By Paul Kiefer
Every morning at around 8 am, an informal market begins to assemble at the corner of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson Street. Buyers and sellers arrive from every direction by every mode of transportation: One man parks his car nearby and unloads a bag of laundry detergent and whiskey; another man steps off the streetcar at the Little Saigon stop and joins the small crowd gathering under the bus shelter.
The market has become a daily presence in Little Saigon, spilling into the courtyard of the adjacent strip mall and the underground parking structure below. Two dozen people gather on the corner, where, until this week, a King County Metro Metro bus stop stood; satellite groups of three or four people settle down near a gravel lot across the street. The products for sale vary depending on the day. On one cold February morning, a man appeared with a shopping basket full of frozen shrimp, seemingly stolen from a nearby seafood market; on another, a vendor sold bottles of hand soap.
Typically, the vendors are outnumbered by the dozens of people who come together at the corner to socialize or smoke crushed-up pills from sheets of foil. At night, some people light small bonfires to keep warm and huddle in the doorways of nearby restaurants. At any hour of the day, arguments can escalate into violence: Nearly a dozen people have been shot or stabbed at or near the intersection since the start of the pandemic, including three people in January alone.
Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.
The corner has become the epicenter of Seattle’s public safety discussions, fueled by outcry from business owners and neighborhood advocates who say that the public drug use and bouts of violence at the corner have driven away customers and could lead to the death of Little Saigon. Just before taking office, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison appeared at one nearby restaurant, Seven Stars Pepper, for a photo op with the owner, Yong Hong Wang; Davison brought up the visit, and Yong’s warning that she will need to close her restaurant if the city doesn’t intervene in the neighborhood, in her inauguration speech.
In January, SPD made 23 felony arrests and 14 misdemeanor arrests at the corner. Although the only regular law enforcement presence at the intersection is a sheriff’s deputy working for King County Metro’s transit security program, that could soon change: Two weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced a plan to focus the resources of the Seattle Police Department on crime “hot spots.” While he alluded to multiple “hot spots” across the city, he only named one: Little Saigon.
Crackdowns on crime “hot spots” are nothing new in Seattle, and many past attempts have produced few (or no) long-term results. Harrell’s new plan to focus the city’s police resources on the neighborhood has many observers, including neighborhood advocates and mental health service providers, wondering whether this time will be different.
Little Saigon is no stranger to shoplifting, drug dealing and other illegal commerce, said Jim Pugel, a former Seattle police chief who first worked in the neighborhood in the 1980s. Even before it evolved into the present-day street market in Little Saigon, Pugel said that some minor illegal commerce has long been a feature of the nine square blocks between I-5 and Rainier Avenue S.
“It is an area that has always had a small market for stolen goods, illegal cigarettes and EBT [food stamp] fraud,” he said. The daily crowd of people selling shoplifted merchandise and drugs on the corner of 12th and Jackson today may be more extreme than any past iteration, he said, but the basic components are not new.
In 2011, SPD recovered more than $100,000 in stolen cell phones and other merchandise from a storefront at 12th and Jackson. Other investigations in the early 2010s led police to a restaurant selling cocaine to neighborhood drug dealers and an EBT fraud scheme involving the owners of two neighborhood grocery stores.
“Informants were telling us it was so bad you couldn’t walk down the street without getting hit up to buy drugs or electronic food-assistance benefit cards,” SPD Detective Todd Jakobsen remarked in a 2014 post on the department’s blog. “We’re going to go through 12th and Jackson and arrest all those dealers, get them off the street,” he continued. “We’re going to take that area back for the community.”
Quynh Pham, the director of the advocacy group Friends of Little Saigon and one of the central figures in current discussions of the neighborhood’s fate, says that SPD’s past crackdowns on EBT scams and drug dealing were only effective in the short term. When the COVID pandemic hit and forced many of the neighborhood’s businesses to close, she said, she watched 12th and Jackson decline more dramatically than ever before.
The city’s 2015 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates.
When SPD has ramped up its presence in Little Saigon in the past, she said, “I feel like they’ve always been reactionary and temporary. There’s never been a strategy where it’s more long term or sustained effort. And I think that’s why a lot of these issues that we’re dealing with, like food stamp fraud, keep coming back up. We’ve been a vulnerable neighborhood for a long time, and we’re still dealing with kind of the same root issues, but it’s so much more visible now.”
Harrell and SPD shouldn’t ignore the neighborhood’s history of neglect and underground commerce, said Lisa Daugaard, the co-director of the Public Defender Association (PDA). “People come to purchase where they know to come to purchase, and people sell where they know people will come to purchase,” she said. “In some locations, those patterns have proven incredibly stable over time, notwithstanding literal decades of flavor-of-the-month short-term enforcement initiatives.”
Critics of the “hot spot” approach to public safety often point to a 2015 campaign targeting the drug trade in Seattle’s downtown core known as the “9 1/2 Block Strategy,” which was spearheaded by current Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, then an advisor to mayor Ed Murray. The campaign resulted in more than 100 arrests in its first week and a sharp decline in drug-related 911 calls from a small stretch of downtown surrounding Westlake Park, but the number of drug-, disturbance- and assault-related calls from the surrounding neighborhoods rose. The 9 1/2 Block Strategy’s impacts on the downtown core proved to be short-lived: today, the stretch of Third Avenue between Pike St. and Pine St. is another focal point in Seattle’s public safety debates.
In Little Saigon, business owners have widely varied ideas about how to make the neighborhood safer—and how to keep the neighborhood’s identity alive.
Tanya Nguyen, who owns a vegan deli on the southwest corner of the intersection, opposes using arrests and jail time to clear the corner at 12th and Jackson. In an Instagram post last week, Nguyen that the solution to Little Saigon’s problems lays in mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and housing, not in arrests and incarceration. “We should not see people as criminals,” she wrote. “I see them as family members to give [a] second chance.”
Conversely, the owners of Pho Bac—one of Little Saigon’s oldest restaurants—took to Instagram to threaten to “go rogue and form a gang” if the city doesn’t scale up the police presence at the intersection. “Putting the city on blast because they are too soft to figure it out,” they wrote. “Stop hosting meetings and DO SOMETHING.”
Q, a woman who works at a massage parlor near the intersection, said she doesn’t fear the people who gather at 12th and Jackson, but her customers do. Her revenues have declined by more than half since the start of the pandemic, in part because some customers are no longer comfortable visiting the neighborhood.
“The challenges that we’re dealing with here are so complex that any plan to address them will draw critics from both ends,” she said. “We need to take this one step at a time to see what we’re dealing with and what is possible, and the first step is trying to understand who is there and what basic needs they have.”—Friends of Little Saigon director Quynh Pham
Some neighborhood leaders say they’ve been left in the dark about Harrell’s plans to address both public safety concerns and the needs of people who congregate at the corner. Pham said that although she has met with Public Safety Director Andrew Myerberg and a captain from SPD’s West Precinct, she was caught off guard when Harrell announced his intention to focus police resources on Little Saigon. “It doesn’t help much when city leaders don’t communicate,” she said.
One key step, Pham said, will be finding out who the people on the corner are and what brought them there. “The challenges that we’re dealing with here are so complex that any plan to address them will draw critics from both ends,” she said. “We need to take this one step at a time to see what we’re dealing with and what is possible, and the first step is trying to understand who is there and what basic needs they have.” So far, no one has been able to provide her an answer to that question. She does, however, believe that more police patrols might help soothe the worries of some local business owners.
While Harrell hasn’t fully fleshed out his plans for Little Saigon, mayoral spokesman Jaime Housen said increasing police patrols in the neighborhood is the “most immediate step” the mayor plans to take. However, he added, Harrell plans to distinguish his strategy from past crackdowns by relying on “social service providers” and “community feedback” to build a long-term plan to revitalize the neighborhood.
Harrell hasn’t yet specified what role “social service providers” might play in his plan. Rick Reynolds, the director of a nearby day center for people experiencing homelessness, said his organization, Operation Night Watch, hasn’t sent outreach workers to 12th and Jackson, nor does he recognize any of the people who spend their days on the corner. The Seattle Indian Health Board, which is headquartered one block away from the corner, did not respond to a request for comment.
None of Seattle’s diversion providers have a presence at the corner either. “Under the last two mayors, there was a failure to resolutely commit to this alternative framework,” said Daugaard, adding that LEAD—a pre-arrest diversion program she co-founded that works largely with unhoused people—is already too understaffed to accept all the referrals it receives from community groups, police and prosecutors. “We’ve never seen what’s possible with all partners committed and firing on the same cylinders.”
Victor Loo, a former consultant for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (which, along with the PDA, helped co-found the intensive case management program JustCARE), said he hopes the city will pay for new outreach workers to assess the needs of people at 12th and Jackson. “Even if we don’t have a survey of people’s needs,” he added, “it seems like a fair assumption that many or most of the people who spend time there would benefit from supportive case management and behavioral health care,” he said.
REACH, a project of Evergreen Treatment Services that provides outreach and case management to unhoused people, recently assigned an outreach worker to the International District, which includes Little Saigon. For now, though the only organization with a regular presence at the intersection is a mutual aid group known as the Eggrolls, which hands out free meals on Sunday in a parking lot across the street in partnership with Nguyen’s deli.
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who represented Little Saigon until council district boundaries changed this year, said short-term actions will go a long way toward addressing the issues at 12th and Jackson. Mitigating systemic issues like the housing crisis, income inequality, and lack of health care options will take years, he said, but “there are people in Little Saigon who need immediate relief today, whether they’re someone suffering from addiction, or a small business owner who is losing most of their income.”
Last month, Zahilay organized the first meeting of a Little Saigon work group—which includes Pham, Loo, Daugaard, and representatives from government agencies like Metro—to brainstorm short-term solutions to the neighborhood’s pressing issues. In the first meeting, he said, “we heard a number of commitments and proposals: increasing the number of trash pick-ups in the area to 7 days a week, more frequent graffiti abatement, replacing lights in the area, activating art spaces, hiring CID liaisons, extending contracts of service providers, and activating business support programs.” Both Pugel and Daugaard also emphasized the potential value of “activating” the neighborhood as a step in the right direction.
In the meantime, the neighborhood will likely see an increased police presence in the coming weeks. If SPD is able to break up the street market or move it elsewhere, Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods and other agencies may attempt to draw more visitors to Little Saigon’s businesses to shift the tenor of the neighborhood’s street life—a daunting task, given the ongoing chilling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Seattle’s restaurant scene and the absence of parks or other outdoor gathering spaces in the neighborhood.
On Wednesday, King County Metro announced that it had relocated the bus stop across 12th Avenue, to the opposite side of the intersection.