For a couple of hours last Saturday, Little Saigon was transformed.
Police walked and cruised on bikes around 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street. A King County Metro worker pressure washed the bus stop. Public officials joined more than 100 volunteers to pick up trash.
The outpouring of attention took place as the struggles of Little Saigon became too obvious for local government to ignore. But soon after the day of service ended, life around the neighborhood returned to normal. Open-air drug dealing and using, litter and a pervasive sense of chaos returned unabated.
It’s time for a permanent reset.
While homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness all play a part in the struggles of Little Saigon, the city of Seattle and King County should step up to solve a chronic challenge: sanitation.
No more should trash cans be stuffed to overflowing. No more detritus on the streets. No more needles and no more graffiti.
Of all the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing this small business district just a mile from City Hall, making the neighborhood clean and hospitable is a measurable, tangible goal. It is literally the least that government could do.
It would also dovetail with community-based priorities and activities to reinvigorate Little Saigon.
Quynh Pham, executive director of Friends of Little Saigon, a group of community and business leaders that advocates for the neighborhood, hopes to organize an ongoing monthly cleanup.
Response was overwhelming to the “Operation Clean Street” event on Jan. 15, sponsored by Friends, the city of Seattle, Starbucks and The Mission Continues, which helps veterans participate in community-service projects.
“People are sick of seeing what’s happening,” said Pham. “I’m interested in not just having politicians come. The focus should be on community.”
Public safety continues to be a problem. Business owners have responded by putting up wired-topped fencing around their parking lots, and Pham said Seattle police have committed to extra patrols. But visible security has downsides if people feel unsafe, said Pham.
Minh Đức Phạm Nguyễn, executive director of Helping Link, a social-service agency dedicated to the Vietnamese community, said several businesses in the neighborhood pay money to local criminals so they won’t vandalize their shops or assault their customers. She was glad elected leaders came to help for a day, but it’s a meaningless gesture if things deteriorate immediately afterward.
“The politicians got to be committed,” she said. “That’s great they got their photo-op, but what does that mean? Why do normal, hardworking people have to be second-class citizens?”
Seattle Public Utilities expanded cleaning trash and illegally dumped garbage in Little Saigon last month, but more sanitation improvements must be implemented. It would bring some degree of order to the chaos. It would create a more welcoming atmosphere. It would show visitors and residents that government cares.
Most important, it is a tangible expression of progress as one of the city’s most fragile neighborhoods fights to step back from the brink of despair.