By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Less than two weeks after a coalition from the Chinatown-International District (CID) sent a letter to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell on Oct. 16, Harell convened a meeting on Oct. 30 at City Hall with a wide cross section of developers, businesses, and community advocates.
Overall, interviews with nearly a dozen people after the closed-door event revealed varying shades of hope and a renewed belief the city was willing to work with them.
Concerns expressed included issues particular to individual businesses or locations—the panel of half a dozen speakers from the community were given a few minutes each to share. Each was reportedly asked to focus on individual problems.
The focus on what Harrell described as his “granular” approach revealed a host of very specific problems that yet characterized and amplified the depth of catastrophes facing the CID overall.
Moreover, in multiple ways, Harrell signaled that he understood the issues were existential.
“Too many Chinatowns around the country are disappearing,” he said, in an emailed statement to the Asian Weekly. “And our administration is committed to working alongside the community to ensure Seattle’s historic Chinatown-International District is a safe, vibrant, and welcoming place in our city for generations to come.”
Saturday night in dispatch
During the meeting, Harrell hit on themes—some that were old and others new.
As in the past, he said a lack of police officers severely cuts into response time, a major community concern.
But he described spending the Saturday night, of the recent Husky football game, personally in the dispatch center with other officials and his wife.
Harrell described viewing on a computer screen the number of officers available to respond to even a priority one or a priority two call.
He said it was “scary” in terms of the need for recruiting.
We’ve made some phenomenal progress, he continued, and we’re going to continue in creative ways.
But he does have “a shortage of bodies,” he said. “I’m not ignoring that.”
A change in narrative
Harrell also emphasized, as in the past, that he and others on his staff were from the very communities they are serving.
“The first thing you should know is this community looks like you,” he said, adding that he didn’t hear one opinion that he disagreed with.
But this time, he brought along a whole retinue of officials and staff, including Tammy Morales, the city council representative of the neighborhood.
However, in calling for a “change in the narrative” about how his administration handles law enforcement and public safety, he momentarily turned to Morales, who voted against a recent law to make open-air drug use a crime.
“And Councilmember Morales, I don’t mean this in an argumentative way at all, so if ever I say anything…you have a microphone,” he said.
Morales did not respond at the moment but later vowed to work together with Harrell.
Sick versus criminal
The mayor appeared to push a two-pronged approach to public safety in his opening comments.
He said he was not afraid to make arrests that were constitutional, lawful, and respecting rights. And he vowed to clean up the streets.
Coming into office, he didn’t have the systems in place, he said. “I’m doing a lot of systems thinking,” he said.
But he also mentioned an executive order that he said would change the way the city dealt with health issues—rather than endlessly criminalize people.
Arresting people who are sick simply puts them in a merry-go-round of coming in and out of jail, he said.
“If you’re addicted to fentanyl, you’re a sick human being,” he said.
With one of his executive orders, he was reevaluating the health department.
Harrell said there was, however, a clear distinction between people who were sick and those who were criminals.
According to those interviewed, Harrell said he was standing on Third Avenue and saw a man slap a woman in the face. He qualified that kind of behavior as “mean” and deserving of arrest—in contrast to the woman who was seeking to procure drugs from the man.
Jan Johnson, the owner of the Panama Hotel and one of the coterie asked to express herself, said she felt the administration would likely move forward with its promises.
Johnson brought up issues that included graffiti that constantly degrades the Panama Hotel, a national registered historic landmark.
During his comments, Harrell said he had instructed city employees to testify at the bail hearing of one of the city’s most notorious graffiti artists.
He said he was hoping to give positive outlets to graffiti artists.
Johnson also was gratified to learn that many of the arrests undertaken as part of the new drug law involved offenders who had outstanding warrants.
“I liked some of the stuff that I heard,” she said, in an interview.
She handed the mayor a brochure about the Panama Hotel.
Sue Mar, managing partner at Mar Properties, another of the chosen to speak, said she was pleased by the opportunity to gather and that the people attending seemed to represent “a good cross section of people active in the CID and the Asian community overall,” she told the Asian Weekly.
But what she was most pleased about was the mayor emphasizing the conversation would continue.
“This meeting is just the start, follow up is needed,” Harrell said, she wrote down in her notes.
To her, that meant he was taking their concerns seriously and understood the complexity of the issues involved.
For her part, drug dealing and drug use on 12th and Weller, near the site of the Navigation Center, is just outside her office and near the properties she manages.
The issue is known to the rest of the CID but hits her the hardest.
At the same time, most attention is focused on 12th and Jackson.
Still, she acknowledged, the drug activity is “intermittent,” meaning the dealers use different times to lure users, who they may be communicating with. So it’s hard for the police to pinpoint specific times.
At one point, she mentioned that according to her understanding, the contract for the Navigation Center should be up already.
But Harrell “corrected” her, saying they had the contract until January 2024, she said.
She thought his remark made sense, though, at this moment.
“He didn’t want to open that can of worms,” she said.
Mar, though, is tired of what she said was the city and the county locating all of their problematic projects in the neighborhood—examples were the attempts more recently to open a transit hub and a giant homeless shelter (the 19th in the area).
“Maybe we don’t have a lot of say, but the CID keeps getting caught in the middle. The city needs access to the downtown corridor, and if the city and county keep doing this, they need to give back more,” she said.
More to be done
During the meeting, the mayor thanked the community for its letter. In a follow-up statement, he vowed to continue to carry out and expand on his commitments.
“We have provided focused services and investments in the CID since taking office. While we have seen meaningful improvement in the CID, there is clearly more work to do to reduce crime, trash, and graffiti; bring people indoors and off the streets with access to services; and support small businesses and neighbors,” he said. “We will further work with the community and build on the important progress we’ve made so far and our common vision for a healthy, thriving Chinatown-International District.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.