Monthly Themes

98104: Responsiveness, And Why We Don’t Have It


In this country, citizens across a broad spectrum of diverse backgrounds don’t often come together over a cause. We just don’t organize much anymore. Our rights and liberties were bought and fought for some time ago. Or so we think —

We expect our water and electricity to just work. We expect to easily cross neighborhood boundaries for markets, brunches, or parks without incident. We hope our voting mechanisms work, and when they don’t, we are outraged – and tell everyone on Facebook things should be different.

Generally speaking, most citizens have very little insight to what government actually does. And government probably feels that citizens are entitled, complacent, and whiney. Both perspectives are accurate.

This didn’t just happen, it’s been in the works for a very long time. The system in which we operate (society/neighborhoods and government) are not really designed for openness and responsiveness. They are designed to run as efficiently as possible for the most people possible. When was the last time your water didn’t work, or your electricity? When is the last time you really went without, in terms of basic government provisions? Though we usually fail to notice it, government programs and policies improve our daily lives in innumerable ways. 

The problem is, the people in government are stuck in processes that close them off to the daily lives of its citizens. Government is designed for top-down messages, most of which people struggle to make relevant to their lives (if they consider what government has to say at all). The system is breaking down and everyone knows it. The failure here is lack of real leadership.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in neighborhood meetings, where government tries to put its best foot forward and in the first sentence, pretty much loses its audience. After about 14 years of living in the Central District and Pioneer Square, I’ve seen first hand the inequality of neighborhood safety/protection and general funding priorities. Nowhere has this been more apparent than the latest incident in Pioneer Square.

In response to neighborhood unrest, the Mayor had two events: Stand For Compassion, and a Neighborhood Summit. Both could not have been more disappointing. The introduction of this article pretty much sums it up.

Seattle’s soul might be said to reside in its neighborhoods, but often immersion in neighborhood politics feels more a ride in the back of a Metro bus.

Still, the recent Neighborhood Summit was important. Seattle’s disaffected hinterlands — almost anyplace outside of downtown — carry a lot of anger and distrust about city government’s intentions and responsiveness. The neighborhoods were asked to plan for growth; most did, then saw their plans shelved, overrun by events, or ignored. Some neighborhoods have had to absorb more than their fair share of growth, others have seen affordable housing shunted aside for high-priced high-rises, most have seen potholes proliferate.


“It’s harder to make eye contact here than it is in New York. You need to come check out #uptown #parks we have a great grant writer.”

Aside from the out of touch presentations of the meeting, there were a number of lost opportunities at this event. Two stand out:

  1. Uninterested & Understaffed Police

A first miss was a lack of actively attentive, and interested police presence.


This was the 911 booth.   The SPD had an unmanned table with a few brochures on the end.

Most of the time, the cop on duty was on his cell phone.

Most of the time, the cop on duty was on his cell phone.

And he certainly wasn't manning the twitter feed.

And he certainly wasn’t manning the twitter feed.

UPDATE: It may sound like I’m being hard on the police department…and to some degree I am. While the Mayor doesn’t staff the neighborhood, the police that are here aren’t stepping in on bad behavior. Our neighborhood has numerous examples of de policing and slow response from 911:

  • “I’ve watched a sailor try to sexually assault a veeeery drunk girl at Seafair last year in the outside doorway by Seattle Fitness. The best was watching her throw up all over his little Popeye suit. I then turned on my bullhorn and informed him I could see everything, and he’d better let her go.”
  • “I’ve watched a drunk dude get in his car and drive right into the back of the car parked in front of him. At least that one brought the cops around. “
  • “I’ve watched a car rear end a cab in the intersection of 1st Ave South and King. Then the two guys got out of the car, and started beating the cab driver, while I watched 3 different SPD cars drive by, slow down, then speed up and drive away. When I called 911 about it, the dispatcher said they were coming, and when I told her 3 other cars had just driven by, she told me to watch MY tone.”
  • “SPD has almost zero presence. I know Cowgirls is supposed to have their front door shut after 9, but I can hear those servers barking on the mike in there from MY BEDROOM while I’m watching Saturday Night Live. I actually know the playlist Thursday-Saturday, because I hear it in MY BEDROOM.”
  • “It’s Trinity and Fuel I can’t stand. Especially Fuel. The amount of ridiculous illegal activity that goes on in the parking lot across from it drives me mad. Watching a drunk guy stumble out of there and start smashing car windows as he walks to his own car is just one of the more time things I’ve seen happen there.”



2. No One To Man The ‘Hoods


The Neighborhood Summit had No Neighborhood Reps

A second miss was a lack of city council presence at the event, as well as neighborhood organizations. The tables were “claimed” by neighborhood residents, whom politely asked that other neighborhoods not sit at their table. There was also not enough seating for everyone. The wrong kind of seating, audience style, did not facilitate conversation. And not enough table seating created territories.


Recommendation: Lay a foundation for Meaningful Participation.

  1. Ask for Meaningful Contributions.

Too often, we invite people to participate in ways that are trivial or just plain useless. People don’t want to be talked-at. Society today is about two-way communication. So few large institutions really understand what this means. They need to take a page from Gavin Newsom. “In a world where people can do anything at the touch of a button—shop, communicate, do research, publish a blog, transfer money—government cannot keep functioning in a twentieth-century mind-set.” It is about openness over control. As a rule, ask important questions, the answers to which should benefit the organization, or your own life. If the question being asked of more than 10 people provides boring responses, you’re asking the wrong question.

What would have come of having easels throughout the room with questions such as:

  • When crime happens in my neighborhood I wish, that….
  • When I see homeless in my parks, I wish that…
  • When I see litter around my streets, I wonder…
  1. Scaffold The Experience.

A blank page can be a scary thing, but give people a list to start from, and suddenly everyone is an executive – leverage that. Scaffolding provides a framework for participation. It works best when the framework matches the task at hand. If you want people to write a letter, give them one to start from and let them modify it. If you want people to vote on top issues, put ten of the top issues around the room and let them vote with stickers on which ones need to be focused on for that conversation. Have City Council members host a round-robin conversation with groups of 8-10 people on that particular issue…share feedback and outcomes. When tools fit the experience, it’s simultaneously immersive and focuses people on the task at hand. The experience adds valuable content to the process government is trying to guide.

  1. Honor The Participant.

Don’t “shush” them. Not everyone came for four hours of listening to data from a year ago. They came to collaborate on something common to all of them. And, not everyone wants to actively participate. The majority would often prefer to stand back and watch. If you are inviting participation that is highly involved, make sure to build in secondary ways to participate. This might mean voting on favorite entries, commenting, or snapping pictures. The more public the participatory experience, the more likely people are to move from spectating to participating. When you can watch other people do it first, it builds confidence and trust that this is a worthwhile activity.

On April 5, the room was filled with willing minds and hands. So much energy and enthusiasm just lost as presentations droned on with dated information. The neighborhood summits could have been and still could be a great local hub event with hackathons dedicated to solving community problems. Here is an example.

98104: Location Impacts Behavior

Last month I wrote a post on the topic of vice-districts and transition. Saturday night (3.15.2014) around 5pm an off-duty Seattle firefighter, his wife and a friend of his were harassing a homeless man in Occidental Park.

What made it to the news is here.

What didn’t make it to the news is here:


– The Importance of Engaged Citizenship. 

Luckily for the homeless man, there was an eyewitness. His account of the incident and request for more active policing are here.

– How Easily Our Assumptions and Biases Impact What We See And Our Responses

“A homeless man was beaten and no police cars arrived. When one of the attackers was stabbed and four police cruisers, two ambulances, a fire truck and several fire department supervisor cars all arrived within minutes.”

– The Impact of De Policing

“Anyone who attends a Sounders, Seahawks or Mariners game is comforted by the large police presence. Officers are there directing traffic, coordinating and controlling the “march to the match” and as people leave the stadiums are there to keep things moving along in a safe and orderly fashion. Then where do they go? Once the games are done and the CenturyLink parking lots empty Pioneer Square becomes ignored by law enforcement until there is blood in the street.”

How Location Impacts Behavior

You don’t hear much about stabbings in Bellevue or Kirkland, Ballard, or Wallingford. Those neighborhoods have much more police attention than does Pioneer Square. This infers that there is an acceptable level of incidents we are willing to tolerate in certain parts of our city. Meaning, some people in some locations are valued higher than others.

When we visit vice districts, outrageous behavior such as yelling at complete strangers, devaluing people we deem less than ourselves, drinking too much are not just tolerated–they come to be expected. This is a lot like treating Pioneer Square like a student whose teacher has no expectations of him/her.

If a person (or a neighborhood) continues to hear they are “not good enough” or “never going to do well” — eventually that is just what will happen.

transition no6

98104: Transition


This project has piqued a lot of interest with folks. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting people with which I ordinarily would not have crossed paths. Most surprising (to me), only one person has declined to have his photograph taken but still spoke to me. Everyone has been incredibly supportive and very interested in learning along with me.

Just last week, someone stopped me on the street to thank me for the blog. He said that two instances came to mind where he thought of the blog before engaging someone in line at his coffee shop, and again with someone on the street. It’s gratifying to know this project has provided someone with an engagement model for communicating with others. I hope there’s more of that happening everywhere. We can’t leave things to a small group of concerned citizens. We all have to be in that group.

This site is an opportunity to share perceptions. Two come to mind this month. One was of a couple just arrived from LA, and under the impression that everyone in Bellingham was happy. The other one was of a person in Capitol Hill whom felt that Pioneer Square captures the bottom layer of tourism for Seattle. Both had points I thought were interesting and valid.

Virtually everyone I came across this month was coming from somewhere and on their way to somewhere else. Populations in transition (homeless, people who work here but live somewhere else, or tourists) are a big part of the personality of this neighborhood. Lately though there is a growing voice of more permanent residents who really appreciate the advent of businesses that in turn, care about them. Those are the ones that are open on the weekends, when the residents are actually around (Zeitgeist, The Mercantile, Rainshadow Meats to name a few). Pioneer Square needs more places like this where people can meet and hang out.

This month, the theme of Transitions seemed appropriate.

Last month I noted:

Winston Churchill argued that we shape our buildings which then they shape us. The same is true of our digital technologies. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram played a major role in the ability to connect and share local events as they unfolded. But what of our neighborhoods? How does Pioneer Square shape those who live in it?

That really impacted my perspective as I heard people’s responses. I think it’s true. Pioneer Square was a main supply stop for those on route to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and 1898. The buildings and zoning reflect that with saloons, card rooms, hotels, and supply mercantiles.

No one is headed to Alaska for gold now. The new gold is in software code and the many start ups making their home in Pioneer Square. And there are many new stores ready to help supply them.

What do People of Pioneer Square appreciate most?

This month I asked folks what they liked most about Pioneer Square. Without hesitation, most everyone replied that they are passionate about old buildings and like to see them preserved. A most unscientific survey, this appeared to be universal across the homeless, people here on business, tourists, and residents.

People are moved by nice architecture. Good design illicits affect and emotion.

Austin A. Bell building af23f8427fe3d5848dd81cf9695fa06a f735f1e58ee5c93d3c3dd2a8a0d9cc27
PhotoCredit: Dan Haneckow Photo Credit: W D Honan Photo Credit: Bob Cerelli

The residents and businesses of Pioneer Square of have had to fight to be heard on the topic of preservation. So when you look at those buildings, know that it took a group of concerned citizens and businesses to save them. 

And, they are intimidated by the homeless, the drugs, the violence, and the perception of a lack of safety and order.

What is a vice-district?

It’s a red-light district. It’s where the homeless, the prostitutes, the drugs, the violence, and the generally unsavorable congregate (or are relagated to reside).

This is some of what people think of when they think of the underbelly of a red-light district.

seen 130914_pioneer_sq_stabbing_405 pple_wegetuthruit
Frequent car theft on I5 bridge Violence (Photo Credit: Komo News) Jail bond shops

Political Choices

It’s not easy to boost your neighborhood with a red-light district stigma. It wasn’t that long ago (2006), when a federal judge left Seattle Officials with two politically distasteful choices when he tossed out the city’s 17-year moratorium on new strip clubs:

  • Carve out one “red light district” and anger nearby residents, or
  • Risk a citywide backlash by authorizing clubs throughout Seattle

Pioneer Square is not alone in its desire to clean up and repair its image. Columbia City, Georgetown and Beacon Hill have all had their share of pain in this regard. All have exciting revitalization projects underway.

Most municipalities with sex workers or dancers opt for a “red light district” as a form of containment. The claim is to regulate the commercial sex industry and contain the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The question then becomes, Do we want to regulate it, control it and contain it for the health benefits of our citizens and our visitors? The thinking is, if we don’t control it, we’re going to have rampant infestation of all sorts of health issues.

In 2006, city councilman Peter Steinbrueck, who chairs the planning committee, said he hoped to quickly pass the Sodo proposal and move on. But then dozens of neighbors and the local media attended an April hearing where residents of the nearby Georgetown and Beacon Hill communities complained that their areas are too often chosen for undesirable uses, such as sex offender housing and a proposed garbage station.

A goal toward vibrancy.

The goal of revitalization is a goal toward a very subjective concept called “vibrancy.” Vibrancy means a buzz of people interacting and transacting in mutually beneficial exchanges – positive interdependecy (both economic and social). Jane Jacobs, infamous urban planner of the 60s, imagined people on the street and sidewalks, jostling and bumping as they went about their daily businesses, often in street-level retail establishments just off the sidewalk.

Cars don’t help. In the car-based world, that vibrancy is more hidden. Sure, you can see the cars (sometimes way, way too many cars in congested traffic), but you don’t really see the people or the interactions as they hide inside the cars, strip centers, and office buildings. They’re there, but we don’t “feel” them as much as we do in a classic Jane Jacobs walkable neighborhood.

Vibrancy is about pull. Vibrancy creates a very simple decision for people: is there some interesting or necessary activity that draws me out of my home? Work? Shopping? Socializing? Whether I’m in a walk-up apartment or a house in the suburbs, the question is the same. More options increases the likelihood of drawing me out. And I have to weigh-up those interesting options against the barriers to going out, particularly mobility: how much time, effort, and money is required to go do this activity? A good, cheap restaurant is an easy choice when it’s right down the street, but a harder one in heavy traffic with unpredictable parking or with some long walks and subway rides in possibly unpleasant weather. There’s always leftovers in the fridge and something on TV, the mortal enemies of “vibrancy”.

In the car-based city, density tends to stay in a reasonably narrow and low range because of the need to accommodate cars and parking but mobility is variable: average trip speed is very dependent on the availability of high-capacity, smoothly-running arterials and freeways.

Here is where you can track and participate in Pioneer Square’s revitalization planning.

Question: Is this Pioneer Square’s problem, or everyone’s problem?

Catch Me On The Corner,


98104: Connection

"...breadth of connection seems to happen more naturally but depth of connection is something we need to consciously and constantly build. What are some ways you do this in your life?"

Pioneer Square, February 2014: Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl

I’m going to try to write one major piece each month on Pioneer Square on a major theme. As I was considering the neighborhood the last few days the theme of Connection came up.

We blame social media impact on our face to face interaction and the interuption and multi-task culture we live in  for our lack of connection these days. And yet hastags such as #SB48, #Superbowl, #Pioneersquare, #Seattle and #howseattleriots brought many people together last night. Building real connection happens uniquely for each person.

Winston Churchill argued that we shape our buildings which then they shape us. The same is true of our digital technologies. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram played a major role in the ability to connect and share local events as they unfolded. But what of our neighborhoods? How does Pioneer Square shape those who live in it?

We pay for the ease and frequency of our communication with the depth of our relationships. The irony, of course, is that our increasingly vanishing connection to each other is driven by our deep need to connect. It is no accident that we are all collectively spending over 230 thousand years worth of time on social media in a single month.

Technology has become the architect of our intimacies. Over the past 15 years, Sherry Turkle (author of Alone Together) studied technologies of mobile communication. She found that our little devices, those little devices in our pockets, are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are. Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing, but they’ve quickly come to seem familiar, just how we do things. For example, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was communicated via a tweet, before his three young children, with whom he was scheduled to spend the day, and his longtime partner, Mimi O’Donnell were notified.

There’s a great summary in Salon about how ethics is changing for journalists:

In its ethics code, the Society of Professional Journalists has an entire section on “minimizing harm,” guided by the principle that “ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” The section cautions reporters to show compassion and be sensitive when investigating a tragedy. It urges them to “show good taste” and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” Increasingly, “minimizing harm” is becoming a quaint concern, a nostalgic vestige of a bygone era in journalism. Now, breaking news is breaking us. We’re cycling through tragedies at lightning speed and without affording ourselves the adequate time to reflect and to grieve. The pursuit of journalistic expediency is eroding our empathy, and readers are left the worse for it.

All this makes me wonder about the burst of emotion Seattle felt in the streets last night.

Community support for the team has been building for months. It makes sense that a win would be like popping a cork. The unleashing of emotion started out friendly, with just a few people in the streets. We went out and joined the crowd for a bit. One side of our street was dedicated to pedistrians, the other had cars attempting to go home, all beeping horns in support of Seattle. Within an hour both sides of the street were literally flooded. People were climbing the historic pergola, hanging from lamposts, and carrying street signs away–all under the watch of the Seattle Police Department. They didn’t even remove people from the street lights. After some time, the police taped off the pergola and stood underneath it which (eventually) proved effective.

When I think of the hassles of the neighborhood and why I’m not more involved, I think of the time it takes away from other things I want or need to get done. “Conversating” takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right.

These are photos of folks being unedited. 🙂

pool of people pergola lights
Photo from Twitter: @GNCordova Photo from Instagram: luke_rain Photo from Twitter: @PSBJphoto

What is interesting to me is the potential for connection given all these social tools.  All these apps make it very easy to just hop from introduction to introdction at the expense of building depth of connection. Human relationships are rich and they’re messy and they’re demanding.

What does that mean when we consider our own back yard? While I can’t wrap my head around folks whom are scared to cross the bridge, how do help educate people who are afraid of vice districts? How do we reach out more to the homeless? What impact does local shopping have on globalization? How can we connect and partner more effectively with our government (with the same ease we have in navigating Nordstrom’s customer service department)?

We can only clean up so much with technology. And when we do, one of the things that can happen is that we sacrifice conversation for mere connection. We short-change ourselves. And over time, we seem to forget this, or we seem to stop caring.

Stay tuned for local conversations…

Catch Me On The Corner,

UPDATE:  2/4/2014

Amanda Gallagher Quinn started a GoFundMe project:  #HowSeattleRiots Fixing the Pergola most of the donations were $12. Sometimes crowds are great.


…Only in Seattle. #socialmedia #editsourbehavior