At the time that I floated the idea of an Amazon Go store, of all things, being a symbol of Seattle’s rebirth, I was admittedly grasping.
But when the tiny store opened during the bleak close of 2020, right next to a crime hot spot corner, it was the first new storefront in boarded-up downtown since the coronavirus had descended 10 months earlier.
Things were so tenuous then that even an automated, cashless, barely staffed convenience store qualified as a sprout of hope: “It was a bit like a flower — OK a really rich flower — had peeked up through some rubble,” I wrote.
Well now the store really is becoming a parable. Because this flower has already wilted.
Amazon has closed the store near Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, “for the safety of our store employees, customers, and third-party vendors.” The statement said the company is “hopeful conditions in the area will improve in the future.”
So far, they have not. When the store opened in December 2020, that area of downtown was mostly deserted. It didn’t feel unsafe so much as unreal, like an empty movie set.
It’s crowded now. Partly with shoppers and some tourists. But also with a persistent open-air drug market that on one day this past week had so jammed the sidewalks on Pike Street that pedestrians had to walk out into the bus lane to pass.
Thursday, a typical day based on police reports and aid calls, there was one “drug-related casualty” down the block and a dozen other calls for either narcotics or “behavioral/emotional crisis.”
That same day, while I was there, a man collapsed face-first on the sidewalk around the corner from the now-shuttered Amazon Go. When I asked his mates if they needed me to call 911, they daubed the back of his neck with a wet T-shirt and said, “No, no, he’ll pop out of it.”
He did. Later, though, I saw him shouting and bashing a wooden pole against a Pike Street building front.
Police have been trying to crack down. One day a week ago they busted eight people here for selling fentanyl and meth. The futility was acknowledged right in the news release: The cops said they ran down a 16-year-old who was selling fentanyl and had a gun, only to realize they’d just arrested the same teenager, pushing fentanyl with a different gun, at the same Third and Pike corner a few weeks earlier.
Police data shows what Amazon Go was up against. The store sits in the city’s smallest police beat, a roughly four-block-by-six-block area downtown known as “Mary Three,” or M3, in police lexicon. It’s basically Pine to Seneca and Second Avenue to Eighth. In the past month this small zone saw 16 assaults, 12 burglaries, 10 robberies, 23 drug busts, 14 weapons violations and 12 property destructions, to name some of the 141 total crimes reported.
That’s up from about 100 crimes per month last summer in M3. It isn’t clear whether there’s more crime now, or just more reporting of it due to more enforcement. Regardless, the businesses there are being pushed over the limit. The spa next door to Amazon Go is closed, the Chase Bank branch on the next block is closed, and Starbucks made news when it closed its nearby cafe at Westlake last month.
A block west of the Amazon Go, poor Wild Ginger restaurant remains open, though it looks like a bomb went off. Five of its giant plate glass windows are boarded over after being smashed — including one last week when a man threw a large rock while customers dined inside.
“This is going to put us out of business,” the owner told KING 5.
Downtown can best be described as being in a liminal state. It’s not all bad: It’s surprisingly packed, at least during the day. But the drug scene is dystopian and omnipresent. People wander the streets clutching foil and pipes used to smoke the “blues.” It’s a plague that’s starting to rival the coronavirus for escalating deaths: This year so far, 314 have died countywide just from fentanyl overdoses, a pace 49% higher than last year. Which saw twice as many fentanyl deaths as the year before that.
What can be done? At City Hall this past week they tentatively endorsed a plan to hire more police. One council member, Teresa Mosqueda, voted no and said the police hiring efforts were a sideshow.
“The officers themselves have told human service providers there’s no money that can compensate for them having nowhere to bring people,” she said.
She is wrong and also right, it seems to me. Seattle obviously needs more cops — for the rising violent crime and shootings alone. It’s also plain to see that cops can’t solve it alone. What is a police officer supposed to do with someone like the man I described above who was out cold on the sidewalk?
Mosqueda is right that we need detox beds, drug counselors and social workers, too. What I don’t get is why cops are still being pitted against aid workers, as if it’s one or the other.
“Wouldn’t it be better to have cops and mental health professionals go together?” was how the president of the state crisis responder’s association put it to The Seattle Times recently.
Spend a few hours in Mary Three and it’s as plain as plywood that it’s a crisis zone. It desperately needs more of everything — of police officers, social workers, counselors, paramedics. People are dying on the sidewalks as politicians dither, we pass by and the businesses leave.
If money’s the issue, divert it from the burgeoning Jumpstart payroll tech tax revenues, and flood the zone.
There was a hope, which first sprouted with that Amazon Go store, that downtown’s problems would ease as the pandemic did. I know, it’s just an automated, cashless convenience store, one among many run by a soulless megacorp.
But it’d be a mistake to dismiss its symbolism for that reason. Because it’s the hope that’s wilting.