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Clark: Downtown Spokane’s stark reality plain to see

Boy Mayor got it almost right.

Last February, in his annual State of the City hoo-haw, Mayor David Condon declared his intent to make Spokane the Northwest’s “City of Choice.”

Close, but no cigarillo, Dave.

As a Spokane lifer, I’d much rather see my hometown concentrate on becoming a “City of Better Choices.”

Let’s emblazon that motto on the T-shirts, coffee mugs and bric-a-brac that they sell at the airport and the other shops hawking Spokane trinkets to tourists.

It’s all about taking baby steps, mayor.

And right now we’re in dire need of some real City Hall leadership: Make better choices for the downtown, which is fast becoming an open toilet and a haven for young aimless druggies and violence-prone thugs.

Here’s what I observed on Friday, when I took a State of the Downtown tour.

11:03 a.m. – Barely away from the newspaper, my travels lead me to two large and foot-flattened piles of excrement (Human? Wildebeest?) plopped in the middle of the sidewalk on Lincoln Street, across the street from the Agave restaurant. Is this City of Choice material? Don’t think so.

11:05 a.m. – Heading east on Riverside Avenue, I pass a urine-stained doorway and arrive at the corner of Post Street and Riverside in time to chat with an amiable security guard. “You should have plenty to write about, believe me,” he says, when I tell him what I’m up to.

11:10 a.m. – The words barely leave his lips when an obnoxiously loud young woman in bright blue drools the world’s longest loogie onto the sidewalk. It’s a bad choice in any civilized culture, but none of her loitering pals, about a dozen hard-looking street toughs, seems to mind.

11:15 a.m. – “Are you Doug Clark?” asks a lean man who approaches me. Guilty, I tell him. He introduces himself as Dave Brooks, 49, who uses the bus to take him to a job operating a saw somewhere. I ask for his take on the downtown. Brooks tells me that three transients beat him and broke his jaw last year when they saw him get cash out of an ATM. “I’d been drinking,” he adds, copping to his own bad choice. “The transients down here are horrible,” he says, meaning predatory and mean. “Remember the ’70s? You could walk down here and things were hopping, but there weren’t any fights.”

11:20 a.m. – On my way down Post toward Main Avenue I step over hideous dark stains that I hope aren’t blood. I pass the alley across from Banner Bank. The stains on the walls remind me of parts of downtown Seattle that will almost knock you over with the acrid smell of urine. Is that where our bad choices are leading us? A mini-Seattle? God forbid.

11:25 a.m. – At the corner of Wall Street and Main, street musician Josh Quinn, 21, is setting up to perform. He’s a talented singer and guitar player, clean-cut and friendly. An Australian, Quinn says his playing can make him $80 to $90 in three hours. During the last Pig Out in the Park, he says, he raked in enough to buy a new Martin. I tell him to please be careful and keep safe. Quinn is an example of what the downtown needs.

11:30 a.m. – I meander down Wall and stop into Leland’s Barber Shop. If anyone has a finger on the downtown’s thready pulse, it’s Claudia Kirkebo, the owner. “Bullies,” she says while cutting a customer’s hair. “We’ve been bullied by the street punks.” I take a seat, and we chat about rogue skateboarders and boisterous jerks who threaten area merchants who are simply trying to make a living.

11:38 a.m. – Kirkebo, tough-minded and pragmatic, tells me she once worked in downtown Tacoma, where she witnessed a similar decay. “It’s complex,” she explains. “There’s drunks, there’s homeless, there’s runaways,” meaning that the problem can’t be stereotyped.

Bottom line: “People are afraid to come downtown … . But I’m not going to be bullied.”

11:43 a.m. – A skateboarder roars inches past Leland’s front door at Warp 5. “If I had a dollar for every time they pass by each day, I wouldn’t have to cut hair,” says Brandon Cape, who mans the other barber chair.

11:46 a.m. – I bid the barbers adieu and continue the short hop north on Wall to my final destination: outside the Olive Garden – otherwise known as “ground zero for rude, obscenity-shouting young people who have made loitering their full-time jobs.” At least, that’s how a television news reporter described this wide expanse of grimy sidewalk across from the lush green of Riverfront Park.

11:48 a.m. – Heartbreak Corner is what I’d call it. This is where many young lifetimes’ worth of bad choices have come to roost, or stand, or squat, or waste away the day.

11:50 a.m. – Today there must be about 30 or so milling around. A few of the older ones give me that hard look that comes with being institutionalized. Most of them, however, accept me with nonjudgmental eyes.

11:52 a.m. – Within minutes I make new friends who all go by street names. There’s Torch, 22, a lanky woman in a baggy gray sweatshirt with a ballcap topping her head. There’s Red, 27, whose dyed hair color has a lot do with her nickname. There’s Bunny, 17, sporting a tank top in red and white stripes.

11:55 a.m. – They all tell me they are homeless. They talk about being rousted regularly by cops and how difficult it is to find a safe place to sleep at night. Red says she’s been raped three times in the last two months. Torch says she’s four months pregnant. “We’re not a bunch of hooligans, dude,” adds Bunny.

11:57 a.m. – No need to talk about drugs. The signs are obvious. Red has a journal and I tell her she should write a book. “Chicken Soup for the Homeless,” she titles it, which draws a big laugh.

11:59 a.m. – I ask them what they’d like their lives to be if they could choose. “Being with my kids,” says Torch. Ditto for Red. And a steady income. Somewhere to sleep. Enough to eat …

Modest goals. Unfortunately, hanging outside the Olive Garden, bumming customers for their doggie bags, is hardly the golden Wonka ticket to the American dream.

Noon – Blackhawk, 39, arrives. Thin, near-toothless, he carries a dagger clipped to his black belt. Blackhawk assures me that it’s just a tool. “I’m what they call a pauper down here.” Or he might’ve said “papa.” I couldn’t tell.

12:01 p.m. – Then comes Puppy, a tiny 14-year-old with a young, innocent face and old, old eyes. “Most of us who are adults over 18 try to take care of the little ones,” says Torch in a parental tone. Puppy offers that she was jumped and roughed up last night by some older, Mexican man. She looks away and doesn’t elaborate.

12:10 p.m. – I’ve seen enough. I make my own choice and say goodbye. Time to leave this place of sadness and go somewhere to mourn for my city.

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at

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