Seward Park: the Jerusalem of the Pacific Northwest! Three Orthodox synagogues (two Sephardic!) within a square mile. Every Shabbat offers a parade of observant Jews filling the streets on their way to and from festive meals, a scenic shpatzier around the Loop, kids traveling in chirping groups to their various entertainments, adults attending this or that high-level shiur on the parshah, the Talmud, you name it. The Kollel has all its weekly dawn-to-late-night offerings! Truly a rare American-Jewish paradise, the likes of which one sees only in the legendary shtetlach of the Upper West Side, the Five Towns, or Baltimore’s Park Heights.
But, on the other hand…
One recent summer morning I walked out my front door, looked across the street, and discovered the burnt-out hulk of a neighbor’s car that I had seen his wife and daughter leave safely at the curb the night before.
In our three-and-a-half years in the neighborhood, our home has been broken into once, my car stolen from in front of the house and, then, after its retrieval more or less intact, broken into twice more (nothing stolen, but a smashed driver’s side window for nuisance value).
Check out this partial inventory of “incidents” that I personally know about. All have occurred in the last several months, in the two square blocks bordered by Graham and Holly, on the north and south, and 51st and 52nd on the west and east:
1. Two car torchings
2. One car turned on its roof and left lying, tires up, in the street (You have to admire the creativity.)
3. At least four or five mid-day house break-ins
4. A house filled with children set ablaze in the middle of the night by an arsonist
5. One apparently empty house torched at night
6. Two blocks of 52nd St., from Graham to Holly, strewn with the contents of recycling bins and garbage pails upturned on a Wednesday night
7. At least three or four cars stolen or trashed by looters in front of their owner’s homes or in their driveways
8. One elderly man, on his way to shul for shacharit, accosted and mugged by two youngsters on a weekday morning
9. Finally, just last week, two boys robbed at gunpoint at 5:30 in the afternoon, at the corner of 52nd and Holly, by a group of men who sped off in a car.
Is it any wonder that some folks are rumored to be packing heat to shul?
What’s this all about? Is it random recreational violence by bored kids earning their memberships in gangs, as the police routinely tell us? Or is it something more sinister — a concerted preying upon a highly visible Jewish enclave in South Seattle whose western perimeter abuts Rainier Valley’s mix of African Americans, Southeast Asians, and Somalis?
I’m in no position to say. Like most Orthodox Jews, my world of gossip is circumscribed — confined almost entirely to those, like me, who hold gossip to be one of the worst anti-social sins, yet are never lacking a juicy story.
I honestly don’t know if neighborhood Gentiles have the same perception that things are going downhill. But those on my block with whom I trade neighborly “good mornings” — black, white and the Filipino carpenter who kindly repaired our window gratis after the break in — profess to be as concerned as everyone else.
The question, of course, is what’s to be done about it all? The occasional chutzpadik meshulach is an acceptable cost of doing business. But are we to wink at the escalation of nuisance crimes, robbery, and attacks on property until someone, has v’shalom, gets seriously hurt?
It took last summer’s shootings at the Federation to get an increased police presence down here, but that seems to have faded in order to deal with other front-burner crises.
We read some time ago of folks on Beacon Hill mounting their own neighborhood patrol under similar circumstances. And apparently it worked: just the sight of pairs of clearly identified, unarmed neighbors strolling the streets in bright vests seems to have cut down on the open drug dealing, pimping, and small crime that plagued the neighborhood.
I don’t yet see, thank God, dopers and pimps hanging out on the corner of Morgan and Seward Park Ave. But, still, it can’t be too early to explore a Neighborhood Watch option down here as well. The treasures we enjoy are too good to relinquish without a fight.
In addition to the natural wonders of the park and Mt. Rainier (from a hundred views), we’ve got it all: a reliable eruv, a beautiful mikvah, shuls steeped in a century of tradition, accessible rabbinic leadership in nationally important pulpits, wholesome midweek activities for our teens and pre-teens, a superb summer day camp, learning programs for teens and adults, a daf yomi study group with a regular membership that includes Bar Mitzvah boys, retirees, and the usual balebatim — everything a vibrant Jewish community requires (except for maybe a pizza place and a real kosher supermarket closer than Mercer Island’s Albertsons). And I haven’t even mentioned Rivy Poupko Kletenik!
But how long will this paradise last if Jewish newcomers to town learn that when you move down here, you also sign up to be a patsy for whatever thuggery happens to be in fashion? Most American Jews alive today have never known the beauty of living in a densely settled, Jewish neighborhood. For most of those living in colorless American suburbias with little public Jewish life, our lifestyle seems part of the nostalgic past of Orchard Street or something available only in crumbling, squalid Brooklyn ghettos.
Should we stand by and watch as our neighborhood of beautifully kept homes, ancient trees, and mountain views becomes unlivable?
Nu, chevrah? What’s to be done and who’s gonna do it?