40-Acre Smudge’: Race and Erasure in Prewar Seattle

Dr. Megan Asaka wins Ray Allen Billington Prize

"Asaka's in-depth research, graceful prose,
and expert analysis not only reinterprets
Seattle's history but provides
a model for urban historians."

This article develops the concept of erasure to understand the contemporary memory of Yesler Terrace, a New Deal–era public housing project in Seattle, and why this memory diverges so sharply from the history revealed in the archives. Though celebrated today for its early commitment to racial integration, the goal of Yesler Terrace was to demolish a multiracial slum and replace it with a model community of predominately white families. Examining the visual materials created at the time to promote the project, this article argues that the physical displacement of people and homes was made possible only through a prior symbolic displacement, a representation of the neighborhood that served to erase the existing community and justify its removal. The production of invisibility through mapping and photography mattered just as much as the bulldozers and construction crews that cleared and rebuilt the actual site. An attention to the symbolic dimension of the clearance process can illuminate not only the forced displacement of a marginalized community, but also their continued erasure in the present-day memory of the city.


The Ray Allen Billington Prize is a $500 prize ($400 to author,
$100 to publisher) established to recognize the best article on
Western history published in any journal other than
the Western Historical Quarterly.

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