Given what they’ve been through in recent months, forgive the residents of Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood for the skeptical ratings.
“It’s much, much better here than before – so far,” said Huy Lat, owner of Hue Ky Mia Gia restaurant.
It’s the same across the street at Hong Lan Money Transfer, where Vietnamese immigrants in Seattle can transfer money home. The bay window in the office was smashed two months ago and is covered with duct tape. It’s “wait and see” on a new one, says the director, as the wild street scene of the past year is truly on the mend.
There’s a wary hope like this all along the 1200 block of Jackson Street, as if emerging from a storm. A week ago, police finally cleared an open-air drug market that had virtually shut down Little Saigon’s main business hub.
At its peak, 50 to 100 people crowded the corner of 12th and Jackson, peddling stolen clothing or electronics, smoking heroin in stairwells, and sleeping on sidewalks.
It was like the Seattle net. Or, fiction, like “Hamsterdam” on the Baltimore crime show “The Wire.” Open societal rupture.
Consider that in the two months leading up to last week’s cleanup, this block recorded 15 assaults (six of which were felony), four robberies, two shootings, and 28 nuisance-level crimes such as vandalism, prowling car traffic, drug dealing and smash and grab type theft. These are not statistics for a neighborhood or police region – these are all single block reports.
Now this block looks like the scene after an accident. Recently, two police cars were parked on the sidewalks, their lights flashing. A mobile police van buzzed. Two cops were walking the mostly empty streets, Officer Friendly style.
It’s called “hot spot policing,” a strategy in which officers go down to where crime is rife. It’s controversial; studies show it definitely reduces crime immediately, while critics say it does little to address the root causes. At worst, it can lead to “over-policing” and zero-tolerance type enforcement.
It was a point of debate during the Seattle mayoral race last year. The losing candidate, City Council President Lorena Gonzalez, generally opposed its use. The winner, Bruce Harrell, was more supportive, and now Little Saigon is its first test case.
As an immediate crime-fighting measure, it obviously worked — “for now,” as they quickly qualify on Jackson Street.
When officers cleared the block, they only registered two arrests and they were for drug offences, according to police records. So it wasn’t a “bring them together, lock them up” approach.
In the week since the cleanup, as of Friday, there has been only one recorded crime on the block – a charge of minor vandalism, according to police reports.
“I think it’s the best I’ve ever seen here,” says Tia, who worked at the front desk of Vietnamese restaurant Huong Binh in the Ding How Center mall (she declined to give her last name) . The entire upper floor of this mall and all of its businesses are closed because drug trafficking and use in stairwells and elevators have made it impossible to keep it open.
What we don’t know is where everyone on the street went. Neighbors say there may be an emerging drug market on King Street, a block away. The police periodically divert a patrol car to King from Jackson, so they know they may already have a new “hot spot” on their hands.
The much harder work of getting help has yet to be done for people who have been “disposed of”, many of whom are drug addicts or homeless, social service providers say.
Harrell, who made an impromptu visit to the block last weekend, told Northwest Asian Weekly the police presence was not a drag. “I want people to be housed and cared for,” he said – although again that’s more ambitious at this stage than reality. Help is needed that does not involve the police.
The neighborhood’s recovery from the pandemic and siege of crime is tenuous. The owner of the Hue Ky Mia Gia restaurant, where butter and garlic wings are cult, said he was closing several days at 5 p.m., even after the street improved.
“There are so few customers now after dark,” he said.
Harrell deserves great credit for changing the political conversation and doing so much. The official neglect of Little Saigon was appalling. Walking its streets now with broken and glued windows is like a museum of that neglect. Some owners felt so beleaguered that they surrounded still-open businesses with razor wire.
I don’t know how Seattle got so crippled. We have this liberal will to want to solve the fundamental problems, which is good. Too often, this idealism makes us do nothing.
This hotspot font should only be a first step. It must be followed by much deeper help for Little Saigon. But it’s a lasting embarrassment to our city, with an immigrant neighborhood still in play, that it took us so long to do even the easiest part.