It might not be obvious what bowties, vacant lots and urban transit have to do with each other. But they all coalesced in a coincidence of recent events that shed new light on what is, for me, a too-familiar subject: Southeast Seattle, and just what a misunderstood, often mistreated misfit it is within the broader city of Seattle.
First, the bowties. An ebullient gent who always wears them, name of Charlie Staadecker, marched into the Crosscut office to break pizza with editors and explain why, after a lifetime in business, he should become Seattle’s mayor in order to (you guessed it) “give something back.” Well, City Hall once had its “Streetcar Charlie” (Councilman Charles M. Carroll), why not a Bowtie Charlie? With a difference: Bowtie Charlie would surely never be indicted for corrupt gambling ties, as Streetcar Charlie was. (The charges were dismissed.)
The session soon took a slightly surreal turn. Staadecker got off on the wrong foot with one attendee, Beacon Lights blogger and City Living columnist Craig Thompson. “You look skeptical,” Staadecker said earnestly, like a salesman tugging the line. Thompson, feeling challenged, recounted his civic awards and other neighborhood bona fides and recited a familiar factoid, that the Rainier Valley’s 98118 (where I live) is “the most diverse zip code in the United States.” And he suggested, more than skeptically, that Staadecker and a lot of other folks around town didn’t know anything about the neighborhood.
Staadecker didn’t help that impression when he started talking about “Southeast Asia — I mean, Southeast Seattle.” But he recovered by showing he did know where Columbia City is (the one showpiece Southeast neighborhood everyone knows about, and where they’ll likely assume you live if you’re down here) and used it to illustrate his politics of collaboration and conciliation: He recalled the lethal, predawn March 22 raid on a Columbia City home by a Bellevue Police SWAT team. Seattle police, who accompanied the raid, should have gone door to door, said Staadecker, and explained to neighbors what was going on so they wouldn’t feel frightened or confused. That presumes the police could and would give a coherent, forthright explanation of what they were doing, which they haven’t done since. And it’s not clear that residents in a city with a dismal recent history of police over-reaction, who’d just watched suburban ninja cops gun down a guy who was trying to drive away and then (according to one neighbor’s account) stand around chatting over coffee and donuts, would feel relieved at having more cops knocking on their doors.
That evening I attended a much larger forum in the heart of the Valley — a public meeting at the New Holly Gathering Place, the meeting hall for the mixed-income community that replaced the old Holly Park projects. It was convened by the Othello Station Community Advisory Team, which assists the City of Seattle and its partner agencies in their struggle to build a showpiece TOD (transit-oriented development) community around the Othello light-rail station. It too soon took on an air of unreality, making me wonder if the officials who are supposedly guiding a glorious revival of the Othello junction and rest of the Rainier Valley have any better idea what’s going on down there than Charlie Staadecker.
The session's hosts promised to answer two questions: “What’s going on with the vacant and underused land around Othello Station?” and “How can the community help attract new development and jobs to the area?” The answers from the representatives of various civic, transit, housing and development agencies sitting on the stage boiled down, for the first question: Not much. And for the second: Trust us.
The billions of public dollars spent to build the Link rail line and transform the drab old Rainier Vista and Holly Park projects into leafy, attractive new-urbanist villages were supposed to make the MLK corridor a magnet for private investment. But so far it ain’t happening; just one market-rate project, the spiffy 351-unit Station at Othello Park apartments at the southeast corner of Othello Street and MLK Way, opened, bravely, two years ago. Othello Station, as everyone calls it, jumped out ahead of the market, then struggled to get tenants and reportedly began accepting subsidized vouchers from the Seattle Housing Authority, leading some paying full freight to complain about living in a "ghetto"; class and racial lines aren't easily effaced. (Othello Partners, the developer, hasn't returned calls for comment.)
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