Pioneer Square: Embrace ‘Real Change’

Timothy Harris of Real Change Credit: realchangenews.org

Timothy Harris is a passionate advocate for Seattle’s downtrodden. He’s funny, sharp-tongued, smart and speaks his mind. He has a knack for pissing people off, from The Seattle Times over his opposition to tougher panhandling laws to members of the Pioneer Square Community Association who are opposed to having Harris and his Real Change newspaper in their backyard. In fact, they are trying to bar him from the neighborhood.

Many Pioneer Square merchants and residents (shall we call them Pioneer Squares?) are worried that their district is overwhelmed with folks in need of social services, the homeless, the sleazy, the destitute. It is ground-zero for many of downtown’s urban woes. Please, they have asked the city, don’t dump any more problems here.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, that Harris and his operation should be treated as pariahs. Non-profit Real Change thrives off the efforts of street people, who are its vendors. It is viewed by some as not a newspaper but a social service agency, and the Square has enough of those. Nor do some want to welcome a man who helped defeat a panhandling ordinance that, in their eyes, would have helped Pioneer Square’s chances to change its image, clean up its act.

Harris and others argued that the Tim Burgess-proposed panhandling ordinance would be misused by the police. The Pioneer Square Community Association, it seems to me, has just made themselves Exhibit A of a mentality that is exactly what Harris has warned us about. The argument against Real Change is that it operates as a “wholesaler,” a prohibited use in the neighborhood. The basis of that argument is that it sells its papers to street vendors, who keep the proceeds. By that definition, most paid city newspapers with news vendors are wholesalers. The city rejected the claim, but the neighborhood association is appealing and finding new arguments to bar the paper.

But Real Change is not a widget factory, it’s a newspaper; it has first amendment protections and ought to be able to operate in the Square as other newspapers have. Seattle Weekly started as a paid newspaper in the Square, selling newspapers through newsstands, contractors and vendors. No one tried to kick the Weekly out with such arguments. And what about Pioneer Square game and software companies that license their content, are they now wholesalers too? The whole thing seems more like harassment.

The effort is doubly absurd because Real Change is a model of success, addressing some of the Square’s particular problems. It actually gives employment to the very street people others complain about. It is a step up, a helping hand, a way out. Pioneer Square ought to be embracing Real Change, not bunkering down. The problem isn’t Tim Harris and his newsie army, it’s that we need to find more ways to do what Real Change has done: helping to turn street folks into legitimate entrepreneurs, to give them an alternative to panhandling, begging and crime. As Pioneer Square considers adopting the national Main Street program, efforts like Harris’ are examples of the small-scale solutions that are essential to turning the district around. Help is far more readily available by that route than by assuming that society or the market will simply solve the problem.

The attack on Real Change is symptomatic of a problem that the Square’s own revitalization consultant, Donovan Rypkema, has identified: too much “whining.” In his report late last year about how to help the Square, Rypkema ripped the inertia, lack of leadership and infighting in the neighborhood. And he explicitly stated that Pioneer Square’s future is not to find a way to get rid of street people, who have been there since the beginning of Seattle, but to add to the neighborhood by bringing new people in. He also criticized the Square for being too down on itself, for continually seeing the glass as half-empty. It’s a mentality that fusses about Real Change rather than finding ways to support its approach.

I don’t always agree with Tim Harris (we are no more than Facebook friends). I thought his knee-jerk doubts about restaurateur Tom Douglas’ proposed salmon bakes at Victor Steinbrueck Park were dumb. That kind of initiative from Douglas should also be embraced and applauded for the sake of the Pike Place Market or any troubled downtown public space, and if you’re really worried about non-Indian Seattle co-opting Native American cultural practices, you’re going to have to politically cleanse a lot of Seattle parks and spaces, starting with Pioneer Square. I hope that never happens, because that kind of policing is as bad or worse than the panhandling laws Harris opposes.

Harris also can be crude. He refers to Seattle Times editorialist (and my fellow KUOW roundtable panelist) Joni Balter as a “fucking hyena” on his Facebook page. Classy, Tim. Still, I admire what Harris has accomplished, both on the social service side, and on the journalism side. Real Change is an important, progressive voice in Seattle, a valuable addition to the journalistic ecosystem.

The Pioneer Squares should stop the nonsense, welcome Harris and friends with a salmon bake, not a bitch-slap, and enlist him in the revitalization we all would like to see.

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