Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The Bad Old Days
I got up early yesterday morning and headed to the gym. On my way out, I went past two people, a man and a woman, loitering around the entrance. I knew exactly what they were doing - waiting for the right time to spark the pipe. I have no idea whether their poison was crack or meth, nor do I care. It's just that I've seen that behavior so many times that there could be no mistaking it.
You know, I would listen to some non-Belltown resident describe the neighborhood as "up-and-coming" without interruption or objection for more than my first 10 years living here. I really wanted to believe that there was a bright new tomorrow for me and my neighbors. I wanted cool things to do and nice places to go and I wanted them all to be built down the street. And indeed, it seemed to be just around the corner. Then along came 2001. That's when Belltown became Crack Central.
Anytime, night or day, there it was - knots of guys ducking into doorways to hit the pipe. The Rivoli's got three doors and most of them were blocked by crack smokers at any given time. Every time, I'd go out, I'd have to make my way through a crowd of crackheads. Coming back, there was always a different group standing there. Seriously, it didn't matter what time it was, there were always crackheads in the doorway, either lighting up or waiting to light up. There was an unlimited supply of them. And the weird thing was that both the dealers and their clients weren't from the neighborhood. Belltown was just a place where they met to do business and get high.
And because of all this trade, things were really out of control. There were constant sidewalk brawls, a rash of muggings, a few murders, tons of car break-ins, and the streets were full of jabbering, scary, twitchy people. And the cops seemed powerless to stop the madness. I had lost my job in February 2001, so I was witnessing firsthand what seemed to be the downfall of civilization taking place right under my window. No, Belltown wasn't "up-and-coming;" it was a total pit.
Now, if the crackheads had been smoking weed instead, things would have been a lot better. I don't smoke weed myself, but I know that it doesn't make people violent and crazy. Crack does. It turns people into animals who have no regard for the consequences of anything as long as they can get high. And after a while, they have to get high just to maintain, and then it's a short walk off the cliff of addiction.
Although crackheads were really unpleasant, the dealers were actually quite polite and well-mannered. It was better for business if they were nice to the locals. After all, this wasn't their neighborhood. They just sold drugs in it to other people who also didn't live here. And so it went for months and months, day and night, rain or shine. If the doorways were full, as they often were, they smoked out in the street in plain sight. That's what it came to.
Except for the occasional bust of some outrageously blatant crackhead, the police seemed less than interested in dealing with the problem. Meanwhile, Belltown residents were leaving their buildings having to wade through piss, vomit, blood and shit left behind by the crackheads. The solution from one end of the neighborhood to the other was to put up steel gates. That's what the Rivoli's 2nd & Blanchard brethren did. First it was the Castle and then the Humphrey. Here's the Castle's:
And here's what the Humphrey has to offer:
Well, at least they have it half-open during the day. After sundown, though, they keep it locked.
The mystery building across the street also followed (and added bars to their windows), and on and on it went until almost every place with a receded doorway had put up a metal gate. The Rivoli was a major exception. Whether it was because the owner was too cheap (which is quite possible) or that it was a conscious decision, I'll never know. But I'm actually glad that even in the midst of all that filth and craziness, they didn't bow to fear and disgust. I'm proud that I live in a place that didn't put up cages against the outside world. I'm a believer that the cage works both ways; it shuts out the scary outside world, but it also seals you in.
By spring of 2001, Channel 13 came out with a series of stories that so embarrassed the police that they had to do something decisive about the crack trade. In these reports, they showed some guy selling drugs out of the 2nd floor of the Palladian at 2nd & Virginia while the cops took a coffee break across the street. They also featured guys getting high within a few feet of a police car with two cops in it. The department had to do some serious damage control and spring into action. Within a month, the problem was solved. I have no clue how they did it. My guess is that they went after those polite dealers. Once the supply dried up, the crackheads went elsewhere.
But it's not like all drug abuse and crime went away after that. No, no, no! It still exists, but most of the hardcore stuff happens in the alleys. I was talking with my apartment manager the other day and we agreed that the stuff that happens on the streets and sidewalks is just retail weirdness. In the alleys, the weirdness gets wholesale. But one thing's for sure, the meager locks at the Rivoli are enough to hold it all back. Surviving 2001 proved that.
So after all that, it's a little tough for me to take offense yesterday morning at two twitchy people glancing around furtively waiting for the right moment to light up. Addiction is its own punishment.