Sunday, October 14, 2007

Belltown's Most Hated Bench Goes Away

I stumbled upon a party the other morning on my way to work in Belltown, and no, it wasn't that kind of party. Those usually wind down in this neighborhood by 7 a.m. or so. The subject of jubilation was the removal of a bench that has been a magnet for drinking, drug dealing, and other activities of despair that occur in the one block stretch of Second Avenue between Blanchard and Bell.

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


Dr. Wes Browning said...

I hated that bench when it was installed for a whole different reason than any you gave: it was a horribly uncomfortable bench. It wasn't a bench that was ever designed with human comfort in mind. It wasn't designed to function as a bench, it was designed to function as art. Even on its own terms, it sucked. It was crappy art that tried to be interesting by imitating accidental features of an old photograph of the Denny Regrade project that the artist had seen.

My solution would be this. Put real functioning benches EVERYWHERE throughout the city, bolted down so jackasses don't heave them through windows. Make them COMFORTABLE and long enough for a dozen people each. Then put all the same advertising and pamphleteering effort as now goes into stopping panhandling into touting the benches as community building. Encourage people to sit on them during lunch breaks and in the middle of shopping trips. Talk it up as taking the sidewalks back from the thugs.

The idea is, there would still be lowlifes using some of the benches, but they'd be lost in the crowd.

Of course that assumes that the "crowd" really wants the sidewalks back. It occurs to me that the winos and the drug dealers own Seattle sidewalks now because Seattle by and large doesn't really want its sidewalks. Seattle is happy hiding indoors from the rain and the bad people.

"Uta" Urban said...

What about the skids (those faux 2x4's) embedded into the sidewalks there? Does anyone know if they are going to rip those out too (please)? I thought they were just seattley lumber decor until it reminded me of skid row. A conundrum.

Greg R said...

Since the bench has been gone, its like a Night & Day difference and I am not the only one to say that. It appears to be about a 90% clean up, and I would know as I pick up the debris 5 days a week out front of the Concept One Apt's. Now, the bench is gone and though there is still crime however it has diminished and to me thats "The Victory" for the people who live here.
I have heard from various people around & outside of the block that "removing the bench wont make a difference, its not the bench thats the problem..." well to all those people... "HA!" and I hate to say it but they were wrong, and now we have a sense that we have a bit of our community back. Thats the Victory - a safer community!
Thanks to everyone involved, the City, The Art Commision, The Police Dept., The people on the block and Businesses!
[and on a side note, no one I know is against the homeless people, we are against open drug dealings, drinking and belligerent behavior that jeopardizes the communities safety. In respect I hope that ALL the homeless people get the appropriate help needed to better their situation.]

Pastor Rick said...

Wait a minute. I thought Operation Nightwatch was the problem in Belltown.

It was the benches all the time.

I remember a business guy wagging his finger at me. "Until you can take responsibility for the conduct of your clients during the day you shouldn't do anything for them."

I reminded him that it was merchants selling the 40 ouncers.

But I do like the esteemed Dr. Browning's suggestion.


Anonymous said...

NOW if we can only get rid of the other apparent crime center and neighborhood trouble maker named Ximaica. The clientele and daily excessive noise from this two year old so called restaurant has had a big negative effect on the immediate neighborhood. (Guns, drugs & gang bangers.) If only the state Alcohol Control Board would rescind the liquor licenses of those establishments that are licensed as restaurants but operate almost exclusively as nightclubs/bars. (They could claim that there was fraud in the restaurant liquor license application.) It seems that if a business is licensed as a restaurant, their main business should be the preparation and service of FOOD not alcohol. Most states require restaurant liquor license holders to derive at least 60% of their gross sales from the sale of food, excluding beverages and merchandise, in order to qualify for said "Restaurant" liquor license. This is proved through invoices and cash register receipt tapes.
So, one major problem was solved by the removal of the bus bench. Now if only our second biggest source of noise and what appears to be criminal activity could be removed from the block. Well, with the continued community support for improving the block, at least we can hope that it will change sometime soon. Congratulation on the removal of problem one, the bus bench!

joe said...

Thanks Tim for writing this article. I agree with Greg, there has been a big differnce since the bench has been removed. It is actually cleaner & safer here. There are still problems & challenges we are facing but the removal of the bench was huge for this block. Thanks again. Joe Corsi

Tim Harris said...

Yes. I can see the difference in that block pretty clearly. It's not like the petty crime has dried up and gone away, but its social hub and all of it's issues (I'm remembering one morning when I watched a woman brandish a metal pipe against someone who stole her last four dollars. I gave her two bucks and she cried out of gratitude.) have decentralized. This is probably a good thing for everyone.

Deb said...

Has anyone considered that apartment (condo) dwellers use drugs also - and that the illegal activity just went inside? Easier not to get caught. It takes money to buy drugs... Dealers hang out where they can sell - not where they can sit. I would like more proof that the removal of the bench got rid of the crime - do you sit (oops - stand) out there all day and keep a record of whats going on? Deb RC Vendor

Tim Harris said...

I don't doubt that apartment dwellers sometimes buy street drugs. People try selling them to me, and I'd think that I don't look like their target demographic. But then, maybe I do.

The merchants on the block all say the change has been dramatic, and from what I've noticed, there's no reason to doubt that. As you know, I don't have the time or inclination to do as you suggest.

I don't think removal the the bench has persuaded one person to stop drinking 40 ouncers or buying crack or meth of whatever other drugs are being offered. It's simply decentralized it a bit, and to those who had it happening right outside their door, it's a good thing.