A Night on Georgetown's Seedy Strip
The Munson Motel's unassuming courtyard, surrounded by squat bungalows that rent for $50 per night, sits just on the edge of East Marginal Way South in Georgetown. In 2006, this was the scene of a brutal stabbing. As has been widely reported, two women—one 23, the other 31—rented a room with a man to smoke crack. At one point, the 23-year-old woman disappeared into a bathroom with the man and then came out naked, bleeding, and screaming after he'd stabbed her multiple times. The 31-year-old woman was also stabbed in the chest. Police arrested the man, half-naked and covered in blood, in the motel parking lot. "We heard her screams all through the night," remembers Roger Lloyd, who lives around the corner from the Munson.
These days, the neighborhood isn't any safer. Neighbors complain that the illegal activity in Georgetown has only been intensifying lately. "Having been here for over nine years, things are more active than they've been in quite a while," Georgetown resident Sacha Davis wrote in an e-mail to other neighbors in late June. "The issue is the motels and who they rent to." Davis and her neighbors point to the Munson Motel, Airlane Motel, Aero Motel, and La Hacienda Motel—all of them on or near East Marginal Way South—as the source of problems in the neighborhood.
The other night, I decided to check out the motels for myself, which is how I ended up at the Munson's front desk. A man is sitting behind a thick glass window with a metal tray at the bottom, like a bank teller. Under city law, hotel and motel guests are required to show government ID at check-in. To test how closely Georgetown motels are following the rules, I tell him I don't have ID. For a moment it seems like he might let me in without it, but as I pull cash out of my wallet, he gets visibly nervous and asks if I can show ID. After some back-and-forth, I leave.
Next stop is the Airlane Motel, right next door. It's a large white boarding house with green trim and peeling paint. In 2002, a man in a plain suit walked into the Airlane with a prostitute on his arm. The man paid to check in, and the Airlane manager told the prostitute he'd provide her with a free room if she brought more business by the motel. Unfortunately for the owner, the man and the woman were undercover cops posing as a prostitute and a john. Police also performed stings at the Aero, Munson, and Airlane motels. However, neighbors say police haven't given the motels nearly as much attention in recent years.
At Airlane's front entrance is a small bespectacled man, also sitting behind grimy Plexiglas. I ask for a room, and again, I'm asked for ID. I tell him I don't have mine with me and lay a small wad of bills on the counter. I offer to show a credit card with my name on it. Eyeing the wad of bills, he asks if I have anything other than a credit card. No, I say, handing him the credit card. The man looks at the bills, looks at me, dials someone on the phone, hangs up, exasperatedly runs his hand through his gray hair, slips two forms through a slot in the window, and hands over a room key.
Up in the room, the chairs, curtains, and sheets have cigarette burns on them. The sheets have dark spots on them (possibly dried blood), and in the drawer someone has written in green marker: "For the next person who get this room you gonna have bad 4 crack headz." In the hallway, the man from the front desk firmly tells a young woman, "You've got to go. I don't want a problem."
Looking out the window of the room at about 9:30 p.m., I see a dark-colored Buick pull up next to the corner of Myrtle Street and Flora Avenue South. As the driver puts his hazard lights on, a woman in tight pants and heels slinks out of a shadowy alley across the street. She bends over next to the passenger-side window, talks to the man in the car for a moment, gets in, and they drive away.
Later, I find a Seattle police officer parked behind the motel. I ask him whether neighbors are right about problems in the area. He nods, seeming annoyed by such an obvious question. Although these motels all have prominently posted signs prohibiting drugs, prostitutes, or weapons, the officer says that problems are still present—and equally distributed—among the motels around East Marginal Way South.
A ccording to Larry—the man working the front desk at the Airlane (he wouldn't give a last name)—motel owners can't be held responsible for problems in the area. "If they're not here, they're going to be somewhere else," he says. "It's the nature of the clientele"—whom Larry describes as "drug dealers, hookers, run-of-the-mill lowlifes." Larry adds that the Airlane will be closing up shop sometime "soon."
In the last two years, the police have cracked down on problem motels in North Seattle, checking to make sure each guest is properly ID'd and passing on major health violations to the state Department of Health to get businesses shut down. But for whatever reason, SPD hasn't taken up the same tactics in Georgetown.
Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb says police are aware of "a lot of the concerns... focused around East Marginal Way South motels." But he says most of the calls that police get about activity in the area are for "lower-priority calls like loitering and suspicious circumstances, not in-progress violence." In May, police met with several motel owners to discuss community concerns. However, Whitcomb was "not aware" of any police actions directed at motels similar to those directed at motels along Aurora Avenue.
According to city council member Tim Burgess, the reason police may not be actively pursuing Georgetown motels is because the city's current system for dealing with problem properties "doesn't work" and "police are very reluctant to use it." Burgess is currently working on legislation that would make it easier for police to build criminal cases against problem-motel owners.
Relief can't come soon enough for Georgetown residents, who believe their industrial neighborhood—bordered by I-5, the polluted Duwamish River, Boeing Field, and railroad tracks—has become largely forgotten in the South Precinct, where officers are already struggling to deal with gang-related issues. Last month, gang detectives were dispatched to a shooting at the La Hacienda Motel after an argument between two men inside a room escalated into a shooting.
Neighbors say that street prostitution and open drug dealing have become all too common in Georgetown. (Although The Stranger endorses the legalization and regulation of sex work, street prostitution is another matter. People involved in street prostitution are often addicted to drugs or forced to work out of fear of violent, controlling pimps.) Sitting inside the Coliman restaurant—next to the Munson Motel and not far from John's Deli Market (with its sign advertising "groceries, cigarettes, knives, and adult movies")—Kathy Nyland and six of her neighbors exasperatedly share horror stories about living next door to Georgetown's motels. "I've seen many a blowjob in front of our kitchen window," says Nyland. Her partner, Georgetown Community Council chair Holly Krejci, recalls coming home to find two people sleeping on her lawn. She refers to the couple as "yard art."
Kelly Welker tells her neighbors about the time she watched a white van pull up near her house and a man push three half-naked women out onto the street. Julie Johnson and Roger Lloyd relate a story about watching police chase and Taser someone in their backyard. The whole room cracks up when Nyland recalls a May 13 meeting with motel owners where, Nyland says, one hotel manager assured her that they "don't take in the really bad prostitutes and the drug dealers."
"It isn't acceptable in any neighborhood," Welker says. "We shouldn't tolerate it [just] because we're industrial and gritty."