be courteous.

“After I have gotten to know him,” she said, “the next time I will explain that I do not shake a man’s hand because of my religion.”

“It’s my home”

Sidney Carter grew up as one of six children in the projects of Birmingham, Ala.

A Naval veteran of the Korean War, he was discharged in Bremerton and stayed in the Puget Sound area. He injured his back while working as a heavy-duty truck driver and went on disability.

In 1991, he moved into a Holly Park duplex where drug dealers had previously lived before they were evicted by the landlord, Seattle Housing Authority.

Carter taped a sign to his door: “If you are not a relative or if this is not an emergency, do not knock after 9 p.m.” Only one person ever knocked, at midnight.

“He said, ‘Hey man, what you got?’ ” recalled Carter, now 73. “I said, ‘I got some lead for you if you don’t leave my porch right now.’ “

He and daughter LaToya, currently an Ingraham High School senior, were among the first families from Holly Park to move into NewHolly.

Holly Park was one of the first public-housing projects in the country to receive a federal grant under HOPE VI (Hope Six), which stands for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere. The program has been controversial because it required that housing for the poor be torn down and mixed-income communities go up instead.

When Congress funded the program in 1992, it had in mind severely distressed public housing in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta — not projects like Holly Park.

Built as temporary housing for Boeing workers during World War II before being converted into public housing, Holly Park was not that run-down by national standards.

Local housing authorities nevertheless leveraged $155 million in HOPE VI grants to spur redevelopment of four sprawling projects: Holly Park, Rainier Vista in Southeast Seattle, High Point in West Seattle and Park Lake Homes I (now Greenbridge) in White Center.

Rachel Garshick Kleit, a University of Washington public-affairs professor, said the redeveloped neighborhoods can succeed if designed and managed wisely.

“If we are going to all live together peacefully as well as address housing for everyone, the mixed-income approach can meet the needs of a wide variety of people,” said Kleit, who has independently evaluated the redevelopments for the Seattle and King County housing authorities. “But it can’t be done blindly.”

An idea behind the social experiment was that middle-class homeowners could be community leaders and role models, helping their low-income neighbors rise out of poverty.

But critics consider that premise patronizing.

They argue that HOPE VI is misguided, turning housing authorities into developers of mixed-income neighborhoods instead of staying true to their mission of providing quality housing for the very poor.

The social experiment is taking place as rising housing prices have widened class divisions in the Seattle area. That divide is evident even within NewHolly, where the socioeconomic gap between homeowners and public-housing residents has grown with each subsequent phase of development.

In NewHolly’s first phase, homebuyers paid between $200,000 and $250,000, while houses in the final phase sold for as high as $450,000. At High Point, where redevelopment has just begun, some houses cost even more.

By contrast, average rent for a NewHolly public-housing tenant is $260 a month.

Divisions are lessened, however, because the Seattle Housing Authority was selective in deciding who could live at NewHolly, excluding those who had been problem tenants at Holly Park.

As a result, NewHolly’s public-housing residents are more similar to Sidney Carter, considered a pillar of Holly Park just as he is at NewHolly.

Carter, who calls Holly Park “Old Holly,” gets a lot out of NewHolly because he puts a lot into it. He and his daughter meet their neighbors — including homeowners — by attending meetings, potlucks and picnics, and by distributing fliers for those events.

“I don’t own here, but it’s my home,” Carter said. “I feel equal to everyone else here. I talk with homeowners, poor people, whoever it might be. For whatever reason, my daughter and I fit in here. I’m a stranger to no one, and neither is she.”

Pioneering homebuyers

Those who bought homes in NewHolly’s first phase of development are considered pioneers — risk-takers who helped settle the frontier.

“We were all on the wagon train together,” said Kate Malkin, who bought into NewHolly in 2000 with husband Devin.

The Malkins have heard from people who say they could never live at NewHolly. They have heard the “it’s too far south” excuse, but what rang more authentic was a concern about living conspicuously as a have among have-nots.

But for certain homebuyers, the notion of living among public-housing residents appealed to their political and social values. Other lures include affordability, proximity to transit and — for some but not all — a desire to make NewHolly a success.

“I was not interested in a social experiment,” Devin Malkin said. “I was interested in a house that worked for my family. I was concerned about long-term resale value. The benefits of living in a diverse community were ancillary. The kitchen really is what sold me.”

What sold Jerry Saltzman and his wife, Truus Jansen, was the chance to forge meaningful relationships with diverse neighbors. They sold their house in an upper-middle-class section of West Seattle to move to NewHolly in 2001.

Saltzman walked the streets of his new neighborhood with Jake the Polish lowland sheepdog on one leash and Bennie the Shih Tzu on the other. His dogs acting as kid magnets, he got to know some of the neighborhood children. Communication began timidly — “Do they bite? Can I pet them?” — then grew more confident.

“Can I walk them?”

After the children warmed up to Saltzman, they would visit him at his house.

“It was a sweet thing,” Saltzman said. “I don’t know if it was because of our openness or the kids’ openness or a combination of both.”

The kids lived in public housing with their families, almost all African immigrants. The mixing of culture and class was occurring naturally, in part because it came easily to the kids and Saltzman, a trainer of therapists whose background includes advocacy in the African American / Jewish Coalition for Justice.

Saltzman let the boys watch basketball games on cable on the big-screen TV in the upstairs bedroom. He let them work out on the Bowflex downstairs. He tutored them in U.S. history and helped them fill out college applications. He drove them to the North Bend outlet mall to buy Nikes and Adidas. He took them swimming.

Their parents also asked for Saltzman’s help — from tutoring in English to transportation across town to help with a disputed utility bill.

When kids came over to use his computer, they sometimes were raucous and interrupted his work. Teens knocked on his door late at night, asking to borrow money. After he injured his knee, Saltzman asked them not to come over. They did anyway.

The experience has left Saltzman wondering how to befriend his neighbors without becoming their social worker.

“No matter how much you try, there remains a systemic and subtle difference between the classes that is difficult to overcome,” he said. “That’s what I think we still have to figure out as a community — how we can be true allies to people and still maintain boundaries.”

Finding common ground

Joy Bryngleson’s job is to make NewHolly a cohesive community by helping residents get to know one another.

“There was no national model we could look to,” said Bryngleson, NewHolly’s full-time community builder and a Seattle Housing Authority employee. “There was no book to read because nobody had done this before.”

So she created a guide.

“New Holly: Many Neighbors, Many Stories” is a 100-page spiral-bound book published in 2005 and distributed to new residents via the neighborhood’s welcome wagon.

It profiles NewHolly’s 20 or so different cultures with maps, common phrases and traditions, and has been translated into seven foreign languages.

It offers advice on protocol, such as describing proper ways to greet someone. The Somalia section includes tips on “things to do or not to do to avoid offending us accidentally.”

Bryngleson also organizes NewHolly’s community events, such as the potluck earlier this year and an annual summer barbecue that features a talent show and food lines separated by halal and non-halal diets.

Although she organizes cultural workshops to educate residents about their neighbors, Bryngleson prefers inclusive social clubs, such as one on gardening. She plans community meetings around topics that cut across class and cultural lines, such as traffic safety and improving parks.

Kleit, the UW professor, said finding common ground is key.

“You can’t just put people next to each other and expect them all to become friends,” she said. “The fact they don’t all sit together at the same table when socializing may not be a problem if, in other situations, they come together on things they all care about.”

Barriers remain

Although NewHolly strives to mix residents, certain design elements and cultural forces produce the unintended consequence of separating neighbors by language and income.

A three-building “neighborhood campus” is considered the heart of NewHolly. Except for a Seattle Public Library branch and a community gathering hall, the campus caters almost exclusively to low-income people and immigrants.

Services offered there include job training and computer and Head Start classes. One of the buildings is leased to Atlantic Street Center, an agency that provides English tutoring, child-rearing classes and other youth and family services.

Anaji Aman, who came to the U.S. in 1991 from Kenya, has raised her three school-age boys at Holly Park and NewHolly, where she moved into a three-bedroom town house in 1999. She said she has met few NewHolly homeowners — mostly just those who have volunteered as English tutors at Atlantic Street Center.

Clannishness at NewHolly exists among different immigrant groups — with Asians and Africans rarely mixing — but also within them.

“Each immigrant community has its own separate community,” Aman said. “I have my own — the Oromo community. Eritrean, Somali — they each have their own.”

At community meetings, the separation is evident as various immigrant communities sit in clusters around an interpreter who translates for them.

Carter, who is African American, said language barriers separate NewHolly neighbors more than income levels. He said he mixes easier with middle-income homeowners than with immigrants not fluent in English.

“When I’m talking to an East African, if we both talk slow we usually can understand what the other one is saying,” Carter said. “I have a neighbor with a wife and six kids. He’s one hell of a guy. But he doesn’t speak great English. So when I want to communicate with him, I get one of his kids to translate and it works out great.”

Kids are the future

After school lets out, the NewHolly branch library is abuzz with kids from knee-high to tower tall.

Two teens seek a librarian’s assistance for their senior project on firefighting as giggly girls gossip about a peer. A boy palming a mini basketball bops between tables and friends.

If NewHolly is a social experiment, then the branch library is the petri dish. Kids from NewHolly and all of Southeast Seattle mingle there.

It didn’t used to be that way.

The old Holly Park library, half the size of the NewHolly branch, was located in a building that resembled a trailer. It rarely drew patrons from outside the housing project and served few adults.

In 1998, the old library issued fewer than 200 new library cards and checked out some 11,000 books.

The new library, which opened in November 1999, issued about 850 new cards and loaned out some 84,000 books last year.

When the weather is nice, the kids move outside, riding scooters in the street, playing ball in the park and climbing on playground equipment.

Many residents think NewHolly is Seattle’s most kid-friendly neighborhood, and entrust its success to the children.

Anaji Aman may not know many of her homeowner neighbors, but said, “My sons play with white kids and bring them over to our home.”

Kate and Devin Malkin said their 6-year-old daughter is making friends with kids who live in public housing.

“Kids don’t stand on ceremony,” Kate Malkin said. “If kids see somebody, they are going to say hi.”

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com