Morning Crank: “Please Be Respectful of the Art”

Photo by Tim Harris

1. The recent shooting at Third and Pine in downtown Seattle was a tragedy, but it has also served as an opportunity: For right-wing radio hosts chasing the latest inflammatory headline, for TV newscasters eager to keep frightened viewers in their chairs, and for law-and-order advocates, who used the violence as a justification to renew calls for more “active” policing of people suspected of low-level criminal activity downtown.

Late last October, the Downtown Seattle Association, which is responsible for managing Westlake Park, put up signs instructing people not to sit or lie on the stairs, pink granite slabs, fountain, and other sculptures that make up the “Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills” installation that spreads across the triangular park.

The sculptures were never intended to be static objects for reverence and observation from a distance.

The signs read: “Maki’s Art: Do not sit or lay on sculptures. Created by Robert Maki with landscape architect Robert Hanna in 1988, Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills is a series of sculptures made specifically for Westlake Park. The seven works include a granite column and six rectangular structures meant to represent the geography of Seattle. … Please be respectful of the art and do not sit or lay on the structures.” 

However, the sculptures were never intended to be static objects for reverence and observation from a distance. The seven sculptural elements, which include the “water wall” fountain at the northwest corner of the park, symbolize the seven hills of Seattle. According to a 1995 Seattle Times article praising the sculpture as a great example of public art, “Tourists, pamphleteers, chess-players, downtown workers and homeless folks share the space, and on a sunny afternoon you can almost feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s clubhouse or living room. A 24-foot-high rectangular arch at the north end of the square has become Seattle’s de facto Speaker’s Corner, while the pink granite cubes/columns at the south end — representing Seattle’s seven hills — serve as seats for other activities.”

In a statement, the DSA said that they had “taken action to update the language on our signage about the Seven Hills sculpture in Westlake Park, asking that park patrons be respectful of the art. … We provide ample seating within Westlake Park for all to use, as our goal with this space is to ensure it’s a park for everyone to enjoy.”

Photo by Tim Harris

Last week, the DSA wrote a letter asserting that Third Avenue “has been taken over by criminal activity, including drug dealing, gang warfare, rampant retail theft, daily overdoses, acts of violence, sexual assaults and robberies” and demanding “an aggressive safety strategy for downtown.” The shooting apparently occurred after a dispute outside the McDonald’s at Third and Pine, an area that is frequently described as an “open air drug market:; however, there is no specific evidence yet that it was related to “gang warfare” or drug dealing. 

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At a meeting of the city council’s transportation committee last week, DSA transportation policy director Emily Mannetti suggested that people will no longer “try transit or choose walking and biking if they feel like they could be a victim of violent crime just by coming and going” through downtown Seattle.

Maki’s daughter, the artist Andrea Maki, denounced the DSA’s directive on Facebook as “absolutely unacceptable and antithetical to the artwork, space, design and intent of Westlake Park” and “utterly disrespectful of the art and sculptor. … Interaction with the public and functionality are inherent, hence this signage, the garbage cans and fencing speak to absolute ignorance.” (Andrea Maki did not respond to a message seeking comment.)

The city of Seattle bans people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks or camping in downtown parks, but Real Change director Tim Harris, who posted about the signs on Facebook, said “it would be a reach” to interpret the ordinance as banning people from sitting on the bench-height granite sculptures.

2. A CityClub “Civic Cocktail” event last Wednesday featuring the four new city council focused primarily on downtown safety, with a majority of the questions from moderator Joni Balter and one of her two co-moderators, KING 5 reporter Chris Daniels, centering on whether there are enough police downtown and whether the city is doing enough to eliminate drugs and crime in the area. (As Crosscut has reported, the Seattle Police Department increased patrols in downtown Seattle by thousands of hours in the past year—one reason police were able to get to the scene of the shooting almost immediately.)

Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, said “we do need more police officers” to make people feel safe downtown, and added that the city is failing to prosecute enough people for misdemeanor crimes. (Felony crimes are handled by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterburg). Tammy Morales, who represents southeast Seattle, said the city needs to look upstream at “underinvest[ment] in neighborhoods” like those in District 2, which are more diverse and less wealthy than other parts of the city. And Lewis, who has already suggested opening a new storefront mini-precinct near Third and Pine, elaborated on the idea, saying that the area is “an ecosystem that has a McDonald’s, a check cashing place, and a smoke shop, so we need to provide into this ecosystem… more options for folks at Third and Pine who need services.”

3. At the full council meeting this afternoon, Lewis plans to propose an amendment to council member Kshama Sawant’s that could ameliorate concerns from landlords who say they can’t afford to go without income from nonpaying tenants five months out of the year. (The legislation would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants between November 1 through April 1, or nearly half the year.) The amendment would create a mitigation fund that low-income tenants and providers of low-income housing could access to pay rent during those months if the tenant would otherwise be evicted. Pedersen has also proposed an amendment to the bill, which would limit the eviction ban to landlords who own more than four units of housing.