June 25, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 26

Director's Corner

A place where everyone belongs

By Timothy Harris , Executive Director

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Last week, I sat in a packed auditorium at Pioneer Square’s Klondike Museum listening to strategies for the revitalization of Occidental Park. This public space has been a matter of intense neighborhood concern in recent years as rising numbers of troublesome poor folks have made the area less than friendly for the tourists and shoppers that local businesses prefer.

Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, a national expert in economic revitalization strategies, presented its plan for the space and showed slides of success stories from other cities.

One “before” picture was a wide lens shot of ten or so black men sitting around looking unemployed.

“Not very inviting, is it?” The nearly all-white room murmured their assent.

The next photo looked for all the world like a French impressionist rendition of a yachting picnic. White people, dressed mostly in white, spread out with blankets on the grass, looking happy and serene. 

It was a surreal juxtaposition to make an unsubtle point. Black and poor: bad.  White and happy: good. We can help you with this. 

“Why don’t we just make cigarette smoking in parks illegal,” one particularly loathsome man volunteered. “Can we do that? Most of those people smoke. It would give us a tool.” 

The liberals in the room, myself included, collectively flinched.

Leslie Smith, the director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, deftly steered the discussion toward common ground: “I’d be happy if we got people to stop smoking crack and pot there. Wouldn’t you?”

Yes.  I would.

Here’s the thing. Nobody wants public spaces dominated by illegal and dangerous activity. Crack smoking, heroin use, drug sales, assault, aggressive behavior and prostitution aren’t good for anyone. We can agree on this.

Activation of public space through events and other programmed uses are part of the answer, as are the policy solutions that could more effectively move the ball.

About ten minutes into the Biederman presentation, a skeptical Seattle Times reporter asked exactly the right question: “How do chessboards make up for years of disinvestment in mental health resources?”

Their answer was revealing. There are things we can immediately affect. There are others we can’t. Our focus is on what we can do now.

Let’s not mistake hiding social dysfunction from view for real solutions.  While chessboards and public knitting circles are fine, the issue comes down to where we invest public resources. 

A plan to develop a 26-block long waterfront park was unveiled earlier this year that includes grand terraces with views, reflective pools, cantilevered stairways made partially of glass, and a swimming pool and hot tub barge. The best estimate for what all this might cost comes to around $420 million.

Maybe we could use some of that dough to ramp up on mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment facilities and safe inviting places for people who have little else positive in their lives? A little less glitz, a little more reality.

Last summer, I met a TV reporter in Pioneer Square for an interview. We caught the park on a good day. 

A diverse mix of people were out having their lunches at the tables. An amplified street musician played for tips. The farmers market was open, and shoppers browsed the organic fruits and vegetables. Tourists took photos of street art and historic buildings. Poor and homeless folks were there as well, and seemed to enjoy the tranquility as much as everyone else. It was the peaceable kingdom.

The reporter took in the scene and said, “This is what things should look like. Right? Everyone belongs here.  This is what we’re after.” 

Yes. Everyone needs to belong here. That’s what we’re after.

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