What Does New York City Know that ‘New York Alki’ Doesn’t Get?

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Seattle’s founders adopted as their motto, “New York Alki” – Chinook Indian for “By-and By.” I was born here of Brooklyn-born parents and over the past 70 years have had many opportunities to take the measure of Seattle and New York. There were times when I thought “New York Alki” was a terrible aspiration, and times like now when I think, “If only.” 

Here’s a tale of two cities from a recent November trip. You be the judge.

Our journey began with my wife and I stepping over a young man shooting up in front of the Westlake Station Pine Street elevator door. We arrived in Newark, took the train to Pennsylvania Station and the subway to the Upper East Side. We spent the next week walking and riding the buses and subways from Central Park to Greenwich Village between the Hudson and East Rivers – an area roughly comparable to Seattle from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square between the waterfront and the Central Area. 

First impression: how much cleaner Manhattan was, despite a vastly greater population. Other than the occasional whiff of marijuana, we never saw anyone using drugs. We never saw a tent or encampment. In that week we counted 14 people sitting or lying on the sidewalk – half sitting, most panhandling, and half prone. 

One day near where we were staying there was a police car parked outside the corner Duane Reade/Walgreen, its lights flashing. I stopped in for a few things and saw two officers taking a report. “I’m a tourist and just curious, was this a shoplifting?” I asked. “Yeah,” one cop replied. “We had a suspect description and checked the area but couldn’t find him. My partner’s writing it up.” I asked, “Does NYPD routinely respond to shoplifting calls?” “That’s what we do,” he said.

I told him my town’s police don’t usually respond to shoplifting calls and even when they do most perpetrators are never prosecuted. I said, “A lot of folks don’t even bother to report property crimes anymore because they don’t see the point. Then City Hall points to the stats to show crime’s not so bad.” Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “Where’d you say you’re from?” “Pluto,” I replied.

On our way home from Sea-Tac a man boarded our train at the Tukwila station carrying three large bundles: a “bed-in-a-bag,” a mattress cover, and a blanket. All were new and still had tags on them. He walked up and down the car offering them for sale. The bed went for a few dollars. He then sat down on a seat directly facing us, put his remaining merchandise on the seat next to him and proceeded to shoot up. He got off at ID-Chinatown.

We got off at Westlake, where we were greeted by a Sound Transit security officer who asked if we had a good trip. We told him our story. He said earlier that day he interrupted a woman and asked her to please not shoot up on the platform adding, “You know, I came here from Brooklyn. I consider myself a moderate, but the people running this place have lost their minds. I gotta go.” We turned to see him headed for a group of people crossing the tracks between the platforms.

I remembered a legendary Seattle story. It was 5 am on a dark and stormy night in 1979 as then-NYPD assistant chief Patrick Fitzsimons looked down from his hotel room window high above Sixth and Pike, unable to sleep before his morning interview for the Seattle Police Chief job. He watched as a few pedestrians stood on the corner in the rain waiting for the light to change while not a car passed by. “Olga,” he said, waking his wife, “Anybody can be police chief in this town!” He got the job. 

Now it’s a tougher job.

Seattle and New York are both progressive cities. Like Seattle, New York has homeless, mentally ill, addicted, crime and policing issues, poverty, expensive housing and of course a pandemic. Yet New York tackles these issues while preserving its public spaces and the vitality of its streetscape. Seattle abandons them. 

To experience the difference is shocking. Although not yet back to pre-pandemic levels, Manhattan’s sidewalks were vibrant with activity and pedestrians, its parks clean and widely used. In comparison, downtown Seattle looks like a zombie apocalypse. We are seeing play out what Jane Jacobs described in her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which argued that the streetscape experience is a critical determinant of a city’s future. 

This is not to say that New York has it all right or that what works there would work here. But it does say that our challenges are not insurmountable, that there are solutions. After all, New York itself recovered from a devastating downward spiral in the 1970-80s. What has happened to Seattle’s commercial districts and public spaces reflects breathtaking failures of policy and political leadership. But if New York could turn itself around so can Seattle.

Seattle’s newly elected leaders have a window of opportunity. They might want to start with a trip to New York. They might want to do this trip before our motto becomes “Pluto Alki.”

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Mark Sidran, a lawyer and property manager, served as Seattle's City Attorney, 1990-2002.

10 COMMENTS

  1. No druggies or tents everywhere in Phoenix. We need qualified candidates to run for SEVEN city council positions that are up for election in 2023 –

  2. Thank you for this. I went to the LA area last September, expecting to see the type of decay seen in Seattle. After all, LA has the highest number of homeless people; New York City is second, with Seattle in third. Seattle has but a fraction of the total population of those cities, but the greatest portion of homelessness per capita. We drove all around LA and neighboring cities, including Santa Monica and Anaheim. While we did see some tents near freeway underpasses, we did not see the filth and squalor seen in so much of Seattle. We certainly smelled marijuana, legal in California, but we didn’t witness open-air drug markets or people burning foils or smoking pipes, as I see every day in Seattle. We wandered around the magnificent parks in museum mile, encountering neither a single panhandler nor a piece of trash. We were clearly not in Seattle.

    Riding back from SeaTac Airport, passing the detritus, the demented, the drugged, the damaged, I was demoralized, filled with depression and doom. Seattle was disgusting.

    The election two ​months later gave me some hope. So does the calendar, showing that there are but 19 months until the next municipal election. At least a year to recruit, train, and support good, sensible, pragmatic candidates to run for City Council. I filed away the California real estate magazines, and decided to give Seattle one more chance. 19 months; we have work to do.

  3. Here’s an idea to help Bruce Harrell show he means business on law and order: clear out 3d Street homeles-drug market-crime center and keep it cleared out. It’s a disgrace for a supposedly civilized city.

  4. Pressure’s on now for the new faces at city hall and in the city attorney’s office. The November election wasn’t entirely definitive but did send a clear message – the recent status quo doesn’t cut it.
    We had a similar experience to Mark Sidran’s NYC visit, but in Boston. No tents along the core sidewalks, nor in Boston Gardens/Commons. Residents there told us of safe camping areas (though frigid winters there lower the need), places to wait for available housing options, but the focus is to keep public places public. No “Pluto Alki.”

  5. Excellent synopsis and analysis. I was on the east coast this past week (Washington DC, Baltimore, and in the south Philadelphia area). We did NOT see ANYTHING similar to what we have in Seattle as it relates to tents, decrepit RVs and piles of garbage along the interstates. Nothing comparable. Yes, there was some trash/litter along the shoulders of the highway (mostly in the vicinity of the interchanges where we would enter/exit the freeway) but that petered-out pretty quickly once you were on the mainline again. Even immediately southeast of DC (off the interstate in Maryland – which is not a high-income area or an area with a lot of political clout) we didn’t see ANY tents or clusters of broken-down RVs.

    Here in Seattle, a good way to start a rehabilitation process would be… LITTER and GARBAGE CLEANUP. Cleaning-up the litter and garbage would (hopefully) begin to set a positive tone and generate a little bit of mental sunshine. For example: I-5. What is WSDOT’s problem? Why are we (apparently) still using “Covid” as an excuse NOT to do any work? Why? Let’s get back to it folks! If I was Bruce Harrell (or any other mayor in the area) the first thing I would do is get on the horn and tell WSDOT to do their job. Maintain their facilities. Just look at SR 509 (northbound; going down the hill) or SR 599 southbound. Really? Check out the ramp from EB SR 518 to NB I-5 (along with the shoulder of NB I-5 just beyond the aforementioned ramp). Really? And look where SR 518 crosses under I-5 and 405 starts. Welcome to Seattle! This is what visitors see after they arrive at Sea-Tac. Pathetic. Heading south to Tacoma and even as far as the Nisqually area – same thing. These are just examples that I see on my regular routes. Never been this bad. And again, this doesn’t even include the ugly mess on I-5 through Seattle itself. Unbelievable. Let’s just start by cleaning up the litter and garbage along our highways. We should be able to do that, right? And if we can’t, why not? It has never been as filthy as it is right now.

    This lack of attention and effort sends a very negative subconscious message: WE DON’T CARE. Downtown Seattle is in dire straits. We used to shop there, but now we go to U-Village (or Southcenter or Bellevue). The way things are currently, why would anyone book a large convention in Seattle? Why would anyone (who doesn’t live there) want to work in downtown Seattle? We have let things slide for so long that it will be a very hard slog to get on top of this mess. I do not have all the answers, but I believe “cleaning things up” is the best way to start – just like a lot of us do in our own homes and yards. Hire some people. Pay them. Let’s make it ‘slightly pleasant’ to park a car and walk to a Sounders match or a Mariner’s game! Ya think? (If I was part of either franchise ownership group, I would be ALL OVER THE CITY to clean things up in the vicinity of the stadiums.) Goodness knows just a small slice of the $231 million head tax windfall would easily cover the cleanup costs in Seattle proper. Heck, if need be, send a tiny bit of the $231 million to WSDOT if they don’t have the dough (which of course they do). Roadside cleanup is where we need to start. The regular “ecology youth corps” process won’t do the trick as we have now let things deteriorate to the extent it has. Put together a plan (quickly… it’s not that hard for folks with experience in these matters), staff-up, get the equipment and materials lined-up, and DO IT. NOW. Moreover, once an area/zone is cleaned-up, we need to stay on top of it. That’s another reason why Seattle continues to fall down… everything seems to consist of half-baked measures up-front and then no discipline or follow-through to preserve and build upon the initial effort and investment. Why are we even talking about this? TOTAL LACK of leadership and stewardship.

  6. Thank you Mark.
    We love both Seattle and NYC.
    NYC in the 70’s – Bryant Park as an example – resembled Seattle downtown today.
    We limit our visits to West Seattle. An island in the storm.
    Jim and Liz Luce

  7. One thing to bear in mind about New York City is that there are 5 boroughs and some of them are conservative and Archie-Bunker domains. Very unlike Seattle, and that’s why a Bloomberg and a Giuliani and the new mayor can get elected on centrist grounds. Imagine Seattle if it had annexed Federal Way, and you get the picture of how our politics would shift. Some days, I think Seattle is “all Capitol Hill.”

    • Too close to true. The roughly 1/4 of the population who showed up since 2000, mostly young, urban-oriented and focused on their careers, think they’re getting the inside scoop from some friend who’s more into politics and reads the Stranger. It’s a Capitol Hill of the mind.

  8. I’d like to see some articles focused on the new Homeless Authority and their spending priorities. I may be wrong, but spending money on formerly homeless peer advisors rather than actual shelters seems misguided.

  9. At one time there were litter laws. Why not bring them back? Even if people are homeless and/or addicted they are still members of society and should be responsible for taking care of their litter. I wouldn’t mind a few limits to disturbing the peace too.

    I hope this doesn’t sound too draconian, but maybe individuals should have legal residence in Washington state before they are allowed to stay on our streets. We have rules for the number of out-of-state students who can attend our state universities, why not limit the numbers of those living on our public streets this way too? We pay state taxes for new housing for un-housed individuals (I believe this is correct and it isn’t only Federal money) and all the policing, etc., that homelessness incurs. Isn’t it unequal taxation for people to come to Seattle from out-of-state in order to partake of our more generous programs?

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