The tempo of downtown Seattle has changed. Gone are the crowds of commuters getting on and off buses. Lunch spots that haven’t been without a line in years are dark most of the time; takeout hasn’t turned enough business to make it worth their while to re-open.
Instead of foot traffic, the sidewalks of Second and Third avenues are now populated by wrappers and discarded face masks, urban tumbleweeds blowing south.
The restaurants are still boarded up, even when the boards have come down in other parts of the city, in downtown. That plywood is a kind of universal language. It spells the demise of a city — it’s a civic shorthand for “this place is no longer inhabited.”
But downtown Seattle is inhabited. It’s just inhabited by the kind of people who most other people don’t want to live around.
Because there are still a lot of people living down there and needing services — buses, places to eat — they’re just people who don’t have permanent housing.
Teleworking has proven itself to be functional for workers, for the environment — but where does this leave downtown? When many of the people who can’t leave need access to things to eat and places to stay more than ever?
Working from home has the potential to change the game in Seattle. To release us from the iron grip of gridlock and improve our water and air quality in real, salient ways. To allow employees to work more flexible hours and live more flexible lives.
But there is a reality, too, that faces our local economy: The social safety net is heavily reliant on the idea of a 9-to-5 work schedule that includes a lot of people coming into downtown every day.
Since its earliest days, Seattle has had a resistance to putting service providers — like low-income housing, shelters, food banks — into the neighborhoods. Or, perhaps more accurately, the people who live in the neighborhoods have rejected this idea.
Instead, we’ve had a tendency to push our most at-risk populations into downtown; that’s where most of the social services are located. It’s where most of the shelter beds are.
Which means that now, our most vulnerable have been left exactly where we’ve pushed them, but without the services or businesses which they’ve come to rely on.
As we abandon downtown in the pursuit of a new workplace and a new economy, it has become more important than ever that we not abandon those who have been left behind.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. She has written for Crosscut, Bust Magazine, the Atlantic, the Nation, the Democracy Journal and elsewhere.
Read more of the July 1-7, 2020 issue.