Seattle’s finest weekly newspaper, Real Change, is moving to Pioneer Square after 15 years in Belltown. Alex and Elaine dropped in on Executive Director Tim Harris to get the lowdown.
Alex: The Belltown Messenger is going through a metamorphosis. We’re looking for some new ideas. Would you mind if we started charging a dollar per copy and putting a “buy from badged vendors only” thing on there? (Laughter and consumption of peanut-covered chocolate donuts).
Elaine: Okay, let’s get serious. Describe the scene when you first moved in here in 1994.
Alex: Eric Galatas from Citizen Vagrom Video was in here then. He works for Free Speech TV in Denver now.
Tim: Let me think who all was in here. We had John Reese from the Community Action Network. The Church of Mary Magdalene came in later. Operation Homefront. It was a bunch of progressive non-profits sharing space, and the landlord wanted to support it. So we got cheap rent. Real Change, actually, at first wasn’t paying rent at all. The understanding was that we didn’t have any money, and that we would start paying rent when we started having some.
And then over the years as we got bigger, the other groups moved out for one reason or another. By about 2000 or so we were occupying the entire space. We did a remodel here in 2003.
Our staff has grown - we have 15 staff people, and we’re serving 400 vendors a month.
Elaine: Is that the main reason you’re moving, and not because you hate Belltown?
Tim: No, no, Belltown has been very good to us. I’ve always been very comfortable in Belltown. I really, really hate leaving Belltown, you know. We got Dave the Barber (Belltown Barber) down the street and the Casbah (formerly the Counterculture Cafe) right there ... I go there twice a day.
And Mama’s (Mama’s Mexican Kitchen) black bean cheese quesadilla, the black bean spinach quesadilla, Mama’s with the chipotle sauce to die for. I go in there and, hey, don’t even have to ask. I mean, they bring me that and a diet coke, you know.
Alex: Anything wild or dramatic ever happen here in the office? Any adventures?
Tim: The big earthquake. It was dramatic because we had no idea what was going on and we did absolutely the wrong thing. At first we thought that there was a truck going by. And it kept happening and getting more intense. I think we all looked at each other and finally realized it was an earthquake. And we ran out the front door where the facade could have like brained us as it was falling off the building. Nobody got hurt, but there were cracks in the walls and ceiling that came out of that.
Elaine: People wonder about next door and the folks that are there all day starting at the crack of dawn smoking cigarettes, wandering around the block ...
Tim: We have a great relationship with the El Ray next door; most of their residents wind up becoming our vendors at one time or another.
There are several colorful personalities from the El Ray that sell the paper around the neighborhood. People are used to seeing them, and they are embraced by the community like everybody else that sells the paper. And for me that’s been one of the consistently most moving things about doing this work: how these people, who otherwise would be avoided and feared, when they sell the paper that’s a sort of a bridge. It’s humanizing.
Homelessness is fundamentally a dehumanization ... and I’m more and more seeing Real Change as a project of humanization.
I see, over and over again, people who are very isolated and have internalized very negative ideas about themselves. They’ve been treated as if they are less than human, and over the years they have come to believe that.
And then they start selling the paper and their experience is completely different: they’re embraced by this large, caring community and it really, really changes the way people see themselves.
Elaine: It angers me to no end, this stereotype perpetuated about Belltown, about the crack dealers and the homeless people being so harassing.
Tim: Well, you know, like any other American city Seattle is dealing with the fallout from globalization: a huge structural shift in the economy where the whole manufacturing sector went overseas and now you’re either a professional or a low-wage worker in the service industry, and there’s very little work in between. And there is this ever-growing class of people who have been rendered surplus to the economy and they are out there on the street.
And along with 30 years of greater inequality, now we have greater inequality than we did during the Hoover administration. There has also been this devolution of responsibility for affordable housing and human services on the local level. And the localities cannot sustain that: it’s too big of a burden without the third big actor, the federal government, in there.
In times like this, when you have that recession and you have that visible poverty on the street, people are like, “I can’t do anything about the credit crisis, can’t do anything about the collapse of the mortgage industry, but ... there are these people out on the street and we can like, get rid of them, you know. We can write them tickets and send them somewhere else because we don’t want them here.” It’s such a superficial solution.
Elaine: I mean, if a guy is holding a sign that says “Please give me some money,” that’s not aggressive panhandling.
Tim: That’s not aggressive panhandling. I mean, I go to San Francisco or L.A. or Boston or Chicago, and I see aggressive panhandling. Way aggressive panhandling. I walk around and I’m like, “Holy crap, I’m not in Oz anymore!” Here in Seattle we’ve got probably the politest panhandlers in the entire country. People are nice in Seattle, and that includes the panhandlers.
Elaine: How is Pioneer Square gonna treat you? They’ve already tried to get rid of you.
Tim: The Pioneer Square Community Association showed up in force for a Change of Use hearing, and two of them, in their testimony, even broke down in tears. I found it astonishing that the prospect of Real Change moving to Pioneer Square would bring somebody to tears, but it has. You know, we are a pretty resolute organization and I just don’t see our move being blocked at this point. They are trying, but I don’t see it happening.
We have signed a lease, and there’s a remodel in progress, but there’s several more hoops to leap through.
I’m gonna miss Belltown, the people I see on the street all the time here. It’s been 15 years.
Belltown is pretty gritty. I love Belltown for that. Belltown is what a city should be: it’s the people that have the advantages and the people who don’t have the advantages ... and they are sort of thrown in together, and they need to negotiate each other and sort of acknowledge each other’s presence.