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The point, Hayes told the crowd, was to let “those people” (he never used the familiar police-ism “the bad guys”) who made everyone else feel unsafe know that “the community” wasn’t going to stand for it. “Remember, this is your neighborhood,” he roared. “You’re not taking it back, because you never lost it!”
“He’s our cheerleader,” Pat Murakami said, smiling. The walkabouts, ostensibly targeted at the criminals, are at least as much for the benefit of everyone else. The idea is to raise spirits and introduce neighbors to each other, to teach them to watch for buckled sidewalks, broken streetlights, overgrown bushes, and other dark concealments and safety hazards, to not fear to report trouble to the cops. To turn them into one big block watch.
An actual cheerleading squad strode behind Hayes, brandishing a megaphone and Rainier Beach High School Vikings banner. Fewer than 10 percent of the school’s students are white, but they’re still Vikings.
“What do we want?” the cheer captain cried. “Safe streets!” echoed back, plus the odd “Peace!” and “Justice!”
“When do we want them?” “Now!” Halfway through the walk, this refrain segued into “One, two, three four, money for schools, not for war. Five, six, seven, eight, don’t shoot, negotiate!” In a few years, perhaps some of these officers will face some of these kids at the next generation’s Occupy demonstrations.
Hayes and Murakami led the neighborly phalanx on a mile-long loop, up Rainier, east on Henderson, through the Lake Washington Apartments (a longtime trouble spot that's now better managed) to Seward Park Avenue, and back up Rainier to Safeway. They passed the library, elementary and high schools, Bank of America, Rite Aid, Starbucks, and another full-sized supermarket, Saar’s Marketplace. With all these, and many smaller shops and eateries, Rainier Beach is by far the best-served district in generally retail-sparse Southeast Seattle; nearby residential streets have walkability scores in the high 70s, and Lake Washington is just a block or two away. If such amenities were all that counted, this would be prime territory for investment.
Two nights later, the crime prevention council held its monthly meeting, and it too was a mega-version. More than 60 local residents and several dozen more police and city officials packed into the Southeast Seattle Senior Center. The City Council’s Public Safety Committee had trooped down to convene its own weekly there, before the crime council’s. Harrell, the committee’s chair, distributed electronic vote clickers to the non-official attendees and conducted an instant poll. Did residents “feel safe and secure” in their neighborhoods? No, a strong majority responded. Did they see a visible police presence there? No. Did they want more police presence? Yes. “I disagree,” one woman interjected. “We live at Renton Avenue and Fletcher Street. We have swat teams there, police buzzing by all the time. We have a daycare, and people see that and don’t think it’s safe to bring their kids there.” Presence, yes, but not that kind of visibility.
The public discussion, spirited but civil, exposed other faultlines as well. One white-haired, ruddy-faced gent, who announced proudly that he’d lived in the valley since 1942, referred bitterly to “the savages who beat Danny Vega to death.” Larry Evans, an aide to King County Councilmember Larry Gossett (whose district includes Southeast Seattle), lectured from the front table, “If we’re going to call our children ‘savages,’ I’m glad I came out here….”
Nevertheless, the mega-meeting and the mega-walkabout were manifestations of a decided warming in relations between Southeast residents, in particular those active in the crime council, and the top brass at the South Precinct, police headquarters, and City Hall. Those relations hit a nadir four to five years ago. The Nickels administration was widely viewed as a malign force in Southeast, mostly interested in condemning “blighted” homes and exporting more unwanted subsidized housing there. In late 2006 SPD’s then-chief, Gil Kerlikowske, reassigned a highly regarded South Precinct commander who’d built up the sort of community cooperation that is once again the watchword today. His prickly replacement rebuffed the crime council and chilled neighborhood participation. Two more, better-regarded captains followed in quick succession. The one still in charge, Captain Mike Nolan, knows the district; he served there twice before, as a patrolman and lieutenant. He’s seen as diligent, fair, and methodical, if low-key. For any cheerleading that needs to be done, Nolan has the barnstorming Lieutenant Hayes, who has even deeper roots in the district.
Mike McGinn’s administration is at the least seen as benignly neglectful, an improvement. But the Rainier Beach walkabout passed by one stark example of the consequences of neglect and delayed promises. In 2010 the city secured funding, plans, and a winning bidder to rebuild the worn Rainier Beach Community Center, home to midnight basketball and untold other alternatives to hanging out and getting in trouble on the streets. In January 2011 it demolished the existing facility, ready to proceed with construction. Then McGinn intervened. He declared that none of the bidders had met the legal standard for using women- and minority-owned contractors and ordered the project redrafted and rebid. The result: the new community center isn’t due to open until autumn 2013, after a gap of nearly three years.
The city Parks Department is scrambling to fill some of the gaps in service. It’s moved some of its activities to the nearest centers still open, on Beacon Hill and near Columbia City, one to three miles away — too far off for kids to walk. It’s reinstated its late-night rec program closer by, first at Rainier Beach High and now at South Shore K-8, but only two nights a week. That leaves nothing most of the time, and as Jeron Gates, who coordinates the department’s “youth violence prevention” efforts notes, afternoons are “prime time” for crime — including the rash of transit robberies. Gates and his colleagues are scrambling to find other venues. The problem: “There’s no money.” He hopes churches will help.
The Rainier Beach walkabout rounded back onto Rainier Avenue at a particularly poignant spot: Maya’s Mexican Restaurant. Since the double shooting in front, business there had crashed. That may have been a one-off tragedy, and the rough characters who used to sometimes hang around in front of the restaurant are no longer there. But fear and avoidance aren’t matters of rational calculation; in The Sopranos, Tony Soprano, unable to forestall a planned mob hit at his friend Artie’s restaurant, has the place torched so it won’t suffer the stigma.
Hayes mustered the 200 marchers into Maya’s parking lot and asked the restaurant’s manager (the owner’s son) to come out and meet the neighbors. “Let’s give him a big shout-out,” Hayes declaimed, without directly mentioning the shootings. “Let’s show him that we’re going to support his restaurant, that we support locally owned businesses, that we’re here for him.” He stepped out from his kitchen to a round of applause. “This really means a lot to my family,” he said shyly. “I hope we’re here for another 30 years.”
Maybe such spirit-rousing efforts can help connect people with their neighborhood businesses. A few doors up from Maya’s, the march passed Tino’s, a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria. “Have you ever tried it?” one walker asked. Yes, another replied.
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