AS I WROTE in this week’s magazine cover story, the blocks around lower Pike Street, known to some as “The Blade,” have maintained a particular character for many, many years, with an illicit economy (drugs, sex) and a distinct social ecology that comes with it.
That character is extraordinarily persistent — the area gentrified decades ago, and police flood those blocks every few years, but The Blade remains The Blade.
So. What should we do? That depends on what problem we’re trying to solve.
If we want to reduce the visibility of illegal drug use, get it off the street while providing basic services, some sources recommend safe-consumption sites. Kris Nyrop, who has been working in harm-reduction efforts since the 1980s (some with nonprofits, some with King County), describes unobtrusive consumption sites he’s toured in Copenhagen and Zurich, with laundry and shower facilities, and on-site staff to help people navigate housing and treatment options.
Developer Matt Griffin, who has lived downtown since 2001 and been involved in many of its big-ticket projects (Pacific Place, Via6 Apartments, the 5th & Pine building), says some important fixes are within our collective reach: more active sidewalks, getting people back downtown, more housing of all kinds. “But whether it be drugs or homelessness, those are just symptoms,” he adds. “We have to deal with inequality. It’s hard for me to believe that a country as wealthy as ours can have problems as deep as we do.”
Others, like retired Seattle Police detective-sergeant Tom Umporowicz, say consistent, long-term enforcement of all laws in an area such as The Blade (everything, including jaywalking, and not for a few weeks but for years) can disrupt its economy by making it difficult and inefficient to operate there.
Law enforcement is part of the solution, says former Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel, “But it can’t be just on police — I don’t believe in locking them [lawbreakers] all up on McNeil Island until they find God or something.” He argues that permanent supportive housing, an expansion of LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, a King County program that routes people toward treatment instead of incarceration) and funding a fleet of experienced case managers could be cost-effective contributions: “For every one to three officers or medics, hire one intensive case manager, and make sure they’re adequately compensated. Folks who work in that area are so poorly paid, but really effective.”
One of those outreach workers, Brandie Flood — director of community justice at REACH, an on-the-street program of Evergreen Treatment Services — has recently begun work on another potential component: restorative justice. In one pilot case, a REACH client smashed out a business window on Aurora Avenue. The client and the owner sat down to talk it out (the client hadn’t been taking his medication), REACH paid to replace the window and the client partially reimbursed REACH from his federal pandemic stimulus check.
“That was an easier one,” Flood says. “Some things aren’t that easy. But we need to reimagine how to hold people accountable without just cycling them through jail.”
Overall, how should we, as a city, be thinking about The Blade?
“People have done harm, and harm has been done to them,” she says. “We should be looking at The Blade in terms of how we can take care of people better in general — with kindness, grace and accountability — and not just getting rid of it so we don’t see it. Until we figure out that Blade, we don’t solve our problems.”