by Luke Schaefer
Following a spike in crime during the coronavirus pandemic that culminated in three deaths near the Mt. Baker light rail station in June, community members at Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts (Artspace) urgently called upon City officials to tour the neighborhood and hear grievances from residents and business operators during an hour-long conference on the afternoon of Sept. 17.
Jamil Suleman, the Mt. Baker-based artist and business leader who organized the event, asked for officials and community members to set aside personal politics in order to relay the neighborhood’s reports of theft, arson, and toxic dumping to City officials. Among those in attendance were Mayor Jenny Durkan, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, Chief Adrian Diaz and Mark Solomon of the Seattle Police Department, as well as members of the Artspace staff and the adjacent preschool. Suleman expressed that having all these voices together was quite unprecedented, and in order for action to be swift, bureaucracy must be circumvented. Everyone had to understand firsthand. Everyone had to be there.
“It’s unfortunate that tragedies are the catalyst sometimes for getting everybody on the same page,” said Suleman. “But as long as we can avoid those tragedies in the future, I think activating this space and getting the community engaged to help each other out is the mutual way that we’ve always wanted to see.”
Before the discussion, Suleman set the tone for how serious things had gotten. He gathered the crowd around the entrance to the station, just feet from the play area at the Hoa Mai Bilingual Preschool (Hoa Mai).
“Why am I at a preschool? This area right here is where a young man was killed [shot] in broad daylight,” said Suleman. “It was twelve noon on a weekday. Luckily the kids were inside at that moment,” he said, and asked attendees to imagine how traumatic the experience would have been if children had been present.
From the same spot, Suleman directed the crowd to a space behind the station near a closed parking lot. He explained that less than a week before the shooting, a suspected arsonist lit a fire that killed two people at a homeless encampment.
“When we started this community organizing work over a year ago, one of the main things that I was trying to say was that this place is not secure — that you are going to have homicides and there’s going to be fatalities. And now we are dealing with three deaths. So it took that to get everybody here,” said Suleman before a silent crowd.
What could’ve been a divisive encounter unfolded as a rare moment of optimism and peaceful discussion between officials, police, and members of the community. Gloria Hodge, the center director for Hoa Mai, began the talk by expressing the challenges the preschool staff have endured — such as theft and break-ins — and her staff’s continued perseverance and dedication to the children in spite of these incidents.
“… [I]t’s important to me as the director to not only see that the children have quality care but that the working families have a place they can trust and rely on for their children to attend. I want to see that [our staff] with their passion and dedication can come to work and be safe,” said Hodge. “They never complain, you know. They’ve given me two syllables and those are ‘send help’ and ‘I’m scared.’ Never ‘I quit,’ they never kick rocks, never ‘more money,’ which they are very entitled to, but just very dedicated staff.”
According to Hodge, between the dates of the fire and the shooting, a burglary took place at the preschool — their third break-in within the span of a month. Hodge expressed a need for Sound Transit to hold more of a security presence outside the light rail station in order to prevent further incidents. Former District 4 City Councilman Abel Pacheco was in attendance, representing Sound Transit as their community relations manager.
Alex Chadsey, a musician and resident of the lofts, continued the conversation to discuss the residents’ experiences with crime, the dumping of trash on Rainier Avenue South late at night and the area’s numerous car break-ins. Chadsey also outlined the first steps towards reopening the station’s former Diamond parking lot as a more secure lot to be operated by the City.
City officials, including Councilmember Tammy Morales and Mark Solomon of the South Precinct, attended to hear community concerns but also took the opportunity to share progress in their respective departments and hopes for collaboration with the oncoming administration. From Morales, attendees heard about a $10 million addition to the City budget to fund supportive services and tiny house villages, which aim to reduce homelessness in areas such as Mt. Baker.
Mayor Durkan expressed appreciation for the community’s shared concerns, saying, “The community knows what it takes to be safe.” Some of the ideas put forth by residents included adding service kiosks and other stoppage points such as installations or a small basketball court around the light rail station in order to increase foot traffic and keep eyes on the area without a higher police presence.
Rex Brown, director of the City’s Safe and Thriving Communities division, believed the event and participation by officials to be a major success. “I did not hear anyone who wasn’t moved and ready for action,” he said.
According to Suleman, the mayor’s office and representatives from City Council plan to reconvene with the community in the coming weeks to flesh out new ideas and keep progress consistent.
“… [i]t was really good to see all of the progress that we’ve made and then leave it up to the community, specifically the mayor and others, to say okay, here are the next steps that we commit to to ensure that we can keep this kind of project going in the positive direction that it is,” said Suleman. “I think if we’re able to stay optimistic, we can actually connect people who typically might not work together around positive solutions that really uplift everybody.”
Luke Schaefer is a freelance journalist and screenwriter based in Seattle. He graduated from UW with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2021. He loves his bike, the films of John Waters, and the Reubens at Lost Lake Cafe. You can find his other writings at hotluke.com.
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