SEATTLE – ON THE EVENING of March 2, a little after 7 p.m., I stood with a friend near the corner of Third Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle. The scene was like a vision from the urban-panic crowd’s more sulfurous dreams: dozens of people, standing and sitting with their bags and boxes of stuff, many holding lighters and strips of foil in their hands.
The mood felt quiet but tense, as if we all were waiting for something, but not looking forward to it.
The two of us happened to be waiting for my friend’s bus after one of our regular winter oyster dates. We talked about moving down a few blocks, but his was an express – we’d have to go a ways to catch the next stop. He was pretty sure it’d be here any minute.
So we waited. And watched. We were being watched in turn, but didn’t feel like anybody was especially interested in us. I’ll admit I was a little edgy. Not so much about the users: I’ve known and loved several people who have wrestled with drug addictions – I’ve done the same. I get that. As with anyone else, unless a person is agitated and holding something dangerous, users don’t tend to make me nervous.
Dealers do – or, rather, a marketplace with several dealers in possible competition. (I want to be very careful not to demonize anyone on that corner, which sits in the middle of an often-demonized part of downtown. Everyone had their own reasons for being there; nobody looked like they were enjoying themselves.) It’s a simple dynamic, really: Prohibit an economy (alcohol in the 1920s, heroin today), and people in that economy sometimes turn to extralegal means to settle disputes. That can mean bullets, which don’t always find their intended target – but bring heartbreak no matter whom they hit.
A few young folks with gaiters over their faces glided through the rumpled crowd, sometimes stopping to trade a few quiet words, some bags, some cash.
The bus came. I quickly hugged my friend and made a fast-walk exit around the corner, heading east toward Westlake Park. Maybe 30 seconds later, I heard the gunshot. Just one.
I spun and saw people scattering in all directions, then trotted until I’d rounded the next corner, listening. A minute or two later, police cars ripped past. Fifteen minutes later, a TV news crew had arrived. By then, some of the users had scattered and regrouped on nearby blocks: three people here, five people there, huddled in doorways with their lighters and foil, still smoking.
They weren’t ready to leave.
THE VICTIM, a 15-year-old boy, had been shot in the abdomen and died in the hospital that night. I don’t know for a fact whether the shooting was drug-related. By the next day, police officers had flooded the zone.
But this is an old, old story.
The most controversial blocks in Seattle, I would argue, have long been around Pike Street, between Pike Place Market and Westlake Park.
For as long as anyone can remember (back to the 1960s, at least among the dozens I spoke with, including retired cops, business owners, drug users, developers, a prosecutor, an anthropologist, others), that area has maintained a particular and persistent social ecology and illicit economy.
The particulars have changed, as has its center of gravity: First Avenue to Second to Third. Its name also shifts, depending on who’s talking about which decade. Old-timers recalling the 1960s say “Skid Row.” Needle-exchange workers from the ‘80s talk about “Penney’s Corner” (after a nearby JCPenney). To Deputy Seattle City Attorney Scott Lindsay, it’s “3P” (for Third and Pike/Pine). In 1990, an article about crack cocaine by Seattle Weekly writer Eric Scigliano reported that dealers were calling it “The Blade.” That name stuck.
Whatever you call it, the overall milieu has tremendous sticking power – despite gentrification and repeated police interventions.
Sex, drugs and alcohol always have been in the mix, but those transgressions haven’t always been equally visible. That strip was best known for peepshows, sex work and booze (immortalized in films like “Cinderella Liberty,” “American Heart” and “Streetwise”) until the arrival of crack in the mid-1980s. After that, drugs became more noticeable: heroin and benzos, then meth, now fentanyl, sometimes laced with meth and sold in smokable pills called blues.
“Alcohol has become less relevant as other drugs become more available and people turn to them for their functionality,” says Chloe Gale, who co-founded REACH, a street-outreach program of Evergreen Treatment Services. In a homelessness context, she explains, some substances serve a purpose: alcohol to relieve anxiety and feel warmth, stimulants to stay awake in dicey situations, opioids to dull pain. Some compare physical addiction to growing a new metabolism alongside eating, drinking and breathing. Sudden, untreated withdrawal can be painful, incapacitating or even fatal, depending on the drug, the person and how long they’ve been using.
“The substances have changed,” Gale says, “but the fact that people have been coping and surviving (on The Blade) has been consistent.”
What’s also been consistent: the cycle of civic hand-wringing. “Since Seattle’s inception as a frontier town, you’ve had this culture of accepting vice and narcotics activity with a wink and a nod,” says Tom Umporowicz, a retired detective-sergeant with the Seattle Police Department (SPD). “Until it gets bad enough that we want to crack down – but we don’t really want to solve anything, just tamp it down.”
Reported crime statistics in the area tell an inconsistent story: Theft is actually down, while aggravated assault is up and homicide fluctuates. The SPD beats referred to as M1, M2 and M3 don’t precisely match The Blade’s geography, but they’re close. In 2008, those beats saw one reported homicide, 88 aggravated assaults and 2,241 thefts. In 2014: Four homicides, 134 aggravated assaults and 3,169 thefts. In 2021: One homicide, 210 aggravated assaults and 1,450 thefts.
Umporowicz, who has worked near-uncountable sex-work and drugs operations around the city (in one year, he says, his team served over 450 narcotics search warrants) saw the cycle many, many times in his 30-year career. Collectively, we ignore; then grumble; and then, after some spectacular violence, yell at the mayor. The mayor barks at the police chief, who barks down the chain of command, and the cavalry rides in, often arresting sex workers and subsistence-level user-dealers.
“We’d show off our arrests, all the dope and guns we’d recovered,” Umporowicz says. “We’d all high-five; the media would get the story; people would say, ‘Good job!’ But it’s performative, not substantive. We’re not dialing in: ‘Where is this coming from? What’s the solution?’ ” Most voters and elected officials, he thinks, lack the political will and attention span to find and fund long-term answers.
Time passes, and other priorities pull police away, sending us back to the beginning, back to tolerating – not just the lawbreaking, but the human suffering and material struggle that nudge people toward the illicit economy in the first place.
But there’s nuance and complexity in The Hustle, as Gale of REACH calls that unsanctioned commerce.
“People look at who’s downtown and make a lot of assumptions about who they are and how they’re perpetuating harm,” she says. “But honestly, so many of them are connected to family survival strategies.”
She remembers one couple she knew in the early ’00s. He had grown up partly on the street; she was from a middle-class background and, after trauma and drug use, ended up in sex work. Both had been arrested several times.
“They had a kid, got housing, had another kid with disability issues and got custody of a 16-year-old nephew whose mom was an alcoholic on the street,” Gale says. Both were in treatment and working, or trying to. She had a full-time corporate office job, but his criminal history made finding work tough. At one point, to make rent, they decided one of them had to go downtown: him to deal, or her for sex work.
Gale remembers her sitting and sobbing as she explained the calculation. Their family of five required more income. Her husband had two “strikes” – under Washington law at the time, a third might’ve put him away for life without parole. She didn’t want the children to lose their father forever.
“We still live in that economy,” Gale says. “To keep him from ending up in the prison system and exploding the family, she ended up going downtown.”
Those blocks have seen wrenching stories, but The Blade – like anyplace filled with people – is more than just squalor and misery.
“I feel safer on The Blade – on First, Second, Third – than on Ninth or Tenth,” says Brandie Flood, director of community justice at REACH and former program manager for LEAD, King County’s program to divert people toward treatment instead of incarceration. “There are more Black, Brown, Native people, people who look like me in that area. I don’t feel safe in places like Bellevue, and parts of Queen Anne and Magnolia. That’s very real for me.”
Flood has worked street outreach for over a decade and shakes her head at media portrayals of Blade regulars as “career criminals” instead of people trying to get by in extremely tough circumstances. When she looks at those blocks, she sees poverty, lack of access to basics (housing, income, health care) and social-systems failure.
“We’re not taking care of folks,” she says. “And because people don’t have a lot, or many places to go, they come down there to support each other, be connected and get basic survival needs: hygiene products, food, clothing.” For people with addictions, it’s also a place to find the chemicals that fend off withdrawals. “It can be hard to get into treatment, especially because of the pandemic, and some people do go there to ‘get well.’ ”
Those streets are comfortable to others, too, like Robert Surles, who exited homelessness 16 years ago but now comes downtown with a football to play catch with passersby, and Rita Rosas Glenister, who basically grew up at The Turf – an iconic restaurant and bar in The Blade where her dad worked.
“I used to go to school on top of Queen Anne and would take the bus by myself at 8, 9, 10 years old, and go straight to the restaurant at First and Pike,” she says. “I never had any problems.” This was in the mid-1990s.
Her father, a relentlessly cheerful man named Gregorio Rosas, came to the United States from the Philippines in 1978 and started washing dishes at The Turf for $2.90 an hour while living at the YMCA. Rosas got along with the owner, who gave him a 2% stake in restaurant sales. By 1988, he owned half the business; by 2002, he owned the whole thing. The Turf eventually moved to Second and Pike, and Rosas renamed it Ludi’s, after the woman who raised him when his mom gave him up at 7 years old.
The Turf had a tough reputation, but Rosas and his daughter think that’s a little unfair. Yes, customers sometimes argued loudly. Other times, drug users came around looking for their dealers, which was a nuisance. But Rosas ran his restaurant with an extremely democratic attitude, which also made some people uncomfortable.
“We were open for everyone and kept prices fair, which allowed all walks of life,” Rosas Glenister says one sunny afternoon, standing outside the site of the old Ludi’s, now a parking garage. “We didn’t have a dress code, and my dad – well, if you didn’t have perfect hygiene, he’d still allow you to come in. That scared some people. But we knew our regulars. They were nice and respected us.”
She says things did get a little “wilder” the few years before Ludi’s closed in 2019 – more people locking themselves in the bathroom for long periods or spilling food on the floor.
But she and her father still love downtown. They’re reopening Ludi’s on Second, two blocks north of their old location. Rosas Glenister scouted a few places farther away, but her father wasn’t having it.
“I don’t want to leave my neighborhood,” he says, grinning. “For me, it’s downtown or nothing at all.”
Whatever its name, that zone has fascinated and outraged the city for over a century.
A 1900 Seattle Times article reported the “sickening spectacle” of “a lot of hoboes” stealing from a man passed out on First and Pike. In 1910, former Mayor William Wood decried women in bars near the same intersection, “90 percent of those women prostitutes.”
Longtime Seattle residents like Larry Reid, of Fantagraphics Books in Georgetown, recall the area as “tawdry” and “carnivalesque.” In the 1960s and ’70s, it was known for pawnshops, adult arcades, sailor bars, a magic shop, an exotic pet store with chimpanzees – and scams. Former Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel says some strip clubs used to lure men down hallways with promises of sex, take their money and shove them into the alley, promises unfulfilled.
Then, between the mid-’80s and ’90s, two major forces hit those blocks: gentrification and crack cocaine.
“Drugs were always there, but it used to be hidden,” says a longtime user who goes by Lee (to avoid incriminating himself, he asked we withhold his full name) and has spent decades on and off The Blade. “I left Seattle in 1980, came back in 1990, and crack was on the street. People were killing each other over it.”
Reid, who ran the Center on Contemporary Art on First Avenue around that time, says the personality of the neighborhood changed dramatically.
“The sense of community seemed to get a little lost,” he says. “People would get off the bus on Third, buy their drugs and get back on the same bus. Even the nature of the sex work seemed to change: more young men and women driven by drugs. But I really dislike demonizing people who have every bit of a right to be there. Their neighborhood was gentrified, and there was nothing to replace it.”
Affordable downtown was being eviscerated. Flophouses and SRO (single-room occupancy) buildings had been demolished in the 1970s, while the taverns serving cheap meals were fading. The Turf was one of the last holdouts.
“There didn’t used to be such disparity between the haves and have-nots,” says Joe Martin, who co-founded the Pike Market Medical Clinic inside the old Motherlode Tavern in 1978, and retired in 2021. “There was a social-political-economic cohesiveness in that area that was completely scattered as old buildings were torn down and gentrified, rents went up and homelessness was becoming more pronounced.”
Poverty was increasingly on the street instead of behind closed doors, along with sex work and drug use. “Used to be, you’d go hide away and do that,” Martin says. “Now it’s just out there.”
It is, in fact, just out there – in front of all the tourists, shoppers and tens of thousands of daily bus riders – which partly explains why it attracts such attention.
“That location is the very heart of the city,” says Seattle Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay. “Most cities have a ‘Blade’ for prostitution and drugs, but you can get around San Francisco without going through The Tenderloin – what makes Seattle unique is that it’s in the city’s commercial core. You cannot have a vibrant downtown and an out-of-control 3P.”
In 2015, as public-safety assistant to Mayor Ed Murray, Lindsay led the “91/2 Block Strategy,” an interagency attempt at reform: not just heavy policing, but reanimating Westlake Park with activities and buskers, moving bus stops and newspaper boxes, pressuring some businesses to close (like a teriyaki restaurant with a reputation for fencing stolen goods) and encouraging real estate development (like the State Hotel).
“It was a whole-of-government approach,” Lindsay says. “Partly a success and partly a failure.” Westlake Park, for example, never fully reverted to its more-criminal self. But 3P is still The Blade.
Why? Why is that social ecology so persistent in that specific place?
“There’s a psychology to the space,” he says. “It’s the ‘shopping mall’ dynamic – once a place is established and people know where to go, there’s real logic to operating there.”
Or, as Larry Reid of Fantagraphics put it: “It’s baked into the city’s DNA.”
My earliest vivid memory of The Blade is from an afternoon in the late ’90s, when I was a teenage theater kid rehearsing a Tom Stoppard play in a tiny venue near First and Pike. I stepped outside during a break, crouched on the sidewalk for a smoke and watched the street parade: disoriented tourists, semi-oriented inebriates, the usual.
Across the street was the Mirror Tavern, a shaggy, intimidating place, but of small concern to me until a man staggered out, gripping his forearm, blood streaming between his fingers. He glanced backward, cursed and limp-jogged away. I felt bad for the guy and wondered what happened, but wasn’t particularly jittery leaving the theater that night. Those blocks seemed like a place where trouble was easy to find – but only if you went looking for it.
Things felt different waiting for the bus on March 2.
Since that shooting, the city increased police presence, as well as the frequency of street cleaning. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration has plans to install bright lighting along Third Avenue, and mayor’s office spokesperson Jamie Housen says collaborations aimed at encouraging development, business and foot/bicycle traffic are ongoing.
When people describe The Blade, they fall into roughly two categories: One talks more about poverty; the other talks more about crime. (That split is also an old, old story.)
But representatives from both camps say things have gotten more intense in recent years, using terms like “perfect storm.”
“It got sketchy,” says Mikel Kowalcyk, a former drug user who has been doing outreach for Evergreen Treatment Services in The Blade since 2014. “And I’m not sketched out by much.”
She rattled off contributing factors: The pandemic closed shelters and businesses, spilling people onto the street with fewer eyes watching and fewer customers and commuters to dilute the scene. Hundreds of officers left SPD. Many who remained felt angry and deflated by the Defund movement. In 2021, the Washington Supreme Court’s Blake Decision decriminalized drug possession, sending police a hands-off message. Downtown bike patrols stopped, so some users gave up being discreet. And on and on.
Plus, Kowalcyk and others say, fentanyl has a much shorter half-life than heroin, leading people to use more frequently, anxious to avoid severe withdrawals. Even under good circumstances, affordable treatment can be hard to find; COVID closures have severely compounded the problem.
The addictiveness of fentanyl, plus the general scarcity of resources, makes a loop.
“I can’t tell you the hundreds of times I’ve heard, ‘I got stuck here,’ ” Kowalcyk says. “You come get dope, but you’ll need to ‘get well’ in an hour. Run into Target, steal something, sell it on Third and Pike for $10, buy more dope, all in two blocks. Then you live in your tent on Fifth, because you have nowhere else, and never leave the vicinity.”
Which helps explain the detail that hit me hardest the night of March 2 – and might explain something about the longevity of The Blade in general.
Someone had been shot. Police were everywhere. The atmosphere felt tense and miserable. But instead of leaving the area, alone or with friends, so many stuck around, posted just a block or two away like sentries, like they were still waiting for something to happen.
The question isn’t why they stayed. The question is: Where on earth did I expect them to go?