A woman sitting on the bench at the tiny Pioneer Square park — that’s the one with the 1909 iron pergola at First Avenue and Yesler Way — is yelling, “None of your business!”
In front of her is a shopping cart jammed with clothes and bags filled with little plastic trinkets and items that seem from a long-lost garage sale. On a little stand she has a shot glass.
“None of your business!” she yells again.
Chuck Scott, Seattle Parks and Recreation concierge, walks away. No point in escalating things.
For Scott, it’s just another encounter with the people who hang around the park — the downtown mix that includes the homeless, tourists, workers on lunch break and people simply seeking to enjoy a spot in the sun.
These are not concierges like you’d find in a high-end hotel.
Their main job, says City Parks, “is to set a positive and inviting tone,” and “help stem negative behavior.”
Scott’s job entails setting up metal folding chairs and tables, spreading out a 7-by-7-foot chessboard mat with large plastic pieces, and a giant wood Jenga game.
For Scott, the “negative behavior” he witnesses on a regular basis translates to drug use, prostitution, drinking in public, threatening behavior, camping and defecating and urinating in public.
It’s what drove the city a decade ago to start the concierge program.
When he sees someone sleeping on a bench, Scott’s routine is to tap them on the shoulders or feet.
“A lot of them sleep with weapons because they get robbed at night,” he says. “When they wake up, I inform them there is no lying on the benches. If they have a sleeping bag or blanket, that can be considered camping, and there is no camping in the parks.”
There is no lecturing, no confrontations for Scott.
“I try to treat them as extended family. If I have some coffee, I’ll offer them a cup,” says Scott. “Sometimes the regular people who work here, in a lawyer’s office or the Underground Tour, they’ll leave food at my kiosk for them. They really appreciate that.”
Tourists also rely on the park kiosk.
“Sometimes a tourist tells me, ‘I just got off the plane, what is there to do?’ ” says Scott. He provides them with directions, tips about this or that attraction, steers them to the kiosk with brochures that he sets up in each morning.
Lisa Howard, head of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, credits the concierge program with creating “a welcoming atmosphere for all.”
And as city programs go, the cost is relatively inexpensive.
Seattle Parks budgets $1 million a year for 10 concierges who rotate through 11 city parks, an amount that also includes events such as outdoor cinema and kids’ crafts. Other parks in the program include Victor Steinbrueck Park by the Pike Place Market, Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown-International District and Freeway Park over Interstate 5 near downtown. Hours for the concierges vary, but they’re working during the daytime, and are seasonal in some parks.
In addition, the Downtown Seattle Association pays $258,000 a year for six “park ambassadors,” whose job is similar to the park concierges, at Westlake and Occidental parks.
The concierge program got its impetus in 2005 when a mayoral committee described downtown parks as “underused and uninviting, with most unsafe and unclean.” In a Jan.6, 2006, then-Mayor Greg Nickels declared it was time “to ‘reclaim’ downtown parks for everyone.”
Two years later, in 2008, Seattle Parks started the concierge program.
At Westlake Park one recent afternoon, shoppers and office workers walked through the park, sometimes stopping at the Dog in the Park for a hot dog, or at one of a number of food trucks such as Sugar + Spoon, which sells “safe to eat” cookie dough cones.
Anna Murray has worked as one of the park ambassadors at Westlake for nearly four years. She’s 51, a Seattle native and a 1988 Roosevelt High grad.
“I like this job, the different populations, everything from homeless to people in high-rises,” she says. She says people without homes “are part of the environment.”
If they’re lying on the ground, “You do a welfare check, ask if they’re all right, need medical attention.” She asks if they could sit on a chair. If they need medical help, she calls 911.
The Pioneer Square park tends to draw people without permanent homes because it is a short walk from a number of homeless shelters.
Scott is 52, was born in Mexico, Missouri, where he worked in a metal casting company, served eight years in the Army, and has held jobs that have included managing case workers for sex offenders and arsonists.
He did the latter high-stress work for five years and then decided, “I had to get away from there.”
Pay for a concierge, he says, goes from $17.50 to $19.50 an hour, not the big bucks, but, “I get to be outside, not stuck in some office, somebody looking over my shoulder.”
The concierges don’t have police powers. They don’t give out tickets. But sometimes encounters are unavoidable.
Scott says that’s sometimes he’ll be conversing with somebody at the park, and then, “They just flip, like a switch.”
“Last year I had a six-inch switchblade pulled on me,” he says. “A guy was sitting on sidewalk. He had a cardboard sign about killing babies, that the government needs to be overturned. I asked if he could move to create a pathway for people to walk past.
“He says to me, ‘How about I … cut you up!’ I backed away. I called 911. Once I did, he turned around, grabbed his stuff and left. The police never showed up, although they did call me back to do an area check.”
Tim Harris, founder of Real Change, the street newspaper, says about the concierges, “I have nothing but good things to say. I see them acting respectfully towards homeless folks. We have a struck a good balance here in Seattle between having the parks open to everybody and dealing with problem behavior when it’s appropriate.”
Scott is going on four years in keeping the lid on as concierge.
He is married, and tells his wife, Michelle, about whatever the latest sometimes-disconcerting incident was at the park.
“She likes the stories,” he says. “But she always tells me, ‘Be safe.’ ”