With some of his South Park neighbors, Mark Johnson used to stand across the street from the local bar and glare at the drug dealers and...
With some of his South Park neighbors, Mark Johnson used to stand across the street from the local bar and glare at the drug dealers and the women selling sex.
There’d be two or three men on the saloon’s front porch, directing the action. Cars would pull up. Someone would whistle. Runners would appear — sometimes kids on bikes. Money would change hands. On the worst nights, someone would hit a prostitute. Or end up stabbed.
“We were lined up, out on our citizens’ patrol, and they were here running an open-air drug market,” Johnson says. “They’d grimace when they saw us. But they never stopped what they were doing.”
This is a familiar-enough story. Seedy bar is magnet for crime. Neighbors are outraged. Police seem impotent.
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People fight the bar, but lose. They learn to live with the shifty exchanges on street corners and the late-night fights.
But something happened in South Park, a dusky, industrial part of Seattle along the banks of the Duwamish River.
Someone opened the door of the County Line Bar and went in.
The guy was new to the neighborhood. He didn’t want to go in.
“I had to get my nerve up, and I had to walk the usual gantlet of drug dealers,” says Joel Clement, 40. “It was no big deal. It wasn’t so bad. I hung out and drank a beer.”
It turned out to be a very big deal. Clement thought: What if we drink at this bar instead of fighting it? What if instead of standing across the street, we come inside?
So he hatched a community happy hour, every Monday. The first night, only three besides the bar’s few regulars showed up.
The next time, six came, enough to fill a table. Then it was 10, 15, 20.
Last Monday, 25 artists, teachers and architects dominated a lounge that otherwise survives mostly on pull-tabs. A sign over the bar warned: “No Loitering. No Begging or Bumming. No Drug Dealing.”
The happy hour’s been going seven months now. A few months ago the manager agreed to install cameras outside along with brighter lights. Nobody can say exactly when or why it happened, but the drug dealers and prostitutes have drifted away.
“We’re holding a community meeting at the place we used to be trying to close,” said Wendy Woldenberg, a 10-year South Park resident. “That’s got to have something to do with it.”
South Park is hardly crime-free. But the King County Sheriff’s Office reports crime has decreased of late, which it credits to a “very active community organization.”
Can you drink your way to a safer neighborhood? Maybe not at all crime-plagued bars, but why not try, Johnson says.
“All these people, volunteering to come here and drink beer, it fundamentally changed the drug dealers’ perceptions about this bar. It also changed the community’s perceptions about the bar.
“People start to care, it changes everything.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.