‘Even the Walls’ connects Yesler Terrace to a global problem.
Heading west out of the Central District, Yesler Way runs to a crest overlooking the Puget Sound’s silver-platter expanse, framed by the point of Smith Tower and the brick facades of Pioneer Square. It’s a timeless Seattle vista that, until recently, belonged to the residents of Yesler Terrace, Washington State’s first low-income housing development.
More timely is the scene currently unfolding here on either side of Yesler Way. On the north flank, an unfinished building rises in raw wood and fresh concrete. Construction sounds echo from inside; men in orange vests slow traffic and unload PVC tubing from a flatbed. On Yesler’s south flank, an empty lot rolls down toward the International District. This flat, sandy expanse is where part of Yesler Terrace once stood. It was bulldozed this winter.
The first new housing—for the most extreme low-income population—opens this fall. Over the next 10 years, the rest of Yesler Terrace will be either renovated or torn down and built over. The project is led by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), the city office that deemed the 70-year-old development too decrepit to save. The new Yesler Terrace will sit on the same 30-acre footprint, but stand taller and denser, providing more than double the amount of low-income housing as the old complex, eventually some 1,800 low-income units total. Through partnerships with several private developers, it’ll also offer roughly 3,200 market-rate apartments and townhomes, creating a mixed-income community that is the practical result of changing ideas in politics and economics. In the meantime, many of Yesler’s estimated 1,100 residents have been temporarily relocated at SHA’s expense. They’re invited to return to new apartments as stages of the project are completed, at the same rent rates as the places they were forced to leave.
Despite its central location bordering the International District, downtown and the hospitals of First Hill, Yesler Terrace is something of an island, connected to the surrounding city and yet apart from it. Even the Walls, a short documentary premiering this month at SIFF, cracks the door open and allows a glimpse of this mostly unseen community. The film looks at Yesler Terrace from the inside out, stringing together a series of vignettes into a poignant, 27-minute snapshot of a transition decades in the making.
A chain-link fence now separates the sidewalk of Yesler Way from the empty lot where houses and a Unitarian church used to be. Beyond the fence is a tree with a sign bound to its trunk that reads, “Protect Tree. Tree value $12,000 min.”
For some reason, maybe because of its financial value, maybe because of its peripheral location, this tree was spared the fate of dozens of others that were leveled to make way for progress. It’s curious to assign a financial value to a life, to quantify it. But we respond to that number: That’s an important tree!
“We’re capitalists, right? So we base everything on what it’s worth,” says Saman Maydání, co-director of Even the Walls. “Is it worth my time? Is it worth my money? We can’t put a monetary value on social capital—how much a neighbor is worth—but it has value. And that’s not something being voiced in a beautiful, cinematic way.”
The power of Even the Walls stems from two sources, the first of which is its commitment to its subjects, the storytellers. Speaking from their living rooms and front porches, people describe their experiences of Yesler, of responsibility and legacy and community. They are men and women, young and old, African American, Native American, Eritrean and Iranian, some who moved to Yesler decades ago, others born there, others recently relocated. The film gives itself entirely to these people, neutralizing questions of objectivity or bias.
The second is its naked beauty. Interviews are interspersed with scenic footage revealing Yesler’s surprising pastoralism: long views toward the western horizon sliced by I-5; grassy yards and well-tended gardens bound by chain-link fences draped with Persian rugs; old oaks swaying above concrete corridors abutting cheap metal siding. Colors are muted Pacific Northwest grays and blues splintered by occasional springtime sunlight. Mundane moments like braiding a child’s hair or brewing water for tea are left in stark shadow, imparting heavy drama. For the film’s look Maydání credits her director of photography, Canh Nguyen, who spent part of his childhood living in Yesler Terrace and has an eye that captures despair and dignity at the same time.
In its urban impressionism and understated tension, its caress of a seemingly rough physical space, its generous treatment of hard-lived lives, Even the Walls calls to mind the work of Seattle-raised filmmakers Zia Mohajerjasbi (with whom Maydání has worked in the past) and Kahlil Joseph, who s directed videos for Shabazz Palaces and Kendrick Lamar. The film cuts from painterly frames of the environment to the faces and voices of its subjects with straightforward elegance, imparting a dignity equally apropos of an art gallery or a town-hall meeting.
“We wanted the piece to stand as art,” Maydání says, “because I believe art is what transforms human consciousness, like textbooks do not.”
Two years ago, Maydání was part of a crew working on a film in Yesler Terrace (Mohajerjasbi’s Hagereseb, also playing at SIFF). As co-producer of that film, she spent much of her tw0-week schedule knocking on doors and asking to plug power cords into homes. In that time she connected with a lot of Yesler residents. Maydání’s dark eyes and broad smile are easily approachable, but her personal history of constant relocation has instilled an openness in her, a sensitivity to the gravity of place, that was attractive to the first- and second-generation immigrants she met while working.
Now in her early 30s, Maydání was born in Malawi in southeastern Africa to an Iranian mother and English father. Her dad worked in public health projects all over Africa, bringing her to Niger and later Kenya, where she graduated from high school. She spent a year in Israel then moved to the U.S. Since then she’s lived in eight different states.
“I am homeless,” Maydání says, “so this is another reason why Yesler is fascinating to me, because these people have homes, and they may not be ideal but they have these networks and connections.”
From 2009 to 2010, she spent a year at New York’s New School earning a Master’s in documentary filmmaking. There she met Sarah Kuck, her co-director, a military kid who grew up in Hawaii, Germany and the American Midwest. After graduation, the two of them worked on a documentary with a former nurse-turned-documentary filmmaker and entrepreneur named Susan Hagedorn. When Maydání told Hagedorn about her idea for a project in Seattle, Hagedorn became the film’s first investor.
So Maydání returned to Seattle and Kuck came from Austin, Tex., to make a documentary about Yesler. One of the residents Maydání met during the Hagereseb shoot was Solomon “Selaay” Welderfael, a young artist and activist who ended up acting in the feature. Welay was born in Sudan, moved to Yesler at six years old and has lived there for 21 years. He speaks of the significance of proximity—the side-by-side collective existence enforced by Yesler’s close quarters—in generating community.
“Growing up in low income housing, you go through shit with people who are going through shit,” he says in Even the Walls. “It builds you up. All I have of you is a memory. That memory is attached to certain places we grew up in. When you take away those places, that memory starts to fade as well. I’m not gonna forget, but it thins out that memory, that connection.”
Welay is sober, reflective, proud of his roots. Other voices are too: Audry, a 50-year resident, explains that Yesler was the ideal place to raise kids when she first moved from Cajun country. Marty, a 55-year resident, used to call Yesler “the million-dollar hill.” Now he says he realizes “it’s not the million, it’s the billion-dollar hill.” These people are well aware of the forces of gentrification and their words radiate bittersweet resignation and reluctant stoicism.
But where are the horror stories? The poverty and shame and violence we expect to hear about in a story about public housing?
“We have all that content,” Maydání says. “We had to make a decision at some point to tell a story and what we wanted as our main through-line was hope, in terms of hope in what we can build, as people, when we are given the space, the opportunity. We’re not trying to tell the whole truth, we’re trying to tell a truth.”
Maydání believes that the film’s refined focus actually broadens its relevance. The story of Yesler Terrace, she says, is unfolding in cities around the globe, from New York to London to Turkey, anywhere marginalized communities are being paved over in the name of progress. Even the Walls links Seattle to America and America to everywhere else. This connection is critical, she says, because Americans don’t often see themselves within a context of a global culture or recognize global challenges.
“The film isn’t about preserving Yesler as it was; we can’t do that,” Maydání says. “It’s about listening to all of the voices, and particularly marginalized ones.”
Even the Walls accomplishes a lot in its short runtime: It’s a protest against unchecked development, a platform for members of a community in flux and a reminder of the need for empowerment and dialogue. The new Yesler Terrace is still under construction, after all, and its future is still open to the influence of public opinion.
“It’s not lost yet at all; it’s a really wonderful opportunity, if we can just see it that way, which is hard, because we’re trained to look at what’s wrong and how it’s not working out,” she says. “But we could see opportunity and hope and think, ‘There’s an option here!’ We’re at a crossroads. What can we do? How can we make this more equitable? What’s your role? Everybody has a role.”