June marks the debut on DVD of a 37-year-old treasure of Seattle film history: Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall’s 1984 documentary “Streetwise.” An incredibly moving portrait of the daily life of Seattle homeless youth, the film garnered wide acclaim and an Oscar nomination. Upon its release, veteran Seattle Times film reviewer John Hartl even called it “one of the best movies anyone has ever made in the Northwest.” The appraisal still rings true today, a fact reflected in its release now by the prestigious Criterion Collection, which has packaged the original film with the 2016 follow-up feature “Tiny,” a portrait of the present day family life of Erin Blackwell, one of the most prominent young voices in “Streetwise.”
Despite its enduring reputation, the original response of Seattle audiences to the film was not uniform. Coming at a time when the city was basking in national press proclaiming it the most livable city in the United States, the film’s stark portrayals of violence, domestic abuse, teenage sex work and suicide challenged Seattle’s self-image. Alongside accolades, the documentary provoked denial and equivocation from Seattle residents regarding the depth and severity of the issues confronting the city’s working poor.
Since the film was first released, homelessness in the city has grown exponentially in size and severity, to the point that Seattle now has one of the largest unhoused populations in the United States. As debate rages over how to respond to the crisis, the city’s reception of “Streetwise” bears revisiting. Despite nearly four decades since the documentary first moved audiences with its portrayal of kids in crisis, the dismissive attitude of some to the film suggests why the crisis of homelessness has yet to be redressed, and why punitive responses only further contribute to the crisis itself.
The film that became “Streetwise” emerged from a commission by Life magazine. Planning a feature on the national rise in runaway youth in the early 1980s, the magazine’s editors wanted to dramatize the social issue by capturing it in a place it did not ostensibly belong. Seattle fit the bill; beginning with a 1975 feature in Harper’s Magazine, the city had garnered high-profile attention as a paragon of new American urbanism, awash with well-educated middle-class professionals luxuriating in clean human-scale neighborhoods and a beautiful natural environment, a stark contrast to terminal urban crises elsewhere in the United States, like Detroit, New York or Los Angeles.
Arriving in Seattle in 1983, journalist Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark did not have to look hard to find cracks in the city’s facade. The growing professional economy, source of the city’s wealth and subject of so much press hype, was also a driver of widening inequality. For a generation, the city’s downtown had been an affordable space for the working poor, home to low-rent apartments and hotels. Now office buildings were taking over the residential living space; the 76-story Columbia Tower, for instance, still the city’s largest skyscraper, was then under construction. Seattle’s Central District, which had long been a majority Black neighborhood, was also facing the beginnings of gentrification, as white professionals scooped up affordable houses in proximity to the city’s core.
Homeless youth were making their own spaces in and around boarded-up buildings and on street corners, rundown locations like Yesler Way’s Terrace View Hotel and the corner of Pike and First streets, temporary places produced by the economic transition. McCall and Mark were moved by the personal stories of the youth they met there — not only the daily violence and trauma the young people had endured both within their families and on the streets, but also their ingenuity, perseverance and ability to forge kinship with one another in the face of enormous obstacles. Enlisting the help of Mark’s husband, Martin Bell, a British documentarian, they parlayed the relationships forged for the piece in Life into a documentary, spending several months with the kids on the street and capturing their daily lives on film.
The film’s production in fall 1983, garnering local attention after McCall and Mark’s Life magazine feature appeared that August, spurred controversy. A front-page headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer questioned, “Life and Seattle runaways: Is it really that bad?” Skeptics suggested that Mark’s Life images were set-ups, “as much Hollywood as journalism,” and that street kids had rebuffed offers of available shelter in favor of “the glamorous attraction of the film.” However, the evidence cited was slim, especially in light of what later appeared in “Streetwise.” A social worker claimed guns and dumpster diving were uncommon among kids downtown, but the film established that violence of many types — knife fights, domestic abuse, sexual coercion, self-harm — was a daily feature. Meanwhile, any evidence that the kids had been compensated for their participation in the project, be it through small amounts of money, food or clothes, was put forward as proof that the real truth had been tainted. Skeptics suggested this meant Seattle’s street youth had been manipulated to fit the filmmaker’s point of view — as if leaving the kids uncompensated would have been less exploitative. In fact, the filmmakers’ genuine personal relationships with their subjects are what made the film so effective, something further testified to by the 2016 feature “Tiny,” which showed how Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark’s relationship with one of their subjects, Erin Blackwell, continued for over 30 years.
In hindsight, the hand-wringing over the details of street life in Seattle’s press appears to have been less about establishing the truth of life on its streets, and more about discomfort over the city’s larger culpability in the ongoing social disaster in its midst. Upon its release, “Streetwise” set box office records in Seattle for a documentary, yet it was received almost like a foreign film. Seattle Times critic John Hartl loved it, but his immediate frame of reference was beyond the United States; his original review likened it to Héctor Babenco’s Brazilian street youth drama “Pixote” (1980), the implication being that street kids only made sense in Third World cinema. Shortly thereafter, Hartl followed up his review with a larger feature on the history of documentary filmmaking and the ethics of representation, suggesting that some of his readers were still questioning the truths in “Streetwise.” Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s reviewer William Arnold didn’t question the film’s veracity; instead, he penned a coldhearted denial of its art. “Streetwise,” he wrote, was “intriguing as sociology,” but too sad and disturbing, “as pointless as a trip to a terminal cancer ward” — callously counting for dead the film’s young subjects. He told audiences to stay away.
Thirty-seven years later, Arnold’s likening of life on Seattle’s street with death sounds mighty familiar; indeed, the grim equation of death with homelessness is echoed in the title of “Seattle is Dying,” KOMO New’s much-criticized 2019 documentary on the city’s present-day homelessness crisis. The hour-long television feature was essentially the antithesis of “Streetwise”: full of gawking, voyeuristic camera shots taken at a distance of people whom the producers deigned not to speak with, the program was driven by doom-inducing music and alarmist narration. “Streetwise,” on the other hand, mostly lacked music outside of its credit sequences, and was almost completely narrated through the many voices of street youth themselves, who shared about their tortured family lives, their dreams and aspirations and their methods of day-to-day survival.
By deeply humanizing its marginalized subjects, “Streetwise” asked its viewers for empathy. “Seattle is Dying,” in contrast, was dehumanizing, sowing panic and disgust to suggest that homelessness could be punished away. The same attitudes were widespread in Seattle in the early 1980s, seen most appallingly in the Seattle Police Department’s own contribution to the city’s cinema of street life, a slickly produced training video made in 1986 titled “Under the Viaduct” that mocked homeless derelicts. Getting ahead of any potential scandal that would occur should the video be leaked, the department self-released it alongside an apology in 2013, claiming it had been deemed inappropriate upon its original production and ordered destroyed by department commanders. The combination of policing and mockery of the poor, however, was not coincidental; it remains one of the strongest impulses shaping the response to homelessness. KOMO’s television show, for instance, proposed punitive solutions, calling for more police and prosecution, forced drug treatment and incarceration.
“Streetwise,” to the frustration of some reviewers, didn’t proffer any solutions at all; instead, it profiled the painful solutions street youth had to find for themselves, violent trade-offs like sex work that routinely landed them in prison, but paid much more than the social work job programs mandated as a condition of parole, or even the wages of their parents. But watching the film now, with its many scenes of jail cells and visitation rooms, suggests something very important about solutions: namely, that punishment and policing are nothing new. Indeed, they have long been default responses to social dislocation, managing the consequences of poverty but doing little to provide the extraordinary material resources needed to render the violent trade-offs of street life unnecessary. Affordable housing hasn’t returned to downtown Seattle — not to mention the city more broadly — since the demolitions and developments of the 1970s and 1980s. Nor have paths to high-paying or white-collar jobs been opened to all; as the city’s booming population growth suggests, those jobs are going to outsiders. The budget for police, on the other hand, has risen.
The hostile reviews of “Streetwise” essentially told Seattle audiences to turn away from the city’s social crisis; similarly, “Seattle is Dying” promised them that suffering could be banished away. Looking back on “Streetwise” and its reception should prompt reflection over the true impulses behind proposals for change. Are they large enough to truly tackle the inequality that has always characterized the city’s affluent professional economy, inequality that has only grown larger since the documentary was filmed in 1983? Or do they merely mean to put homelessness out of sight and out of mind?
This is a critical question, especially now as a business-backed initiative campaign with a warm name, Compassion Seattle, promises to embed housing and services for the homeless into the city’s charter but is drawing criticism for both lacking funding and enshrining yet another punitive measure — the sweeping of encampments — into official policy. Thirty-seven years since “Streetwise,” the last thing in need of priority is the comfort of those who would choose to look away.
Andrew Hedden is the associate director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Washington.
Read more of the June 30 - July 6, 2021 issue.