Flo Ware Park has been identified as one of the hot spots for criminal activity in Leschi. Photo by Sarah Radmer
Flo Ware Park has been identified as one of the hot spots for criminal activity in Leschi. Photo by Sarah Radmer
Ronnie Brown died on April 25 at the intersection of 28th Avenue South and South Charles Street.

Ali Muhammed Brown allegedly shot Ahmed Said and Dwone Anderson-Young on June 1 near 29th Avenue South and South King Street.

A few blocks outside Leschi, Kevin Brown was killed on April 19, and Deszaun Smallwood was killed on April 24.

Ali Muhammed Brown was arrested, but the suspects in the murders of the other three men have not been identified. This long string of violence is nothing new to Leschi or the Central Area: These deaths account for nearly one-third of the 13 homicides in Seattle so far this year.

On April 29, a meeting between rival gang members in the Central Area resulted in gunfire. The shooting is another example of the rising gang tension in the area, gang-prevention specialist Gabe Morales told The Seattle Times. The violence comes out “in large waves, and we’re in the middle of one right now,” Morales told the paper.

In a recent Nielsen Co. study, Seattle’s neighborhoods were identified for commonalities among the population. Sixty percent of Leschi’s population was identified as “Money & Brains”; another 24 percent were called the “Young Digerati,” known for being tech-savvy, affluent, young people. The neighborhoods just bordering Leschi had similar outcomes, with a mixture of diverse ethnicity, new professional families and immigrants with college degrees filling out the area.

So how does a neighborhood that is affluent, tech-savvy and ethnically diverse — which borders some of Seattle’s most affluent neighborhoods to the north — become a place where violence and homicide is commonplace?

An April Seattle P-I article identified a culture of violence in the neighborhood. Seattle Police Department (SPD) East Precinct Capt. Pierre Davis told the P-I the violence seems to stem from “spats between groups of people that escalate into violence.”

Police patrols were upped following the homicides, with expectations that violence would continue to escalate in the summer months. 

Not just a local problem

Diane Snell, co-president of the Leschi Community Council, lives in lower Leschi, near Lake Washington. Her location on an arterial, near a bus stop, and heavy traffic means that there’s good lighting. The crime doesn’t seem to come to her side of the neighborhood.

Snell didn’t even consider crime when she moved to the neighborhood. She fell in love with the area, her house and the proximity to the lake. But when she first moved in, she was mugged at an ATM just outside the neighborhood, in the Central Area.

The violence — some of which Snell attributes to gangs — ebbs and flows. She has heard that often gang members get out of prison and want to resume their place in the gang or take back their former territory; as a result, there’s a spike in violence.

There was a big spike a few years ago in Leschi, Snell said, when SPD Officer Timothy Brenton was killed on Halloween 2009 and the multiple incidents with Maurice Clemmons that same year.

“That seemed to be a year there was constant [violence], and it was very upsetting,” Snell said. “I think a lot of us wondered what was going on.”

The southern and western parts of Leschi seem to be the problem, Snell said. She attributes it to the lower income and possible gang presence there. Some of the parks, like Powell Barnett and Flo Ware parks, are perceived to be trouble spots, Snell said. However, since the remodel of Powell Barnett Park in 2006, Snell sees children playing there, not gang members.

The Leschi Community Council has also been working on cleaning up stairways every month, Snell said. She’s been told that certain public stairways are popular spots for drugs, muggings and prostitution.

Snell said she thought the crime and violence was decreasing in Leschi, and then the five homicides happened.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no. Are we in for another terrible period?’ but nothing else has happened since then,” she said. “I think the prevalence of guns is unsettling, but I don’t think it’s part a Leschi problem or a Seattle problem; I think it’s a national problem.”

Lack of opportunities

Pamela Banks, CEO and president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, lives in the Central Area, just west of Leschi. Banks said it seems like there is a spike in violence every five to seven years.

She attributes the violence and crime to lack of opportunities. With the gentrification that has encroached on the traditionally African-American neighborhood, “people feel like they’re losing their place,” she said.

There is a lack of hope that comes with a lack of jobs and an education system that funnels more students of color into special education classrooms than Advanced Placement courses, she said, and that spills over to prison systems, where people of color are disproportionately represented.

There is also an epidemic of guns, she said, which has spawned a saying: “It’s easier for an African-American man to get a gun than an education in Seattle.” This is not only a public safety issue but a public health one when you see who is affected by this type of violence, she said.

People tend to assume that the violence is “black-on-black crime and turn a blind eye to it,” she said. Banks believes the assumption that crime in the area is associated with gangs has more to do with people’s perception of who a gang member is. Saying that it’s gang violence makes it easier to accept, she said.

“People have this perception that they’re gang members or criminals, and so it’s OK they were killed,” she said. “They were someone’s sons or brothers or nephews. No one should die at hands of a gun.”

Longtime activist Thurston Muskelly, a former Leschi Community Council president, lives less than a block from the June 1 murders. He’s lived in the neighborhood for 60 years.

The neighborhood had crime when he first moved to the area. There were people hanging out on the streets and in the parks, selling drugs and prostitution. Even now certain parts are “not too inviting,” he said.

To have a sound community, Muskelly believes the community needs to work with both the Department of Corrections and SPD.

“If they’re not working together, you’re going to have problems,” he said.

Muskelly has organized neighborhood block watches and worked with concerned community members. A lot of people know about Leschi’s problems but aren’t doing anything because they’re afraid, he said.

Crime exists throughout the neighborhood, he said: “If it’s a dark area, then they’ll work it. [The crime is] consistent if you let it be.”

Muskelly attributes the violence to economic development. There are a lot of people who drop out of high school, don’t have an education and can’t get a job, he said.

The people who are committing these crimes are “cretinous,” Muskelly said. They often go to jail and then come back and try to claim their old territory. Young people are often attracted to joining gangs because the community doesn’t try to help or assist them, he said.

There are organizations that are trying to help, but “everybody feels, if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got to throw money at it first,” Muskelly said. He feels that, instead, people should identify and get to the core of the problem.

“People are desperate now,” he said. “There’s no jobs.”

Charlie James, an activist who spoke at an April news conference on violence in the area, said the community “has created three generations of men who are ‘unemployed and unemployable,’ a situation that breeds violence,” The Seattle Times reported. [Full disclosure: James is a columnist for this publication.]

Fixing the problem doesn’t take necessarily money, he said; it takes dedication and people who are willing to volunteer their time.

It’s important to have the affected community members at the table, Banks said. Social service organizations should incorporate input from the communities, which will provide better solutions and connections, she said.

No ‘magic pill’ yet

Muskelly’s daily life is completely wrapped up in this issue. He believes in making the world a little better than how you found it, and for him, that’s bringing together people to solve this problem.

“These are the things that, if you don’t have a solution to the problem, you need to find one,” he said. “You’ve got to have resources to help you make this misery go away, and it’s not always money. No, we’ve got to have togetherness, everyone working for the same goal. If not, we’re always going to have problems in Seattle.”

The Urban League’s programs focus on education, health, employment and housing. It also offers criminal expungement services to help people have better opportunities in all of those areas. Its goal is to help the whole person and the whole family, not just one problem or one person.

There are “seeds and starts” of programs that could positively impact the crime in the area, Banks said, but “I don’t think anyone has found the magic pill.”

It’s going to require jobs and training, stable housing and community involvement, she said.

She also hopes programs to get kids interested in technology and ready for the current job market are successful. She said people funding these programs need to be accountable, and if they aren’t working, they need to change things, before another cycle of violence happens.

“I love my neighborhood,” Banks said. “I’m very saddened and feel for the people who lost loved ones. We have to do a better job of addressing [crime] — it’s been very daunting the last few months.”

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