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Some Choose Life On West First; Some Trapped In It ‘Can You Tell Me How I’M Going To Afford To Get Out Of This Place?’

More than 400 people live in Spokane’s most dangerous downtown neighborhood, a litter-strewn, twoblock strip of West First.

Some stay inside the old brick apartments because their bodies or minds broke down. Some are drunks. Some simply fell through a tight housing market and landed where rooms go for as little as $140 a month.

Most of them don’t break the law.

One woman recently arrived at the Otis Hotel with her three young children. The family sleeps in the same bed in a one-room apartment that they padlock when they go out.

“Can you tell me how I’m going to afford to get out of this place when I have to pay first and last and a deposit on $640 a month?” she asks.

Some residents have lived in this vertical, urban zone for 30 years. On Friday nights, an elegant elderly woman occasionally strolls uptown to jazz shows at The Met theater.

Sunsets are gorgeous from her apartment window, she says.

These are some of the invisible West First residents who aren’t prostitutes, alcoholics or drug dealers.

Some live there by choice, others by circumstance, but they rarely are seen by drivers rolling past the nowempty Greyhound bus station and the transients, crack hoods and hookers often working the corner of Madison and First.

The two blocks between Jefferson and Monroe anchor six apartment buildings built around 1900. There’s the Handy Market, a sex arcade, the Coach House Restaurant, a homeless-aid office and a place to get free needles, condoms and popcorn.

This slice of Spokane has a high crime rate and such weak political pull the city rarely bothers to clean its streets or sidewalks. It’s so bleak its lone bar is called the Dead End Tavern, where beer pitchers sell for $2, and razors go for 50 cents.

It didn’t used to be this grim.

Helen Blackwell, a New Madison Hotel resident since the 1950s, remembers when the neighborhood was coveted downtown living, home to music teachers and seamstresses.

Blackwell remembers catching a violin act at the Coach House a few decades back. She and her husband, a city building inspector at the time, could walk to their downtown jobs, church, bank and grocery.

“I thought it was neat to live in an apartment,” she says. “You could go anywhere on foot …. I figured it was temporary.”

She describes her neighbors today as “plain hard-luck types, or people who have a physical flaw, or don’t handle their money right, or don’t go into the right business.”

Blackwell’s apartment window overlooks the ever-present crowd at First and Madison. She worries about a man who hobbles past the “drug dealer types” using his white cane on his daily walk to the Coach House.

She also views an alley street folk use as a “potty.” Her husband, Stuart, won’t let her go out alone. He walks her to The Met when she must see a performance.

Blackwell was surprised recently when she saw a school bus stop in the neighborhood, and pick up two kids in front of the Otis Hotel.

“They look like good children,” she says. “The only thing wrong is money …. This is no place for children.”

The two kids belong to Brenda, whose children aged 4, 9, and 10, live with her in a $300 room in the Otis Hotel. A note tacked to their apartment door says, “Please Do Not Disturb 9 p.m. to 8 a.m.”

Inside, clothes are stacked high along the walls. Brenda and the kids moved to the Otis last August from a Valley home they no longer could afford. She said the hotel is the only place they can afford.

“We’re getting more and more families down here because of housing prices,” said Bob Peeler, an advocate for the homeless.

Brenda wants out. She has watched street hoods hide weapons, then retrieve them after the police leave Madison. “I want to get the kids away from seeing people packing guns.”

Brenda, not her real name, asked to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want her former husband to find them. She wants to move before he does find them, but where?

Cheap housing is tight in Spokane.

About 2,000 people are on a Spokane Housing Authority list awaiting subsidized housing. Some have waited nine years.

Brenda collects welfare for her kids. She hopes to get a job when her youngest boy starts kindergarten. She says she’s not on drugs or alcohol. “My blood is so clean it squeaks. My only vice is Pepsi, and reading.”

Her dream job is to become a librarian.

A confused-looking man walks by a common kitchen area on Brenda’s floor, mumbling. Another man with a black eye patch steps inside the kitchen beneath a hole in the wall. He asks if anyone has a cigarette.

Brenda’s 9-year-old daughter smiles and says hello. She dances to some song in her head. She says she likes a man named Ernie, who has two broken hips. “I go take care of him sometimes.”

The West First Avenue Improvement Committee aims to make the neighborhood more hospitable to residents and visitors.

Fifty new low-income apartments will be available soon when the Commercial apartment building opens, between the Otis and the Norman. West First activists also hope to create block-watch programs, and a volunteer cop shop.

But some Spokane housing advocates say the twin apartment buildings at First and Jefferson must be revamped for the neighborhood to change.

The Jefferson and the Norman apartments offer the cheapest rents around. Police have branded them crack havens. After touring the apartments, officers sometimes wash their hands with a special soap.

Housing advocates claim the apartment buildings violate housing codes. But a city official briefly inspected the two buildings last week and said they’re OK.

“I don’t see any serious violations,” says Terry Clegg, code enforcement officer. “There’s a great shortage of low-income housing in downtown. There’s been a tendency in Spokane to tear it all down … People of all kinds need places to live.”

The two buildings are shaping up, says Jerry Wiley, Jr., who manages them for his father, the owner.

Wiley concedes about 90 percent of the Norman tenants are “not clean.” But he says over the past four months he has tossed out the worst trouble-makers - 14 evictions.

Wiley says he wants the buildings safe for loyal, law-abiding tenants.

“I want them to be able to feel like they can open their doors,” he says. “It’s people that don’t live here that come in and trash the place.”

Walking back into the Dead End, where he will serve another round of before-lunch beers, Wiley stops and says: “I’ve met better people down here than I’ve met anywhere.”

Tags: poverty