I’ve been spending most of my mornings on the trails at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Often, I arrive to an empty parking lot and I make my way across the boardwalk to emerging light in the east. This is civil twilight, my favorite time of day. There is a peacefulness that I keep trying to find words for but maybe moments like these defy description.
It is all so familiar to me now and I feel more like family than guest as I walk the wooden paths. I know where the bunnies are and where I might see a weasel or river otter. I know where the sapsuckers nested in spring and where the hummingbirds linger. I know the log where the turtles hang out and the places in the marsh where you’re likely to spot a heron. I know where the bullfrogs lift their little heads through lily pads and murky water. I know where the tree frogs hang out, disguised by the cover of leaves.
I am learning about the different gulls and the subtle differences in the great blue herons. I know a Cooper’s hawk from it’s profile and the not-so-subtle difference between juvenile bald eagles and adults. I could point out the eagle nest across the creek. I know, too, that there is a great horned owl somewhere in the trees but I haven’t seen him this year. Yet.
I have learned about the estuary and what shore birds visit at low tide. I can spot yellow legs and plovers and marsh wren. I could tell you where to find goldfinches and cedar waxwings, robins and sparrows. The yellow warblers and purple martins and barn swallows all hover near the berries and snags as you make your way out past the twin barns to the gravel road. I now know that there are Lion’s Mane jellyfish near the boardwalk over the water in these waning days of summer and early into fall.
I’m learning patience on these mornings. A heron stands perfectly still for extended periods waiting for it’s prey to come to it. I’m mesmerized watching. Searching the leaves for tree frogs demands a kind of attentiveness not usually required of us at any other time. I so love my mornings at Nisqually.
Fast forward to yesterday afternoon.
I get my hair cut by my favorite stylist near Pioneer Square. I love the history down here and the icons of a city rapidly changing. Smith Tower is steeped in personal history for me. With Covid, I am still not always comfortable taking light rail (although I have) so I drove in knowing I would likely over-pay for parking. There is both a price and a cost to everything. I recognize the privilege in being able to choose safely.
Making my way down 1st Ave I am struck by the people on the street. What used to be a bustle of business people making their way into work has been replaced with a more desperate group. My training in attentiveness at Nisqually pays off as I notice a young man with long blond hair to my right, putting down the beverage he’d had in his hand and darting right in front of me into traffic. I slam on my brakes, as does the truck next to me. Disaster averted. This time.
The Downtown Emergency Service Center at 2nd and James is a busy place. I watched as that blond young man confronted another man near the door as people began to gather around. To say I don’t fully understand the problems down here would be an understatement. As desperation grows, so does the population on the streets. I hear people blaming Mayor Durkan and the Seattle City Council but I can’t help but recognize this problem began well before this current class of city administrators. Responsibility falls to all of those in positions of power the past two decades. Trouble has been brewing down here for a long time and it will take dramatic change to have any positive effect.
Instead of framing one of the the solutions as a “de-funding of police”, maybe we should call it what it is: A shift in the management of human services. More enforcement by an authoritarian police department will not yield the kind of results people claim to want. Without a human services approach and intervention we are only treating the symptoms of a desperate population. Let’s put the money into what we hope, not what we fear.
We aren’t talking about a city full of criminals. We’re talking about people in need of safe shelter, meaningful work, a meal and treatment of mental health issues (not punishment). Desperation would push us all to behave in ways contrary to our nature. Most of the folks I hear complaining about the state of the city have legitimate concerns for safety of person and property but they are unable or unwilling to put themselves in another’s circumstance long enough to get a different perspective. It use to be said that most people are just a few missing paychecks away from homelessness. Is that still true ?
I recognize my own privilege every day. I’m writing this from the safety of my home in a neighborhood made up of people who look out for one another. I don’t know what it’s like not to have that. Maybe that’s why I continue to go downtown. Maybe until we see the changes to.our iconic city and feel the desperation of all those left behind with our own eyes, we will remain paralyzed as much by our ignorance as our fear.
The need down here is great and the current prospects, grave. Advocates for the homeless have been sounding the alarm for decades and it has fallen on deaf ears. Again, it is our privilege that allows us to assume this crisis happened overnight. Even when there was money available in the budget, Seattle steered it toward creating bike lanes rather than affordable housing or increased mental health services. They dropped the ball.
One of the quotes that has stuck in my mind for decades was a slogan used by the American Cancer Society that claimed the five most dangerous words in the human language were : Maybe It Will Go Away. Is that how we are responding to this crisis on our streets ? ( I am quite aware that this is our president’s strategy for Covid, so there is certainly precedent, dangerous as it is .. )
I want to be a supporter of those in such obvious need, but I fear that without mental health treatment, any overt demonstration of care on the streets could be dangerous. When the conversation turns political it breaks my heart. When the divide reveals itself as being between those who care and those who do not, I don’t know what to say. I worry that we are losing our compassion and humanity. History has shown us what happens when hate and greed are allowed to become what define us. We are so much better than this and the last thing we need is another politician with an agenda designed to exploit the problems rather than address them.
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Amazing photos as always Bonnie.
I did want to comment on what you observed in the Pioneer Square area. My paternal grandparents lived in West Seattle and my paternal aunt and uncle and cousins have always lived in Seattle so even though I did not live there long I have many memories and observations. When I was 3 or 4 my dad worked at Bethlehem Steel Mill at the base of West Seattle and my mom was a nurse who worked on Pill Hill and later after graduating from high school in San Jose I returned to Seattle on and off again, usually living in little places on Capital Hill.
I was with my father one morning when I was around 10 years old, which would put it about 1958, and at that time Pioneer Square was skid row. I still have lasting images of alcoholics passed out on the sidewalks of Jackson and Washington streets. Seemed like hundreds of them but it was probably more like scores and as I recall almost all of them were African Americans, and of course back then everyone used the term Negroes.
The entire waterfront area was much different then. Bell Town was very blue collar with gas stations, hardware stores, bars and liquor stores, and mom and pop stores.
There were still canneries right by Pike Place Market and I would go with my aunt who was very gregarious and she would walk through one of the working doors of a cannery and give one of the workers a twenty dollar bill and we would leave with a 2’to 3′ salmon.
So in a way gentrification seems like a cultural white wash and I and so many others regret the changes.
But, that whole area could be dangerous to be in also. It was poor and gritty. There were plenty of homeless back then as well, and had a population with many untreated mental health issues besides the alcoholism.
If you want to get an idea of what that area of Seattle looked like back in the 1960’s and 1970’s you can watch ‘Cinderella Liberty’, with James Caan and Marsha Mason. Hopefully it is still around.
Just wanted to let you know that your post stirred up some strong memories for me. Thanks
Wow, this is awesome. I’m so glad you shared your memories. I think you’re right that the area has always been a gathering of characters. My grandfather would tell a story about hiring hobos (he used this word or “d-horns”, which I don’t understand) from the street near the railroad tracks to pack coffee back in the war days. He’d say how he would offer them a flat rate for the work instead of hourly pay and they would get the job done in no time. Win-win, he’d say. He’d get the trucks loaded early and they would have the afternoon and evenings to drink away their wages. I think people have always exploited others and this area has always been home to a very transient population. It’s quite different now though. You really have to see it with your own eyes. Thanks so much for writing !
When we lose our humanity, we are merely husks taking up space. But (I think) we have to expand our compassion to include people who are not like us, who we dont understand and who do not understand (or like) us. It can’t just be “the homeless junkies on city streets.” It also must include the millions trapped in small towns and rural areas where desperation set in eons ago when mills closed and factories were shuttered. And where education was limited, and so, now, their prospects are non-existent and their only relief is opioid addiction. When a human becomes desperate and cornered, he/she is both dangerous and vulnerable. And it is easy for fascists to fill the vacuum, and turn US upon ourselves.
Very well said. I am looking forward to reading (listening) to Hillbilly Elegy for a deeper perspective on what drives our differences. So much of it comes down to privilege, doesn’t it ? The wedges, both race and class. Thanks for your thoughts here 💙