How bad is Seattle, really?
October 21, 2022 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Need a perspective on Seattle from reliable narrators.

I grew up in Seattle. I used to go back frequently until about 4 years ago. I’ve always really enjoyed the city and have been very comfortable with getting around on the bus and on foot. There have always been unhoused community members and I feel that they belong in the city and it hasn’t affected my ability to enjoy everything the city had to offer (except being sad that they are underserved community members). I spent many happy nights wandering the city as a music loving idiot college girl.

However. My mother, who lives within walking distance of downtown on Capitol Hill, has a real problem with unhoused people. It is a topic of conversation every time I call her - to the point it sounds like a form of dementia. I’ve had to ask her to to change the topic many times. She is racist and classist about this. From her perspective, downtown is no longer enjoyable at all and certainly not a place you would walk due to the “aggressive people”. The same goes for adjacent neighborhoods.

My mother is not a reliable narrator. So, people who live in Seattle, what is the core of the city like these days? Can a family still walk under the colonnade? Can we stroll downtown and up to Broadway? How’s Eastlake?

Keeping this anonymous so it doesn’t get back to my mother, because drama.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I do not currently live in Seattle, but I did. Last month, an (young) adult relative visited Seattle: they have lived in NYC; have lived in poor parts of Eat Coast cities; they have backpack solo-traveled both nationally and internationally. They are urban-savvy and have extensive experience navigating areas with unhoused people and “oh shit” moments in cities where they did not speak the local language and they were freaked out by Seattle. Like - first time in their life afraid for their safety when traveling on foot near Pike Place Market, to the extent that they hoofed it back to a safer area and called an Uber to get them out of there.

Obviously - this is a second-hand account, but I have never heard this person audibly SCARED when I talked with them a few hours later.

On Edit: they did not report this level of distress from their walk thru Capital Hill, but again - they are used to a certain level of unhoused people. So, not sure if my second-hand report helps.
posted by Silvery Fish at 7:12 AM on October 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

Yeah, downtown isn't great. The pandemic hit it hard. Many business closed, no one was going to the office, etc. Lots of drug dealing, drug use, and drug use after effects. But third and Pike is still third and Pike, as it has been for many years.
posted by Windopaene at 7:31 AM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

And re Capital Hill, it never emptied out as much, and when I do go up there I don't see large numbers of tents on the sidewalks and such, like I do in various spots here in and around Ballard.
posted by Windopaene at 7:34 AM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've lived in many cities, including NYC. Parts of downtown Seattle really are scruffy these days, with a combination of closed businesses and people living in tents on the street (and the related litter and waste). I recently saw someone peppersprayed on the light rail, something I hadn't seen before in my decades of taking public transportation. But my kid and I enjoyed a trip downtown together a few weeks ago walking around like tourists, going to MOHAI, browsing at Nordstroms, taking the SLUT, etc. Nobody got directly in our faces and it was easy to avoid interacting with people we wanted to avoid.

Everywhere smells of pot. If your mom has problems with that, it might be part of what she's complaining about.

One thing that's missing, at least on weekends: places to grab a quick bite to eat.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:51 AM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

I live in Chicago. I've lived specifically on the southwest side of Chicago for the better part of 15 years, most of it in a neighborhood with serious gang activity. I am very used to an urban environment, almost nothing about it scares me, and I feel confident about carrying myself through seedy areas.

I visited Seattle for a few days over the summer, and while I was never personally scared, I was honestly shocked at the amount of open drug use I saw right there on the sidewalks and streets. I've never seen anything like it, and I've seen a lot. This would understandably make many people deeply uncomfortable.
posted by phunniemee at 7:58 AM on October 21, 2022 [19 favorites]

Downtown is different from other parts of the city. Mostly, I think, because of remote work. There are significantly fewer people commuting in to work, which means fewer office workers, and a lot of the businesses are struggling/closed. Having said that, there aren't encampments downtown the way there were last year. Maybe a tent or two in a few places, but I think the city is trying to keep the sidewalks clear.

Other parts of the city have encampments dotted around, and they move as enforcement focuses on some areas. There's a large one (as of last weekend) on the west side of Cal Anderson on cap hill for example. But another huge one that was just off Eastlake a few months ago is gone.

The issue at 3rd/Pike isn't unhoused people, it's criminals. And a lot depends on how much emphasis SPD is currently putting into having officers in the area.

How safe one feels (or you) is going to vary a lot. I walk by encampments a lot, and don't feel particularly threatened. However I'm a white male. I have a friend who had a coworker attached by someone near an encampment, and now avoids them with a wide berth.

There are absolutely more unhoused people visible on the street than three years ago. And downtown is absolutely not as enjoyable as it once was (although to me it doesn't feel like the hellscape that some people make it out to be). Unhoused people aren't the cause of that, though. I believe both are symptoms of /waves hands around.
posted by Gorgik at 8:02 AM on October 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

I have never lived in Seattle but I'm quite familiar with the city from visiting it a lot when I lived in Portland and I was actually just back in Seattle in September.

It was totally fine, much better than Portland. I lived in New York for almost 20 years so I know how to handle myself, but Portland was... eerie at night. Downtown was desolate and the only people out were homeless people clearly in distress. There were tents in places I never would have expected, right downtown.

By contrast, I saw no tents anywhere in downtown Seattle or Capitol Hill, it was as busy as I've ever seen it, and I walked around and took public transit at all hours of the day and night and never even encountered anything I would describe as vaguely questionable or alarming. I'm not saying it's not there, just that I did not personally see it.
posted by rhymedirective at 8:04 AM on October 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

I was there two weeks ago - flew in for 2 days for work, and went to downtown and the SubPop HQ area after working, at like 9:00 at night. It seemed fine to me, but I'm also an adult white male. There were some homeless people, but they weren't aggressive or panhandling.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:10 AM on October 21, 2022

I meant to add, I think there's also more mental illness visible downtown, but my suspicion is that the amount hasn't changed, it's just at the forefront because of the lack of daily commuters, so as a percentage of the people you see, it's higher.
posted by Gorgik at 8:14 AM on October 21, 2022 [5 favorites]

I visit Seattle and NYC often. I've had no issues/ felt no fear walking around alone as a woman at all times of the day & night in NYC. I would not do the same in most of Seattle right now.

On preview, what I've experienced in Seattle lately is a lot like what rhymedirective is saying about Portland (and I live in PDX)-- simply because there aren't as many people walking around downtown as there used to be. While there aren't the tents like Portland, it's really easy in parts of Seattle to find yourself completely alone, surrounded by closed businesses, and run into someone who does not wish you well.

So I would question if your mom has to be by herself a lot walking to places. If I was in her position and didn't have a support network and always had to be out alone, I probably would get anxious, too. I have a friend who dedicates several days a week here to working with the unhoused population and the rules of "do not be in/outside the shelter alone" are taken very seriously.

And here are crime statistics. It looks like 2021 was really rough.
posted by haplesschild at 8:15 AM on October 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

For context: I live a couple of hours away from Seattle but visit with some regularity for either work or pleasure. I grew up visiting NYC in the 90s, and I used to live on the south side of Chicago. I also used to work with a large population of unhoused people in mental health crisis. I'm a white woman, so that's informing my perspective too.

When I visit Seattle, I don't really feel comfortable. Even in areas that are busier, like downtown or by the market. In Chicago, there were homeless people panhandling, but they were generally respectful and didn't bother people. In Seattle, I regularly see people actively under the effects of drugs and therefore out of control or acting erratic or in ways that could feel aggressive. I also worry more about my car being broken into. It's also just less pleasant - lots of closed and boarded up buildings, lots of graffiti, litter and waste all over, urine and pot smell everywhere. Last time I went to the neighborhood by the university, I decided to cut my visit short because half the shops I wanted to check out were closed (either permanently or temporarily), I was feeling like I had to be hyper vigilant, a few tweakers made a beeline for me and or/followed me and I had to avoid them, and the whole neighborhood smelled like pee... it just wasn't a good time.

It's such a great city, deep down. I hope things change for the better.
posted by carlypennylane at 8:26 AM on October 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

I work in downtown Seattle, and while I now only go into the office about once a week, I have worked in various places downtown pretty much nonstop for the last 20 years.

20 years ago, I worked in a souvenir store on the waterfront and I would close up the shop by myself, walk up the Harbor Steps, and then take a bus or walk up Capitol Hill to my boyfriend's apartment at 10 pm. I wouldn't hesitate, or take any precautions other than just the general awareness that you need to have when you're walking around while alone and female. Now? You couldn't pay me to do that.

Honestly, I find downtown extremely uncomfortable these days. My running joke with my husband is that once, just ONCE, I'd like to go into work for the week and not have to see some dude's ass or dick. (Or have to step around piles of shit on the sidewalk, or needles.) I almost got hit in the head with a rock last week, because a guy at the bus stop on 4th and Pike apparently took offense to someone walking across the street while on their cell phone, so he winged a big rock at the guy while screaming "GET OFF YOUR PHONE [F-slur for gay people]". The only reason the rock didn't hit me is because I'd had to slow down just then to step around someone passed out on the ground. I saw someone pull a gun on someone else a few months ago, so I just ducked around the corner and went to work a different way that morning. My workplace did some surveys of employees this summer about their feelings about work from home/coming back to the office, and one of the most common reasons people cited for not wanting to come back in regularly was not feeling safe downtown.

It definitely feels like homelessness has increased substantially, and it makes me so furious and sad that a city as rich as we supposedly are is so completely unable to get a handle on the crisis and do something substantial about it. Seattle has always had an unhoused population and it has not historically caused me to feel unsafe, but there has also been what feels like a huge increase in visible crime (like the Target now has security guards with guns, which does not make me feel particularly safe - even the t-shirt shop on 1st and Pike now has armed security) and drug dealing. Sooooo many businesses have closed, because of the lack of office workers or because of crime, and pretty much every block has at least a few empty store fronts. Entire swathes of 3rd are just nothing but plywood-covered windows and as carlypennylane noted, the smells of urine and pot are pretty ubiquitous. I don't know that I would say I regularly feel unsafe, but it's definitely deeply uncomfortable.

I lived in Seattle my entire life, until a few years ago when I moved across Puget Sound because I could no longer afford the housing market here, and what the city has become makes me incredibly sad.
posted by skycrashesdown at 8:37 AM on October 21, 2022 [15 favorites]

If she watches KOMO or other right-wing media, she's also consumed over the last few years a steady drumbeat of "Seattle is dying" propaganda. Not to discount the things people have described above about the situation downtown, it's a both/and situation.
posted by matildaben at 9:14 AM on October 21, 2022 [7 favorites]

I've live in the PNW (Portland mostly) for my whole life, and visit Seattle frequently.

Worse than 2010's? Ehh, yes?
Worse than 1990's? No way at all.

While the Seattle times is not like, the best newspaper ever, and this article is a little old, it's just not as bad as it has been historically.

This same conversation happens about Portland, and I swear to god it's a masterclass media consumption and the general trend of aging leading to less openness.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:24 AM on October 21, 2022 [2 favorites]

I’ve been here since 1995 and downtown right now truly is Night of the Living Dead. Many other hotspots are equally distressing and dangerous. Drugs are a helluva drug.
posted by tristeza at 10:02 AM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm over on Bainbridge and used to commute by bike or light rail 4-5 days a week pre-pandemic. It's really changed. I feel on alert and avoid certain parts of the city. When I moved here, interactions with unhoused people were sort of benign? chill? even kind? It feels completely different now. I think your mom could have unfair biases toward the unhoused and also be valid in her fears and concerns.
posted by 10ch at 10:08 AM on October 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

I have lived in Seattle for 15 years. I don't live or work downtown and have had little reason to go there since 2020. This week I took the bus to a downtown hotel for work and was dismayed by Third, especially the south end. Many ground-level windows are boarded up, shops are closed, and many people sitting or laying on the sidewalk looking unwell. One block up, Fourth was less grim, and if I was walking the length of downtown I would stick to Fourth. Catching the bus home at Third and Pine didn't feel any less safe than in 2019, but I wouldn't say it's comfortable. As others have noted, the lack of downtown commuters makes the unhoused population more obvious. But also, that wasn't a comfortable corner pre 2020. I remember avoiding walking down Third at night in 2019 and 2018 as well.

While downtown for the day, I walked up to Capitol Hill on Pine and it was bustling. This year I've walked and biked around Capitol Hill on my own during the day and evening and felt as safe as ever. There are more tent encampments in the parks but sidewalks are clear, and shops and restaurants are open and busy.

This year I have biked through Eastlake at least once a week, and walked through the colonnade a few times, and that also didn't seem noticeably different.

Capitol Hill does smell of pot, and downtown of pot and urine, which is not so pleasant.

Neighborhoods further out do have more visible unhoused people than in the past -- for example, biking through the Central District on Wednesday morning, I noticed a few tents in a park, and people huddled on the sidewalk on streets where I hadn't seen this before. But I haven't felt unsafe there, just sad.

For context I'm a tall fat white lady.
posted by esoterrica at 10:26 AM on October 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

downtown right now truly is Night of the Living Dead

Sorry, but it's really messed-up hate speech to equate vulnerable people to brainless monsters against whom no amount of violence is unacceptable to assure one's own safety. No matter how uncomfortable or inappropriate you find their behavior.
posted by dusty potato at 10:35 AM on October 21, 2022 [23 favorites]

I'm sorry to be another Portlander chiming in here, but I've been struck lately by the distinction between how people are talking about downtown Portland versus what downtown Portland is actually like right now (I go 3-4 times/week). Because of remote workers not returning en masse, it's quieter, and unhoused folks are more visible. But I swear you'd think it was Mad Max or some post-apocalyptic wasteland based on some rantings and media reports. I think a lot of these complaints aren't from folks who are downtown regularly.

So a question for your mom, if you can find a way to ask it: has she been downtown much, or is she talking about what she's hearing about on NextDoor and in the media?
posted by bluedaisy at 11:28 AM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

I live in Seattle. I can’t really speak to downtown as I’ve never spent much time there but I don’t really ever feel unsafe due to homeless people or drug users. I live in Rainier Valley and spend most of my time in the South End or Capitol Hill.

There’s definitely a generational and racial aspect. I have a dear friend who is a white boomer. She’s usually extremely progressive but gets apoplectic about homeless people in ways that disturb me.
posted by lunasol at 11:53 AM on October 21, 2022 [3 favorites]

I find the thought of a racial aspect kind of weird. Other than the guy with the sticks who used to hang near the Ballard library, and one guy who was on the nod in a chair behind the Goodwill, most of the unhoused folks I see are white. Maybe it is different downtown though.
posted by Windopaene at 12:34 PM on October 21, 2022

The premise of this question is confusing danger with sorrow. By "bad" do you mean you'll see upsetting things, like desperate people who have no shelter and are unable to shower and use a proper toilet? Or do you mean the visibility of covid and real estate recession like vacant retail fronts and security guards? In that case you can expect those things, but welcome to year N of the opioid epidemic, glad you could catch up. Or by "bad" do you mean someone will be in real danger of harassment or violence? In that case no, you're very unlikely to meet danger, just as it's been most of our lives.
posted by panhopticon at 1:50 PM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

Cap Hill is fine, downtown is a bit out of sorts the past few years. There are pockets of space all over town that unhoused people have sort of colonized, not always making tents or living in parked vehicles but hanging out, existing very visibly and doing many things in public that would be preferable in private, like drugs and arguing but also like hygiene stuff and organizing and caring for their things. Here in West Seattle more than a few encampments popped up during the pandemic and they keep doing these awful sweeps and then they pop up five blocks down a week later… it’s a cycle of viciousness. The bridge only recently reopened and a lot of my unhoused neighbors appear to have flowed into downtown or elsewhere, although that’s purely my suspicion.

There are some places I feel unsafe as a small single female presenting person, but I’d probably feel unsafe regardless of unhoused people. Like, the Seattle cops make me nervous as hell and they shop at my local bougie grocery store while visibly carrying. Downtown around the market and 3rd and such is pretty dilapidated and I do often see altercations between people when I’m there, but it always feels like personal business being aired in public, not like, random encounters between scary people and innocent bystanders. I didn’t feel this way a decade ago, but I did about five years ago.

If your mom is concerned about the unhoused people around her, she could do something to help create housing or give them access to other resources. Local politics is of course a mess but there’s food banks, tiny housing communities, needle exchange programs, childcare assistance programs, the literacy source, financial aid and loan forgiveness groups, winter coat drives and free community meal programs. Becoming involved in these kinds of groups might help your mother become less biased, or at the very least might help her feel more comfortable in her own city while her resources are used for good.
posted by Mizu at 2:01 PM on October 21, 2022 [4 favorites]

I try to separate my feelings of discomfort from my feelings of safety. I feel significantly more uncomfortable all throughout the city now than I did 4 years ago - it is so hard to see people suffering so openly and to witness such a sharp increase in that suffering over the course of the pandemic - but that discomfort does not of course necessarily translate to a likelihood that I'll be harmed. Mostly, it just makes me really, really sad.

However, I do also feel less safe downtown in particular than I did 4 years ago, and I have heard a similar sentiment from friends across multiple races, ethnicities, and genders, all of whom are under 30 (so no, it's not just a white boomer thing). I can think of several specific incidents that contribute to my feeling unsafe downtown and in the parts of Capitol Hill that border downtown: a cluster of shootings that happened around Pike/Pine between 2nd and 5th a year or two before the pandemic; being chased (like, actually running) for multiple blocks through Capitol Hill by a man who thought I was someone else and who yelled obscenities and threats at me until I was finally able to hide and lose him; walking alone over by the entrance to I-5 and having a man begin masturbating while staring at me; multiple instances on the 10 bus over the past couple of years in which people have gotten on and physically threatened passengers by hitting them, screaming, and trying to smash the windows of the bus.

The media and NIMBYs on NextDoor have certainly fanned the flames with classist, racist, even fascist rhetoric (a right-wing relative sent me a Tucker Carlson clip during the CHAZ/CHOP era that included outright lies about the state of my neighborhood that I could see with my own eyes were completely false). But I do still feel unsafe in and avoid parts of downtown that I frequented even just 3 years ago. I hope that helps you contextualize how your mother might be feeling.
posted by chaiyai at 2:24 PM on October 21, 2022 [13 favorites]

I've lived in Seattle for 18 years, in a variety of neighborhoods. I've worked downtown most of that time, but have been mostly remote since the pandemic. Downtown is definitely less safe feeling than it used to be, in my opinion. I go into the office about once a week now, but as we move into the winter months with less daylight, I would be hesitant about working a full day downtown.

I'm a cis white female, 41. I used to feel safe wearing my headphones on the train and on the sidewalk during my commute most of the time. Now I do not feel safe doing that at all. There are more folks around who have that chaotic vibe that puts your nerves on edge and your body on high alert. I've also had lots of friends experience near-violence downtown or on the train. (My boss+ was flashed on the sidewalk, while walking back from a business lunch. With colleagues! My bf was near two fights on the train: one involved pepper spray, the other a knife.)

I also see someone shoplift or be accused of shoplifting about every other visit to the grocery store. It happens any time of day. My grocery store is near a transit hub, which might have something to do with it. Anyway, the vibe in those encounters is always really aggro too.

I don't go to Capitol Hill often, but there are definitely streets I would avoid there, just like I'd avoid 3rd downtown. I would take a circuitous route to get to things if I could.
posted by purple_bird at 2:53 PM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

I’ve lived in Seattle for 30 years and have lived and worked in Capitol Hill and/or downtown for all of that time.

From a safety perspective, I have no qualms whatsoever about walking with family in Pioneer Square, Pike Place, Belltown, Seattle Center, Eastlake, or Capitol Hill.

As someone mentioned above, my impression Belltown in the 90s was more dangerous than anywhere in Seattle is today.

From an emotional perspective, in all of these neighborhoods (but especially downtown) you are very likely to see people in various states of distress.
posted by lumpy at 7:54 PM on October 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

I live, and now work, south of Seattle, for a company headquartered downtown. Those of my co-workers who are still in our downtown office don't seem too freaked out by it, but I know for a fact (having been downtown a few times over the last few months) that there are a lot of closed businesses. More than anything the financial district (south of Pike, north of Pioneer Square) feels empty.

I've driven down on the waterfront and up near the Seattle Center on the weekends. There's a lot of construction going on along Alaska Way as the city reclaims the waterfront from the old viaduct, and there are a lot of people. The place looks like fun. Belltown, the Seattle Center, the Amazon area look OK. I'm pretty sure a lot of the city outside of downtown is doing OK
posted by lhauser at 8:45 PM on October 21, 2022

I live in the CID in Seattle. While it definitely has its share of houseless people and others in distress, it also attracts a LOT of people - both tourists and locals - during the daytime and early evening. I feel absolutely no qualms about walking around the CID at night.

It even has some late night eating spots that are not bars; something this city sorely lacks.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:27 PM on October 21, 2022

I live on CH next to downtown so I might be your mother's neighbor. I think many of the comments so far are understandably naïve about the difference between visiting an area with a high homeless count, and living here. Your mother deserves empathy. She might also be overreacting. But it's definitely true that the area is worse than it was, and she would be in the wrong if she was not disturbed by it.

Personal safety in itself, e.g. your safety when walking from A to B, is probably not much worse than it has been. But the day to day experience of life is definitely worse on multiple relevant axes, specifically because of the homeless crisis.

Several times now I've written an account of what your mother will be experiencing if she's my neighbor. As I write out relevant and spicy experiences I've had to help you understand the atmosphere as it personally affects people, it always becomes way too long and depressing. It covers a range of things from assault & battery, to property damage and hardening, to the people who scream non-stop slurs for up to hours a day, to sexual harassment, to the need to clean drug paraphernalia and bodily fluids, to the frustration of arguing with addicts to retain a clear doorway, to the need to convert flower beds to thorn-bush planters. That said the neighborhood is still an interesting and enjoyable place to be, all considered.

If she finds it so disturbing it's all she can think about, she should move for her own health. Otherwise, she could likely use support working through personally experiencing fucked up things. It's hard to say what overreacting is, when the problem by its nature is not pliable to the reactions of private citizens: isn't any response overreacting then? But to ignore it entirely is also unhealthy. Racism is too far of course. I don't know how classism enters into this.

In response to other comments speculating this is about COVID, no, this has been building since before COVID and sometimes quickly changes based on drugs available.
posted by tychotesla at 4:20 PM on October 22, 2022 [9 favorites]

I live in Seattle, grew up here in the 90’s and have worked downtown for the last 10 years or so. It is currently bad downtown. Three years ago, when people talked about how bad it was and “Seattle Is Dying” came out I would have said that was overwrought. Yes, in 2019 there were a large number of unhorsed people, but on the whole, downtown was vibrant and felt safe. I took the bus from 3rd and Pike, I went to the Pike Place Target, it was all fine. I commuted for several years with my small child on the bus, as they went to daycare downtown, which as also mostly fine, though not entirely without incidents (minor enough the didn’t deter me). I say all that to emphasize that I am not approaching this from a pearl-clutching NextDoor influenced perspective.

It is completely different now, and I would not do any of the things I note above today. I still need to go downtown periodically and every (yes, actually every) time I have been down there in the last year I have been directly harassed in one way or another by someone who is either mentally unwell or under the influence of serous drugs (I’m female, if that matters). By directly, I mean it was targeted at me, specifically, and they were making sure I knew it by words and actions. There have always been areas of downtown to avoid - and this is all happening outside those known areas. The harassment has usually been verbal (screaming, clearly directed at me, often calling attention to physical characteristics, presumably to intimidate me) and includes threats of violence, usually verbal threats but who the hell knows what these people have on them - they could be real and I have to take them as such. I say all this because there are several comments above suggesting offense is being taken simply because people are visibly unhoused - emphatically no. It’s because I am being harassed and am seriously concerned for my personal safety.

I’m not planning to go anywhere downtown south of Olive Way for the foreseeable future unless absolutely unavoidable.
posted by annie o at 10:31 PM on October 23, 2022 [4 favorites]

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