It was on a plane to Seattle, from New York of all places, that Stuart Marvin first heard about our city’s dirty secret.
People were flying in for a conference. One of their group, who had gotten to Seattle the night before, had already been physically accosted on a street downtown.
“He had told them the streets are unsafe, and they were nervous about walking around downtown,” Marvin says. “I said: C’mon. Seattle? We’re New Yorkers. How scary can Seattle be?’ ”
Well plenty, apparently. Marvin, who was on that plane to move out here, has now lived in downtown Seattle, on First Avenue near Pike Place Market, for six weeks. His early impressions of our city, at the street level, are not good.
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“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he says. “And it’s not like I’m from Des Moines.”
Marvin, 56, says the sidewalks and alleys of every block of Belltown and the downtown shopping district feature some level of human misery or low-grade street crime, at all times. He’s astonished, he says, by the pervasiveness of the homelessness, mental illness, public urination, panhandling, drug use and drug dealing, all out there mixing with Seattle’s condo and office-tower boomtown.
“It’s bad,” he says. “I see the mayor was saying it’s not that bad. He must not live downtown.”
Now I have to say what the New Yorker is reporting doesn’t exactly match my own experience. But I also wonder if I’ve been here too long to see. When I came to Seattle in the 1980s there were prostitutes lined up on Pike Street from the Market to Second Avenue. So by comparison it’s shiny clean today.
But it’s true Seattle’s grit can shock outsiders. The city isn’t dangerous (it has a lower violent-crime rate than New York). But Marvin’s point is it feels dangerous. Like many New Yorkers, he’s an evangelist for how Rudy Giuliani and later Michael Bloomberg transformed New York in part by focusing on the little things.
“Giuliani had zero tolerance for the open drinking, the peeing in public. His theory was you go after that small stuff to help with the big stuff. It worked in a big way,” Marvin says.
Of course New York has now pushed no tolerance to its constitutional limits, with its “stop and frisk” policy.
But in Seattle we have more of a “do as you please” policy. Example: During a recent 15-month period the cops here gave out 850 citations for open drinking, camping on sidewalks or peeing or pooping in public. But more than 750 of those tickets were ignored. Even people who have defaulted on three or more such nuisance citations — suggesting they have serious problems — are not facing any legal threat from the city. The city attorney last week said he would be open to charging them. But he hasn’t, and clearly has zero enthusiasm for doing so.
In his defense, it’s a tricky business. When drugs or mental illness is involved, jail often does no good. That’s Seattle’s stated goal: to move beyond trying to arrest our way out of these problems.
Marvin says New York also has the social services and the community courts that give nonviolent offenders rehab instead of punishment. But looming over the offers of help? A raised hammer.
“Seattle’s got to get tougher,” Marvin said. “You go up to the police here and say ‘There’s a guy smoking crack over there,’ or you say ‘Hey, there’s a guy peeing on my doorstep,’ or worse, and they say ‘Our hands are tied; there’s nothing we can do.’
“People here seem to accept it. That this is just the way it’s going to be.”
He’s got a point, Seattle. Maybe it takes a hardened New Yorker to feel what we have become numb to.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org