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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The best and the worst of the city dwell side by side

A crowd of people gather along Wall Street to watch a performance at the Tacos y Tequila Festival in downtown Spokane on Sunday.  (Quinn Welsch)
A crowd of people gather along Wall Street to watch a performance at the Tacos y Tequila Festival in downtown Spokane on Sunday. (Quinn Welsch)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

The age of wisdom, the age of foolishness. The season of light, the season of darkness.

Those words – a paraphrase of Dickens’ famous opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” – might well apply to our own city, and its varying, contradictory, overlapping realities.

Multimillion-dollar condos loom near people sleeping under piles of blankets beneath the railroad tracks. Groovy new restaurants thrive within clear views of people without enough to eat. Civic events fill in Riverfront Park, even as the government wrestles over what to do with people who sleep in parks and the mayor sends the cops out to drive off the homeless.

The best of the city lives side by side with the worst.

This has always been true, and yet it’s become more pronounced as the homeless crisis has grown out of control.

This has left many exclaiming always and only about our problems – telling a story of a blighted, menacing downtown (as if unhoused people were little more than litter). It has also provoked the vigorous counternarrative, variations on the defensive, not-so-recent theme that “Spokane is not as bad as people think.”

That’s the energy behind the recent travel piece published by the Daily Beast: “Spokane Doesn’t Suck, Really.”

The story, part of a series about “underrated destinations,” is a tourist’s-eye view of the city, with a heavy emphasis on restaurants and bars and attractions for visitors. The writer, Brandon Withrow, stayed at the historic Davenport, hit a lot of our culinary highlights (Domini’s, Wooden City, Feast World, People’s Waffle, Cease & Desist, and others) and enjoyed a bit of the outdoors

He checked out Riverfront Park and Turnbull Wildlife Refuge. He went to Manito Park and the High Drive Trail. He was guided along the way by Kate Hudson of Visit Spokane.

“Spokane is one of those cities that not only surprise you with what they have hidden and tucked away in different neighborhoods, it leaves you thinking: two days is just not enough,” Withrow wrote. “I need to go back.”

Of course, the story does not delve into the city’s problems. That’s not the nature of what he was writing. But reading it was a refresher course in some of the brighter truths about Spokane, things that are well-known but might be easily forgotten.

There’s always been this tension between the city’s rough side and its striving, aspirational side. A history of people sneering at Spokane for its poverty, its patina of rust and bygone glory – alongside a history of defiant retorts, an insistence that we’re better than the worst characterizations of outsiders. This is where the whole “Spokane Doesn’t Suck” thing comes from.

These days, some of the worst characterizations of our city – Spokane Does So Suck! – come from insiders. People who see nothing but our very real, very serious problems. The ugliest, foulest depictions of the city often come, ironically, from a narrow but loud selection of downtown property owners who continually bombard City Hall with emails and photographs of homeless people and property crimes.

But Spokane is not one or the other of these visions, of course. It’s not a hellscape, and it’s not a tourist’s unexpected delight. It’s not only its worst characteristics and not only its best. It’s not a city of despair or a city of prosperity – it’s both, overlapping, contradicting, challenging, side by side.

Times are good, if not perfect, in many ways in Spokane right now, and some of the less-emphasized positive developments of an active, bustling downtown are part of that. Simultaneously, times are bad, if not hopeless, in many ways in Spokane right now, and our failure to come to grips with homelessness is the most significant part of that.

It’s not either, it’s both, and it’s what you see in major cities with some of the same challenges. It’s common to hear these cities described as pure urban hellscapes, but if you’ve been to Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, that’s not what you’ll find.

What you find is extreme economic inequality on parade. The problems and the pleasures pressed together in stark relief. Elegant restaurants alongside people suffering in crisis. Tourist-packed attractions – next to blighted alleyways. The pleasures of a day in the City by the Bay, or a visit to the food trucks in Portland, have not vanished, nor have those cities been burned down.

But the pleasures available to those of us with means are now blended more directly, sometimes on the same square of land, with the people living the most desperate lives, without access to anything.

This is a physical manifestation of a little-known truth about homelessness in America right now. A team of University of Washington researchers studied homelessness in major U.S. cities for its book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem.”

What they found was that, when they attempted to correlate homelessness with other factors, no single factor – not drug use, not rates of mental illness, not poverty, not political party in the mayor’s office – correlated as strongly with homelessness as high rates of wealth (and corresponding housing costs). The richest cities have the most homelessness.

The best and worst of times go right together.

Our homelessness crisis is deep and real, and the insufficiency of our community response thus far is beyond discouraging. It’s frankly impossible to see any way out of the crisis with the current array of public leadership.

But the brighter side of the coin, for those of us fortunate to experience it, is no less deep and real. The cultural highlights of the Daily Beast story are one part of that.

A lot of other economic and demographic signs are strong, as well. We’re a growing city where building permits, unemployment, the percentage of businesses hiring, and even occupancy of downtown office space have all improved over this time last year, according to statistics tracked on the city web site.

It’s not only terrible. It’s not only great.

It’s both.

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