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.”