The moment I pitched the idea of an Amazon Go store, of all things, being a symbol of Seattle’s renaissance, I admitted it.
But when the tiny store opened in the grim end of 2020, just off a crime corner, it was the first new storefront in the closed city center since the coronavirus descended 10 months earlier.
Things were so tenuous then that even an automated, cashless, barely staffed convenience store was seen as a seed of hope: “It was kind of like a flower – OK, a really rich flower – had thrown a peeking through rubble,” I wrote.
Well now the store really becomes a parabola. Because this flower is already faded.
Amazon closed the store near Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, “for the safety of our store employees, customers and third-party vendors.” The statement said the company “hopes conditions in the region will improve in the future.”
So far they haven’t. When the store opened in December 2020, this downtown area was largely deserted. It was less dangerous than unreal, like an empty movie set.
There are people now. Partly with buyers and some tourists. But also with a persistent open-air drug market that one day last week had so crowded the sidewalks of Pike Street that pedestrians had to exit into the bus lane to pass.
On Thursday, a typical day based on police reports and calls for help, there was a ‘drug victim’ in the neighborhood and a dozen other narcotics or ‘behavioural/emotional crisis’ calls. .
That same day, while I was there, a man collapsed face down on the sidewalk around the corner from the now closed Amazon Go. When I asked his friends if they needed me to call 911, they smeared the back of his neck with a wet t-shirt and said, “No, no, he’ll be fine.
He did. Later, however, I saw him scream and bang a wooden post against the front of a building on Pike Street.
The police tried to crack down. A week ago they arrested eight people here for selling fentanyl and methamphetamine. The futility was recognized on the right in the press release: Cops said they ran over a 16-year-old who was selling fentanyl and had a gun, only to realize they had just arrested the same teenager, pushing fentanyl with a different gun, at the same corner Third and Pike a few weeks earlier.
Police data shows what Amazon Go was up against. The store is in the city’s smallest police precinct, an area approximately four blocks by six blocks known as “Mary Three”, or M3, in the police lexicon. It’s basically Pine to Seneca and Second Avenue to Eighth. In the past month, this small area has seen 16 assaults, 12 burglaries, 10 robberies, 23 drug seizures, 14 weapons violations and 12 property destructions, to name just a few of the 141 total crimes reported.
This represents approximately 100 crimes per month last summer in M3. It’s unclear if there are more crimes now, or simply more reports due to greater law enforcement. Either way, companies there are pushed beyond the limit. The spa next to Amazon Go is closed, the Chase Bank branch on the next block is closed, and Starbucks made headlines by closing its nearby cafe in Westlake last month.
A block west of the Amazon Go, the poor Wild Ginger restaurant remains open, even though it looks like a bomb has gone off. Five of its giant bay windows are boarded up after being smashed – including one last week when a man threw a large boulder while customers dined inside.
“This will put us out of business”, the owner said to the king 5.
The city center can be described as being in a liminal state. It’s not that bad: it’s surprisingly crowded, at least during the day. But the drug scene is dystopian and ubiquitous. People roam the streets with tin foil and pipes used to smoke the “blues”. It’s a scourge that’s beginning to rival the coronavirus for escalating deaths: This year so far, 314 people have died countywide from fentanyl overdoses alone, a rate 49% higher to that of last year. Which saw twice as many fentanyl deaths as the year before.
What can be done? At city hall last week, they tentatively approved a plan to hire more police. Council member Teresa Mosqueda voted no and said police recruitment efforts were a sideshow.
“The officers themselves told the social service providers there was no money to make up for the fact that they had nowhere to take people,” she said.
She is wrong and also right, it seems to me. Seattle obviously needs more cops – just for the rise in violent crime and shootings. It’s also obvious that the cops can’t solve it alone. What’s a cop supposed to do with someone like the man I described above who was cold on the sidewalk?
Mosqueda is right that we also need detox beds, addiction counselors and social workers. What I don’t understand is why the cops are always against aid workers, like it’s one or the other.
“Wouldn’t it be better if the cops and the mental health professionals went together?” That’s how the president of the state’s crisis responders association recently told the Seattle Times.
Spend a few hours at Mary Three and it’s obvious it’s a crisis zone. He desperately needs more of everything – police, social workers, counsellors, paramedics. People are dying on the sidewalks as politicians dither, we pass and businesses leave.
If money is the problem, divert it from the booming tax revenue of Jumpstart payroll technology and flood the area.
There was hope, which first germinated with this Amazon Go store, that downtown’s problems would ease as the pandemic progressed. I know, it’s just an automated, cashless convenience store, one of many run by a soulless megacorporation.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss its symbolism for this reason. Because it is hope that withers.