Mary Lou Sanelli
Mary Lou Sanelli

Would it have made a difference if I had known what was to slowly, ruinously become of my old neighborhood? Because I can so often understand something rationally, but it doesn’t change the way I feel about it emotionally, as much as I try.

Would I have moved away from downtown earlier, lessened my attachments to it sooner, if I had known what was coming?

These are the thoughts that haunt me as I walked back to my old place on Vine Street under a September sky that is golden above the monorail this time of the year. The fires were still burning in eastern Washington. There was a faint smell of ash in the air.

It’s been almost a month since I returned.

Earlier, I’d passed the nearly naked man who makes his home in the abandoned Lusty Lady doorway — the irony does not escape me. The broken glass scattered everywhere as if smashed in a rage confirms that a camp can turn from passive to brutal in the blink of an eye. The flap of his tent wafted upward in the slight wind. A younger man inside stared at me as if there was something wrong with me for noticing him.

I took his stare to heart. I let it sink in.

Something about his eyes reminded me of my first serious boyfriend who was killed in a car accident on his 21st birthday. It seemed inconceivable that he could die.

Dying was not part of our young plans. Did I cry hysterically? I can’t remember. Was I inconsolable? I can’t remember that, either. Time has faded the details. But I do remember how it was easier to let go of grief then, and with it the fear that nothing is a given, that the film between life and death is terrifyingly thin. I was able to meet that truth head-on and still live on in hope and enthusiasm.

It’s not so easy anymore.

Wrapping my sweater closer around my shoulders, I crossed to the SAM side of the street where the Hammering Man still pounds. I thought, you remind me of our City Council. You keep pounding, but nothing gets done. Businesses keep closing.

And because my displeasure can turn to anger in the space of a breath: Bezos, pound him, why don’t you? Imagine the mental health or addiction facility he could have built with $5.5 billion instead of flying off to the edge of space!

I look around at all of the new tents strewn around the city, and I see that throwing money at homelessness doesn’t get us far. Nor does blaming. Nor does misdirected compassion because compassion isn’t always what it seems. I do love Seattle. But it’s become an uneasy love. I just can’t seem to love it without shaking my head anymore. It’s despairing — there isn’t really any other word to describe it.

My question always becomes: Other than fentanyl dealers, who is profiting from all of this misery? Is it best to continue to hope for a turnaround of leadership or cross downtown off my list as simply “too depressing,” like so many others have done.

Mentally, I make a case for both sides.

When King County bought the Queen Anne Inn to run as “supportive housing,” my friend Lisa hoped for the best. But when Uptown Espresso cited crime for their closure because her beloved neighborhood was quickly seized by crime, drug use, violent assaults, she started to pack. But it’s hard to make a new life, new connections, new friends, I tell her that. It’s really hard.

I’ve always been moved by the beauty of Seattle, the clear sea and mountain views; yet now I am fearful, which is a feeling incompatible with beauty. As Sontag wrote, maybe I suffer from “The inescapable longing for something you never had.”

But, then, I say, no. Because you know what? I did have a neighborhood I loved. Neighbors I loved. Business owners I loved. They are mostly gone now, moved out of the city because of this same fear we can’t outrun, and it’s not of Covid, and it’s not because we are no longer 21. It’s of a City Council that says it is compassionate, but it seems just the opposite is true. Where is their compassion for all the people who no longer feel safe in the neighborhoods they helped create?

I read that a shark has to keep moving forward in order to breathe, to keep forcing water through their gills. The words struck me like a wake-up call, a small part of the universal whole, but a critical part.

It’s rare that policy makers live in the neighborhoods they govern. I can only hope (and pray and vote!) that ours will finally admit that the homeless issue has become Seattle’s very own too-permissive public policies. It’s time to close the huge gap between what is naïve ideology and what actually is, what actually works. Or, like a shark caught in a trawl net, we will continue to go under.

My father used to sing Sinatra songs softly to himself, songs like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” So I read through all the lyrics, highlighting my favorite lines. From the many, I’ve chosen these two because they reveal that when it comes to running a city, there is no better advice: “Use your mentality. Wake up to reality.”


Mary Lou Sanelli is an author, speaker, and dance teacher, Her newest title, “Every Little Thing,” has been nominated for a Pacific Northwest Book Award and a Pushcart Prize. Ask for it locally at Magnolia’s Bookstore or the Queen Anne Book Company.