At an April press conference held on the north end of Occidental Park, Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled his Downtown Activation Plan, including a notable commitment to reopen City Hall Park by June 15. There was also mention of three new Space Needles, but it might have been a typo. Jury is still out.
Either way, reopening City Hall Park was a big, symbolic deal. During the pandemic-induced lockdowns, and for some time after they began to lift, the park was home to a large unauthorized encampment. After the city swept it in August 2021, the park was closed for restoration and surrounded by fencing, which has become standard practice after a sweep. However, to those of us walking by it on a semi-regular basis, the park didn’t look like it was being restored. It was just kind of sitting there empty.
No more! The mayor announced that he’d be reopening the park two days early, on June 13.
A cosmic coincidence was that I’d already made plans with a friend to play chess the day of the grand reopening. I asked if he wouldn’t mind killing two birds with one stone and using the giant chess set at the new-and-improved City Hall Park.
We arrived just in time to see the City Hall Park land acknowledgement led by local tribal elders. Joining an ever-expanding scrum of journalists and city employees, we listened as the elders drummed and sang before explaining some really interesting Indigenous history that I’d never heard. So far, so good.
Then the mayor spoke. He was quite pleased with himself for getting the park done two days early. He said he wanted to get it done as a birthday gift for his wife, but he said that right after mentioning the original opening date, June 15. Not sure if his wife’s birthday is the 13th or the 15th, but happy birthday to her either way! You got a park! The city got a park! We all got a park!
About that park, though. If you can ignore its dark recent history, which I am forcing myself to do for the “Sunshine Issue,” it’s a really nice park. The grass has been completely restored, and its brilliant green surface is dotted with colorful Adirondack chairs and lawn games. The same red and yellow cafe tables that have done a good job activating other parks, like Westlake and Occidental, are employed at City Hall Park. The mayor was pretty jazzed about another new addition: park rangers. He even implored those of us in attendance to go up and thank one after the speeches, but my friend and I were, personally, a lot more interested in sampling the flavors of the Mexican-Cuban food truck that had been brought in.
Before lunch, however, there was a match to settle. My companion, who had some recent negative experiences with the criminal legal system, was not interested in staying for the entirety of King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Patrick Oishi’s speech, so we snuck off to the chessboard.
The game got off to a decent start, before I made a huge blunder and lost my queen. Just when I thought things were getting desperate, help arrived in the form of city communications staffers and journalists looking for someone, anyone, who didn’t work for the city or a media organization to interview. Being two guys in street clothes, playing chess and not really paying attention to the speakers, we were basically reporter catnip.
The universe has been doing some wacky stuff recently because my friend, who has lived experience of homelessness, had been talking about how he’d stumbled across Jonathan Choe’s videos recently and how they made him mad enough to sign up for a YouTube account to comment. Guess who showed up to ask for an interview first. Needless to say, Choe didn’t get that interview.
After Choe, a nice reporter from KUOW asked my friend if he lived nearby, to which he jokingly replied, “I used to for two years,” gesturing toward the King County Jail. The penny hadn’t quite dropped yet, and she continued her line of questioning, asking him how he used to interact with the park.
“I mean, I looked at it from my window a lot,” he said. Doing the math of which buildings in that direction have windows that face the park and are a living space, if you can call the jail a living space, she finally got it. Everyone cracked up; my buddy completely forgot his queen was threatened, and I ended up winning. Thanks, KUOW!
As consolation, I bought lunch. The food truck was out of sandwich bread, sadly, so we couldn’t get cubanos, but the deconstructed version on top of rice and beans was a great substitute. Also, putting out a self-serve squeeze bottle of spicy mayo was a nice touch. Can’t get enough of that stuff. Shout out, Mexicuban.
All in all, it was a pretty great start to Tuesday. The new park is an extremely pleasant place in what can be at times a less pleasant part of downtown. It’s not an easy task to ignore the anti-homeless legacy of the park, made even harder by the fact that city workers were fencing off the Prefontaine Fountain — a popular hangout for homeless people who depend on nearby services like the DESC — the very moment the mayor climbed onstage.
But I can at least find a silver lining.
For the sake of the Sunshine Issue, I’m choosing to remember the encampment at City Hall Park as a place where the JustCARE program run by Purpose.Dignity. Action., née the Public Defender Association, proved its mettle. (Full disclosure: our editor Ashley Archibald just accepted a position at Purpose. Dignity. Action.) JustCARE works over a longer period of time to clear an encampment by connecting everyone in it with housing and services rather than offering shelter spaces on the day of a removal. According to several studies of the method, including its application at City Hall Park, it’s also extremely successful. What’s more, JustCARE has shown success working with chronically homeless individuals who suffer from severe mental health issues and substance use disorders. My chess-playing friend was one of those people, in fact.
So, if you do decide to hit up City Hall Park for lunch, a free bike repair day or even the Wiffle Ball All Star Weekend, think about the fact that ending homelessness is not impossible. We know how; we just have to do it.
Read more of the June 21-27, 2023 issue.