September 27, 2013 in City

Shawn Vestal: Instead of clearing sidewalk, learn to share

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

I walked through downtown Spokane – and lived to tell about it.

Just went out and walked around. Crazy, huh? Intrepid? Down Riverside. Over to the park. Looked at the river. Nice river. Nice park. Past the dreaded “planter” by the Olive Garden. Some kids were sitting there, aimlessly. A rumor of marijuana floated in the air. I braced myself and made it safely past.

Down a couple blocks, I checked out the deepening hole in the ground across from the Convention Center. Stopped at Auntie’s for a book. Ate at Hills’. Got panhandled and survived it.

At one point, as I walked past Macy’s, a skateboarder sped past me on his longboard. He was dressed in a sloppy, unkempt manner that I completely disapprove of – we certainly never dressed that way in the glory days of my youth, when all was orderly and proper.

And yet after he had passed – illegally! on the sidewalk! – I found that I was able to recover fairly rapidly from the trauma of it.

I had my dwindling hair cut at my favorite barbershop, Leland’s On Wall. Got a pound of coffee at my favorite local café/bookstore/groovy place, Atticus. Had a meatwich at Domini’s and a vegan juice at Method.

Strolled around the STA Plaza. Peered into the new police storefront there. Had to weave my way through the folks at the plaza, folks whom I have been encouraged to view as “rabble.” Hangers-out. Young mothers, wearily tending their strollers. People hollering at each other. Most simply waiting, quietly, for the bus.

Walked through a cloud of the cigarette smoke rising from a cluster of young people on a corner. A couple of scruffy young dudes cursed with relish and bravado as I passed.

I lived.

Walked over to the Ridpath and around the block. Looked at the graffiti. Smelled the smells. Until recently, transients and hard-core street people have been breaking into the old, closed-down hotel; getting a grip on the security and safety problems around these “campers” has been one of the stubborn problems there. Problems of hard-core homelessness and transience are among the main reasons that it has seemed such a blight – and overcoming those problems is one of the reasons to be hopeful about its possible recovery.

Did a little hopeful downtown math: A renovated Ridpath plus a new Walt Worthy hotel a couple of blocks away could equal a dramatically reshaped piece of downtown.

As you may be able to discern, this “walk” of mine was actually not a single walk, but is a composite of many, many walks. I work downtown, I play downtown, I go to movies and restaurants downtown. I walk around in some portion of downtown virtually every day. Used to be I spent plenty of time downtown in the evening hours; these days I’m much more likely to be walking around down there with my young son.

Not that long ago, I used to walk with great frequency past the east end of the STA Plaza, back when that was where the hangers-out hung out, back before the STA remodel sent them into other corners of downtown to hang out, smoke and annoy the genteel souls of the city. I pondered an unanswerable question: Exactly how much of the current concern derives precisely from the fact that those kids have been pushed away from that relatively perfect place for hanging out and into other, less perfect places for hanging out?

I recognize that there are crime and safety issues downtown. There are crime and safety issues in many places, especially those that are open to a wide range of people. But there are also many, many other “issues” downtown that have a lot more to do, it seems to me, with our desire not to be discomfited by the presence of certain prickly realities – with our preference that social and economic problems simply do us the favor of existing elsewhere, outside the world where our large, flavored coffees with protective cardboard sleeves are sold.

And so, pretty soon, we’re talking about an assault outside a bar late at night in the same breath that we’re talking about kids sitting on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. And so, we find ourselves passing legislation prohibiting panhandling on corners where the begging had become unsightly. Or maybe I should say “prohibiting” panhandling, because our desire to remain untouched by certain people with certain plights does not actually match up with the resources we are willing to devote to such goals. And so the sign-holding panhandlers at stop signs have not been prohibited in any sense, at least not at the corners I drive by.

Now, in the same spirit of bum-rushing the poor, comes a “sit/lie” ordinance to outlaw people from sitting or lying on the sidewalks.

The idea of it makes me want to go sit on a sidewalk.

I understand that this may be a minority view. I know plenty of people who are very put off – very concerned and annoyed – by what they see as a proliferation of nuisance and crime downtown. My own wife feels that I underestimate these issues, and she likely has more firsthand, direct experiences on the streets of downtown Spokane than I do. I also know that it is one thing for biggish men like myself to feel safe in certain circumstances, and quite another for others. I do get that.

But among the many fine proposals and strategies being adopted and discussed to deal with this, might we add one more: the taking of a deep, calming breath? There’s a lot more to the downtown area than our mostly modest problems, and the constant complaints are starting to sound a bit ninnyish. It might not be so bad for us to walk around on the same sidewalks with others whose lives we would rather, for the sake of comfort and commerce, pretend did not exist.

It might not be a terrible, frightening thing to share the sidewalk with them.

Even if they’re sitting on it.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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