December 18, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 51

Director's Corner

Things are a mixed bag

by: Timothy Harris , Executive Director

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I was in Belltown about a month ago and ran into someone from the old neighborhood. For Real Change’s first 16 years, we were on Second Avenue, between Blanchard and Lenora.  Since we left, things there have been a mixed bag. 

Like everywhere, small businesses are hurting. My friend, who owns a property on the corner of Lenora, gestured to the near empty streets. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. “It’s always like this now,” she said. “It’s a ghost town.  People are worried about the economy and holding onto what they have.”

The conversation turned to those at the margins. “The drug dealers have won,” she said. She told me they’ve taken over the streets and driven the shoppers away. You hear this a lot in Belltown, and yet, downtown living is at a premium. 

There are apartments going up right now on Third and Bell that are constructed from prefab units that lock in place. The locals call it “The Lego Building.”  Rents for the 422-square-foot studios to 752-square-foot two-story lofts will range from $1,175 to $2,100 a month. The tiny units are in high demand. Apparently, some of us are doing fine.

A few weeks later, I was back in Belltown. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and I’d come with my daughters to see “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” at Cinerama. I was there in the early afternoon, spending money. It being Black Friday, I figured I’d have company.

We ducked into an underground parking lot near Sixth and Blanchard.  Having wedged my ’92 Tercel into a narrow space between two SUVs, we headed to Top Pot for donuts. There was a long line. A tall Americano, two small hot chocolates and three donuts came to $19 after the tip. This is one business that is not in trouble.

We see most of our movies for $3 at the Crest, so the girls were appropriately awed by the big screen and stuffed chairs of Cinerama. At $12 each, that was about $40 after taxes. 

Our outing was getting pricey, so instead of buying lunch, we headed home. The parking garage was in the bottom of a luxury condo with ground-floor shopping. There was a high-end cookingware store, a specialty grocer, a wine shop and a restaurant where you sit at a counter while a battery of chefs cooks your food to order a few feet away. 

I felt like I’d mistakenly wandered into someplace I didn’t belong. I stuck my parking ticket into a wall and found that our three hours and 15 minutes came to $16. We paid and left.

Thinking about it later, Belltown seems like much of America. 

There are the out of sight and affluent who keep mostly to their own kind.  Jonathan Raban once called them the “sky people.” They park underground, dart about in elevators to most anywhere they’d go and often have their meals cooked for them. 

Then there are those on the bottom: the broken and addicted and miserable. The ones we like to blame when things get tight. I actually didn’t see many that day. Most everyone I saw looked well-fed, but if I’d gone just a few blocks over, I’d have found something very different.

And finally, there are the rest of us, who need to think twice before spending $75 on parking, coffee, donuts and a movie with the kids. 

For us, the drug dealers are not the issue. It’s that most everything costs too much, and we in the middle have been squeezed hard. If we could fix that, we’d all be doing a lot better.

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