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Tuesday, August 10, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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This Is The Best Of Times To Keep This City Livable

IF you were to write Seattle's story today, you might borrow Dickens' memorable opening of "A Tale of Two Cities," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." From Fortune Magazine's No.1 place to do business to the capital of "grunge," from high-tech productivity perched on the Pacific Rim to espresso barristas on the corners, it is the best of times in Seattle. We're even a good place to be sleepless.

And yet, we Seattleites have this anxiety, this nagging suspicion that despite the mountains and the Sound and smugness about all our advantages, maybe, just maybe we are pretty much like those other big American cities, "back East" as we used to say when I was a kid and before California joined the list of "formerly great places to live." I think that's one reason why the increasing disorder on our streets touches a nerve for so many. If the "past is prologue" we have seen one version of the future in city after city, a dying retail core where there is more criminal than commercial activity, where the simplest rules of civility are ignored without consequence, where random senseless acts of violence become pervasive, culminating in the migration of those who can leave. This is not Seattle today, but this downward spiral doesn't happen overnight and it will be more than just a bad dream if we don't wake up to the challenges we confront and act.

Obviously the serious crimes of violence, the gangs and drug trafficking can tear a community apart, but we must not underestimate the damage that can be done by a slower, less-dramatic but nonetheless dangerous unraveling of the social order. Even for hardy urban dwellers, there comes a point where the usually tolerable "minor" misbehaviors - the graffiti, the litter and stench of urine in doorways, the public drinking, the aggressive panhandling, the lying down on the sidewalks - cumulatively become intolerable. Collectively and in the context of more serious crime, they create a psychology of fear that can and has killed other formerly great cities because people do not want to shop, work, play or live in such an environment.

The challenges we confront are as complex as the causes of poverty and crime, the treatment of alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness, and the balancing of individual rights and social responsibilities. Time does not permit a detailed discussion today, but let me just say that there are no simple solutions. Law enforcement alone is not the answer. We need to expand services for those on the streets and provide more opportunities for people to make acceptable choices. I strongly support Mayor Rice's effort to do just that. At the same time, however, more services alone are also not the answer. Some people make bad choices. For example, we have public toilets across from Occidental Park, but some urinate in the park anyway. We put a portable toilet on the Public Safety Building plaza, but some continue to urinate on the war memorial. We need more public toilets, but some won't use them. We need more shelter facilities and day centers, but there will always be reasons why some won't use them. We need more facilities for alcoholics, but there will be some who won't use them. We should not accept choices that harm the legitimate rights and interests of our community.

To address the misbehavior on our streets, we need to strengthen our laws. We need to make it a crime to repeatedly drink or urinate in public, because some people ignore the current law with impunity. Today, these acts are subject only to a fine, similar to a traffic ticket. In the last six months of 1992, 800 people received two or more citations for drinking in public, 89 received six or more citations. Not one responded. Nothing happened. We need to change the law to provide consequences for those who repeatedly ignore it. I have proposed that the second offense become a misdemeanor, not only to punish and to deter, but to provide the power to influence behavior through probation such as by requiring participation in treatment or restrictions like staying out of a particular park where public drinking is a serious problem.

Where an alley becomes a haven for criminal behavior, it should be closed to the general public during specified periods, as has been done with some of our parks, and the police empowered to arrest those who go into a closed alley without authority.

We need to strengthen the enforceability of our aggressive panhandling law by better defining its terms and providing examples, like touching the person, using abusive or threatening language or repeatedly demanding money after having been told no.

Panhandling cannot be addressed simply by passing laws. Public education about alternative giving options and the damage panhandling can cause to both those soliciting and the community is essential. I think we need to take that education to the streets and compete elbow to elbow with panhandlers for those charitable donations and redirect them to those charities that really do help those in need.

We also need to address those lying or sitting down day after day in front of some of our shops. This behavior threatens public safety. The elderly, infirm and vision impaired should not have to navigate around people lying prone on frequently congested sidewalks. Beyond this, many people see those sitting or lying on the sidewalk and - either because they expect to be solicited or otherwise feel apprehensive - avoid the area. This deters them from shopping at adjacent businesses, contributing to the failure of some and damaging others, costing Seattle jobs and essential tax revenue. It also threatens public safety in a less-direct but perhaps more serious way.

A critical factor in maintaining safe streets is keeping them vibrant and active in order to attract people and create a sense of security and confidence. When people are deterred from using the sidewalk and storefronts close, a downward spiral of blight may begin. As public confidence diminishes, crime increases, beginning a vicious cycle that, as many formerly great American cities have demonstrated, can be very difficult to reverse. We must do what we can to prevent this downward spiral from setting in.

There are many places and times where those who want to lie or sit down can do so without harming anyone else's interests. We have parks and plazas, areas dedicated to public use that surround many buildings, benches and chairs provided for that purpose and even the sidewalks in business districts outside of normal business hours. But just as we regulate our sidewalks for everything from newspaper racks to espresso stands, awnings to trees, we need to say that, with a few reasonable exceptions, sidewalks in busy commercial districts are not the place to lie down.

There are those who say these proposals are an attack on the homeless - "war on the poor." This is not aimed at the homeless, it is aimed at the lawless. Most homeless cope with adversity without breaking the law. This is not about "getting people out of town," it is about getting people to behave. It is reasonable to expect that all of us who live here should comply with some simple, basic rules of civil behavior. And it is the "street people" themselves who are at the greatest risk if our streets spiral out of control. If the law abiding abandon these streets, then like moths drawn to the light the predators and criminals will come and it is the homeless and the helpless who will be preyed upon first.

Seattle is a progressive, compassionate and caring city of which we can all be proud. Despite declining federal support, the City has spent over $20 million in the past four years to provide help to those in need, and many millions more have come from private charitable support. There is nothing inconsistent about caring for those in need and caring about the future of our city.

Despite the potential for shrillness, these are issues worthy of thoughtful debate. The one option we do not have is to do nothing, or our children will look back and say of us, "They had the best of times."

This originally was the text of a speech given by City Attorney Mark Sidran to the Downtown Seattle Rotary Club on Aug. 4.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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