Given what they’ve been through these past months, forgive the people of Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood for the skeptical notes.

“It’s much, much better here than before — for now,” said Huy Lat, owner of the Hue Ky Mia Gia restaurant.

It’s the same across the street at the Hong Lan money transfer, where Seattle’s Vietnamese immigrants can wire money back home. The office’s plate glass window was smashed two months ago, and is lined with tape. It’s “wait and see” on a new one, the manager says, depending on whether the wild street scene of the past year really is on the mend.

There’s a wary hope like this all along the 1200 block of Jackson Street, as if emerging from a storm. A week ago, police finally cleared an open-air drug market that had all but closed Little Saigon’s main business center.

At its peak, 50 to 100 people milled on the corner of 12th and Jackson, hawking stolen clothes or electronics, smoking heroin in the business stairwells and sleeping on the sidewalks.

It was like Seattle’s Tenderloin. Or, from fiction, like “Hamsterdam” in the Baltimore cop show “The Wire.” Open societal breakdown.


Consider that in the two months before last week’s clean up, this one block recorded 15 assaults (six of which were felony level), four robberies, two shootings and 28 nuisance-level crimes such as vandalism, car prowling, drug dealing, and smash and grab type theft. These aren’t statistics for a neighborhood or police region — they are all reports from just one block.

Now this block resembles the scene after an accident. On a recent day, two police cars were parked on the sidewalks, their lights flashing. A mobile police van sat humming. Two cops strolled back and forth along the mostly empty streets, Officer Friendly style.

This is “hot-spot policing,” a strategy in which officers descend where crime is rampant. It’s controversial; studies show it definitely reduces crime immediately, while critics say it does little to address root causes. At its worst it can lead to “over-policing” and zero-tolerance type enforcement.

It was a point of debate in the Seattle mayor’s race last year. The losing candidate, City Council president Lorena Gonzalez, generally opposed its use. The winner, Bruce Harrell, was more supportive, and now Little Saigon is his first test case.

As an immediate crime control measure, it has obviously worked — “for now,” as they are quick to qualify on Jackson Street.

When officers cleared the block, they only recorded two arrests and it was for drug violations, according to police records. So it wasn’t a round ‘em up, lock ‘em up kind of approach.


In the week since the clear out, as of Friday, there’s been only a single crime recorded on the block — a minor vandalism charge, police reports show.

“I think it’s been the best I’ve ever seen it out here,” reports Tia, who was working the reception at Vietnamese restaurant Huong Binh, in the Ding How Center mall (she declined to give her last name). The entire upper floor of this mall, and all its businesses, are closed off because drug dealing and use in the stairwells and elevators made it impossible to keep it open.

What isn’t known is where everyone on the street went. Neighbors say there may be an emerging drug market on King Street, a block away. Police are periodically diverting a squad car to King from Jackson, so they are aware they may already have a new “hot spot” on their hands.

Still to be done is the far-harder work of getting help for the people who were “cleared out,” many of whom are addicted or homeless, social service providers say.

Harrell, who made an impromptu visit to the block last weekend, told the Northwest Asian Weekly that the police presence wasn’t a dragnet. “I want people housed and treated,” he said — though again, this is more aspirational at this point than reality. Help is needed that doesn’t involve police.

The neighborhood’s recovery from both the pandemic and the crime siege is tenuous. The owner of Hue Ky Mia Gia restaurant, where the butter garlic wings have a cult following, said he’s been closing many days at 5 p.m., even after the improvement out on the street.


“There’s so few customers now after dark,” he said.

Harrell deserves great credit for changing the political conversation and doing this much. The official neglect of Little Saigon was appalling. Walking its streets now with shattered, taped windows, it’s like a museum of that neglect. Some property owners felt so embattled they surrounded still-open businesses with razor wire.

I don’t know how Seattle got quite this paralyzed. We have that liberal drive to want to solve the root problems, which is good. Too often this idealism defaults to us doing nothing.

This hot-spot policing should only be a first step. It needs to be followed with far deeper help for Little Saigon. But it’s a lasting embarrassment for our city, with a neighborhood of immigrants still hanging in the balance, that it took us this long to do even the easy part.