A walk in Seattle’s downtown along Third Avenue between Union and Pike is an abrupt confrontation with a daily struggle for survival on a city street in crisis. It is, has been for months, a civic desert of boarded-up commerce.
Along one side, drug dealers, selling to addicts desperate for their next fix – to find it, to fund it. On the other, businesses desperate to stay alive are under threat not only from a pandemic, but from the crime, trash, and drugs despoiling the sidewalks outside their windows.
Maria Coassin came to America, the Pacific Northwest and Seattle from a small town in the Friuli region of Italy, bringing gelato and Italian pastries to the northeast corner of Third and Union. She opened Gelatiamo 25 years ago on a street never, as she tells, “the highlight of anyone’s trip downtown, but with Benaroya Hall and Wild Ginger opening I hoped for things to get better. And they did, for a little while.”
But then came the end of traffic parked on Third, a street now dedicated to transit only, followed by the slow but steady rise of open drug dealing on the street and the shoplifting, addiction, and theft it spawned. And then COVD-19 — all of it driving Gelatiamo to a breaking point. Every day, Maria says, is almost existential. “I cannot afford to lose everything I poured into my business. I struggle every day to keep going. Eight months of boarded up windows last year. Two broken ones in a two-week period at the end of this past December. Shootings, drug dealing, crime, theft, random acts of violence…. all in a day’s work. It is heartbreaking. “
Covid shut down Gelatiamo for almost three months and now her gelato and pastry shop is open for limited hours Thursday through Sunday. Business is down 70 percent. Coassin is behind on rent, carrying total losses near $1 million since Covid came down, she reports. Only the persistent sale of pastries, of Maria’s special cakes, “are saving us.” Customers are afraid and employees are reluctant to come downtown. She herself is often afraid to walk out in the street. “We are,” she laments, “left alone.”
Across the street, Rick Yoder’s Wild Ginger, an iconic Asian-style restaurant, is finally open again after 20 months. It was shut down by Covid and by the same crime, loitering and garbage on the sidewalks. Yoder says he’s not seen anything like it in the 22 years since Wild Ginger moved up from Western Avenue; every other shop moving north from his location, from T-Max, Steak and Shake and a Starbucks, is boarded up, shut down, driven away less by Covid than by the trash, theft, drug-dealing and addiction that’s taken over the street. “It is,” Yoder says, “incredibly devastating.”
Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, is blunt, lamenting that; city government simply abandoned its charter responsibility to keep our downtown streets safe. Scholes calls it an “abdication of municipal responsibility. It’s been left to the shop owner or the security guard, the retail clerk, to pick up the mess, to literally put themselves in harm’s way – they are the ones on the front lines.” For the DSA, what’s taken hold is an illegal bazaar of retail crime, drugs, reports of sex-trafficking – all of it highly organized and often on municipal property. He calls Third Avenue “a publicly sanctioned, illegal bazaar in the middle of Seattle.”
None of it is a mystery to Yoder. When traffic left the street, when the City Attorney and Council decriminalized petty crimes like shoplifting, when policing came under fire, when officer retirements and departures cut the number of officers, the underworld took advantage. Drug dealers moved in on the street, and the bitter cycle of addiction, narcotics sales, and theft to support the next fix, took over. It soon became what Scholes calls a crime “free-for-all.”
So why did Yoder reopen Wild Ginger downtown again? “I’m not going to knuckle under to crime outside, the fencing, the dealing, so we reduced our business model – limited the menu, cut back staff and hours.” He’s hired security guards and plans on staying open until his customers slowly come back. With this caveat: “It’s not going to happen until Mayor Bruce Harrell and the City Council get on it.”
Maria Coassin is also not giving in or closing, even though for her, unlike a Starbucks or McDonald’s or T-Max with multiple outlets, Third and Union is her only retail shop, though she also supplies gelato to restaurants and supermarkets. “I have to keep on – there is no choice. My job is to make gelato,” she says, “not to run the city. I need the city to enforce the laws, to stop the constant invasion of public spaces.”
There are signs in recent days that Mayor Harrell and SPD are “getting on it.” Just a few days ago emphasis patrols, some on foot, others on bicycles, started monitoring the street. For Wild Ginger and Gelatiamo, for those shops still boarded up, there’s renewed hope that it’s not too little, too late. The caution, confirmed to us by SPD, is that there are still too few officers to do more than a short-term focus on the Third Avenue crisis. They confirm that SPD is working directly with the Harrell administration on a longer-term strategy, including building back recruitment. There’s no overnight fix.
Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton set the challenge in a recent column, writing that he’ll be watching “to see if Third can make a comeback. It’s a marker for all of downtown and public safety citywide.” Scholes of the DSA says he’s encouraged by talks with the new city government, but cautions that it’s time “to show the public we can make a difference, show them something they can see with their eyes – they will judge the progress or lack of it by what they see, or don’t see.”