City on a Hill

Building Housing Right in Politically Correct Seattle

Story by Daniel Brook

Photography by Emily Goodnight

Published on Sep 24, 2012

Set atop a slope so steep it is known locally as “Profanity Hill” for the curses spewed forth during ascent, Seattle’s Yesler Terrace is a shining city on a hill — an example of what public housing in America should be but so rarely is. Pioneered during the heady days of the New Deal by an idealistic young attorney named Jesse Epstein, it was the nation’s first racially integrated public housing project. In a time when residential segregation was the law in the South, and Northern mayors like Chicago’s Richard J. Daley were using public housing to stack African Americans in vertical ghettos to keep them from moving into white neighborhoods, Epstein built a low-rise apartment complex with equal numbers of blacks, whites and Asians. It was a progressive model for the 20th century. Now, 80 years later, the Seattle Housing Authority is rebuilding Yesler Terrace using federal support from the Obama administration’s Choice Neighborhoods program and a 21st-century progressive logic that puts a premium on sustainability and economic diversity. Journalist Daniel Brook examines the plans and what they mean for Epstein’s latter-day tenants, his vision and the state of public housing in America.