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Wednesday, November 4, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Cleanup Of Yesler Terrace -- Dinner To Honor Residents, Police Who Joined Forces Against Crime

Walking along Yesler Way, two folks talked about the way it used to be.

"This was wall-to-wall dealers," said Sharif Soajima, Block Watch coordinator for the Yesler Terrace housing project.

"You'd stop at the stoplight and five guys would run out to your car and ask if you were looking" for drugs, added Kristin O'Donnell, who has lived in Yesler Terrace for 17 years.

Today, Yesler Way, one of the oldest streets in Seattle, is far different.

The drug dealers are mostly gone. Prostitutes who lined the street have largely disappeared. A place called "the hole," where drug dealers hung around a former basketball court, is quiet.

"It's gotten to be an uncomfortable place to sell drugs, whereas five years ago it was a comfortable place," O'Donnell said.

What made the difference was a change in community attitudes, establishment of a Block Watch program and close cooperation with police.

Tomorrow, a dinner sponsored by the Yesler Terrace Community Council will honor about 30 Seattle police officers and several dozen community leaders who made the change possible.

The by-invitation dinner starts at Neighborhood House, 825 Yesler Way, at 7 p.m., with certificates of appreciation to be presented beginning at 7:40.

Yesler Way, which runs uphill from the Seattle waterfront, was named after Henry Yesler, who built the town's first sawmill.

In 1939, the Seattle Housing Authority opened the city's first

public-housing area there, and the development went through various incarnations, including a major remodel about 10 years ago.

But by the late 1980s, drug dealing and vice had become pervasive in the area, and that's when O'Donnell and other residents decided they had to do something. So they started sitting at tables and playing "Trivial Pursuit" or cards, watching the drug dealers and taking down license numbers.

"We thought we had to express our displeasure," said O'Donnell, "so we sat out at that corner with a sign that said, `We're not looking, we're watching.'

"In retrospect, we think we were being foolishly brave," she added. But the effort worked. Newspapers and television stations started doing articles and broadcasts about Yesler Terrace, telling about residents' spunky effort to take back the neighborhood.

The Seattle Police Department assigned more patrols, brought in officers on bicycles and started developing close community contacts.

"We could have sat out there for 15 years and watched them and nothing would have happened if the Police Department had not cooperated," O'Donnell said.

When the residents started watching and police on foot and on bicycles were able to follow suspicious people as they scattered along the project's narrow sidewalks and tried to hide, the drug-dealing areas began to disappear.

Today, says Sonja Richter, police crime-prevention coordinator, the area probably is safer than many other parts of the city.

For example, she compares crime statistics for the Yesler Terrace neighborhood with areas near the University of Washington; that's not possible to do precisely, because the data are gathered by census tracts and the tracts don't offer perfect parallels, but the point still is valid.

In 1990, for example, Yesler Terrace had two rapes, the U District had seven; Yesler had 22 robberies, the U District had 40; and Yesler had 19 burglaries, while the U District had 82, she said.

It's become the kind of place, she added, where one of the highest priorities on the community wish list is a rototiller, so the residents can groom their gardens.

The neighborhood council also brought in Vietnamese translators so recent immigrants from Southeast Asia could be included in the community discussion, and perceptions of police as "not being your friend" could be changed.

Vietnamese food, in fact, is going to be a main course tomorrow night, along with African-American chicken dishes.

Police and other personnel to be honored at the dinner: Daniel Enriquez, Dean Cass, Steve Anderson, Curtis Woo, Robin Hardcastle, Bill Hebert, Michelle Mollendorf, Gregory McFadden, Kyle Ostby, Carrie Stiner, Felipe Santiago, Suzanne Ross.

Tawnia Pfaff, Ron Traverso, Mauro Ferreira, Dennis Johnson, Maurine Stich, James Koutsky, Christine Bonner, Larry Brotherton, Felton Miles, Denise Boulden, E.I. Sano, J. Baily, Rob Howard.

Norma Penman, Sonja Richter, Capt. Brent Wingstrad, Lt. Rosa Melendez, Sgt. John Manning, Joyce Hardison (community service officer), Mike Simmons (community service officer), Tony Little (Seattle firefighter).

Also to be honored are Harry Thomas, executive director, Seattle Housing Authority, and Susan Eisele, contract administrator for the SHA.

Members of the Yesler Terrace Block Watch program to be honored include:

Giovanni Valentine, Myrtle Greenwood, Mr. and Mrs. Haymond Richardson, Mavis Berry, Davis Gorsich, Doris Eby, Mr. and Mrs. Herold Eby, Leslie and Susie Maines, Ann Byers, Kristin O'Donnell, My Do, Dau Phan, Cang Tran, Nghiep Nguyen, Ngu Le.

Lieu Nguyen, Cuc Nguyen, Tot Nguyen, Suong Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen, Vung Nguyen, Cay Vu, Thi Nguyen, Charles Mann, Xe Tran, Bobbie Boyd, Pham Kinh, Jerry Marche, Shao Sha, David Brown.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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