On the south slope of one of Seattle’s original seven hills, a vegetable filled garden can be found, offering a serene space that is starkly juxtaposed with the noisy I-5 overpass in the not distant background. This community garden, squished between a neighborhood playfield and a hill too steep to build on, is hoed by the residents from the adjacent Yesler Terrace Garden Community, a Seattle Public Housing project home to low-income families. Although the garden is smaller and more hidden than many community gardens in Seattle, its cultivation tells a story that reflects Seattle’s social and economic history. Yesler Terrace’s Playground Garden is a result of Seattle’s response to greater social and economic trends over the twentieth century as citizens and government sought to shape a marginalized community into a more secure neighborhood.
The industrialization of the Pacific Northwest sets an economic, social, and ecological foundation for Yesler Terrace today. Realizing the vast needs for timber in San Francisco in the mid 19th century, a business man named Henry Yesler built Seattle’s first sawmill at the foot of what is now Yesler Way. Sliding massive logs down the originally coined “skid row”, Yesler logged the hillsides of the seven sisters (Finger, 25). This eventually allowed for the development that removed all native habitats (Yesler Terrace Background Report, 10). As the downtown neighborhoods surrounding Yesler Way grew, their reputation for roughness grew with them; as a result, by the 1880s Seattle’s newly wealthy sought to establish a more segregated neighborhood elsewhere. According to author Roger Sale, First Hill on Yesler Way presented the perfect opportunity for close proximity to downtown without the association of immigrant and working classes, a geographic location that would continue to influence the social landscape for the next hundred years (p. 58). Thus, Seattle’s first neighborhood on a hill was born. However, its glory days came and went quickly, as the building of First Hill’s street railway brought greater access and further development to the area (Dorpat, historylink.org).
Yesler Hill’s current residential diversity is rooted in the labor immigration and racial policies of the early 1900s. Immigrant Chinese, Japanese, Fillipino and African American men from out of state and overseas met Seattle’s labor needs. Although Seattle’s neighborhoods had been mostly racially integrated up to this point, an influx of African Americans migrants fleeing the racial violence of the Southern United States made white residents uncomfortable. As a result, whites systematically blocked minority residents from moving into their neighborhoods through violence and intimidation. Eventually, restrictive neighborhood covenants were enacted that barred white residents from selling or renting their homes to minorities, while federal lending policies limited minorities’ access to credit (Davis, 6). At the same time, the Yesler/Jackson neighborhood became more accessible by rail car, allowing minority groups access to the jobs in what an article in the Western History Quarterly called the hill’s “third class hotels” that surrounded the hill’s hospitals (Taylor, 416). Eventually, Japanese workers and businesses moved onto the hill, creating a short period of prosperity that lasted until the Great Depression hit Seattle in the 1930s, when racial and economic segregation and poverty became the trademark of what became to be known as Profanity Hill.
During the Great Depression, New Deal policies were brought into Seattle by the federal government in order to deal with rising poverty. New Deal policies that integrated progressivism’s ideas of regional and local planning with social and environmental issues were imbedded in the Wagner Act, allowing federal funding to be used to eliminate slums and provide low-income housing throughout the nation (BOLA, 12). Seattle went through what Sale’s calls the city’s “bleakest years” (163). By 1935, the Department of Health reported up to 5,000 residents living in “shack towns” along the Interbay and Waterfront districts (Dept. of Health, 2). As “Hooverille” slums were constructed on the waterfront and as unemployment and housing prices rose, Seattle became the perfect location for the testing of New Deal visions: W.P.A. programs provided work and new hospitals were built (Seattle County Clerk, seattle.gov). Eventually, under similar programs, funding for Seattle’s Housing Authority was granted in 1937 under Jesse Epstein, a local lawyer and housing specialist, giving him power to construct Seattle’s first public housing project (Sale, 163).
As a true New Deal Progressive, Jesse Epstein used government funding and authority to create a housing project that was designed by experts to solve both social and environmental problems, shaping the landscape of First Hill into a modernized, clean, and racially integrated neighborhood. Due to its dilapidating conditions and its reputation as the city’s worse slum, forty-three acres on Profanity Hill were chosen as a spot for the project. Bringing together the city’s expert architects, landscapers, and planners, Epstein insisted on designs that provided efficient yet comfortable housing (Sale, 165). Inexpensive but sturdy materials were used in the construction of 863 low-rise units. As an effort to confront social contentions already existing throughout Profanity Hill, Epstein made the Yesler Terrace Garden Community the first integrated public housing project in America (YTBR, 6).
Although the goal of the Yesler Terrace Project was to provide affordable housing for the city’s poor, the project had to replace an existing impoverished neighborhood. The city’s large Japanese community resided in the middle of where Epstein drew up plans for his garden community. Although the area was aging, with overwhelming crime and poverty, many residents did not want to leave. Japanese Seattleites already struggled with the land ownership discrimination laws of the 1920s, so further destruction of their housing threatened their presence in the city (Sale, 175). According to Irene Miller’s 1941 review in the Seattle Housing Authority Reports, many of the Japanese residents would not be eligible for the new low income housing, making the sting of destruction even worse (9). However, the majority of the buildings on the south slope of First Hill were eventually leveled, replacing a dilapidated neighborhood with a modernized and efficient landscape.
Reflecting urban America’s identity crisis that wrestled between the agrarian vision, a need for nature and industrial urbanism, Seattle’s residents responded to war-time supply needs by starting the city’s first community garden trend. As Epstein’s housing project was completed and named Yesler Terrace Garden Community—although it was built with no gardens—in 1942, America entered World War II. All over the nation, backyard and public gardens went in full production mode as the federal government urged citizens to follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s lead and plant food producing “War Gardens”, or “Victory Gardens” that brought the agrarian vision of the farming American into the industrialized city in order to increase war time food supplies (Price, knol.com). Urban farms popped up all over Seattle, using public and private land to produce food (Hou, Johnson & Lawson, 14). Seattle’s adoption of these national initiatives introduced the city to the benefits of urban food production.
The rise of community gardening in times of trouble was not a new concept; with the Progressivist ideology of garden cities and planned neighborhoods, city governments and philanthropic groups had contributed to the rise of public gardening during World War I and the depression years. In a quasi-agrarian idealization, programs like The Washington Emergency Relief Administration’s Garden and Food Preservation Program sought to relieve poverty induced hunger through seed, land, and equipment provisions, allowing Seattle to developed urban farms that provided employment for men (Hou, Johnson & Lawson, 49). Although peace times often saw a decrease in gardening, the concept was revived in Seattle in later social movements.
During the post-war economic restructuring occurring in Seattle in the 1960s, a grassroots movement of urban environmentalism rebirthed community gardening throughout the city. As Seattle became a hub for diverse expressions of environmentalist reform, experimentation of open spaces and public gardens flourished throughout the city (Sanders, 10). The book Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia argues that the counterculture environmentalists of the 1960s and ‘70s influenced the rebirth of community gardens in Seattle because of their focus on ecological principles and anti-consumerism. The movement encouraged “bioregional” food production and consumption through decentralized and low-energy agriculture inside and outside of the city, changing Seattle’s urban landscape to include principles of sustainability and ecology through local food production locations (Sanders, 13). It was during this time that city officially bought land for urban farming and Seattle’s P-Patch community gardening program was formed (Matsuno, seattle.gov).
Specifically, the Central District, where Yesler Terrace is located, gave rise to an environmental justice movement that brought about the Yesler Terrace Playground Garden of today. Building on the structure of the civil rights movement in the area and the Model Cities program, a program funded by the federal government seeking to reduce social and economic disadvantages, resident planners of the neighborhood brought together social, environmental and economic concerns in a D.I.Y. fashion. By 1979 rumors of a Yesler Terrace community garden were stirring (Sanders, 11). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote an article headlining “Garden for the Poor May Cost a Bushel of Money”, complaining about a proposed project to build a greenhouse and community garden in Yesler Terrace to help low-income household reduce food bills:
The soil may be poisoned by lead; the slope may be too steep for watering; but a Seattle City department is planning to spend $250,000 in federal grant money on a Yesler Terrace vegetable garden and greenhouse… (Egan)
The article indicates that before any shovel hit the dirt studies analyzing the area next to the recently built I-5 had to reassure safety and plausibility of gardening where air pollutants and steep slopes might create problems. However, a 1997 article in the Seattle Times interviewing past residents Yesler Terrace tells of a community garden and green house on the south slope of the housing block in the 1970s (Miller Aubrun, 1), indicating that the project went forward to some degree, developing the area covered in “blackberry shrubs and littered with old shopping carts” into a food producing garden (Egan, 1). These grassroots movements of 1960s and ‘70s carved out the path for today’s Yesler Terrace community gardens, specifically shaping the Yesler Hill into a landscape of community activism and local food production.
A social and government shift towards encouraging diversity and community development in the 1990s brought about the permanence of Yesler Terrace’s community garden. In 1995, a City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ program called Cultivating Communities was established alongside Seattle Housing Authority in an effort to develop minority and marginalized communities throughout Seattle. Cultivating Communities worked to “acquire, build, preserve, and protect community gardens in Seattle neighborhoods” (Ilem Uy, 24). According to Yesler Terrace’s current P-Patch director Nate Moxley, Cultivating Communities looked to the city’s housing projects for their first gardens as an effort to help the department’s projects match the demographics of the city. In addition, Asian and East African communities all over Seattle took strong interest in community gardens; as Yesler Terrace and the surrounding area had a large Asian American population, with many Asian and East African immigrants as well, local gardens affirmed a strong cultural sense of place for those in the community (Diers, 105). As a result, Cultivating Communities built three permanent community gardens in the Yesler Terrace Housing neighborhood by the end of 1995, one of which lies at the south slope of the playfield, eventually named the Playground Garden.
Since their official establishment in 1995, Yesler Terrace’s community gardens have been a central feature in community projects and involvement. Unofficially, many resident gardeners use their garden plots to produce food to sell at local markets and food co-ops. More officially, youth garden programs have been developed, involving the youth of the community through skills and job training programs and summer garden and food justice camps (GroundUp). In addition, Seattle’s P-Patch and community garden programs and networks have expanded to encompass over eighty-five gardens in 2011. The city government has made local food production a priority, passing the appropriate legislation and providing funding through a Neighborhood Matching Fund that assists new garden projects (Seattle.gov.). According to Moxley, the community gardens at Yesler Terrace take more non-profit and government involvement than other city community gardens; however, for Moxley, the garden’s contribution to the community at large is worth the time and effort.
The southern slope of First Hill changed names as often as it changed its landscape: from the loggers of Skid Row, to the hospitals of Pill Hill, to the rough and neglected Profanity Hill, Yesler Terrace emerged as a reflection of Seattle’s rapidly changing history. In the hands industrious pioneers, laboring minorities, and government officials, Yesler Terrace was shaped according to the economic needs and social development of its inhabitants. The neighborhood’s Playground Garden is a result of movements birthed during the environmental justice movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, when Seattle supported regional food production and citizen equality through food from community gardens. As a community garden located in a publically built neighborhood, Yesler Terrace’s Playground Garden illustrates citizen and government efforts to reshape a marginalized community through greater social and economic trends.
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