When I moved my family to Seattle’s Central District seven years ago, I had no idea I was moving back to my ancestors’ old neighborhood. Then I found my great-great-grandfather’s name on the cornerstone of Langston Hughes Cultural Center at Yesler Way and 17th — the original Bikur Cholim synagogue. I had walked past this building every day, oblivious to my connection. My family had lost touch with its Jewish roots over time, just as Seattle appears to forget its past. As one of this city’s oldest paths, Yesler Way is the story of Seattle. This is where each new wave of immigrants arrives, from the Denny party to the families from the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia who live at Yesler Terrace today. Settlers in the 1850s included African Americans and Chinese, who took up residence next to the 13 Coast Salish villages already here. Japanese immigrants came in the 1880s in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act. My people fled pogroms in Eastern Europe, arriving in the 1890s. Sephardic immigrants settled here in the early 1900s. Filipinos came in the 1930s, and the Great Migration from the south and World War II brought more African Americans seeking opportunity.

Benjamin Bill

Chief Seattle Club, 2003–present

I started walking up the coast, 808 miles, from California to Canada. Took me 21 days. I stopped by Seattle, fell in love with the place. I met my wife on that walk. Pioneer Square used to be underwater. Back in the 1800s, they filled it all in and put up a break wall. Then they raised up the sidewalks. There’s still shops down there. Some places here you can still see the cobblestone roads. I like to go to the waterfront and sit, hear the water, smell the air. This club alone has a lot of the history of the tribes in this area. How they’ve come here and developed this place, thrived and adapted. [Many] migrated from northern Alaska down to this area. Many have been coming to Seattle for a long time and bringing their culture with them, their heritage and traditions.

Jason Nguyen

Age 16, Yesler Terrace, 2006–present

What was unique about Yesler was some of the alleyways that kids used to run in, playing tag, hide-and-seek. We’d give certain units code names. And climb fences — we’d hop in and out of people’s backyards because the fences are maybe four feet high. Any kid could go into any house and use the bathroom and that would be fine. We had great celebrations there. Foods like African food, injera, Filipino food like lumpia, and my grandma’s eggrolls — everyone loved those. My family is really Buddhist. I go to temple every Saturday from 11 to 4. We celebrate Chinese New Year. I go to Garfield High School just down the street from Yesler. I’m a captain on the football team. This year we took a knee during the national anthem, because it is not the land of the free when you still have racism and police brutality. There’s not equality among everyone.

Lisa Do

Yesler Terrace, owner of USA Nails, 1998–2016

I grew up in a very small village in south Vietnam. In 1983 they announced we can come here, but we lived so far away from the city, we didn’t know until 1989. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for seven months. I came to Seattle in November of 1992. I was 17. That year there was a winter storm with lots of snow coming down! It was so cold and different from Vietnam. The church gave us blankets and jackets. Everywhere we go we don’t know anyone. No family, no relatives. This is very sad. I had three jobs when I was in high school. About 10 years ago, my mom moved to Yesler Terrace. She loves it. She doesn’t drive, so she can walk to the market, her doctor, the temple, the deli, her family. She knows everybody there. And a lot of old people are there. She has neighbors from Vietnam, so she can speak Vietnamese.

Muz Katende 

Age 11, Yesler Terrace, 2011–present

I came to America when I was 3 from Kenya. One thing I’ve learned about Yesler Terrace is once you live here there’s no going back. You could go back to Kenya, you could go back to wherever you came from, but you will never leave the people you met here. It’s not a big place, but when you see what’s inside it makes it look bigger than it is. If I went outside and looked at it I would think it was just a brick building, but when you walk inside you feel the love, you feel the caring we give to each other. It’s not a negative place. We all know each other, we all introduce each other. It’s such a small world. I think Yesler Terrace makes the world smaller — and bigger.

Amina Shali, Muz’s mother 

Yesler Terrace, 2011–present 

I moved to Kakuma Camp in Kenya’s Turkana District when I was 8. I don’t remember Somalia. My dad is still there. That camp was not safe at all — there were thieves, guns, violence. At night you are closing your eyes but your ears are open. It was a really rough life. Very dangerous. Very difficult. Fetching water all the time, just surviving. Because Muz is albino and the sun there is like it is in Arizona — too hot and close — there is a high risk of skin cancer, so when Muz was 3 we came to America. First I lived in Tukwila, then I received low-income housing at Yesler. I like it because I can communicate with my neighbors, engage with others. In Tukwila neighbors did not communicate.

Justin Le-Huynh

Age 7, Yesler Terrace, 2000–present

I’ve lived here since I was born, seven and a half years, in Yesler Terrace. I used to play with my friends a lot; now they’re gone because they’re moving to a new house. They had to move because the construction. I don’t think they’ll be coming back to the new places. It’s now boring here. I have no one to play with. It’s not really loud here anymore. It used to be really loud. I’d hear people saying things in Vietnamese language, and other languages I don’t understand. If you visit here you should try Seattle Deli. Try Vietnamese rice with broccoli and fish, or bánh bao, a bun with eggs or sausage and other stuff in it.

Joe Peha

Central District resident, 1941–1956

If I was on Yesler back in those days walking behind two ladies, they would be talking in Yiddish. You don’t hear that anymore! That was the language of the Old Country. Sephardic women, they’d be talking in Ladino on the sidewalk. You’d ride in the trolley all the way down to Leschi Park. On 33rd Avenue the bridge started. The trolley would get on it and go straight down. It was small, just one trolley car, like the ones in San Francisco. The conductor knew the people that lived on Yesler Way. He knew them by name! We had about six kosher butchers, four Jewish bakeries. To tell you the truth I didn’t have any money to buy those things! My dad would knead the dough, and my mother would bake the bread. She made a lot of panderas — they look like pretzels. Rice mixed with a little bit of meat, inside dough they call that pastelles — delicious! — with a hard-boiled egg on Saturday, for Shabbat.

Russ Meltzer

Attended Herzl Synagogue 1955–1970, property manager and resident, 1997–2004

My earliest memory is here in this little room with old men with beards. We’d eat bagels and cream cheese and lox and they were all talking at once, in Yiddish I think. They wore these big hats and black capes. They seemed really old to me, but, you know, when you’re 3 everyone is old. During the High Holidays a group of us 8-year-olds would escape the services [at Herzl]. We’d walk over here, get our friends that were wanting to do the same [at Sephardic Bikur Holim], get out and explore the Central District. At that time it was run down but it was amazing — it was so different from where I lived on the Eastside. My friends from Sunday school grew up in Seward Park so they were used to the city. They’d take me to this tiny Asian grocery store and we’d get treats I wasn’t used to, like rice candy.

Eli Genauer

Central District resident 1950–1966

Here was my favorite store in the whole world: Jimmy Fuller the tailor. Jimmy Fuller was an African American man who walked with a limp — the nicest man in the world. On Saturday morning he’d stand in the doorway when we walked by and he’d yell, “Good Shabbos, good Shabbos!” In October of 1960, the Yankees were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, smack dab in the middle of shul time. I was the biggest Yankee fan. Mr. Fuller was a big sports fan, always had the radio on. Picture this: five or six kids with big yarmulkes on sneaking across the street, all standing outside Jimmy Fuller’s with their ears pressed against the window trying to hear what’s going on. Of course when he saw us he’d invite us in. He was pressing the pants, the steam coming up. When I think about World Series baseball games, I smell Jimmy Fuller’s tailor shop. So we all went in, and if you know anything about baseball history the game was tied and oh — you can watch footage of it now — and I was heartbroken. I came back into shul and I was crying. I came to my father. He said, “What happened?” And I said, “Well, the Yankees lost.”

Daniel Mihalyo & Annie Han

Lead Pencil Studio, 2001–present

I certainly miss the fine urban granularity that I remember from this area of Yesler in the 1970s and ’80s — the tiny shops, record stores, and hardware. I would hope that the city can get the zoning formula right ... As it is, the nearest bank, post office, pharmacy, laundry, grocery store, and hardware store are a mile away. Many of the storefronts in the newly built live/work townhouses facing Yesler have proven to be anti-social storage spaces for newcomers who have not embraced urban living. This has imbued the neighborhood with the strange feel of a sanitized urban vacuum. This is one of those neighborhoods that, with a little insight, reads like a perfect palimpsest of civic life.

Isaac Azose

Central District resident 1930–1947

I remember the Brenner bakery. Itsey, Charlie, Joey, and Yetta was the daughter. The smells coming from the ovens in the back would drive you crazy. Not just the cinnamon rolls and things like that but the bread itself: French bread, rye bread, pumpernickel bread, just about anything you would find in the Old Country. There was the barber, Alex Lift, and there was a candy shop run by a Sephardic Jew by the name of Condiotty. He used to make all kinds of candy, the type he made in Turkey. He made special candy for the holiday of Purim covered with sesame. Next to Condiotty’s place was a coffee house run by Abraham Amon. They used to play tablas, another name for backgammon. It was a card room and coffee shop. He had it going from morning till night.

Raye Behar

Central District resident 1929–1952

My dad came here from the Island of Rhodes, 1909. I grew up off of Yesler. I do remember taking the trolley downtown. It would take us to the glass gazebo down in Pioneer Square. My mother would tell them I was only 3 years old so she wouldn’t have to pay the 10 cents. On Yesler Way we had a Jewish delicatessen, and a Japanese drug store — Tokuda Drugs. Unfortunately they were taken away during World War II … forced to leave, they had to sell their stuff overnight, it was horrible what they did. We had Japanese neighbors, the Ogamis. There was Michiko, Teriko, the brother they called Ted — he joined the army and fought in Italy. My dad drove to Puyallup — they were behind barbed wire! [People say,] “Oh no! They weren’t in concentration camps!” I say, “Really? Did they have barbed wire?” Yes. “Did they have sniper posts with a gunman guarding them?” Yes.

Robbie Hill

Musician, Central District resident, 1957–present

Back in the ’70s there was always live music going on in the Central District. Every night, after hours. Yesler was a really happening place. Yesler Terrace, they had a rec center — there was always bands playing there, parties going on, BBQs, breakfasts for the youth. Not too far from there was the Black Panther headquarters. I got involved with that at the age of 16. They served breakfast to the poor, and they stood up for the rights of people. That’s what I was all about then, and that’s what I’m about today. That was before disco came. My bands, Black & White Affair and Robbie Hill’s Family Affair, played with just about every major star. Curtis Mayfield wanted me to be his drummer. Playing in Canada, I met this young lady that came down to the club. Diane Hendrix. Come to find out she was the cousin of Jimi Hendrix. So we got married. All of this came from beating on pots and pans.

Leo White

BJ’s Affordable Hauling & Lawns, business owner and resident, 1961–present

There was a big lot on 26th and Yesler, just a dirt lot. We called it Gilligan’s Island, and that’s where we played. It was just a bunch of dirt. A place for kids to go — let’s meet at Gilligan’s Island! The Wilsons’ store was across the street and Larry Wilson was our age so he’d be there playing, too. The Wilsons’ store is still there. They still live right next door. So, it goes deep. My family’s church is on 15th and Yesler, Goodwill Missionary Baptist. Yesler is a very close-knit street. Everybody knew everybody from MLK down to 14th Street. Basically it was a village, everybody taking care of everybody. We’d get up and ride our bikes down to the lake — that was a real big getaway for us kids. Amazing views getting down to that water — you’re only maybe 20 blocks from the house, but you were in a different world.

To learn more about the Jewish history of the Central District, visit the Washington State Jewish Archives and the Washington State Jewish Historical Society. For more on Rachel Kessler’s project, “Profanity Hill,” visit profanityhill.com. “Profanity Hill” has been made possible with the help of a grant from 4Culture.
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