AFTER 17 years living in the president’s home on the lovely campus of Seattle Pacific University, my wife and I moved downtown. Right downtown.
We are a block and a half from the great Pike Place Market. We are two blocks from the Benaroya Hall, two blocks from the Seattle Art Museum and three blocks from the flagship Nordstrom.
I was speaking at a large church in California last week and told them I had 20 fabulous restaurants all within walking distance of our condo. I often tell groups in other cities that Seattle is the home of Boeing, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Starbucks, Amazon and Costco. We live in the heart of one of the most dynamic, prosperous and creative cities in the world.
I love our city.
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But we are a broken city right now. We are on the tipping point of losing our vibrant downtown. This is not what great cities do.
As my wife and I walk the streets from our new home, we spot the drug deals in the shadows of reeking alleys. We see the vacant eyes of the mentally disturbed, helpless folks dumped on our streets. We see the ravages of addiction sprawled on our sidewalks.
We navigate our way uncomfortably among teenagers who occupy Westlake Park, hanging out with their pit bulls, backpacks and skateboards, lately with their babies, freely smoking their now-legal marijuana. With utter dismay we read the stories of random violence.
Our streets these days are visible signs of cracks in the character of our beloved city.
I have no expertise in these complicated matters, only a love for this city, a care for the poor and a belief in the power of community.
What should we be doing? For starters, we might turn back to the 1982 “broken window” theory of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. It was that landmark study that propelled former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and police Chief William J. Bratton into the work of transforming New York City into a safer, cleaner city.
Basically the theory goes like this: “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” Wilson and Kelling wrote in their 1982 “Broken Windows” article for The Atlantic magazine.
Another conclusion: “Serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window.” Disorder breeds fear. Fear leads to not caring, staying away and escalating crime. Tragically, fear may lead to resentment of the poor and the helpless.
So what do we do? The first step is cultural. These visible signs of brokenness scream out that families are disintegrating across our society: Our churches have pulled up stakes, our schools are failing much of the poor and economic opportunity dwindles. The consequences of pushing religion to the margins of influence have not been good for our society.
The second front is tough-minded confrontation of disorderly behavior. We need to empower and support our police to look the perpetrators in the eyes and say, “No more. This is not the way we do things in Seattle.”
Our police need to be able to step out from under the politicized scrutiny that makes them hesitant to fix the first broken window.
Third, we must further empower the extraordinary work already happening. In my experience, organizations like the Salvation Army, Nightwatch and the Union Gospel Mission need our encouragement. We must applaud the work of the Downtown Seattle Association. Let us enlist the partnership of our universities, our surrounding churches, our hospitals and our merchants. We need strong bridges between all the players.
Where do we begin to reclaim our city? Maybe we start with the trashed flowerpot in front of Macy’s, the gum spots all over our streets or the camped-out teenagers; we begin with the little things. Maybe our broken hearts will lead us to the sadness of those broken lives with nowhere to turn.
Seattle has succeeded in growing some of the greatest companies in the history of the world. We now need that same passion and creativity to rebuild our community. We are up to the task. This is what great cities do.
Philip W. Eaton is the former president of Seattle Pacific University. He is now doing public speaking, writing a book and blogging at peatonblog.com