On a warm evening in early September, a friend came over to watch a movie. What we really wanted was to indulge in the popcorn I would drench in enough butter to make a luscious breather from real life. It is so good to get a breather from real life.
She and I have been friends for ages — despite a few bumps in the road during the Trump administration. So, when she suggested that I stop resisting and finally watch the KOMO News Documentary “Seattle is Dying,” I couldn’t decide whether to object or pour myself a tumbler of gin and give in.
I know. You saw it ages ago. Everyone saw it ages ago. But me? I didn’t want to watch it. I got fretful just thinking about watching it. When it first came out in 2019, I was living in my own little dying neighborhood, already fearful about walking anywhere at night. By 2021, even in daylight, so much about Belltown was dangerously scary. So, when she first suggested we watch the documentary back in the summer of 2020, I suggested that we reschedule to a day when I hadn’t seen anyone shooting up in my building’s entry stairwell. She wanted to watch it anyway. I suggested an episode of “Call the Midwife.”
But to have a friend, we must be one. So, well, fine, I agreed to watch. And I thought I’d react to the documentary in the same way I’ve come to view cable news — that we are not being told the truth; that singing to our own choir is not trustworthy reporting, it is mostly for entertainment purposes, and it is divisive.
The thing was, I was riveted.
Generally, I back away even from the words “right” and “left,” let alone the idea of edging my way closer to the side of KOMO on the issues of homelessness and addiction. Yet, that edging felt more like barreling as the documentary continued.
My first thought was that I was relieved I’d left Belltown. Right up until the day we moved, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of coping because the thought of upheaving my whole life makes me a little crazy. But lately I’m trying to give more thought to accepting exactly how things are and moving on if something or someone causes me pain, forgiving the perpetrator, as well as myself, along the way. I am even trying to forgive Seattle’s City Council for — well, you know — all of it.
I might be holding on to a little grudge, however. It’s so hard to forgive stubborn incompetence, and too many of our council members are appallingly lacking in leadership skills.
But I’m not going to give up on Seattle. I didn’t give up on New York in the early ’90s or after 9/11. And today, I feel safer when I return to Manhattan than I do on the downtown streets of Seattle.
Last time I visited, I thanked a mounted policeman for his efforts. And when he asked me where I lived now and I told him, he said, “Oh, I’d never work in that city. People love us here.” That may or may not be true, but as he tipped his hat to the couple walking by, I was relieved by how the people in Washington Square Park clearly seemed to welcome his presence.
In Seattle’s downtown, the decline might be quieter than a plane destroying a city’s two largest towers, but before COVID it was loud. Literally, booming. When everything old was torn down so that everything new could be built, when the Amazon campus was going up and up, and the newly constructed condos, and the skyscrapers we called by name quicker than I would have thought — Insignia, Spire, The Emerald — technology wealth was new to the city and so was I. My husband and I moved into a building on Fifth and Vine. Longtime residents still called it the Denny Regrade. It’s hard to believe that in 2007, CNN named Belltown the best place to live in the Seattle metro area, calling it "a walkable neighborhood with everything you need." As I remember it, “everything” mostly meant happy hours. And, let me just say, there were great happy hours in Belltown.
But, honestly, I was ready for a change even before COVID made living in Belltown intolerable. For me, anyway. My friend Stephanie still lives there. She loves Seattle and regrets its decline as much as I do.
“I’m not going to leave,” she said. “This is my home, and I’m going to see this through.”
I worry about her, though, because every time we talk, she shares another horror story — the addict who left blood and feces all over the walls of her workplace bathroom; the man who threatened her with a knife on Fourth Avenue; and the shootings, the constant shootings.
But a part of me is glad that she is staying. For one thing, I’m hoping the good people who stay will balance out the ruthless fentanyl dealers. And for another, Seattle can’t keep on this way. That last string of shootings — was it six fatalities in one night? — has got to be Seattle hitting bottom. Right?
But some of Stephanie’s stories still highlight the best of our city. This is when her tone moves from frustration to that of affection, as though she can’t help but speak fondly of a city that the media declares is “dying.” And when I walk down Alaskan Way and see a flowing stream of people enchanted by the view that is sort of the whole point of living downtown, I remember how taken I was the first time I saw Puget Sound, and I find a new sense of hope in their smiles, which counts as a good day in our inner city nowadays.
Mary Lou Sanelli, author, speaker and master dance teacher, is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays about living in Seattle that was nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. Her novel, The Star Struck Dance Studio of Yucca Springs, was released in 2020
and her first children's book, Bella Likes To Try, will be out in October. For more information, visit www.marylousanelli.com.