January 21, 1997: In Search of the Golden Shower of Public-Private Partnerships

Downtown Seattle: a wonderful place to shop!

Gentrification, triangulation, and public urination, oh my!

Such were the underlying themes of civic life in Seattle during the allegedly halcyon days of the dot-com boom. And such was the backstory on the date in focus here, when roughly 75 local homeless citizens and advocates invaded the downtown Nordstrom store (then in its original Westlake Center location) and the brand-new NikeTown wearing bathrobes and shower caps and bearing rubber duckies and toothbrushes. These activists were ostensibly searching for a place to take a shower, but in fact they were engaging in a protest to draw attention to Seattle City Council plans to defund a proposed downtown public hygiene center that could have been used by the city’s homeless.

The protest, which took place at noon, was strategically scheduled that day to coincide with a meeting of the council’s Health, Housing, Human Services, Education and Libraries Committee, in which the committee planned to vote on the disputed location of the hygiene center. The facility, as proposed by its advocates, would have been located in the basement of the Glen Hotel, a vacant remnant of Old Seattle at Third Avenue and Spring Street. However, certain city mothers and fathers, heavily influenced by the pro-business Downtown Seattle Association, then fought both overtly and covertly for “dispersed” bathing and toilet facilities spread over the outskirts of downtown, safely concealed from the city’s financial and retail core.

Such moneyed maneuvering was of a piece with Seattle City Hall’s attitude towards the homeless during the 1990s, as best exemplified by a set of proposed “civility laws” banning economically unproductive loitering and public urination downtown. And such were the ways in which our city government so gleefully wizzed all over the city’s poor folks while rolling out the red carpet for the rich — as best exemplified by the $23 million of public money then being given away behind closed doors to none other than Nordstrom for the construction of the private parking garage that now stands at Sixth Avenue and Pine Street as part of the Pacific Place retail complex.

The following day, the council committee relented somewhat and informally agreed to install public toilets at the Glen Hotel site. Eventually the proposed hygiene center would surface elsewhere downtown as the Urban Rest Stop. Today, the Glen Hotel survives as a single room occupancy apartment building for low-income individuals, with shared bathrooms. Meanwhile, now that Seattle’s economic straits are much more dire than those of 1997, our city’s homeless citizens are still waiting for a truly fair break — despite the apparent sympathies of our current mayor.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Joe Mooney, “Cleanliness proves next to impossible for some downtown,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 22, 1997, p. B1; Linda Keene, “Restroom protest at Nordstrom — Homeless advocates seek downtown hygiene center,” The Seattle Times, January 22, 1997, p. B1; Neil Modie, “Panel favors public toilets at hotel,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 23, 1997, p. B2; Timothy A. Gibson, “Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle” (Lexington Books, 2003).

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About radsearem

Jeff Stevens is a Seattle native and author of the forthcoming City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle.
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