Is Seattle a city in its final throes of life?
By now, you’ve probably watched, or at least heard about, last month’s special report “Seattle Is Dying,” produced by local TV news station KOMO. It tackles the city’s crisis of homelessness, from the point of view of city residents, business owners, tourists and police officers — folks who are fed up with the city’s handling of the situation, and who feel the squalor, drug use and crime have ruined the high quality of life here.
The show really touched a nerve, and I’m not surprised. I get an awful lot of reader email about homelessness that strikes a similar tone. In fact, one such email popped into my inbox as I was writing this column: “These drug using criminals are destroying what was once a very beautiful city,” it reads.
I hear this a lot. Many readers who write to me recall an idyllic Seattle, now lost. Whereas once locals proudly showed off downtown to visitors, they now feel embarrassed by it.
I can’t help but wonder if folks are romanticizing Seattle’s past a bit.
Former Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, who retired in 2013, shares many people’s concerns about the homeless situation. “I don’t think leaving people out there to die slowly is compassionate,” he said.
But Diaz, who joined the police force in 1980 as a patrol officer, agrees that the city was in overall worse shape a few decades ago.
“In the ’80s, a lot of downtown was just in disrepair. The economy was in the dumper, there were drugs to some extent — there was just this sense of seediness,” he said. “It looked like we might lose downtown.”
He recalls a First Avenue near Pike Place Market that was lined with peep shows, adult bookstores and pawnshops. Today that same stretch boasts the Seattle Art Museum, the Four Seasons hotel and a slew of upscale shops, restaurants and galleries.
Something else that a lot of folks seem to think has gotten much worse in Seattle is crime, but the data tell a different story. The rate of violent crime today remains well below the levels seen from the 1980s into the early 2000s.
The worst year overall was 1990, when the rate hit about 1,500 reported violent crimes per 100,000 Seattle residents. In any recent year, the rates are less than half that. In each of the major categories of violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — rates were much higher in the past.
It’s remarkable to think that in 1994 there were 69 homicides in Seattle, more than twice the tally of any recent year. And 1994 wasn’t a fluke. It marked the third consecutive year that Seattle registered at least 60 homicides, and this was at a time when the city’s population was smaller by about 185,000 people.
One of those 69 victims in 1994 was 16-year-old Melissa Fernandes, who was shot in the head outside Ballard High School in a gang-related drive-by.
Yes, there were gangs in Ballard back then.
“I was in the gang section in the early ’90s,” Diaz said, “and there was just a lot of gang violence going on in many parts of the city.”
Property crime has become a huge issue in Seattle in recent years, and some folks have linked it directly to the rise in homelessness. So it might be surprising to learn that the rate of property crime was also more than twice as high in the ’80s and ’90s as it is now.
The worst year was 1987, when there were more than 13,000 reported property crimes per 100,000 Seattle residents. In 2017, the rate was around 5,300 crimes per 100,000.
“Property crime is pretty directly tied to narcotics, and our property crimes have always been high, and at times incredibly high,” Diaz said. “There was a point where I didn’t think there was a car left to be stolen in the city.”
That point would have been in the early 2000s, when motor-vehicle theft was at its highest. The peak year was 2005, when there were about 1,650 auto thefts per 100,000 residents. That’s triple what the rate was in 2017. Burglaries and larceny-theft (car prowls, shoplifting, etc.) were at their highest in the late 1980s, and are also significantly lower now.
A major downtown revitalization effort that began in the mid-1990s proved to be tremendously successful. The city cleaned up a lot, and as violent-crime rates started to fall, more city neighborhoods began to gentrify.
“People here were lucky enough to see a city that got resurrected,” Diaz said.
Even as crime rates decreased in Seattle and many other big cities, for a variety of reasons, the perception is that crime continues to rise, he says. Diaz attributes that partly to the 24-hour news cycle and social media.
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“You can’t get away from it,” he said. “Every time there’s a shooting or a stabbing downtown, you’re going to hear about it countless times.”
So is Seattle dying?
There’s no debating that we have some big challenges, and people’s frustrations are real. But Seattle is more than the sum of its problems. It’s also a thriving, vibrant place. Frankly, it strikes me as bizarre to describe the fastest-growing big city in the nation as “dying.”
On average, more than 1,000 people move to the city of Seattle each week, according to census data. Many are relocating for high-paying jobs. Others come just because they love it here, warts and all.
Tourism is also booming. Seattle welcomed more than 40 million visitors in 2018, the ninth consecutive record-breaking year (though perhaps, after the wide dissemination of the “Seattle Is Dying” segment, a lot of those tourists — and their dollars — will go elsewhere).
Have we forgotten what Seattle was like in the 1970s, when two local real-estate agents erected that famous billboard: “Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights”? Massive layoffs at Boeing had sent the region into a tailspin. From 1970 to 1980, Seattle suffered its biggest population loss ever — a 7 percent decline.
I don’t know if folks back then said Seattle was dying, but I think they could have made a better case than anyone could today.