Seattle’s Ballard Avenue and Columbia City are two examples of once sleepy derelict neighborhoods that are now lively and prosperous at night. Both, like the International District, have preserved their physical structure and pedestrian scale by being historic districts. But unlike the other two neighborhoods, the International District (ID) has yet to find its night life niche. With events like the Art Walk or the annual Night Market, the International District is increasing its economic development—creating the possibility of a 24-hour neighborhood. If so, what are the methods of improving the safety issue for the residential community and make it neighborhood friendly?
In south Seattle’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the once industrial area was lacking its neighborhood charm due primarily to crime. The chances of a thriving community seemed bleak when visitors and business patrons stayed away. But, the street has undergone major construction. With the renovations and developments of Holly Park and Rainier Vista along with waves of Asian business owners revitalizing the economic development scene, Martin Luther King Jr. Way has created a home for many new residents and become a popular residential and business street. As the neighborhood underwent a “facelift,” the community became receptive to the neighborhood; thus, eliminating the perception of fear and crime. But for the ID, undergoing aesthetic changes could jeopardize the efforts of historical preservation.
“I don’t think it’s good for the neighborhood if it’s going to destroy the historical character,” said Richard Huie, SCIPDA’s Neighborhood Safety Coordinator.
As a result, the ID is developing several projects to increase public safety awareness and propose solutions while honoring the historic neighborhood. One example is the block-watch method.
“A block-watch is basically organizing the neighborhood to watch out for each other,” said Huie. But he notes there is a language barrier for residents who need to be educated with public safety communication, such as the appropriate time to call the police.
Block-watch parties were held at three main sites because of increasing transients and suspicions of illegal activities: the Panama Hotel area near the Danny Woo Gardens, the Children’s Park and Hing Hay Park.
“Through these block-watch parties, at least our community can reclaim the park for a few hours in the evening,” said Huie. “In a way, it’s really about getting into people’s faces.”
Part of developing the block-watch is also implementing the neighborhood walk. The National Night Out Against Crime falls on the first Tuesday of every August. For the first time this year, SCIPDA conducted a Night Out walk.
“We definitely want to provide consistency and more frequent walks both day and night,” said Huie. “But it’s a challenge to get volunteers.”
Another agency aside from SCIPDA working to increase public safety is the Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area (BIA). As a non-profit organization funded through a self-imposed tax on business and property owners, its purpose is to support the neighborhood’s business development and improve the life of residents and visitors. In order to fulfill its mission, maintenance and public safety for the International District is essential to sustain its businesses and attract more tourism.
As a member of the sanitary crew for the BIA, Bill Lee has been working for the agency officially for the last three years. From 7:30 a.m. until the afternoon, Lee and another crew member are responsible for maintaining the streets by picking up garbage and eliminating offensive graffiti. When he receives a report for visible graffiti he determines the severity of the vandalism, and how quickly he can recover the area.
“Sometimes, I just have to do paint out depending on the material they put graffiti on,” said Lee.
Lee’s responsibilities also expand to being on the look-out for suspicious activities such as overseeing drug, trafficking and alcohol abuse in the ID.
“I look around and see if people are hanging out in the corner of the street,” said Lee. “Any signals that tell me something might be wrong, I’m on the look-out.”
He adds, “I believe we are improving the International District because we help manage property and business owners,” said Huie. In the end, it’s really the community deciding to work together to steadily improve the area.”
Both Huie and Lee suggest transients as being a main concern for the International District.
“It really varies in terms of the biggest safety issue,” said Huie. “But overall, it is the transient population that is reaching to a sizable number.” But Huie offers reasons behind the increase of transients and believes the International District has historically been a central area for convenient transportation and is known to house social service agencies.
As a result, many long-term residents and new visitors alike are concerned with the area’s approachableness. But Lee who overlooks the streets on a daily basis says we need to address the root of the problem.
“Transients can be the symptom. But it’s not the problem,” said Lee. “We have to understand other issues that have caused the transients to reside in the streets, like drug dealing.”
Huie suggests effective communication can create better awareness of the issue.
“It’s the language barrier. Residents don’t know how to respond in a way to be effective,” said Huie. “They don’t know how to address them. They don’t know how to communicate effectively with agencies and the police.”
Both SCIPDA and the BIA work closely with the Seattle Police Department. For the developing night walk and block-watch programs, SCIPDA hopes to have at least one Seattle police officer with their volunteer and staff team.
“I believe we are creating an impact for the area but we just need to show more frequency with our public safety programs. The Seattle Police Department will also be our primary partner to stop crime in the neighborhood,” said Huie.
Another sought-out method of improvement is called the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)—a multi-disciplinary approach that tries to deter criminal behavior through a built-in environmentally-friendly area. SCIPDA’s new Dumpster-Free-Alleys program parallels with this idea.
“Part of including public safety is cleaning up the neighborhood,” said Huie. “When dumpsters are in the alley, it allows people to do illegal activities because it becomes a hide-out place. The CPTED is a basic principle for areas to have clear lines of sites.”
Ballard Avenue and Columbia City are historical preservation spots in Seattle. The International District is no different. Maybe it’s the language barrier causing ineffective communication between residents and the police department. But visiting Martin Luther King Jr. Way, just a ten minute drive south of the ID, an influx of Asian and Pacific Islanders are observed residing and contributing to the economic development. With historical and cultural sensitivity to preserve the ID, adopting new safety methods can attract old residents and newer waves of immigrants and younger generations as well.