by Lola E Peters
The most difficult part of writing this OpEd is deciding where to focus my anger: the tone-deaf billionaires, and their minions, who are thoughtlessly tearing the fabric of our community, the “news” media that pass off press releases as reporting, or our public officials, who say the right things and then do the exact opposite. Together they create a false narrative that is eroding much of the beauty of our region.
In 2012, performance artist C. Davida Ingram created Detour, a cellphone tour of Seattle’s Cascade neighborhood. The title was a reference to the many roadways being redesigned to accommodate the neighborhood’s changes. She used key locations in the area to tell the story of transition and displacement that was driving away long-time, blue-collar, mostly white residents out of their single-family homes and replacing them with multi-story office buildings and condominiums. She raised questions about the human cost of dismantling stable community relationships and institutions. She asked whether our town’s values incorporated the sustainability of human life as part of the environmental conversation. She invited us to clarify our priorities and vision for the future.
Never heard of the Cascade neighborhood? Oh, it still exists, but you probably know it as South Lake Union, or, if you’re given to snarkiness, Amazonia or Vulcanalia North. It has been rebranded to match its shiny new look and feel. Thanks to Paul Allen’s property-gobbling monster, Vulcan, single-family houses and small businesses have been replaced by bio-tech laboratories and high-tech code factories. It’s now the battleground between decades-long houseboat residents and new hillside denizens who want them gone because they clutter their view; between retired homeowners and the ever-growing property taxes pushing them out; between the Seattle Department of Transportation and the rest of us.
Have you read all the articles in the Seattle Times about this displacement? How about from our supposedly grassroots, mainstream, regional, online media? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Has any local media followed stories of the families who were pushed out of Cascade?
There used to be a thriving arts community there, what media has reported on where the artists went?
But I bet you’ve read about the cool thing Amazon is doing: providing housing for low-income families. As proof that the company has a heart, it is kindly loaning an old motel it owns, and plans to tear down in a year, to Mary’s Place, a non-profit that provides transitional housing for homeless families. Articles in both the Times and Crosscut.com all but pant at the generous social responsibility being displayed by our region’s mega-employer. We are apparently supposed to forget how those families became homeless and how the neighborhood became unaffordable. Oh, and let’s also not notice that this generosity lasts for one year. ONE YEAR. Then Amazon will apparently ask Mary’s Place to move their operation to another vacant property while they plant yet another skyrise where the motel currently sits. Yay. Yay?
Across town, Paul Allen, father of property monster Vulcan, is apparently feeling bad for all the people who no longer have homes in the Central District. He is offering to build… well, not build exactly, more like construct… housing for the homeless. He will turn shipping containers (you know, the kind smugglers use to send young men and women around the world into slavery), anyway… he will turn them into houses, with bathrooms, for the homeless. Again our local media give us this wonderful news without background, without historical context. No mention that Vulcan has been party to the displacement of hundreds of low-income families and individuals at Yesler Terrace. The oldest public housing in the country, and the first to be racially integrated, Yesler Terrace has helped thousands of people get their footing during difficult times in their lives. Rather than simply renovating the property to meet modern standards, Seattle Housing Authority partnered with Vulcan to raze the property and build shiny, new, “mixed-use, multi-income” buildings.
Yesler residents were supposedly going to have the opportunity to move back into the community once construction was complete. Have you read all the local articles about where the displaced residents went during construction? How did they hold their sense of community together when they were dispersed? How did the children respond to being moved from their schools temporarily? Are they eager to move again a year or two after being forced to move away? How about the elderly residents… how did this change impact them?
No, you haven’t read those articles. They haven’t been written. Instead we are handed this narrative about the generosity of our local gazillionaires and their tenderheartedness towards homeless people. We are expected to be grateful that they are acting in a socially responsible way. And some of us will abdicate our own action for theirs: after all, why put out our resources when they are willing to foot the bill.
Our Mayor and City Council are supposed to be representing all of us, paying attention to the long-term vision we hold for ourselves as a community. Homelessness has risen on this mayor’s watch. We need to remember that when the next election cycle comes around.
As for the sheer amorality reflected when a group of people can sit in a conference room and decide it’s a good idea to put homeless people in rows of storage containers… I can’t even begin to address that, it breaks my heart too much. And that they want to put those storage containers in Columbia City, not Phinney Ridge, or Magnolia, or Sandpoint… really?
Former governor Christine Gregoire is spearheading a new project called Challenge Seattle. It is supposed to bring together all of our area’s CEOs to solve the major challenges we face. May I suggest a first action for them: a course on the moral implications and responsibilities of power.
As for our local media: a reminder that if it’s not investigative it’s not journalism, it’s just gossip.
Featured image is a wikicommons photo of Firehouse Mini Park and the Cherry Hill Community Center: the former Firehouse No. 23, headquarters of the Central Area Motivation Program.