While I'm generally a stand up for the underclass sort of guy, this I get. We used to have a bench of our own. Ours was a six-foot heavy wooden board that sat atop concrete legs. The thing weighed about 120 pounds. A bunch of them were made by a group of activists and distributed around the city in 1995. The Sidran civility laws had recently passed, and spaces to rest were disappearing fast. These were being replaced by a new urban architecture designed to prohibit sleeping or getting too comfortable. So ours wasn't just a bench. It was a political statement.
We got rid of it about six years ago. The neighborhood drunks had taken to having contests to see who could throw it farthest. We joked that this might make a good new Olympic sport. The Seattle Benchtoss team would be a sort of like the Jamaican Bobsled team, but drunker.
So, when I stopped in at the Casbah Cafe for my morning double-tall Americano with room and mentioned that a crew was removing the art bench installation a few doors down, I wasn't too surprised to hear that this bench had been reviled by area merchants for years.
When I say area merchants, I don't mean the Nordstrom's. I mean the lovely people at the Casbah, who I regularly see give day-olds and coffee to the neighborhood mentally ill. I mean Dave, my Barber, who cheerfully buys Real Change from the vendors who wander into his shop. I mean the Senior Center across the street and the Crocodile Cafe. They were all standing on the sidewalk, looking on with huge smiles. Neighborhood activist Joe Corsi, who manages Concept One apartments on that block, looked like he'd just had a baby boy. I thought someone was gonna pop a bottle of champagne any second.
And who can blame them? This stretch of Belltown right by Real Change is one of those odd places where the hell of life on the very, very bottom is on display 24/7. I hear blow jobs are going for two bucks. People try to sell me drugs and sex at 8 or 9 a.m. all the time. I've always chalked it up to Wally's, the convenience store that sells malt liquor and fortified wine. There's usually two to three panhandlers within twenty feet of their doorway. But it's more than that.
I don't really understand why some downtown stretches of sidewalk are like this. From what I can tell, no one else does either. I'm sure the bench didn't help, but its removal won't exactly lead to a new Disneyfied era for this block in Belltown.
My theory, conspiratorial as it is, makes as much sense as any. I think there's a sort of a hydraulics of pathetic street crime, and cops know that if you squeeze in one place it comes out somewhere else. My guess is that they prefer to know where it is, and that there are various areas of the city, some only a block or two long, where this sort of activity is generally tolerated. These act as containment areas that keep it away from the rest of us.
Benches don't make people into street alcoholics, drug dealers, and crack whores, but they do offer a place to rest. Here's hoping that one day, a better solution will be possible.
—photo by Greg Riley