What Downtown Seattle Says about Downtown Seattle

Those who live or work at street level share their experiences about the most discussed, and mythologized, part of our city.

By Benjamin Cassidy March 30, 2022

Seattle Met Composite image

In early February, a comment about Pike Place Market by Seattle City Council president Debora Juarez set off a fresh round of discourse about downtown Seattle. “I don’t go to the Market anymore unless it’s Saturday, broad daylight,” Juarez said at an economic development committee meeting, adding that it’s “a real safety issue.”

Since then, the hot takes have kept coming. Some are, quite literally, “Seattle is burning.” Others inflame by throwing shade at concerns about crime and addiction. As the pandemic moved office types out of the city’s core, more and more of these narratives only guessed at the reality on the ground, where a few crises converged: homelessness, Covid, and, more insidiously, fentanyl.

Fentanyl-involved overdoses across King County rose to 392 in 2021, up from 171 in 2020 and three in 2015. Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute in the University of Washington School of Medicine, told me that resources have shifted from drug treatment to Covid response, a necessity compelled by the chronic underfunding of public health. “It can only handle one epidemic at a time,” says Banta-Green, “and meanwhile, this other epidemic continues to burn.”

In response to fears about downtown, new mayor Bruce Harrell has rolled out “Operation New Day,” which takes a controversial arrests first, services later approach to crime and addiction. It debuted at 12th and Jackson and Third and Pine. “We sort of inherited a mess,” Harrell explained (we tried to warn you about this job, Bruce) during a news conference on March 4.

Yet, less than two weeks later, a Downtown Seattle Association event struck a different tone. When asked to use a word to describe the state of downtown, city attorney Ann Davison said “hopeful”; King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said “strong”; and city council member Sara Nelson said “gestating” (really).

But a legs-crossed, suited-and-booted event isn’t the best way to take the temperature of all those hot takes about downtown, anyway. Over the past week, I talked to people who live and work at street level about the heart of our city, granting anonymity in certain cases for safety and employment reasons. Their reflections aren’t as grim as the portrayals of a recently fired local TV reporter, but they’re often far from reassuring, both about crime and the city’s response to it.

Aidan, living in an encampment in the Chinatown—International District

Last week, a sweep off South Weller Street displaced people staying in an encampment. Just down the way on Saturday, Aidan was living in a smaller corridor of tents. “It’s definitely hard to feel stable or wanted,” he says. When the city comes in, “the first thing we think is, Where the fuck are we supposed to go?” Aidan, who’s struggled with heroin, meth, and fentanyl use, knows of services that can help him (he also needs treatment for a bout of cellulitis). But others, he says, either aren’t told or don’t understand what resources are available to them. “There are those people that float.”

A worker at Seattle Chinese Herb and Grocery

Since the police descended on, in Ann Davison’s words, an “open-air drug market” at 12th and Jackson, the sidewalk outside Seattle Chinese Herb and Grocery has stayed clear, according to a worker there. “The main thing is, we feel safe,” she told me. “We’ve been putting up with that for years.” Smoke used to enter the building. “It’s not good for our health.” A vendor joined the conversation. Before he’d ask her, “Can I deliver to another location?” Now he’s fine stopping by.

Ronaldo Tomas, clerk, Community Grocery and Deli

Busing into downtown from Federal Way, Ronaldo Tomas doesn’t feel safe. “They always break into the store,” he says, most recently two or three weeks ago. After 10 years working at the Seneca Street business, he’s skeptical that Harrell’s approach will change anything in the neighborhood. “They’re trying to do something different this year, but normally they clean [a] block away, and those people, they just move to another block.” He wants more police, but he’d also like to see the city do a better job “checking which people need a job, which people need a house, or which people need clinics.”

Brooke, living unhoused downtown

“It was pretty bad,” Brooke says of Third and Pine. She was squatting in the vicinity over the weekend. Monday through Friday, she usually goes to a church near the West Precinct. “They don’t really bother me,” she says of the city’s authorities, before adding: “Sometimes they ask me to move if I sit in one place for too long.” She’d rather remain outside than stay in a shelter. “I don’t want to sleep with someone’s feet in my face.”

A day porter in Pioneer Square

In the middle of the pandemic, a janitor for a building in Pioneer Square watched people walk in front of buses, screaming. People threw stuff at him—a can in an alley where he was working, a chair in Occidental Park. “It was hard for me for a while to want to come down here, especially when everything was shut down. I would just dread getting up in the morning—like, I don’t want to go deal with all that.” But it’s gotten a little easier lately, he told me, setting aside a broom and dustpan. “Now, I see that more people are downtown, so all the bad stuff blends in. I see tourism coming back, stores opening, so I’m optimistic.”

Henry Ferguson, security staffer, Iron and Oak

Downtown Seattle Association has hired a private security firm, Iron and Oak, to monitor certain areas of the city’s core. Henry Ferguson’s responsibility is the perimeter of Occidental Park, where he keeps watch for 10 hours a day, Friday through Sunday. “I don’t think it’s as dangerous as it’s probably being reported to be,” says Ferguson, who was raised in the Central District. “There were some serious, serious circumstances and dangerous situations that have happened in the last two years… But about crime today, I’m definitely not as fearful as just three weeks ago. Simply because, after the last shooting, and another death, they put officers down there, and they [made] a concerted effort to move people up out of the way. And, at the same time, give ’em help.”

Olga Sagan, owner, Piroshky Piroshky

After a fatal shooting right around the corner, Olga Sagan closed her Piroshky Piroshky bakery on Third Avenue in late February. The pandemic slowed foot traffic, she acknowledges, but she’s observed other downtowns coming back quicker; she wants to see a “permanent, consistent solution” to crime in the neighborhood before considering reopening. A mobile precinct on the street is “just a little Band-Aid to appear that, you know, this is safer.” Sagan knows businesses can receive backlash for conflating homelessness with crime, but she feels recent events have made it clear that the latter is what motivates her decisions. “I think we were brave enough to just say, enough is enough. I think a lot of other small business owners are ready to speak right now.” 

Ravi Robinson, barista, Cherry Street Coffee House in Pioneer Square

At one point during the pandemic, customers at a cafe on First and Cherry had to buzz into the building first due to persistent crime in the area. Ravi Robinson started working at the coffee shop about a year ago. The barista feels that people can be “just extremely dehumanizing when they talk about homelessness” or express “a lack of empathy” for drug addiction and other struggles. “I think people are thrown off by the appearance of a mental health issue because they’re immediately scared…when it’s really uncomfortable, people make all these assumptions.” At the same time, Robinson says that his own sense of safety “might feel a lot different if I was shorter or a woman.” 

Paige Langhorne, barista, Cherry Street Coffee House in Pioneer Square

Like Robinson, Paige Langhorne started at the shop in 2021. “It’s working downtown in a city, you know. It’s going to be what it’s going to be.” When it’s light out, she feels fine to walk around. In the dark of morning, her husband accompanies her on her light rail commute. “Since working here, it’s like every other week that someone gets stabbed or shot or something. I know that there was that woman that got pushed down the stairs and really messed her up. There was one morning where my husband got swung at a couple times by a dude. It is what it is. It’s tense times in general, and in spaces like that…it doesn’t really seem like it’s changed at all.”

Constance Kuhnly, busker

If you’ve ever walked down Pine on a Saturday, you’ve heard Constance Kuhnly. Rain or shine, you’ll find the Federal Way resident posted up outside Nordstrom, thermoses of hot tea at the ready, singing for hours on end. Kuhnly has been robbed a few times over the years but has no plans to move now. “What you’re seeing on the news is the extreme.”

Elkin Guerrero, sandwich maker, Subway

Along Third Avenue, Elkin Guerrero offers a slightly different perspective. The sandwich maker has worked at Subway for four years and has recently seen an uptick in drug use and crime around the store. “Since the pandemic’s started, everything’s changed.” Among other incidents, a woman chased Guerrero with a knife around the store, leading to a police call. “I’m so scared. Sometimes I don’t feel like coming here.” Has Harrell’s mobile precinct helped? “I feel a little bit more safe, but as soon as the police leave, they start coming back again.”

Billie Joanne Isbell, staying at Catholic Community Services’ Bridge Shelter on Third Avenue

“I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be—five, 10 years ago,” Billie Joanne Isbell said of downtown while waiting for groceries on Sunday. “But it could still use some work.” Isbell has bounced around shelters for two decades, she says, and has seen how people experiencing homelessness can be victims of crime in the area. “If you have a ball and they want it, then they’re going to get it.” Still, she thinks addiction is an intractable problem, one that an increased police presence on Third Avenue isn’t going to fix.


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