I grew up in Seattle and have lived and worked in cities rich and poor: Bangalore, Santiago, Rome, Barcelona, Burlington VT and, for the last six years: New York. I was visiting Seattle last week and had just landed back on the east coast when I received the link to Alexander’s article from my mother (who grew up in Queens), with the subject heading “Seattle, I love you, but you make it really hard”.
She and Alexander have a point. I’m fiercely proud of Seattle and I love it dearly, but agree that things are getting out of hand. I felt the hair go up on the back of my neck more times in the last six days in Seattle than it has in six years in Manhattan, and many months in developing nations.
I am in the process of relocating back to Seattle. The presence of drugs, demands for money, and a sense of personal risk from one block to another directly impact my choice of where it feels safe for me to live and work as I move home.
I know we can do better.
An Op-Ed from an out-of-towner was likely to trigger a wave of responses, but I was shocked by the vitriolic and defensive nature (of some, not all) of the comments, suggesting that Alexander’s article was unfounded and tantamount to harassment based on personal appearance, defending Seattle’s actions to improve the city as more than adequate, and urging him to move back to New York.
Come now, Seattle. Again – we can do better.
1. This is not about New Yorkers, locals feel it too.
A quick scan of blogs with a search for “Seattle drugs, vagrancy” shows complaints rising from local residents in downtown, Everett and even sleepy Ballard, known more for its mellow Scandanavian roots and growing stock of excellent restaurants than for public safety issues.
As a global city, Seattle benefits from visitors and transplants and would do well to recognize constructive feedback, regardless of zipcode of origin. The cat-calls for Alexander to retreat to New York make no sense - unless commenters truly believe that there is no problem for anyone.
2. Focus on the Absolute, not the Relative
Relative evaluation or rivalry with New York, or any other city, is not the point. The author’s comparison with New York is useful because that city was at one time extremely unsafe and no longer feels that way to him. This is an experience shared by many, and offered, if I understand correctly, as an example that it can be done.
The broader picture, which many of the more fair-minded comments reflect, is that this is about current levels of safety in SEATTLE. And many, including me, believe that Seattle does not feel as safe as it can and, arguably should.
3. There is a Cost of Discomfort...
When Alexander asked Seattle Police why they weren’t doing anything about the situation, officers reportedly responded “"Well, you know, it's usually not violent crime so I wouldn't be concerned." Yikes. “Usually?”
For the moment, we will leave the frighteningly high number of 2012 violent crimes aside. Discussion of vagrancy, homelessness and drug activity is fraught with uncomfortable issues- perhaps most critically in this case, the sense that it is somehow unfair or irrelevant to complain about discomfort, especially related to the behavior of disadvantaged populations, if there is no bloodshed. While these officers may not be representative of the whole Police force, the pervasiveness of the problems is indeed a cause for concern.
The cost is hard to quantify directly, but the fact that Alexander’s girlfriend doesn’t feel safe at night, and doesn’t feel like she can participate in multiple public spaces in her own city because those space are dominated by a use that doesn’t allow room for her and puts her at risk, matters. Her complaints are hardly unique, and her decisions to limit her activity are logical - this is rational self-preservation, not frantic overreaction. While there is a definite gender difference in how people respond to perceived risk (women are significantly more likely than men to limit their own mobility, avoiding places that feel risky to them), Alexander also notes that places like Occidental Park feel "off limits" to taxpayers of both genders. It’s not just women who are impacted.
...For the City
A recent visit to Seattle with a group of investors considering ploughing millions of dollars into local real estate yielded this commentary from the Managing Director – “The Seattle jobs story is fantastic. But there are not many major US cities where you see so much drug activity on the street so consistently - in broad daylight. I’ve always thought of Seattle as so safe. But on nearly every block downtown? That affects leasing, foot traffic – we need to factor that in.” “Factoring that in” means the city may need to plan for lost tax revenue, less (lawfully) vibrant streets, reputational damage, and diminished investment.
The mark of a world class city? Public spaces that feel safe and vibrant, at all times of the day.
Achieving this is a complex recipe, but there are many tools at our disposal - density and mixed uses which provide a flow of people and "eyes on the street" around the clock, consistent enforcement of laws governing behavior in public spaces, and a blend of social services to address the real challenges of populations in need. I am confident that there are already great resources at work in Seattle. However, while these efforts may be necessary, commentary by Alexander and more established locals raises awareness that these efforts are no longer sufficient.
Garnering the resources to solve this problem will require awareness of what is going on now, and a recognition of the cost of the current level of discomfort felt by residents and visitors alike. It will require consideration of what it means for city spaces to be public, and explicit choices about what kind of place we want our Seattle to be as she grows up.