Seattle Municipal Archives
First of two parts
A soggy September afternoon on Seattle's First Avenue. The drizzle seems to wick the Skid Road stench out of the gutters, suspending it in midair like a chlorine cloud. About 20 young Seattle cops in raincoats huddle on a side street until, on command, they file up First Avenue, striding across cracked concrete, past the honky-tonk bars and peep shows. They turn into Pike Place, file up the stairs behind DeLaurenti Foods, and enter the double doors of the Lifeline Club.
Scattered around the smoke-filled hall are some 80 bingo players, housewives and silver-haired ladies with Frederick and Nelson shopping bags propped alongside their folding chairs. They are studying rows of 10-cent bingo cards, waiting for their numbers to be called.
A lieutenant steps to the front of the hall, displays a warrant, and announces that everybody is under arrest. The bingo players are baffled, but they get written citations before being sent on their way, shopping bags in hand. Meanwhile, the cops arrest about 10 club employees, while investigators sift through office file cabinets, scooping manila files into cardboard boxes and hauling them to waiting cars.
The strange bingo raid, conducted Sept. 24, 1969, went off smoothly, quietly — a stark contrast to the FBI raids this week on the strip club empire of Seattle crime figure Frank Colacurcio. Back in '69, there were no sirens, no guns, no TV cameras. Charges against the bingo players were quickly dropped. And the city barely noticed.
But that little raid and its aftermath helped send several people to jail — not for playing bingo but for bribery and racketeering. What mattered was not the women with their dime bingo cards but those cardboard boxes, jammed with financial records and names that provided a glimpse into an intricate web of crooked cops and corrupt local officials.
And this week's raids leave us wondering once again: How much has really changed in four decades?
The 1969 raid was the idea of a wiry, maverick assistant chief named Tony Gustin, and his free-lance foray into the Pike Place Market helped bring down a corrupt regime that had reigned in Seattle since at least the 1920s. In a few short years, Seattle would learn some things about itself that it may not have wanted to hear, and that painful revelation would help lead to a profound transformation.
Four decades later, Gustin is 79, white-haired, and long-retired, living quietly with his wife in rural Grays Harbor County. He shuffles in gray sweatpants and T-shirt around his doublewide, which is filled with stacks of books and current issues of Mother Jones and The Progressive. He rarely discusses his 25 years as a Seattle cop, but when he does it is with a grim sense of irony that this once-pervasive, citywide empire was ultimately brought down by a gaggle of middle-class housewives playing bingo at the Pike Place Market. He grumbles at how quickly the city moved on and forgot a harsh, traumatic chapter in its recent history — a dangerously short memory that he warns could allow it all to happen again.
Seattle in the '60s was a middling-sized middle-class city with a liveable climate, nice neighborhoods, and plenty of well-paying jobs down at the Boeing plants. But the city was also afflicted with a sort of civic schizophrenia, with qualities both of a western Sun Belt town and of an aging Rust Belt city. If one foot was striding forward, toward a high-tech, ever-so-hip future, the other remained planted firmly in the politics and culture of the Great Depression. The city had built the world's first jetliners and had staged a futuristic world's fair that focused on the promise of technology in the next century. But it was also a conservative town run by balding businessmen who made their decisions from leather chairs in the paneled salon at the Rainier Club. Other than the Space Needle, only two buildings had gone up in downtown Seattle since World War II.
The city was also split racially, with blacks confined to the Central District, a pattern enforced by real estate agents who knew where black families were allowed to buy and where they weren't. Asian immigrants crowded into what was then known as Chinatown. Gays of any ethnicity were tolerated as long as they didn't stray from their bars around Pioneer Square.
City Hall also clung to an odd set of blue laws designed to keep a lid on booze, gambling, and sex. Bars were closed on Sundays, and gambling was ostensibly limited to charity bingo and nickel-ante card rooms. Even pinball games and pool tables were deemed offensive, and required city licenses.
Civilization ended abruptly west of Second Avenue and south of Yesler Way, leaving Skid Road, the Market, waterfront, and Chinatown to the seedy bars and cardrooms that catered to gamblers, sailors and other less-savory visitors.
A cadre of young Turks was beginning to agitate for change. One of these was Christopher Bayley, a young lawyer with an Old Seattle pedigree and a Harvard degree who was beginning to show some interest in politics. He and his friends were oblivious to any problems with the cops, but they thought the city had outgrown its blue laws.
The Establishment clung jealously to power. The average age on the City Council was 66, and most had been in office for 12 years or more. They managed things.
How they managed things was Seattle's ugly secret.
Gustin learned that secret early. He grew up in rough-and-tumble Aberdeen, where his father managed a sawmill. He studied psychology and the classics at the University of Washington and in 1952 joined the Seattle Police Department, where he thought he could practice some street psychology. He may have been the city's best-read cop, a college kid who could quote Cicero or issue a string of profanities, often in the same sentence.
He was on the streets a few months before he realized that many of his pals were on the take. First it was just idle talk around the precinct house, then the occasional envelope, stuffed with cash, passed discreetly up the chain of command.
"I was down at Precinct 3, the South End," he recalls. "There wasn't a lot of money down there. That's where guys got sent if they didn't want to be part of the system, or if they were being penalized for not splitting their take properly."
Bit by bit, he became acquainted with what was called the Tolerance Policy. The city's prudish laws ran counter to a street culture that thrived on one vice or another, be it booze, gambling, sex, or some combination. A bar could play by obsolete laws, or break the rules and pay the cops to look the other way. Most paid.
It worked. The city got its entertainment, the cops saw their meager paychecks enhanced by steady gratuities. And nobody got hurt. The old guard genuinely believed the Tolerance Policy was good for the city, good for business. The most common rationale was that it kept the East Coast mafia out of Seattle.
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