The unique appeal of the sport of cross country is right there in the name.
No place in the Seattle area is known for giving high school runners more soul-sapping country to try to cross than the roller-coaster-like trails of Lower Woodland Park, near Green Lake.
“It’s the mecca for cross country in Seattle,” says Jim Neff, a local running coach since the 1980s. “It’s known everywhere as an extremely challenging course, so runners come from all over to test themselves against it.”
“Do you enjoy mud, camaraderie and suffering through the hills of Lower Woodland Park?” is actually the sales pitch to potential runners by Club Northwest, a local running club.
It’s no exaggeration that in a typical fall, 5,000 runners may test the hills of this city park. The Seattle high school league, Metro, has held its championships there for decades, and there are also junior Olympics, Catholic youth leagues, college events, plus masters races all the way down to 7-year-olds with the Rain City Flyers running club.
None of it is happening this year, at least not there. Seattle’s cross-country mecca has gone dark.
Local coaches say that’s because the top part of the course, the section with the brutal hills, has become, like many city parks in Seattle, an extensive encampment. Most of the picnic shelters have been covered over with tarps and occupied, and there are 30 to 40 tents spread out in the woods and clearings.
By Seattle parks standards, it’s a fairly routine scene, and on a recent day some parkgoers tossed Frisbees and walked dogs around the tents. But there are parts of the running course now where kids would be effectively racing through a homeless encampment, within feet of tents, piles of debris, and, in one spot, electrical extension cords crisscrossing the trail.
So in what is becoming the Seattle style on these matters, people have started to give up that the city will address the problem and are moving on.
“For the first time in 30+ years, the Rain City Stampede will not be at Woodland Park,” flyers announced the other day, about an invitational of 500 kids that’s been held there every October since 1989.
Seattle high schools appear to have shifted all of their meets up through mid-October to other places, such as Magnuson Park, according to the Metro League web site.
“According to the athletic departments, they are planning to run all Metro meets at alternative sites because Lower Woodland is not safe for children to run in,” reports one Seattle school district teacher.
An official with Club Northwest, which hosts the Emerald City Open invitational in September, said the city parks department denied them a permit due to the homeless encampment.
Neff, the coach of Rain City, told me: “We made the decision to leave Woodland Park because it doesn’t seem like the situation is going to change any time soon. It’s city politics.”
Conflicts like this are happening in parks all over Seattle, some of them life-and-death serious. Still, it’s no small thing when thousands of kids quietly lose access to a rich local tradition. So what could or should be done, if anything?
Obviously in the big picture more shelter spots are needed — probably double, triple the pace at which Seattle is now adding hotel rooms and tiny house villages. More authorized tent city spots could help, too.
But that alone won’t do it. The other day, The Seattle Times had a story about how the city had offered shelter to people in a different encampment, but nobody took it. They preferred to stay outside for various reasons.
Last quarter, the city reported it had its most success ever bringing homeless people inside. It had referred 432 people to shelter and 214 took them up on it. So getting about half to choose the city’s improved shelter offerings over remaining homeless outside is the best the city has done.
It sure seems like the city would also have to enforce some basic rules (such as no camping in parks) in combination with more shelter. But politically, it is further from doing that than ever.
In the meantime, Woodland is a huge park. When I walked the racecourse trails recently, the encampment seemed moderately sized enough to be manageable if someone tried. The city could maybe move the encampment into one smaller area, for example. The problem with this approach is then the city would be effectively sanctioning an encampment zone there, which it doesn’t want to do because it’s in a park.
This overall paralysis has gotten so entrenched that they’re now talking about just paving over City Hall Park, the one down by the King County Courthouse. A County Council member from Seattle has suggested that if the city can’t manage that park as a park, it might be better to give up and build housing on it (which goes against a citizen initiative on the books that mandates “no net loss” of Seattle park land, but that’s another story.)
Back at the mecca: “Our runners will run,” Neff, the coach, said. “We’ll adapt. Our hope is that Seattle can make some progress finding housing options for people, and all the runners can come back to Woodland next year.”
That is a good hope. But it’s also becoming an eternal one. The concern for Seattle now is once we start navigating around the issue like this, rather than addressing it head on, it feels like another little step toward making it the new normal.