Seattle Met: Walking the streets of the new downtown Seattle

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Downtown ambassadors
Credit: Kyle Johnson

This story was originally published by Seattle Met on Feb. 22, 2023

The bouquets are back. Swaddled in brown paper, big cones of fresh or dried flowers, a purchase that can’t be hidden in a purse or backpack. The classic Pike Place Market acquisition has always been better suited to a local than a tourist—the Seattleite striding purposefully along downtown streets, armed for a dinner party or a date or just a brighter coffee table at home.

Though most of Pike Place Market’s famed vendor stalls shuttered for a few months during the pandemic, that Seattleite was missing for far longer. After Covid closures, businesses shored up work-from-home policies; a few photos of fiery downtown protests stuck like glue to national media, and local refrains preceded “downtown” with “dying.” Cruises came back, a new convention center rose, but our own habit of being downtown fell away. Fewer locals were here to pick up bouquets on their lunch hour.

But while we weren’t looking, the city that managed to revolutionize both jet travel and retail hasn’t stayed still.

“I approach this job as if it was me in the doorway,” says Ron Rhodes before he approaches a woman sleeping on the sidewalk at the threshold of the shuttered Banana Republic store on Pike Street. She’s reclined, dazed, under a dirty teddy bear–shaped blanket. Her being there, under a bold “Conditions of Entry” sign, is a violation of rules Rhodes helps enforce. He tells the woman, not unkindly, that she can’t remain there and suggests she sit undisturbed in Westlake Park. As she leaves, the ears of the teddy bear blanket drag on the sidewalk.

Rhodes works as one of 28 community safety and hospitality workers for the Downtown Seattle Association–managed Metropolitan Improvement District, an entity funded by downtown property owners. Which means his entire workday is on the street, face to face with people who find themselves in downtown doorways, whether ravaged by drug addiction, health crises, oppressive circumstances, or some combination of all three. Clad in a traffic-stopping yellow windbreaker, he serves as a kind of roving customer service agent for downtown itself.

Rhodes is not a social worker or a cop, but he approaches with practiced confidence and courtesy. He suggests and asks, does not demand. He points people toward homelessness services, but also hands out the extra winter gloves and hand warmers he stuffs in the baggy pockets of his cargo pants. Sometimes he administers Narcan, sometimes more than once a day.

Working two downtown and Pioneer Square zones that cover a whopping 285 square blocks, Rhodes gets to know Seattle’s unhoused population quite personally. At one time, it was him in the doorway. After experiencing homelessness himself, his euphemism for the distress around him is people “not having a good day.”

Rhodes stops by the North Face store on Sixth Avenue, where a strap barrier and a black-clad private security guard form a loose checkpoint between the street and racks of hoodies. Stores from Walgreens to Eileen Fisher sport their own silent sentinel near the doorway, the fleet of private security a new root in the neighborhood ecosystem.

Still, what Rhodes sees is positive change. More people than before, more businesses opening to replace the bigger tide of shuttered ones. He gestures toward the intersection of Third and Pine. “This part of town is 100 percent different,” says the man who walks it every day.

The crossroads was infamous, there between a McDonald’s and a tobacco shop. So known for drug sales, a 2020 shooting, and a sense of lawlessness that when another homicide occurred there in early 2022, city councilmember Andrew Lewis told The Seattle Times, “We’ve been here before.” Seattle police chief Adrian Diaz increased patrols and parked a mobile police precinct in front of the light rail exit.

Almost a year later, the mobile precinct—a kind of law enforcement RV—sits quiet, apparently unstaffed, with a placard that says “SWAT command” in the dash. The only people standing around are in line at McDonald’s, which serves out of walk-up windows only, or are farther down Third Avenue at bus stops.

Crime can be a slippery concept, something that always feels more complex than the numbers used to measure it. By the city’s SeaStat numbers, downtown had just over five percent of Seattle’s total crime in 2022, though each block can be a reminder of fentanyl’s brutal toll on the city. MID teams trace drug use by what they see on the street: more foil than needles these days.

Still, tourists are returning sooner than locals. August 2022 saw about as many visitors as in the prepandemic summer, but the year ends with less than half the downtown worker foot traffic, according to the DSA. Amazon cited safety concerns when pulling workers from the upper floors of the old Macy’s at Third and Pine, yet new work-from-home expectations led the company to pause the construction of new office space across the country. It could be that Seattle’s slow return to its own center has more to do with a love of soft pants than anything else.

Downtown is far from Vincent Bouney’s hardest workplace; he’s toiled on commercial fishing trawlers in Alaska. His work on the MID’s Clean Team is comparably less taxing. There are soda cups and old sweatshirts left on the streets, the candy wrappers that fall out of backpacks, and layers of wet leaves in the fall, all to be removed. But Bouney finds joy in his immediate impact.

Though he straddles an e-bike, Bouney rarely makes it a block before he spots something to clean, a piece of litter to pick up. Outside the Arc’teryx shop he comes upon a giant plastic bin, too big to fit in the trash can he pulls in his bike trailer. He detours to an alleyway with a dedicated city trash pickup point.

“I want people to enjoy a clean downtown like I do,” he says. He likes what he sees from his bike, how a tidy sidewalk has large reverberations. While Rhodes has his eye on the people around him, Bouney seems to take in everything else. A sticker clings to one of the Conditions of Entry signs and he tests it gingerly with a gloved finger, then peels it off in a quick movement.

Haven’t been downtown in a while? It doesn’t look the same. Changes from the last decade seemed to happen at a glacial pace and then suddenly all at once—the viaduct removal, the new Pike Place Market hall and viewpoint. Though announced in 2019, it still feels shocking that Macy’s really left. But downtown’s churn continued whether locals were watching or not.

Whole blocks morphed. At 2+U on Second and University, a new Ethan Stowell restaurant opens toward a public plaza flanked by the support beams of the office tower above it. The skeleton of Seattle Aquarium’s new Ocean Pavilion is already shaping its bridge from the Market to the piers of the waterfront.

And on the other end of downtown, the chrysalis of a construction site is falling away to reveal the new convention center being born between Pine Street and Olive Way. Warmed by sunlight and plumbed by rainwater, the Summit building’s spaces open to giant windows, demanding a look even from people who’ll never set foot in a Sneaker Con or Wedding Show. When it welcomed its first conference in early January, thousands of visitors took in a city that its residents haven’t seen much lately.

Of course downtown is more than shiny new buildings, more than views of sunsets over ferries. Back on his beat, Rhodes sees a man in a red hoodie storming down Pike Street in clear distress, yelling something about Starbucks. Between the eruption of profanity, the gist seems to be he was asked to leave that coffee shop. Rhodes just pauses and nods.

“You gotta hear them out,” he says of his practice. “They leave a little bit better than when you first approached.” The man in the red hoodie quiets, and Rhodes turns to continue his rounds. But he keeps him in his peripheral vision until he sees the man, about a block up Pike, quietly getting coffee at the funky Monorail Espresso window.

Seattle has gone through so many iterations in the past century and a half, shaped by regrades and rebranded department stores, by building one Pioneer Square on top of the other. Downtown doesn’t hide any of its defining challenges, from the dearth of housing to the drug crisis, but nor does it hide the city’s penchant for rebirth. Even as the lights go out in Westlake’s Starbucks outpost, a new brown sugar boba shop opened a few blocks south. And if you’re close enough to Pike Place Market, there will be someone heading home with fresh flowers.